Tag: Reform Judaism

Politics on the Bimah

“Keep the politics off the bimah.” We hear this in the synagogue whenever a rabbi speaks on a topic nearing the intersection of Jewish values and public policy. While argued most vociferously by those who disagree with the rabbi’s message, the critique itself that “politics has no place on the bimah” is a decidedly false characterization of the essence of Judaism and Jewish textual tradition. (Note: I am not speaking about endorsing a candidate for public office.)

Judaism speaks to every issue 
Judaism has something to say (often multiple opinions) about any issue. The talmudic rabbis argued about everything — from commerce and capital punishment to property rights and personal behavior, to abortion, contraception and homosexuality. They took on poverty and hunger, distribution of wealth and health care.

From our earliest incarnation as the faith of Abraham, our tradition has spoken truth to power. Who can forget Abraham preaching at God when the Holy One seemed to want to act wholly unjustly toward Sodom and Gomorrah? Later, as we became the Children of Israel, we accepted a legal tradition that set ethical standards for every aspect of our lives. Jewish tradition could not contemplate a separation between the personal and the public.

So when critics — Jews and non-Jews alike — argue that rabbis should be silent on matters of public policy, they are defying the essence of religion from the time of Moses and before. When complainers cry “politics” every time the rabbi speaks out against the status quo, they forget that we Jews have always been the agents for ethical living.

Moses, the ethical agitator 
As Moses stumbled upon a bush that burned unconsumed, the character of the Jew was forever stamped in our souls. Out there in the wilderness, the personal became political. When Moses returned to Egypt to convey God’s message to Pharaoh to “let My people go,” he ensured that Jewish leaders would speak truth to power for generations to come. The life conditions of people — as individuals and a community — became a central concern of Jewish rabbinic leadership.

Who was Moses? Rambam characterized him as a rationalist religious thinker. Chasidic rebbes saw him as the ultimate tzadik (righteous person). There are those in every age who want to remake Moses in their image. But to reduce Moses’ influence to intellectuality or spirituality is to do revisionist history. Moses wasn’t content merely ministering to the broken souls of his people; he spoke out for a community oppressed. Moses wasn’t just a pastoral leader; he was an agitator, working for the freedom of his people.

So let’s stop trying to cleanse from Moses’ story — our story — the very essence of his leadership. Moses was a kind of visionary prophet. Like the prophet Nathan, who called King David on his unethical behavior, and Queen Esther, who went toe-to-toe with Haman, Moses saw reason for hope, and with deep faith spoke out against injustice.

This Passover, be Moses
To properly observe the Pesach seder, one must retell the story of the Exodus. One must recall a time when people were oppressed, and when Moses heard the call of the Divine and stood up to Pharaoh’s oppression. Passover is about bitterness sweetened and salty tears refreshed.

It is no accident that the Exodus features prominently in all movements for freedom and equality, from the anti-apartheid movement to the anti-slavery movement, from women’s suffrage to the American civil rights movement, to freedom for Soviet Jewry. The Exodus narrative, while profoundly spiritual and dripping with mystical insights, is at its root the story of injustice confronted.

Of course, to tell the story is to reimagine ourselves simultaneously as slaves moving toward freedom and also as Moses leading them there. Passover declares that inequities and injustices must be confronted and corrected.

Hear the call of the seder 
So, next time your rabbi speaks up about public policy and Judaism — on economic justice or health care reform, marriage equality or Israel’s responsibility to work diligently for peace, our concern for the environment or our differing notions about when life begins — she is walking in the footsteps of Moses and Abraham, of Esther and the Nathan. Your rabbi is listening closely to the call of the seder, to stand up for the downtrodden and to cry out for the oppressed.

Hearing this call is often uncomfortable. But Passover is not about feeling good; it is about being ethical. Not about consuming good food, but feeding our hunger for righteousness. Pesach calls us to critique our world, our country, our homeland and our community. It pushes us to imagine a better way. It goads us to remake the world as it could be, as it should be.

So make your Passover meaningful. Hear the call to justice. And demand our leaders help bring it to fruition.

This d’var Torah was originally posted in the Jewish Journal.

18 Lessons from 18 Years as a Rabbi

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As I celebrate my 18th year since I was ordained Rabbi, I take stock of lessons learned along the way:

  1. Jewish spirituality without social justice can become narcissism.
  2. Social justice without Jewish spirituality might feel good but might not compel future activism.
  3. The role of the rabbi is to passionately comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.   
  4. The role of the rabbi is to quietly point in a direction and then get out of the way. 
  5. A healthy, organic Jewish community is not afraid to experiment.
  6. A healthy, organic Jewish community is not afraid of failure, because failure is inevitable when experimenting and innovating.
  7. People who really feel warmly welcomed when they walk through the doors of the synagogue will be more likely to come back to celebrate and learn.
  8. People who answer the telephones are more important than the person standing up on the bimah; a community feels warm and welcoming when the receptionist and bookkeeper exude that warmth.
  9. Dysfunction comes easily; warm, respectful partnerships between clergy and lay leaders require patience, vulnerability, and openness. 
  10. Judaism has many things to say about every thing; no issue it was or is too controversial, personal, or political to escape the moral lens of Torah and Jewish tradition.
  11. How a rabbi teaches is as important as what a rabbi teaches. Difficult lessons and controversial teachings are more easily heard when alternative perspectives are respected. 
  12. God exists. God loves. God cares.
  13. The lights can be on, but if we close our eyes, we think it is dark. 
  14. Jewish music has the power to touch hearts and souls more deeply than any sermon.
  15. Torah teachings and Jewish music, when combined artfully, have the potential to transform lives and touch eternity.
  16. Fear not social media or technology; like the printing press, telephone, and two stone tablets from the mountaintop, they are merely tools for spreading Torah teachings. 
  17. Israel is at once ancient and modern, historic and mythic, spiritual and bricks-and-mortar. Walking its streets and alleys transforms the soul.
  18. A community that takes care of its rabbi and his family ensures that the rabbi has deep sources of strength and love to care for the community.

FIrst Transgender Rabbi, Reuben Zelman, to be Ordained

Five former Or Ami interns – Jordana Chernow-Reader, Ari Margolis, Dan Medwin, Lydia Bloom Medwin, and Sara Mason-Barkin – will be ordained Rabbi this Sunday at Hebrew Union College’s Ordination ceremony.  Be sure that I will blog about that on Monday. 

Also exciting is the ordination of Reuben Zellman, the first transgender Rabbi.  The Jewish Journal writes:

As a child, Reuben Zellman found life anything but cut-and-dry. “I’ve always had a complicated gender identity,” he said. “As a kid, I liked both boys’ and girls’ clothes, and both boys’ and girls’ toys.”

At 20, Reuben — who grew up as Claire — made the decision to begin living life as a man. “That’s what was right for me,” he said simply, declining to elaborate on his personal history.

Several years later, he said, he found his calling: to become a rabbi. In 2003, Zellman became the first transgender rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and, for that matter, in the entire Jewish community.  Read on.

Honoring an Inspiration: My Mentor Rabbi Jim Kaufman Retires

My wife and I spent last evening at my previous pulpit, Temple Beth Hillel (Valley Village, CA), for a dinner and Havdala service honoring Rabbi Jim Kaufman and Sue Kaufman on the occasion of his retirement.  Rabbi Jim stands apart as one of the greatest influences on my congregational rabbinate.

Dinner was delicious; the program heartwarming.  I had the opportunity to share a few words about my experience with Rabbi Jim. I said:

A story… I came to Temple Beth Hillel (Valley Village, CA) in 1994 in my third year of the rabbinate, and left in 1999 as what I thought was as a seasoned rabbi. I owe that growth to the nurturing I received under the mentorship of Rabbi Jim Kaufman.

For five years I served as Rabbi Jim’s Associate Rabbi and Director of Education. I left to become the solo rabbi at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA. Over the intervening eleven years, as my congregation has grown considerably, I have come to realize that much of that vibrancy can be directly attributed to the lessons I learned from Rabbi Jim. He taught me:

  • Make your synagogue a warm, haimische home.
  • Since Jewish values have meaning only when turned outward to fix the world, make social justice central to your mission.
  • Behind every great rabbi is an even greater spouse. My wife Michelle and I knew, from the moment we walked into the scrumptious Sukkot new member dinner Sue Kaufman hosted in their backyard, that Sue and her family knew how to create a welcoming environment.
  • Make sure people with disabilities know that the synagogue doors open wide to them.
  • If you can, grow a goatee. The grayer the better. For some reason, it makes people think you are wise.
  • Spend time at Camp Newman – it will inspire temple members to send their kids and it will keep you young.
  • When someone is sick, call once, twice or more. Even if they tell you not to call, call anyway or stop by. It will be deeply felt.
  • Make your family your first priority – at home, around the synagogue, in your office. In the end, they are your legacy, your support, your most precious possessions.
  • Treat each person as an individual. Don’t hide behind policies, but thrive with the personal pastoral touch.

Rabbi Jim treated me always as a partner, even inviting me disagree whenever the ideas warranted it. But mostly, I learned from Rabbi Jim how to be a congregational rabbi. Naively, I thought that after 5 years, I had learned all I could from this rabbi.

But, at Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, I daily faced challenging issues, more complex and nuanced than I ever could have imagined. The congregation had put its trust in me to deal with these issues. But I confess, often I didn’t have a clue. So what did I do? I developed a problem-solving routine…

A congregant would call me up with a problem. I would listen, perhaps take notes. I would offer comfort and assure them that together we could get through this. I told them that I took their concerns so seriously that I wanted a day to think it through. Then I would hang up the phone.

Now was the time to figure it out. After counting to ten to make sure I didn’t freak out, I turned to my main source of wisdom. I picked up the phone and called my mentor. Rabbi Jim listened to the issue, paused thoughtfully, and patiently guided me to the solution. When I needed, he even told me what to do. Then I would pick up the phone, call back my congregant, and be able to offer his words of wisdom, giving them comfort and giving them confidence in their Rabbi Kipnes. I recall this happening about every other week. And although by the end of my second year I stopped calling him, it was only because Rabbi Jim’s way of being a rabbi was by then deeply ingrained in my heart and soul.

There are a host of rabbis out there who learned from Rabbi Jim at camp and from his shining example in the Pacific Area Reform Rabbis organization and in the community.

Personally, I have had many rabbinic teachers over the years, but without a doubt – and my wife Michelle and I agree on this –the man who told me at my interview that he wasn’t really interested in being a mentor – he only wanted a rabbinic partner – had been the greatest influence on my rabbinate. Rabbi Jim, thank you for being the mentor par excellance. Thank you for making me into a rabbi.

So to you Rabbi Jim, and to you Sue, mazel tov on wonderful 37 years at Temple Beth Hillel. Thank you for transforming me into the rabbi I am today. Mazel tov

Other tidbits I would have added had there been time: 

  • Rabbi Jim taught me also to love of great red wine. Following his lead, I used days off from Camp Newman to go wine tasting in Napa, and have since learned to request a taste before ordering a glass when out to dinner. Because of Rabbi Jim, I have the early makings of a wine snob. Rabbi Jim taught me to appreciate the nose, the legs, to savor the taste of red wine. I still have far to go to gain Jim’s appreciation of the better bottles.
  • Rabbi Jim taught Michelle and me early on that our precious children are part of our lives and should have a place in our synagogue. From the earliest days, my children were a fixture in my office, running up and down the ramp, being held in my arms during services, growing up in our Early childhood center. Our children love being Jewish and seem to appreciate their father’s role as a rabbi. We attribute that in large part to Rabbi Jim’s insistence that the rabbi embrace and never forget his role as a father too.

6 Distinctive Features of Reform Judaism

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, offered these as six distinctive features of Reform Judaism:

  1. We view the Jewish tradition as growing, evolving and always changing, and we celebrate creative change in all areas of ritual and practice.
  2. We assert that the equality of women in Jewish life is non-negotiable.
  3. We draw the boundaries of Reform so as to include rather than exclude, and we welcome gays, lesbians, the interma
  4. We embrace Jewish worship that is creative, dynamic, vibrant and participatory.
  5. We see tikkun olam as an essential element of our Reform identity – in fact, as the jewel in the Reform crown.
  6. And we believe in real partnership between rabbis and lay people as essential to our Jewish future.

What do you find to be the distinctive features of Reform Judaism?

At the Wall, Which Side is the Right One? The Kotel Belongs to the Entire Jewish People

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, wrote:

I am saddened and dismayed by recent events at the Western Wall. These events are a tragedy — a blow to the State of Israel and to the unity of the Jewish people.

Love of Israel unites Jews everywhere. Love of Jerusalem unites Jews everywhere. For many of these Jews, the single most important symbol of both Israel and Jerusalem is the Western Wall.

Why turn that symbol into a source of division? Why should the Wall be an ultra-Orthodox synagogue rather than a place that belongs to us all — a place where all Jews can find space to pray, to gather, and to celebrate the Jewish homeland and the Jewish people?

Twenty years ago I proposed a solution to the problem of access to the Wall, and it remains the best answer. There is ample room to divide the Wall into three areas: one for men to pray according to Orthodox custom; one for women to pray according to Orthodox custom; and one for non-Orthodox prayer and secular and civil ceremonies of various kinds.

However, instead of moving in the direction of equal access for all to one of Judaism’s most important religious and national sites, exactly the opposite has happened.

When a small group of women — traditional in observance and modestly dressed — has tried to organize occasional prayer services, which involve only those practices clearly permitted by halachah (traditional Jewish law), the women are spat upon, cursed and hustled away by the police, who generally do little or nothing to protect them from the harassers.

Ceremonies of national significance — tributes to fallen soldiers, the welcoming of new immigrants — were long held in the public areas behind the prayer section of the Wall, but they have now been curtailed or stopped altogether. The reason? Religious authorities who control the Wall have demanded that ultra-Orthodox standards be applied to such gatherings — meaning, for example, that the sexes must be segregated and that singing by women is prohibited.

Non-Orthodox religious youth groups that used to gather regularly in the same plaza area away from the Wall to enthusiastically pray and sing during their visits know that such services are no longer permitted.

When challenged, the religious authorities at the Wall talk of the “Robinson Arch” solution, which is an insult and no solution at all. Non-Orthodox Jews are permitted to pray at Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological site at a distance from the Wall that is not seen by most Jews as being part of the Wall at all.

The argument that permitting Reform and Conservative Jews to pray in the area of the Wall will lead to chanting by Catholics or Buddhists is absurd. Reasonable accommodations regarding non-Jewish religious ritual have been made at every other religious site in Israel. If anyone has been unreasonable, it has been the Jewish authorities at the Wall, who attempted to prevent Pope Benedict XVI from wearing his crucifix during his visit to the Kotel. The Pope rightly ignored them.

It may be that for now the law is on the side of those who impose these restrictions, and that others who wish to challenge them may have to accept the penalty for doing so. But it seems to me that recent events were more an attempt to intimidate and harass religious women than to enforce the law.

What is most important here, however, is that our goal in these troubled times is make Jews everywhere feel closer to Jerusalem and to the Jewish State. Driving Jews away from the Wall is self-defeating and foolish. To put it simply, the more Jews who visit the Wall — for religious, civic or national purposes — the better off we are.

And since there is not a single, universally accepted religious standard that governs Jewish religious life, we should make no attempt to impose one at the Kotel. What we need, rather, is to be respectful of each other’s choices and customs.

Throughout the generations, the Kotel has been a source of inspiration to Jews everywhere. It is a concrete symbol of our love for Jerusalem and our common Jewish destiny. The Wall belongs to the entire Jewish people; it must be a place that unifies our people, where all Jews are welcomed and all are respected.

Learn more. Take Action.

I Almost Made Myself Cry at the Bar Mitzvah

There we stood, Rabbi and three generations of the Tillis family, preparing to physically pass down the Torah midor lador (from generation to generation).  This primarily Reform Movement tradition makes manifest what is happening in fact and deed: that another young adult is receiving Torah from his ancestors.  At the end of this line of stood a young man Jared, who though he spent his life challenged by special needs and multiple treatments – a rare form of non-convulsive epilepsy, speech therapy, vision therapy, challenges reading and decoding – now stood ready to do what every other 13 year old boy does.  Jared was becoming a Bar Mitzvah. 

I looked out at the crowd of family and friends.  On their faces I saw utter amazement; reflected in their eyes was the wonder that this young man, in spite of all the challenges he faces, had led the prayer service so beautifully.  His Bar Mitzvah teacher, the incomparably talented Diane Townsend, had been by his side, pointing to each transliterated syllable so that he could chant the prayers at his own pace.  Too see how creatively she had retransliterated each word in a way that it would be comprehensible to this specific Bar Mitzvah boy is to witness a master teacher at work.  Yes, we had already each experienced that Shehecheyanu moment, that blessed happening that reminds us all that we were just touched by the miraculous. 

What words could I say which would further capture the holiness before us?  And how to do it in such a way that everyone would understand on their own level: the Bar Mitzvah boy in his specifically special manner of comprehension and the guests who had been touched by the Transcendent? 

We are taught that Torah was revealed in 70 languages at once so that each person could comprehend it.  Who is to say that which languages they were?  Perhaps some were the language understood by a child with special needs. Maybe the simple concepts that a profoundly challenged child could comprehend.

So I told them: We are taught that Torah was given to everyone at Mt. Sinai: the rich and the poor, the strong and the less strong, the healthy and the sick.  Yes, even those who stuttered (Moses), were leprous (later, Miriam), or were beaten down by the challenges of their lives (all the Israelites) received the Holy Torah.

I reminded them, lovingly, that sometimes we doubt who was able to receive Torah, but that as long as there are people who believe (I looked at Mom and Dad and older sister), everyone can grasp hold of the holy books. 

I said a bunch of other words too, but as I looked out at the congregation, seeing not a dry eye in the sanctuary, I started to choke up too, and mumbled something that I cannot remember anymore.

Then we passed Torah down midor lador (from generation to generation) completing the cycle.

Worshippers were moved.  One said, “Jared’s service was the most moving and touching ceremony I have ever been to” while another explained that she “will never forget Jared’s amazing ability to turn an ordinary ritual into a meaningful event that we will carry in our hearts forever.”  

I am left with three profound memories of this Bar Mitzvah service:

  • That this young man, standing on the shoulders of all the Jews who came before him, became a Bar Mitzvah just like the best of them;
  • That we are blessed to have a teacher as skilled as Diane Townsend who finds a way to point each child – no matter how challenged, no matter how reticent – toward Torah;
  • That the Holy One of Blessing (God) blessed us this day by allowing each of us to experience the transcendent holiness of this Bar Mitzvah. 

…Shehecheyanu v’kiy’manu v’higee-anu lazman hazeh – Blessed are You, God … for giving us life, for keeping us in life, and for bringing us to this special moment. 

(BTW, the other Bar Mitzvah boy earlier that day made me proud, amazed, and inspired.  Because he was special too. Not special needs.  Just special, like every child is special.  But that’s another blog post.)

Congregation Or Ami exudes openness and welcoming of families with children with special needs.  Read about it.

A Prayer for the People of Haiti

A prayer for the people of Haiti, 

who, on a good day, 
must take heroic measures

just to wake the next, 

And who must now find a way 

to live through the end of the world: 



O Compassionate One,
whose relief work is beyond our capabilities 

Breathe life today into those buried alive 

and strengthen the response capacity
 of Your relief workers in this world


To hear those who have yet to be saved,
To hear those who have been saved
but whose limbs and lives are crushed,
To hear those who pray
For those who can no longer pray for themselves.

O Source of Speech,
embedded in the language of love, 

Fortify the souls of those who call out now in rescue

O Life Force,
expressed in the language of loss, 

Send strength to those who, with their last strength 

Now seek nothing more than finding loved ones 


A prayer for the people of Haiti,
who on this day
take heroic measures 
just to survive, 

And with the world’s help,
Will find a way
to live into 
an new world,
Though one rebuilt
on the rubble of unfathomable loss.


O Source of Response to need, 

Be the blessing

Of prayers realized.

And we say: Amen

Adapted by Rabbi Shawn Zevit from a prayer by Bradley Burston, Israel News 


With thanks to the Union for Reform Judaism for sharing this resource with me

My favorite place to donate to help Haitians is the Reform Movement Haiti Relief Fund:

In the wake of the horrific destruction that has hit Haiti, our national organization, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), has opened its disaster relief fund to aid those devastated by the severe earthquake. With a still-unimaginable number of casualties, relief and support is being directed to help rescue and recovery efforts scale up rapidly. A number of our partner organizations are already on the ground or on their way to provide assistance. Donations to the Union for Reform Judaism Haiti Relief Fund can be made online at www.urj.org/relief or by sending a check to Union for Reform Judaism, Attention: Development, 633 Third Avenue, 7th floor, New York, NY, 10017.

Background: Our Reform Jewish community has a long history of generosity when natural disasters devastate communities, when houses of worship burn in the fires of racial prejudice, when terrorism causes havoc, and when other disasters cause untold harm across the planet. In such times, the Union for Reform Judaism activates the Union Disaster Fund for contributions, which are then forwarded to appropriate agencies. In recent years the Union Disaster Relief Fund has provided help to the victims September 11, floods in Europe, earthquakes in South America and Southeast Asia, Black churches that were burned in Southern United States and the Grand Forks community when it flooded. In the wake of the hurricanes that battered the Gulf Coast in 2005, more than $3 million in donated funds were raised to help the victims and agencies that are assisting them and the congregations of Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Florida.The Union for Reform Judaism is a member of the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, which allows a unified Jewish response to natural and man-made crises that occur outside of North America.

Personal, Haimische, Computerized

Bar Mitzvah for child #3 went computerized. Not the Torah or Siddur (prayerbook), but just about everything else.

  • We created an online invitation using a Create Your Own Website template (maybe sometime in the future we will post it here for all to see). We made an online donation to an Israeli Nature organization equal to what we had saved not printing invitation (and saving trees).
  • We uploaded addresses and sent an online invitation to everyone we wanted to invite (at our son’s request, we sent my son’s friends a one page flyer, instructing them to go online to view the invitation and to RSVP). Truth be told, we might have missed a few older relatives who do not have email or computers.
  • People RSVP’ed online (a feature of the website).
  • We tracked who was coming with a computer program – Microsoft’s Excel.
  • He drafted his d’var Torah (speech) on his computer and, using “track changes,” received edits and advice from his rabbi (my friend).
  • We kept a list of who gave which gifts on the same computer program.
  • We allowed our son to – radical – type up his thank you notes in the same computer on which he writes everything in his life – his school papers, his emails to friends – using Microsoft’s Word. I recall rewriting so many thank you notes as a young Bar Mitzvah because either:

My handwriting was unreadable
I forgot to address someone as “aunt” or “uncle”
I thanked someone for attending who did not attend

  • Typed thank you notes also afforded us the opportunity to edit the notes easily. Very little copying and pasting really (though he did use a template he wrote and supplemented or changed from there). It was natural for him, personal for most recipients, and painless for us parents who had to make it happen. Miss Manners might frown on the typing and printing, but this kid types and prints everything else, why should his Bar Mitzvah experience be anachronistic?
  • We printed the thank you notes out on Thank you cards. And he signed each one personally.
  • Soon, we will review digital pictures as we read email (electronic) notes from friends kvelling about the service and celebration as our extended family Facebook’s the experience for posterity.

So, Torah read from ancient scrolls, while the celebration and party was organized digitally. Old and new, combined. It felt natural to him and his generation. Why not?

Kvelling about Your Jewish Experience at Temple

In so many synagogues around the country, people know how to kvetch complain) more than they know how to kvell (offer praise). At Or Ami, we have learned that if we invite people to share their Or Ami moments – experiences worth kvelling about – we discover quickly that we are touching people’s lives in deeply spiritual ways.

I received this email from an Or Ami family, and with their permission, share it here. I’m kvelling at their kvelling. (If you have an Or Ami moment to share, please add it in the comment space below.)

November 2009

Dear Rabbi Kipnes,

I am not quite sure where to start. Daniel and I joined Congregation Or Ami with our kids Zach and Jacqueline just over 2 years ago. From the very start, we were welcomed with open arms. We joined the congregation because some of our very best friends were members. We were looking for a place primarily to begin Bar/Bat Mitzvah training for our children. What we got is so much more!!!

Shortly after we joined, my mother, as you know, became very ill. The outpouring of support and caring from our temple friends, to congregants we hadn’t even met, to you, our Rabbi, was astounding. This really was our first real confirmation we knew we were in the right place.

Daniel and I both grew up on Jewish homes, with very little Jewish education. Mine was virtually non-existent. We had all of the traditions and values of a good Jewish home, but I had spent almost no time in a synagogue. Daniel became a Bar Mitzvah, but aside from that, his Jewish education was very limited as well.

So, we knew when we were joining a temple, we needed to find one that fit in with our goals for our children, but yet not be so “Jewish” that we would be intimidated. We did the usual “shul shopping”, and eventually decided upon Congregation Or Ami. Our decision was really based on the fact that some of our very best friends had become members, and oh yea…we kinda liked the Rabbi!

Our first High Holiday services with Congregation Or Ami further proved that we had made the right choice. The services were warm, inviting, inclusive and made someone with as little Jewish background as myself feel comfortable, eager to hear more, to do more, to embrace this “family” that we suddenly were a part of.

Tashlich was another awe-inspiring event that really opened my eyes up to the uniqueness of our temple. The fact that a couple of hundred of us could break bread, share wine and enjoy such an intimate, spiritual affair together on the beach just further discounted any fears we may have had that were not going to fit into a typical temple. This temple, we quickly learned, was anything but typical!

The past year has been so difficult for so many of us. Or Ami has been so responsive and respectful to the needs of its congregants. I was chosen to be part of a special Hayenu committed assembled specifically to make calls and just check in with the congregants to see if they had any general or specific needs or concerns that perhaps we, as a congregation, or you, as the Rabbi, could help with. EVERY congregant was called! Wow! What temple does that? Just as every new congregant gets a Shabbat welcome basket from the congregation and every member family gets donuts and other Hanukkah goodies personally delivered to their home every year. Again…anything but typical.

Nor is it typical that my husband and I were asked to carry the Torah at this year’s High Holiday services. We were certainly not asked because we are big donors. The feeling of support and family from this congregation…from you…is more than we ever could have wished for, hoped for, or certainly expected!

We continue to grow each time we step outside of our comfort zone and attend another temple event or function. While the kids and I raved about Mitzvah Day last year, my husband had to experience it for himself this year to understand the impact and breadth of this amazing community service event. He was like a little kid, racing around to see if he could be the one to complete the most backpacks for displaced foster children.

Today I attended my first Torah study. What do I know about Torah??? So little! But, you know what? I was comfortable, intrigued, engaged, and now eager to return to another one soon! Why? Because of the intelligent, passionate, educated, interested people who make up our temple! People who take time out of their busy schedules to schmooze and kibbitz and can appreciate the value of spending time like this with old friends and new friends.

I started this letter months ago, have put it aside, added to it, and could keep doing so until it is well… my own Jewish Journal. But, that is not the point. The point, the initial point anyway, was to let you know how happy we are to be members of Congregation Or Ami. To let you know we had many temples to choose from, and were not even sure we made the right choice when we chose Or Ami. But, it did not take long to realize there could not have been a better choice, or a better fit for our family. So much of it has to do with the congregation, but so much of this has to do with you. I never thought I would seriously join a temple where the Rabbi ever even learned my name. I certainly never thought I would be able to consider myself friends with the Rabbi. Well, I am happy you know me as Faryl, and honored to be a congregant…and a friend!

Thank you for welcoming us so warmly into your “home”.

Fondly,

Faryl Oschin

So What are We Jews? A Religious Group or a People?

So what are we Jews?  A religion or faith group (like Protestants or Catholics)? An ethnic group with our bagels and lox?  A people?Ask many non-involved Jews and they will most likely answer: a religion.  But we have only consider ourselves a religious group since Napoleon offered Jews emancipation from the ghetto if we became Frenchmen of the Mosaic persuasion (a religious group).  Before that, and since, we have been primarily a people. 
Thus Daniel Gordis writes in A Requiem for Peoplehood (in a Jerusalem Post article):

Judaism as a faith system, of course, is nothing new. But from time immemorial, we have also seen ourselves as a people. From the moment that Pharaoh refers to the Jews as “the people, the Children of Israel” (Exodus 1:9), it is clear even to our enemies that Abraham’s clan has morphed into a nation.FOR MILLENNIA, rank-and-file Jews understood this. We cultivated bonds of mutual obligation, even when we profoundly disagreed, even when our faith wore thin. Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la-zeh, all Jews are responsible one for another, the tradition has long insisted.And it actually worked. It was peoplehood that got American college students to wage a relentless battle to free Soviet Jews, with whom they had virtually nothing obvious in common.It was due to peoplehood that IAF pilots flew converted cargo planes into an Ethiopian civil war in order to save people of a different race, a radically different faith system and virtually no shared history, bringing them to Israel in Operation Solomon.And it is peoplehood that has continually led American Jews – despite their absolute disinterest in making aliya and their profound differences with Israel about conversion policy and the peace process – to support Israel both financially and politically.

Perhaps the answer is D, all of the above.  Still, the notion that Jews are a people transcends time and space.  It helps explain what connects Jews of different backgrounds, different racial heritages, or different nationalities.  Which leaves me wondering: How do we reinforce the peoplehood part of being a Jew in a country that prefers to compare us to other religions?

Tikkun Olam: The Backstory

Recently, 31 Or Ami adults gathered for our monthly New Dimensions Shmooze ‘n Study at a congregant’s home. Over hors dourves and drinks, we chatted, connected and then sat down for some learning.

Our discussion about community quickly turned to the community building power of Tikkun Olam (fixing the world or social justice work), which led to a discussion about the origins of the idea of Tikkun Olam.

Recognizing that many people do not know where origins of Tikkun Olam, I share here an article from Reform Judaism Magazine: Social Action: Tikkun Olam: The Backstory – An RJ conversation with Howard Schwartz.

What is the origin of tikkun olam?

While most modern Jews interpret the term—meaning “repair of the world”—as a synonym for social action, what they don’t know is that this idea is rooted in the last great myth infused into Jewish tradition, the creation of the renowned 16th-century Jewish mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, known as the Ari.

Did the Ari originate the term?

No. Tikkun olam first appeared in the Mishnah (2nd century CE) and meant “guarding the established order.” It is also part of the Aleinu prayer: “perfecting the world under the rule of God.” Later, in the 12th century, Maimonides spoke of tikkun olam in the context of rabbinic rulings and customs that would “strengthen the religion.”

How then did the Ari’s use differ?

In these earlier definitions, it is God who is doing the repairing. The Ari was the first to propose that the Jewish people are God’s partners in repairing the world, and he did so by constructing a cosmic myth around the term, beginning with the creation of the world and ending with the Messianic Era.

Please summarize the myth for us.

At the beginning of time, God’s presence filled the universe. When God decided to bring the world into being, to make room for creation, He contracted Himself by drawing in His breath, forming a dark mass. Then God said, Let there be light (Gen. 1:3) and ten holy vessels came forth, each filled with primordial light.

God sent forth the ten vessels like a fleet of ships, each carrying its cargo of light. But the vessels—too fragile to contain such powerful Divine light—broke open, scattering the holy sparks everywhere.

Had these vessels arrived intact, the world would have been perfect. Instead, God created people to seek out and gather the hidden sparks, wherever we can find them. Once this task is completed, the broken vessels will be restored and the world will be repaired.

Did the Ari invent all the myth’s aspects?

Quite the contrary: Every aspect of the Ari’s myth can be found in earlier biblical, rabbinic, and mystical Jewish interpretations and principles. For example, the Ari elevated the concept of tzimtzum, the idea that God contracted to make space for Creation. This perspective assumes that God’s presence occupies physical space—a biblical teaching. God told Moses to build a tent of meeting, but “Moses was unable to enter the tent because a cloud had settled upon it and the presence of God filled the Tabernacle” (Exod. 40:34-35). Similarly, the shattering of the vessels recalls Moses’ rage when he saw the golden calf and “hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain” (Exod. 32:19). So too were the holy vessels of the Ari’s myth like the heavenly tablets—crafted by God.

Scattered sparks also appear in Ezekiel 10:2, in which angelic figures scatter fiery coals from the Temple altar over the city of Jerusalem (“Fill your hands with glowing coals from among the cherubs, and scatter them over the city”) and bring to mind the Israelites who gathered the manna that fell from heaven (Exod. 16:17). Just as the manna fell to nourish the body, so the holy sparks serve to nourish the soul.

A midrash about the light created on the first day inspired the idea of primordial light inside the vessels. Here the ancient rabbis noticed an apparent contradiction: On the first day of creation, God says, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3); and on the fourth day, God created the sun, the moon, and the stars (Gen. 1:16-18). If God did not create the sun until the fourth day, they asked, what was the light God called into being on day one? The rabbis identified it as a primordial light—perhaps the light of paradise, or the light that emerged when God wrapped Himself in a garment of light (Psalms 104:2).

What, then, happened to this light? According to the Talmud and other rabbinic sources, God withdrew it from the world, and it became known as the ha-or ha-ganuz, the hidden light. Some said the light was taken back into paradise when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. From the perspective of the Zohar, the 13th-century foundational text of Jewish mysticism, this light is hidden in the Torah: Whenever a person studies the Torah with great concentration, a ray of the primordial light will illuminate both the Torah and the person, reflecting his/her new understanding of it.

In the Ari’s myth, the primordial light God sent forth on that first day is the same light scattered around our world as holy sparks, which each of us is called upon to seek out and gather.

How do we go about finding and gathering these mysterious, elusive sparks?

The Ari explained that the sparks are raised up whenever the Torah is studied or one of God’s commandments is fulfilled. This is a radical explanation of why we perform the mitzvot. Whereas before these rituals and prayers were regarded purely as God’s commandments, the Ari now attributed a beneficial spiritual effect to them: Studying the Torah as well as observing its laws and partaking in all other devotional and loving acts are the means to gather the sparks, and thus engage in the great mitzvah of tikkun olam.

How might the Ari’s life have influenced his interpretations?

The Ari lived in the 16th century, not long after the expulsions of the Jews from Spain and Portugal. He was well aware of the great dislocation that had followed in the aftermath of that trauma. Jews who for generations had been part of an advanced Sephardic culture on the Iberian Peninsula were suddenly scattered throughout the world, living in foreign and unfamiliar lands. Until they learned of the Ari’s myth, many of these exiles found themselves isolated and spiritually bereft. The notion of tikkun olam brought them almost immediate consolation and a sense of purpose by explaining why God had dispersed them—to gather the holy sparks that had fallen on these distant lands. Learning that their exile was part of God’s plan for tikkun olam also raised their hopes for an ingathering of all Jews with the coming of the Messiah. Little wonder that, within a year of its formulation in the Galilean town of Safed, the Ari’s myth had spread throughout the Jewish world.
Does the Ari’s myth give Jews a special role in the repair of the world?

The Ari viewed Israel as having a singular destiny based on God’s covenant with the Jewish people. However, the idea of God creating humans to remedy a Divine error suggests a more universal meaning: A repaired world can be realized only if the whole of humanity engages in collecting the sparks.

Did this myth continue to evolve?

Yes. Consistent with the ongoing myth-making process in Judaism, after the Ari’s death, his teachings, known as Lurianic kabbalah, became the leading expression of kabbalah, deeply influencing Sephardic and Hasidic mystics. Their commentaries sometimes embellished the Ari’s myth. The hasidic master Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov (1745–1815), for example, stated that “when the task of gathering the sparks nears completion, God will hasten the arrival of the final redemption by Himself collecting what remains of the holy sparks that went astray.” Later, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (1889–1943) linked the Ari’s myth to a famous midrash about prior worlds that God is said to have created: “At the time of creation, God created worlds and destroyed them. The worlds created and destroyed were the shattered vessels God sent forth. Out of those broken vessels God created the present universe.”

How do you account for the continued appeal of tikkun olam?

The concept of human partnership with God to heal heaven and earth is both engaging and energizing. In a sense, tikkun olam expands God’s original covenant with the Jews at Sinai by adding a metaphysical and spiritual dimension to our ethical and moral obligations. The Ari was a rare genius who understood the need for a guiding myth for the Jewish people and joined together an array of Jewish legends to create a single, seamless, unifying myth. This myth’s integration of mind, body, and spirit has given tikkun olam its timeless appeal.

[Howard Schwartz is a professor of English at University of Missouri-St. Louis, a Jewish folklorist and mythologist, and author of, most recently, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism and Leaves from the Garden of Eden: One Hundred Classic Jewish Tales.]

Expanding the Use of Social Media: URJ's Eric Yoffie Sermonizes on Technology (and food)

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, gave his Shabbat morning sermon at the URJ’s 70th Biennial Convention in Toronto. Read the full text.  Just after he delivered it in Toronto, I read the text of his sermon in West Hills, CA (isn’t technology wonderful?).  Thoughtful, eloquent as always, Rabbi Yoffie launched two Biennial initiatives:

  •  Just Table, Green Table: Rabbi Yoffie calls for a commitment to ethical eating, asking synagogue leaders to “carefully, thoughtfully, Jewishly” formulate new eating guidelines for their communities.
  • Embracing Technology: Reform Judaism’s opportunity to engage with communities and help congregations relate to members in the online space has reached a tipping point. At the Biennial in Toronto, Rabbi Yoffie urged the Reform Movement to create congregational blogs and experiment with a range of creative technological approaches to strengthen community ties and help build community.

Each of these initiatives offer food for thought (pun intended). I am particularly taken with his interest in expanding the use of technology within the synagogue world. We are finding, at Congregation Or Ami, that – through eNewsletters, this blog, our Facebook page, Twitter (newly using it), photo page and videos – we are reaching more people than would ever walk through the doors (except, perhaps, on the High Holy Days).

Recently a social media sub-committee met to prioritize our use of social media. We set out these goals:

  • To build community and deepen connections among Or Ami members and “friends”
  • To further the Or Ami’s Vision and Values, especially regarding: Henaynu, Life-long Learning, Accessibility of Clergy, Social Justice and Openness
  • To shine the light of Or Ami into the surrounding community, including publicizing our events
  • To create a conversation about the joys of being Jewish

Further, we decided to focus in these areas:

  • Deepen the use of our Facebook page to meet our goals
  • Expand the use of E-vites to publicize programs
  • Develop more online videos and to collect them in one place
  • Enhance the synergy between our blog, Facebook, and website

My colleagues often ask me how I have time to do all of this social media and technology. I answer, simply, that our congregants are communicating this way, so shouldn’t we be utilizing their modes of communication to spread Torah, communal caring and deep Jewish spirituality? That’s what motivates me. How about you?

Ger Hayiti: Feel the Heart of the Stranger

Sermon by Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA
Yom Kippur 5770/2009

[For full endnotes, textual references and lyrics of songs sung/quoted, see Rabbi’s writings on our Or Ami website.]

A story: In the year 120 CE, in the land of Israel, a horrible plague swept through the holy land. So many took ill. Thousands succumbed. The plague took beloved friends and co-workers. By the time it ended, 24,000 had died. Whole families were wiped out.

Devastated, people struggled to understand why this plague had come. In an age before the Centers for Disease Control, they turned to their rabbinic leaders for explanation and comfort. Following the best pre-scientific knowledge of their day, these ancient rabbis concluded that the plague must be punishment for some appalling sin they committed.

Which fit. Because it was a time of terrible partisanship in the halls of Torah study. Here they were talking Torah and their arguments were supposed to be l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven. Yet as the disagreements intensified, words sharpened, and attacks by one study group on those who disagreed with them became vicious. Soon discussions about Jewish law became forums to destroy each others’ reputations, livelihoods, lives.

Then the great 2nd century scholar Rabbi Akiba figured it out. The plague’s cause to sinat chinam, the baseless hatred that the students had for each other. Searching for a cure, he turned to Torah. There in Leviticus, he read V’ahavta l’ray-a-cha kamocha – love your neighbor as yourself.

Having witnessed the way that so many students of Torah were engaged in the holiest of endeavors – the study of Torah – yet were still insensitive towards others, Akiva proclaimed that this great sin could only be remedied with gemilut chasadim, lovingkindness.

V’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha set a high standard of behavior. It was not about feeling love. Rather, each action we take which affects others must pass a specific litmus test: Would we want to be on the receiving end of that action? Rabbi Akiva challenged: Loving yourself, you must take the needs and desires of others into account. Do so and the world will quickly be cleansed of hatred and violence. So he rallied his surviving students to this new cause, an aspiration for holy living which accompanied holy learning.

Cantor and Chorale sing the Chorus and Verse from Cantor Doug Cotler’s song, Amar Rabi Akiva

Accepting the plagues as the result of sinful behavior, Akiva’s 2nd century colleague Ben Azzai suggested another fundamental principle in Torah to guide us. Lifting up a verse from the Creation story in Genesis – b’tzelem Elohim, that we were created in the image of God – Ben Azzai taught that though we may seem different, act differently, speak different languages, we are connected by the miraculous process of our creation. B’tzelem Elohim, being created in God’s image, proclaims that each human being is equally blessed, because we all are born with intrinsic value and worth.

B’tzelem Elohim set a new standard for our actions: since God is neither white nor black, male nor female, Jew nor non-Jew, and since every human being is an image of God, there is no preferred image. Therefore all people should be well treated as equals. If each person harbors God’s image within, we have the responsibility to care for, protect, and embrace every person. Even those we do not know. We need to open our hearts to the strangers in our midst, and to create communities of inclusion, where prejudice and hate give way to love and respect.

What a wonderful world that would be!

Cantor and Chorale sing a Chorus and Verse from Sheryl Braunstein and Paul Kipnes’ song, B’tzelem Elohim

Another story. We all know Moses, our people’s greatest hero. He is one who wrestled with the challenges of being a stranger in a strange land. Saved at birth by a non-Israelite princess. Raised in Pharaoh’s home. Struggling for decades with the secret of his birth. Moses watched his people struggle under the whip and sword. Until one day, after witnessing the abuse heaped upon an Israelite slave by his Egyptian taskmaster, Moses became incensed. Furious, Moses killed the taskmaster. When the act became known, Moses fled into the wilderness. There, he met Yitro, a Midianite priest, and there he fell in love with Tzipporah, Yitro’s beautiful headstrong daughter. In this wilderness, Tzipporah gave birth to their first son. Moses aptly named his son, Gershom, which means Ger hayiti b’eretz nochriya. Gershom, meaning I was a stranger in a strange land.

Some rabbis point to the naming of Gershom as one of the pivotal incidents in the onset of the Exodus. Before God could call Moses to service, before Moses could go down to Egypt to rescue the Israelites, he had to embrace an existential reality – that a fundamental part of his identity was the experience of being an outsider. To lead God’s people, to nurture the community toward holiness, Moses needed to feel in the very beating of his heart, the heart of the stranger.

We all know what it is like to feel like a stranger. You step into a room filled with people who look at you, and then return to their conversations, as if you were not there. You sit alone in class or in the office, and nobody turns to say hello. You enter a synagogue – somewhere else, of course – and no one makes you feel welcome. Though we all descended from one human, Adam, most of us have a tendency to categorize people as “like us” or “not like us” – by skin color, by race, by religion or sexual orientation, by socio-economic status. Most of the time, if we hang out with our own crowd, we feel secure that we are part of the group. But step outside the circle, and we feel the heart of the stranger. We feel misplaced, different.

Then at Mt. Sinai we received the Torah, and with it a moral imperative to remain keenly aware of people living at the margins. Did you know that the commandment to protect the defenseless in society from exploitation is the most often repeated injunction in the entire Torah, appearing more often than commandments to love God, keep kosher, or observe Shabbat? According to one count by the Talmud, no less than thirty-six times are we directed to protect the most vulnerable among us. In ancient Israel, it was understood that strangers, as outsiders with few support systems, were defenseless against injustice.

Later, we Jews saw Israel, our holy land, twice destroyed. Two times we experienced being scattered throughout the world, separated from our holy places, the source of our identity. Then in the Middle Ages, a sense of our own insecurity deepened, created by years of living at the whim of city-state rulers, who at a moment’s notice could expel us with just the knowledge in our heads and whatever we could carry on our backs. Those realities entered our hearts, pumping through our veins the blood of being the stranger.

Now, at every Passover seder, we eat bitter herbs and matzah and relive our flight from being a stranger. Every Sukkot, we re-experience wandering by living in sukkah booths. Every Shabbat, we sing Mi Chamocha, thanking God for bringing us out of Egypt. Again and again in the Bible and in our rituals, the memory of our slavery points us to one commandment: You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger… Remember that you were a slave in Egypt.

What does it really mean today to feel the heart of the stranger? Sometimes it just makes you sick.

A story: this summer Michelle, the boys and I visited the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. Located at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the Civil Rights Museum chronicles key episodes in the oppression of blacks and the subsequent struggle for civil rights. There, we learned in depth about the cynical machinations of racism that permeated our country’s legal, business and governmental system. There, we saw how nefarious forces over a short period of time had transformed forbidden slavery into a then acceptable system of brutal racial discrimination. The Museum’s depictions of the brave struggle for Arkansas school desegregation, of Rosa Parks’ sitting up front of the bus, of the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins and of Freedom Summer illuminated the radiant power of an organized caring community to roll back prejudice. There we learn how one inspired man, working with other insightful, motivated people, turned this country back on the road toward justice.

Yet walking through the museum was emotionally draining. The photos and news clippings, eyewitness accounts and whites-only signs, were startling. It defied sensibility that in America, in my lifetime, lawyers and preachers, judges and governors, bus drivers and businessmen, Jews among them – could wrap themselves in the cloak of Biblical morality to justify the subjugation, and later separation, of the races. I was ashamed at how our country treated its own citizens. How deadened do you have to be inside to ignore our biblical mandates of b’tzelem Elohim and love thy neighbor as yourself? How numb do you have to be to the heart of the stranger to lynch someone who is marching just so they can sit at the front of the bus?

The institutionalization of racial discrimination in America back then, and the continued marginalization and often exploitation of other groups of people – blacks, Hispanics, Asians, the physically and mentally disabled, gays and lesbians, the working poor – defies every fundamental principle Judaism holds dear: that we were created in God’s image, that we must love our neighbors as ourselves, that we were strangers in a strange land. What is a Jew to do, when we hear of prejudice and discrimination, especially when the Bible is used to justify injustice?

Our Jewish hearts, like those of the Biblical prophets of Israel before us, must become incensed by this twisting of our values to support a status quo. Our responsibility is to speak out and act up to ensure those pushed to the margins are embraced and cared for.

We feel the heart of the stranger. That’s why Jews have been at the forefront of every significant social movement then and now: civil rights, women’s rights, anti-apartheid, ending genocide in Darfur, end of sanctioned torture, and more. We feel the heart of the stranger. It’s why Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched arm in arm with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. The heart of the stranger. It is why so many Or Ami congregants step forward in droves to support children in foster care, kids they never even met. The heart of the stranger.

I’m proud that Congregation Or Ami strives to live up to the standards set by Akiva, Ben Azzai and Moses. Nothing makes me kvell – beam with more pride – than when people speak about Or Ami as the place where people previously felt like they were on the margins of the community are welcomed back into the center. Our sanctuary is filled with people who “are young and old; able-bodied and have special needs; single and couples, divorced and blended families; people of various sexual orientations; multiracial people and multiethnic families; people whose lives range from whole to broken, and from struggling to wealthy.” We are a mosaic of Moses’ people.

So this year, let’s continue to cultivate within the heart of the stranger.

Perhaps next time you see a person with a different color skin than yours – perhaps black or brown, white, reddish or yellow – you will look first beneath their skin color to honor the image of God that resides within.

Maybe when a client or co-worker walks into the office – the Persian or Israeli, the Muslim woman wearing the head covering, we will withhold that knee-jerk prejudging – and try to will love that neighbor as ourselves.

Perhaps when we see someone walking down the street, or bussing our plates at a restaurant, and we start to wonder if he is an illegal immigrant, we will remember that we too were often strangers in a strange land.

And when we see the poorest of the poor, sitting on the sidewalk or sleeping under a park bench, we will shine them a smile. And then when we go home, let’s call our city councilors or write our congress people, to tell them that we feel shame that God’s children are living in the gutters. And then we will write a check to a hunger organization, and volunteer at the SOVA food pantry, and vote for people who will help erase homelessness and poverty from our streets once and for all.

And when we listen to cable news and hear tirades about why we cannot, should not, enact serious reform of our inexcusably deficient healthcare and health insurance system, remember that the stranger sitting in the row right in front of us might be someone whose mother or father, or cousin or friend, or they themselves, cannot get the care they need because our current system, that might serve you and me well enough, stands idly by while our neighbors bleed. Hopefully our hearts will do more than bleed for them. Hopefully we will stand up and advocate for them.

And next time we think about the men and women, who share love, but cannot marry, because they happen to be of the same gender, we will remember our Torah, which sees the b’tzelem Elohim in all people, would bless monogamous, consensual, gay or lesbian marriages, and you will honor and bless them too, as do I, your rabbi.

It is Yom Kippur, and we stand together to ask forgiveness for our sins. For the ways we have harmed others by our actions, and by our inactions as well. For standing idly by while our neighbors bleed, suffer, or struggle. For numbing ourselves to the heart of the stranger, and pretending that we weren’t once strangers too.

Because we are all neighbors, commanded to treat each other with love. Because we all are created in the image of God, making each of us valued and worthy. Because we remember what it is like to be marginalized, oppressed and ignored.

On this day especially, may God grant us the courage:

To break the chains that bind us
And make oppression disappear.
To help the stranger find a bed.
To remember that [we] must share our daily bread.

Torah teaches Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. May we remember Justice, justice, I will pursue you.

Cantor Cotler sings his song, “Justice, Justice”