Tag: Diversity

Marking MLKing Day and The Inauguration with Diverse Celebrations

Michelle and I blogged together:

Amidst accessible pomp and circumstance, a president was again inaugurated peacefully in America. Partisan politics set aside, everyone gathered to celebrate the freedoms fought for by President Abraham Lincoln and dreamed about by Martin Luther King Jr.
Our President Barak Obama set a high bar: to extend equality to all, across races, religions, national origins and gender. He drew a straight line from Selma to Stonewall, between the struggles for civil rights for blacks and equal rights for gays and lesbians. He pointed us toward our best selves, that part of our nation which strives for liberty and justice for all.

We were Inspired
By the pastor offering blessings who invoked the prophet Micah, goading us to “pursue justice, seek mercy and walk humbly before God”. By the diverse gathering surrounding the president and involved in the official ceremony. And by the realization that once again, the United States achieved a peaceful transition from one presidential term to another.

How does one mark this multifaceted day of celebration?

We chose to venture down to Santa Monica to walk amongst the most diverse community around. Framed by the beach on the west side and the unique beachfront properties and Venice vendors on the east, we enjoyed the cacophony of sights, sounds and smells as people rollerbladed, biked and tossed frisbees. It was a tapestry of color.

We were especially touched by a recently painted mural “From the city of angels to the angels of Connecticut.” The names of the children killed in Sandy Hook, CT were spray painted on the mural to mark their memory and as a demonstration of American support for them and their families. If it is a civil right to be safe from gun fun violence, how do we achieve this and when?

B’tzelem Elohim, Created in the Image of God
Genesis teaches us that we were all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. We find it perplexing that we still struggle to translate that vision I worthiness and equality of all people into policies and practices that protect us all. May the memory of MLKing and the actions of Barak Obama bring us closer to the day when all will be united in peace and friendship.

That’s how we marked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the Presidential Inauguration.

How did you?

Moses Wasn’t a White Boy

I love the look on the faces of our students when I point out to them that Moses could not have had the pinkish white skin that I have. First their brows furrow, then they go wide, then they smile with understanding and agreement.

Since Moses descended from people born in Canaan (with ancestry harkening back to Ur, near the intersection of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers) and he grew up under the hot Egyptian sun. His skin had to be significantly darker than your average caucasian. That means that Cecil B. DeMille got it wrong casting Charlton Heston as Moses, at least with regards to skin color.

Not that skin color should matter. Often – too often – it seems to matter. Especially in Jewish life. But it shouldn’t.

Introducing Be’chol Lashon, Celebrating the Mosaic of Jewish Life 
Thankfully, there exists an incredible organization, Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue) which “grows and strengthens the Jewish people through ethnic, cultural, and racial inclusiveness. They advocate for the diversity that has characterized the Jewish people throughout history, and through contemporary forces including intermarriage, conversion and adoption. And they foster an expanding Jewish community that embraces its differences.”

Be’chol Lashon’s monthly eNewsletter overflows with insights, news, arts and culture, and a plethora of programs and events. They run kids and family camp, send out speakers, and encourage creative mitzvah projects.  Be’chol Lashon reminds us of the fact that Jewish community has always been a mosaic.

Or Ami Has a Multicultural/Multiracial/Multiethnic Webpage
At Congregation Or Ami (as our “Multicultural/Multiracial” webpage declares),

We celebrate that Judaism has always been mosaic, a beautiful collection of different colored and shaped pieces. We are also “Mosaic” in that we connect back to Moses, a Hebrew child, raised by Egyptians, who married a non-Jewish woman of color and became the leader of his people. We rejoice that at least 20% of the Jewish population is racially and ethnically diverse, including African, African American, Latino (Hispanic), Asian, Native American, Sephardic, Mizrahi and mixed-race Jews by heritage, adoption, and marriage. Recognizing that we are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, we are pleased to welcome the multicultural/multiracial/multiethnic Jewish individuals, couples and families in our community. 

Some couples that begin with two individuals from different backgrounds need to integrate separate lives into one family. Some families adopting a child from a different culture look to celebrate all parts of the child’s mosaic. Individual Jews, raised in multicultural homes, strive to be accepted as Jews, no questions asked. Remember: you are not alone. 

Congregation Or Ami, our Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Cantor Doug Cotler, Rabbi Julia Weisz and our Reform Jewish movement, welcome you. Congregation Or Ami is already proud to be a home congregation for many multiethnic, multiracial and multicultural individuals, couples and families, and we welcome you to share in the warmth of our community. We invite you to begin a conversation with Rabbi Kipnes to share your hopes or questions about being part of Or Ami. 

Congregation Or Ami offers individuals and couples who connect to multiple cultures, races and/or ethnic groups the opportunity to explore their Judaism in a warm, welcoming environment. We work to empower people to make Jewish choices for themselves and their families and we strive to provide resources to inform educated decisions. We strive to be a welcoming place for people of diverse religious backgrounds, sexual orientations, and ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds. We invite you to begin a conversation with Rabbi Kipnes to share your hopes or questions about being a multicultural, multiethnic and/or multiracial individual or family at Or Ami.
[Note: It is quite possible that much of this language was borrowed from Be’chol Lashon publications.

So let’s celebrate: our Jews and Jewish families of all colors, racial or ethnic backgrounds, and cultural connections. You make our mosaic ever more colorful, engaging and interesting.

Tell Your Non-Caucasian Jewish Friends
Check out Be’chol Lashon, and share it, especially, with your non-caucasian Jewish friends. Check out:

And may our synagogues, and federations, and organizations, and schools, and individual Jews, remember the truth: that mosaics are way more interesting when they are made up of all different colors, shapes and sizes.

Let’s Pass the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA)

Today I signed on as a co-sponsor of a letter by the Faith Coalition for the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA). The UAFA legislation ends the long-standing discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender immigrant families. The letter, with the support of the Union for Reform Judaism, our national synagogue organization, says:

Dear Honorable Senators and Members of Congress:

We, the undersigned faith-based leaders and organizations, join together to call upon President Obama and our elected officials in Congress to enact inclusive, comprehensive immigration reform legislation that ends the long-standing discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender immigrant families.

Our diverse faith traditions teach us to welcome and care for our neighbors with love and compassion. Of the many great injustices in this broken immigration system, family separation is one of the most egregious. Family is the bedrock of any society and is critical in the development of healthy individuals and strong communities. Immigration policies should make expeditious family reunification a top priority and should include all families as part of that foundation. For us, this is a clear matter of simple justice.

Under current immigration law, gay and lesbian people cannot sponsor their foreign-born partner for an immigration visa, no matter how long they have been together or how committed their relationship. With no ability to sponsor their partners, U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents are being forced to live abroad, disrupting their careers, uprooting their children, and breaking ties with family, local communities and places of worship. No one should be forced to choose between their country and the person they love. It is time that U.S. immigration laws kept families together instead of tearing them apart.

There are over twenty countries — including strong allies such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Israel and South Africa — that recognize the permanent partnerships of lesbian and gay couples within their immigration laws. The United States should also be a leader in protecting the equal rights of its citizens and should not continue this discriminatory treatment in its immigration laws.

The Uniting American Families Act would end the long-standing discrimination lesbian and gay binational couples face under current immigration law. This bill would allow lesbian and gay binational couples to petition in the same way – and with the same rigorous process of documentation – as straight couples. We endorse the Uniting American Families Act which upholds the fundamental value of keeping families together. We urge Congress to pass this critically important legislation as part of any comprehensive immigration reform measure.

We call on President Obama, and Members of Congress, to provide the leadership and moral courage to pass inclusive and comprehensive immigration reform legislation. No reform can truly be called comprehensive unless it includes LGBT immigrant families as well. We are committed to working together for this long overdue and much-needed reform.

We must all work to honor our country’s commitment to families and its rich history as a nation of immigrants.

Learn more about the Uniting American Families Act.
If you are a major business, consider supporting the legislation along with these corporate supporters.

Top 9 Benefits of Taking Jewish Teens To A Pride Parade

Today at the San Francisco Pride Parade, we couldn’t have been more proud!

42 teens from the URJ Camp Newman‘s Avodah session ventured into San Francisco to walk and celebrate. Adorned in their purple camp t-shirts, and led ably by Avodah Director Aaron Bandler (a future rabbi??), our 16-year olds danced Israeli folk dances up Market Street. As they carried a tye-dyed chuppah complete with glass to break, they exhibited additional pride as they marched on the heels of the New York State vote to legalize marriage equality.

We went to San Francisco to live out the values of Torah:

  • B’tzelem Elohim – that we all are created in God’s image (Gen. 1)
  • K’shoshim T’hiyu – that we are all holy (Lev. 19)
  • Ahavat HaGer – love the stranger (36 times in the Torah).

Wonder why we brought our teens to the Pride Parade?  
Because participation in the Pride Parade…

  1. Instills pride in themselves no matter what their differences.
  2. Offers chance to be boisterously joyful in public about being Jewish.
  3. For teens who are questioning their own sexual orientation, it makes them feel safer and more accepted, a major goal of NFTY’s GLBTQ Teen Inclusion priorities.
  4. Learn about and live out longstanding Reform Jewish positions on marriage equality and gay rights.
  5. Teaches them how to stand up for something significant.
  6. Bonds them together as a group.
  7. Provides a chance to meet lots of different people of all sorts of shaped and sizes and color and religions.
  8. Allows them to really let go and have unrestrained fun and joy in a safe and sober way in a public place.
  9. Gives the opportunity to wear their sillier clothes including green fishnet stockings, pink tutus and Mardi Gras beads.

Finally, as the real life follow up to the previous evening’s program on self-acceptance, this experience allowed each teen the opportunity to verbalized to themselves and out loud to their community, “I’m proud to be me.”

This blogpost was cowritten on the bus back to Camp Newman by Rabbi Paul Kipnes, Camp Newman Faculty Dean & Rabbi, Congregation Or Ami, Calabasas, CA; Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, URJ Director of Teen Engagement; Michelle November, Associate Director of Admissions, New Community Jewish High School, West Hills, CA; Alissa Robinow, Youth Advisor, Congregation Rodef Shalom, San Rafael, CA; Aaron Bandler, Camp Newman Avodah Director.

Seeking Justice, Mercy and Humility: A Jewish Response to Marriage Equality

The prophet Micah (ch. 6) asks a question which many of us, in the quiet of our own thoughts, do (or should) ask ourselves: Man (or our society) has told you what is good, but (by contrast) what does God require of you? Micah, speaking as a mouthpiece of the Holy One, answers thus: Only to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

Whenever we approach a difficult situation or issue in our lives, our prophet urges us to consider: What does it mean to “do justice?” How can we “love mercy?” Where does “humility” come into play in our lives? This should be the central values discussion of our time.

Speaking Out on Jewish Values
However, as Rabbi David Saperstein, director of our Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington DC, has declare so eloquently, the Christian Right has successfully hijacked the values discussion (and the social policy decisions that result) by presenting a one-sided view of the significant social issues of our time.

Nothing has been more successful for the Christian Right than their demonization of the issue of gay marriage. Many states have passed ballot initiatives to ban gay marriage by large margins, truly energized by a voting bloc who supports keeping marriage as a purely heterosexual institution. Is this “doing justly?” We have heard loudly and clearly from the Christian right on this issue. Shouldn’t we hear also from our own Reform Jewish tradition about its perspective on this issue? So, what does Reform Judaism think about such things?

Jewish Views on Human Sexuality
In its far-reaching report on Human Sexuality, the Ad Hoc Committee on Human Sexuality of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR – Reform Rabbis organization) identified nine values as being significant to Jewish values on sexuality: B’tzelem Elohim (living in the image of God), Emet (truth), B’ri-ut (health), Mishpat (justice), Mishpacha (family), Tziniyut (modesty), Brit (covenantal relationship), Simcha (joy), Ahava (love) and Kedusha (holiness). In defining these values, the committee drew from traditional sources, evolving social norms and modern Jewish commentaries.

Central to the definition of kedusha (holiness) was the notion that In a Reform Jewish context, a relationship may attain a measure of kedusha when both partners voluntarily set themselves apart exclusively for each other, thereby finding unique emotional, sexual and spiritual intimacy. Ultimately, after reviewing Jewish sources and attitudes, the Ad Hoc Committee on Human Sexuality was led to conclude that kiddusha (holiness) may be present in committed, same gender relationships between two Jews, and that these relationships can serve as the foundation of stable Jewish families, thus adding strength to the Jewish community.

Of course it makes sense that our Reform Jewish institutions would understand the evolving nature of human relations in this way. As Rabbi David Freelund (of my parents’ synagogue in Hyannis, MA) explained years ago in an article on the Reform Jewish perspective on marriage equality, “Reform Judaism has long been on the cutting edge of social issues and civil rights in America. Women’s rights, racial equality and religious freedom have long been dear to us.” Rabbi Freelund continued:

The Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism lobbies on Capitol Hill on issues of importance to the movement. One of the arenas in which social activism of Reform Judaism has been prominent is in the area of gay rights, the idea that sexual orientation should be of no consequence for choices in profession, religion, personal or family status. But why?

Current credible medical and psychological authorities or bodies do not agree that homosexuality is somehow “abnormal” behavior. In fact, our best medical and social scientists can tell us that there is a normal spectrum of human sexual behavior, including both hetero- and homosexuality. This spectrum has been with us throughout recorded history and always will be.

What about Biblical Texts that Seem to Call Homosexuality an Abomination?
Clearly, the thrust of our rabbinic tradition has been to read these texts as condemning all homosexuality. However, these texts, as read in recent scholarly works and rabbinic teshuvot (opinions), may be understood to be specifically condemning only adulterous homosexuality (married people having sexual relations outside of their marriages) or homosexual rape (the concern of the story of Lot and Sodom).

Understood in the light of these studies, the deeper lesson of Torah takes precedence. Judaism and Torah teach that we are all are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Being created in God’s image means that each person is valued, worthy, and sacred. Such love – between mature consenting individuals – is similarly holy. Gay or straight, bisexual or transgender – the people, their gender identities, and the ways they make love – are blessed. The Torah teaches that; our tradition affirms it. Those who read it any other way may be quoting the Bible as others have read it, but are misreading the Bible for their own outdated and non-moral perspectives and purposes.

Where Does the Reform Jewish Movement Stand?
In that light, Reform Judaism embraced full inclusion of gays and lesbians in our congregations in 1977. The CCAR even adopted a resolution that year calling for legislation decriminalizing homosexual acts between consenting adults, and calling for an end to discrimination against gays and lesbians. The United States Supreme Court acted on this issue, casting aside any legislation restricting the bedroom behavior of consenting adults. The CCAR was well ahead of the curve.

In 1990, the CCAR endorsed a position urging that “all rabbis, regardless of sexual orientation, be accorded the opportunity to fulfill the sacred vocation that they have chosen.” The committee endorsed the view that “all Jews are religiously equal regardless of their sexual orientation.” The admissions policies of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion were changed to state that the “sexual orientation of an applicant [be considered] only within the context of a candidate’s overall suitability for the rabbinate,” and that all rabbinic graduates of the HUC-JIR would be admitted into the CCAR.

Our Reform Jewish institutions have embraced full equality and are committed to it. Our religious ideals will be challenged in the years to come. In 2000, the CCAR resolved that each of its members was free to act to his or her own conscience in performing same-sex weddings, and that liturgy and rituals should be developed to make these ceremonies meaningful and immersed in the holiness marriage. This and much more has been done.

Reform Judaism stands today in support of [the many different kinds of families] in our congregations, and in support of spousal relationships that create Jewish homes and bring holiness into the world. We are committed to a policy of inclusion and freedom for our rabbis to marry those couples they see are Jewishly-committed, regardless of gender or orientation. It is time for our states and our country to recognize marriage equality as an enshrined corollary of our American freedoms.

Do Justice, Loving Mercy and Walking Humbly with our God
We, the people who recall the words of our sacred Scriptures – You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9) – seek to do justice. We, people of faith who try to love mercy, defend vigorously the dignity of every human being, consistent with the principle that each of us is created in the Divine image. While we respect those who may be single, we uphold the values of marriage and family. Marriage, imbued with the values of exclusivity, permanence, intimate companionship, and love, provides fulfillment for each partner and adds to the common good of the community. Thus, in an attempt to walk humbly with our God, we affirm that every human being has an absolute right to such fulfillment, and that the loving, committed relationships of same-sex couples have the same potential for kedusha (holiness) as those of heterosexual couples.

I look forward to the ability to marry our gay or lesbian congregants to their beloveds, in ceremonies recognized by the state and our country. May that day come speedily.

As always, I invite you to join me in a discussion on these significant Jewish issues. Email me at Rabbipaul [at] orami.org or call me to set a time for us to get together and talk.

Welcoming Chaverim, for Developmentally Disabled Adults

Torah teaches, “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind.” The RiPiK, a twentieth century commentator, suggested that beyond refraining from placing blocks, we should actively remove stumbling blocks. To what might this be compared?

A story…

Even as the Director of Chaverim, a local program for developmentally disabled adults asked the question, his discomfort was evident: “How do you feel about opening your congregation to a local group for developmentally disabled adults?”

“Why wouldn’t we?” I asked.

“We’ve been to other synagogues that have opened their doors, only to feel slowly push us out, after their members became uncomfortable with the presence of our members,” he responded.

The conversation continued. “What’s the worst that might happen?” I asked.

“We have one member who can sing loudly, and sometimes off-key.” He paused, “And you might have someone read slowly, completing a communal reading after others have already finished.”

“Sounds like some of our current members.”

“However, they will usually be accompanied by the Chaverim program director or program rabbi, either of whom will help direct our members if necessary. Would you like to come by one of our events to check out the Chaverim members?”

“Why? Give me a heads up when you think there might be an issue. Make sure that in the early months you attend services only when I am leading them. That way I can witness and deal with any issues that might arise.”

So We Welcomed Chaverim
“Yes, we would love to welcome you,” I said. “Let me speak to our Board in two weeks, when I know they will openly embrace the idea and your members. We will extend to any of your members full membership at our synagogue. Two High Holy Day tickets per Chaverim member – one for the member, one for his/her driver or guest. We will make you, as Director of Chaverim, a complimentary synagogue member, so that we can give you access to our synagogue afterhours for use during your scheduled programs and classes. We ask only that your members fill out a synagogue membership form so we can get them into our system.”

“They should pay membership dues,” he said. “So that they have a sense of commitment. How much should they need to pay?”

“We won’t care. Whatever you think is appropriate. No more than $50; no less than $10. We only ask that they pay it in one lump sum, to ease the work on our bookkeeper. To make it easier, you collect the forms and information, and pass them onto my assistant, who will oversee the processing of the forms.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to meet them first?” he inquired.

“Listen, we pride ourselves on being a congregation that is open and welcoming. And we have families with developmentally disabled children and relatives. So no, I don’t need to approve them. They are Jews. Let them come home.”

Not a Mitzvah (good deed), but a Mitzvah (religious obligation)
It saddens me when I hear kvelling about how this synagogue or that is especially accessible to people with disabilities. This is no mitzvah (colloquially, a good deed); it is a mitzvah (literally, a religious obligation). It is the responsibility of every Jewish community to make Jewish life and celebration accessible to every Jew and Jewish family. We strive to remove stumbling blocks from before all Jews – including those with disabilities.

As expected, the Board discussion lasted less than five minutes. The motion to welcome Chaverim was a “no-brainer.” Our CFO and his wife volunteered to be the liaisons with the program; our Program Director was tasked with smoothing the process from the staff side. We created a new membership category called ‘Chaverim,’ though we were aware that it would be a few months before anyone would officially sign up.

The next week, we designated a few Friday nights as Shabbatot when they would officially come worship with us. As I had been informed, only a few Chaverim regulars showed up at the first services to check us out and to make sure we were welcoming. Based on guidance from the Chaverim Director, early in the service when we welcome others, I just said, “We welcome our members who are connected to Chaverim, a program for developmentally disabled adults, ages 18-88.” We did not ask them to identify themselves at that time; we let them just be Jews at services.

A Service Honoring Exceptional People
We are now close to a year into our relationship. I am told that Chaverim members have attended services regularly and appreciate NOT being singled out. They hang out at the oneg like everyone else; last week I enjoyed watching our president chatting up a few Chaverim members, just like she does ever other non-regular who shows up at services. A few read prayers in our annual Service Honoring Exceptional People (our annual “Special Needs” service); others sang along and just felt like they belonged.

All because of one 20-minute phone call, one email from the Rabbi, five minutes in a board meeting, and a few calls by the Program Director. All in the span of a month.

That, and because we took seriously the Torah teaching, “Do not put a stumbling block before the blind.” It should be that easy. Please tell us your story.

A Letter to our Teens and College Students: About Safe Places and Safe People… Like Your Rabbi and Cantor

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We sent the following letter to our entire community…
Cheshvan 5771
October 2010
Dear Members of the Or Ami Family,
We hope that you will share the letter below with your teens and college students.  Some of you might feel comfortable sharing it with your preteens.  It is inspired by the writing of Rabbi Andy Bachman of Brooklyn and Rabbi Alan Cook of Seattle, but the sentiments expressed are very deeply felt by each of us.  We want each and every teen and college student at Or Ami to know that they are part of a community that will love and support them, no matter what.
There are many wonderful resources out there if you, your teens, or your college students are confronting any of the issues addressed in the letter.  We will be providing opportunities in our Temple Teen Night, our Confirmation, our LoMPTY youth group, and in other forums to discuss these matters, but you may also wish to check out some of the following online resources.
§   http://www.nfty.org/resources/guides/bullying/ (Reform youth movement’s resources on bullying and LGBT issues)
§   www.rosalindwiseman.com (creating cultures of dignity, from the author of the non-fiction book upon which the movie “Mean Girls” was based)
§   www.GLSEN.org  (the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network)
§   www.Lambdalegal.org (working for the civil rights of the LGBT community)
§   www.thetrevorproject.org (focused on crisis and suicide prevention among LGBT youth)
Dear Or Ami Teen or College Student:
Hi!  As your rabbi and cantor, we have been asked to respond in a Jewish manner to an important issue. Sometimes those issues are so heavy, so serious, that words seem insufficient.  We are writing you about Rutger’s student, Tyler Clementi, his being bullied and his recent suicide.  Tyler’s tragic death has saddened us greatly.
If you are not familiar with what happened, you can read the full story.  Here’s the gist of it: Tyler was secretly filmed having a sexual encounter with another man in his dorm room at Rutgers University.  This film was then broadcast over the Internet, causing him much embarrassment.  Authorities believe that this was a major factor in his decision to take his own life.  Appropriate personnel from his school and from local law enforcement are continuing to investigate.  Tyler is only the latest and most publicized in a string of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered (LGBT) young people who have taken their own lives because of pressures they felt to conform to the expectations of others.  Our hearts go out to the families and friends of all of these young men and women.
But we want to speak to you, whoever you may be.  Whether you are gay, straight, bi or transgendered or just plain confused, Judaism teaches that each individual is created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.  It does not matter what other people think about you as you struggle to figure out what you think about yourself.
What does matter is that you feel comfortable being who you are – at Or Ami, at school, in your community, and in your home – and you learn how to deal with those who do not accept you.  And you need to know what Tyler, in his shame and pain and suffering, may have been unable to appreciate – that no matter how badly you feel about how things are going in your life, you will always have someone to talk to, and a community that will accept you, support you, and love you for who you are.  Let us also help you if you are in pain or thinking of hurting yourself.  (Suicide is a permanent solution to what is a temporary problem.) Our emails are at the bottom of this letter, and we encourage you to reach out to us if ever you need help.
Tyler Clementi’s life ended because we live in an imperfect world that hurts or even kills people because they are different.  People fear what they do not understand, and so we are left with a twisted world where people are harmed because of who they are, or whom they love.  Others may be hurting due to acts of anti-Semitism, cyber bullying, social exclusion, breaking up with a first love, using drugs/alcohol, or any of the countless other pressures that teens and college students face today.  The effects of such harm will not always be physical, but words and name-calling and lack of acceptance can leave scars just as deep as one who wields a knife.  The good news is that there are more people in the world who support your right to be who you are than not. Torah teaches Kedoshim Tehiyu, that you are holy and valued (Leviticus 19).   We accept you and want you to feel welcomed and valued and respected and loved.
Although the two of us are straight men, we have been blessed with friends and relatives, rabbinic colleagues and other coworkers, and beloved and involved congregants who are gay or lesbian or bi or transgendered.  If we examine our relationships, I believe all of us would find the same to be true.  Some come out easily; others struggle with their identity; still others remain “in the closet.”  One day, perhaps we will be able to say, “Who cares what an individual’s sexual orientation is?”  And until that day comes, so long as such prejudice and bigotry remain, we cannot remain silent.  The Jewish tradition teaches that we are all responsible for one another. 
As your rabbi and cantor, we care for you. So if you are reading this, and you are feeling sad, angry, scared or any of a myriad of confusing emotions, and you need someone to talk to, please be in touch with one of us (our emails are below).
And always remember that you have a rabbi and cantor and a community that care about you deeply and accept you for who you are.  No matter what.
With love,
Rabbi Paul Kipnes                                                      Cantor Doug Cotler
[email protected]                                                 [email protected]
You may want to read Rabbi Kipnes’ blog on the issue (The Holy One Created Tyler Clementi; Why Couldn’t His Roommates See His Holiness?) here

Loyalty Oath in Israel: Reform Movement Condemns It

Israeli leaders are engaged in a discussion about a loyalty oath. Tzipi Livni, leader of the opposition and Kadima chairwoman condemned loyalty oath amendment is ‘politics at its worst‘).  Anat Hoffman, Director of the Israeli Religious Action Center (IRAC), wrote this on the recently Loyalty Oath Bill that was approved by Israel’s Cabinet:

Yesterday, IRAC as a leader in the Coalition Against Racism co-signed a press release with nearly twenty other organizations condemning the Loyalty Oath Bill that was approved by the Cabinet and will be voted on by the Knesset in the upcoming session.

We condemn the oath because we take seriously the Declaration of Independence in Israel, a document with which I identify so strongly. During the painful birth of the State of Israel, our nation’s founders signed on IRAC’s core values.

[The State of Israel] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture…

Unfortunately, its message is an endangered species in today’s Israel.

The Israeli Cabinet announced yesterday that non-Jews wishing to become Israeli citizens must take a loyalty oath to the Jewishness of the State of Israel. This dangerous piece of legislation adds the language “as a democratic and Jewish state” to the pre-existing oath. The Jewish immigrants wouldn’t have to swear anything if this discriminatory bill makes it through the Knesset in the upcoming session.

We are told by the bill’s creators that this amendment was proposed to defend the Jewish character of Israel. But what about the democratic character of the state? There are those among Israeli society who are willing to sacrifice democracy for security, those who insist that Torah Law trumps the legitimacy of the Basic Laws. This bill was not presented in order to defend from these communities, rather it was written to affirm the dominance of the Jewish character of Israel over its other characteristics—otherwise, every Israeli would be required to say and mean this declaration.

How do I know the undemocratic spirit behind this bill? Let’s look at it in context. This bill is being approved to go to Knesset along with several other bills that promote discrimination. For example, there is a proposal to legalize committees that accept people to private communities. It’s a lot like a board that rules a condominium or a homeowners association, except that it rules an entire town and the wording is vague enough so that it would be a platform for ethnic, political and religious discrimination. Also, the same legislators proposed a bill that would legalize revoking citizenship as punishment. Served on the same plate, it is clear that the Loyalty Oath Bill is a sour scoop of racism for members of Israel’s non-Jewish communities.

I feel as though my country is breaking a promise to me. Whether this bill passes or not, it is clear that it exists purely as a message to Israel’s non-Jewish minorities, a provocative reminder of Jewish dominance. Well over one million citizens in this country are not Jewish. The Cabinet’s vote yesterday insulted the Israeli identity of all of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens, a majority of whom are Arab.

Israeli studies and research show that Arab citizens of Israel suffer discrimination by the state despite the Declaration of Independence’s guarantee for “full and equal citizenship.”
According to the Dovrat Commission, Arab schools receive only 60% of the funding per student that Jewish schools receive. Most Arab villages and cities do not have public transportation and lack basic medical services, which are often very far distances from these areas. These are just a few examples of the existing inequality in Israeli society for the Arab community.

The amendment to the Loyalty Oath would place a major hurdle in the way of the fight for equality, setting in stone the gentleman’s agreement to uphold the second-class status of Arabs in Israel. How do we expect to overcome the barriers between different fragments of Israeli society when this bill is just another brick in the wall that divides us?

The bill is not democratic in nature and it is certainly not Jewish. In a Jewish state that upholds “justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel,” we should be focusing on our values and not on dominance and imposition. In Isaiah 1:17 we read, “Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed.” We as Jews have been in this place; we too have struggled as a minority. In a society of high ethnic tensions, why would we fan the flames?

A democracy that renders some citizens as second-rate is a second-rate democracy.


Anat Hoffman

The Israel Religious Action Center is a department of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism.

The Holy One Created Tyler; Why Couldn’t His Roommates See His Holiness?

This weekend, though consumed with the celebration of life – a wedding, two B’nai Mitzvah, the bris of a baby – my heart was breaking as I tried to comprehend the deadly harassment that led to the death of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi.  His roommate taped a private sexual encounter, publicized it on twitter and put the video up on the internet.  Humiliated and bullied, Tyler jumped off a bridge to his death.  I am horrified and embarrassed that such acts continue to happen. 

It is enough that our young people struggle so to acclimate to college life. That Tyler was targeted in what is supposed to be safe space (his dorm room) by people who were supposed to support him (his roommates) and that his privacy and dignity was destroyed are unconscionable. 

It wasn’t just 18-year-old Tyler who suffered.  I learned from Rev. Dr. Neil Thomas, Senior Pastor, Metropolitan Community Church, Los Angeles, that five teens who took their lives in September:

Raymond Chase, 19 Rhode Island; Seth Welsh, 13, California; Asher Brown, 13, Texas; Tyler Clementi, 18 New Jersey; and Billy Lucas, 15, Indiana; five teens who took their own lives, not this year, but this month (September)…. We mourn with them and we commit ourselves to live our legacy now and use our voices and our lives and to work together to bring to an end the senseless violence against all our our children; specifically LGBTQI children who face taunts and harassment every day in the playgrounds and classes of our schools and colleges.

There are many lessons to be learned from this horrific harassment.  My friend Rabbi Denise Eger of Temple Kol Ami focuses rightly on the need for better education of our youth on issues of tolerance, human sexuality and the appropriate use of the internet: 

In this weekend of the movie premier of The Social Network about the founding of Facebook the emerging facts of the Tyler Clementi case scream out for our society to have a renewed discussion about acceptable boundaries in the face of the internet and a real discussion about tolerance, acceptance and human sexuality. There is lots of condemnation but little honest talk about the need to educate our young people.

I support her call for better, deeper and more encompassing education in our schools and in our synagogues.  

Perhaps there is another lesson, simple yet important, that one would think (hope) that in the 21st century, we would not longer have to teach.  It is a most basic lesson of the value of each human being.  Apparently, we must go back to basics.  So here goes:
Judaism and Torah teaches that we are all are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Let us be clear about what Genesis meant and means.  Being created in God’s image means that each person is valued, worthy, and sacred.  Such love – between mature consenting individuals – is similarly holy.  Gay or straight, bisexual or transgender – the people, their gender identities and the ways they make love – are blessed.  The Torah teaches that; our tradition affirms it.  Those who read it any other way are misquoting the Bible for their own twisted perspectives and purposes. 

So let us mourn the deaths of Tyler, Raymond, Seth, Asher and Billy, and the thousands of other LGBTQ teens and adult who, struggling to understand and accept their own identities, face unrelenting bullying and harassment.  May our synagogues and schools and colleges becomes havens of hospitality, safe places to come to accept the holy way the Holy One made each of us. 

No Less Than Thirty-Six*: Frume Sarah on Immigration

Add this to the list of “Posts I Wish I had Written”
This one was written by Frume Sarah

The amount of times the Torah commands us to care for, protect, or support the stranger. More than any other mitzvah.

When the professor of a class turns to the board (chalk, white, or Smart) and writes something down, you can be certain it is going to appear on the final. Literary repetition in the Bible is God’s Smartboard and will most certainly be on the Test. Though the phrasing may reflect word changes, the thematic repetition as a narrative tool indicates the importance of this leitmotif. God is really, REALLY serious about the treatment of strangers.

An undercurrent of hate and fear in this country has surged forth in recent weeks with the passage of an illegal-immigration bill, signed into law, in the state of Arizona. While the country was busy debating the constitutionality and humanity of Arizona SB 1070, also known as the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act,” the Arizona Department of Education ordered school districts to remove from the classroom teachers whose English was heavily-accented or whose speech is ungrammatical.

Yes, we have immigration laws that must be upheld. Yes, it is important that our children have teachers who model proper grammar. But the way in which these laws and policies are being written and implemented leave little question as to the motivation driving them.

Hatred of the other. The stranger. The immigrant. The alien. The man with dark skin. The woman who swallows “the ending sounds of words, as they sometimes do in Spanish.” It’s not the Caucasian man born in Europe. Or the woman from South Carolina.

The drug trafficking that makes its way across the border is a legitimate concern. As is the manner in which we attempt to control it.

As this issue continues to be debated in the public arena, let us not forget that we too were “strangers in a strange land.” Throughout most of our history. Rashi suggests that when the Torah says “you know the feelings of the stranger,” it is the recollection of our painful experience in Mitzrayim that instructs us to “know how painful it is when (we) oppress him” (Comment on Exodus 22:20, 23:9).

Mere days remain before we stand again at Sinai. Now is the time to heed God’s Call. Now is the time to take God’s Test.

Please take a moment and sign an Open Letter Supporting Humane Immigration Reform. It was drafted by Justice Team members from IKAR.

*36, 33, 24 — different sources share different numbers.

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.

Interfaith Efforts for Ending Workplace Discrimination

This morning, I signed onto a letter with a broad array of clergy from different religious faiths to support the Employee Non-Discrimination Act to ensure fair treatment of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Americans in the workplace.  Supported by our Union for Reform Judaism and our Washington-based Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism (Read Rabbi David Saperstein’s testimony before Congress), this interfaith letter is also supported by a half a dozen other mainstream Jewish organizations.  The letter will be sent to members of Congress.  Most significantly, the letter emphasizes that which we learn from Torah: We affirm the sacred dignity and worth of all human beings – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and heterosexual, men and women – for all are created equal, b’tzelem Elohim, a reflection of the divine (Genesis 1:27).  You can help end Workplace Discrimination by just making a few calls

Dear Member of Congress,

As clergy and faith leaders from a broad diversity of religious traditions, we call on you to support H.R. 3017 and S. 1584, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), to ensure the fair treatment of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Americans in the workplace.

We believe it is immoral to deprive anyone of the means to feed, clothe, and care for themselves and their families. When LGBT people are denied the right to work simply for living honestly, their basic humanity is fundamentally denied. As clergy and faith community leaders, we know firsthand the devastating effects the loss of a job can have on individuals, families, and communities. Though we are all pained by the economic hardships befalling our nation, loss of a job because of discrimination against one’s identity incurs an even more devastating sense of personal loss and humiliation. This prejudice is not benign – it hurts real families in our congregations.

We affirm the sacred dignity and worth of all human beings – lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and heterosexual, men and women – for all are created equal, a reflection of the divine (Genesis 1:27; The Quran 95:4). Our faiths unite us in a moral obligation to treat others with the respect we desire for ourselves and to pursue justice by preventing further harm from coming to those most marginalized by our society (UdanaVarga 5:18; Mahabharata, Anusasana Parva, 113.8; Isaiah 10:1-2; Matthew 25:40; Prophet Mohammed(PBUH): Bukhari & Muslim). As heirs to these prophetic traditions, and indeed the narrative of this nation, our advocacy is grounded in the belief that advancing equality also means ensuring economic opportunity for our LGBT brothers and sisters. Swift enactment of an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act is needed.

ENDA is a common-sense, measured approach to removing discriminatory barriers to employment for LGBT people while respecting the sacred texts and teachings of America’s diverse faith traditions. This bill broadly exempts from its scope all religious organizations protected by Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act thereby honoring the free exercise of religion and conscience we each hold dear as religious leaders in our respective houses of worship, seminaries, religious federations, organizations and other faith-based institutions.

Extending the full, long overdue rights and responsibilities of citizenship to the LGBT community is a pressing moral, social and economic priority. We urge Congress to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 3017, S. 1584) to uphold the American promise of justice and equality for all.

Hiddush, a New Way to Promote Religious Freedom and Diversity in Israel

Let’s celebrate Hiddush, new Jewish advocacy organization, aimed at “promoting religious freedom and diversity” in Israel. Its a public education organization comprised as a partnership between Israeli Jews and world Jewry. And it has a purpose, direction and leadership that makes it destined to move Israel in the direction of religious freedom.
Hiddush, which in Hebrew means innovation and renewal, marks an unprecedented new drive to strengthen Israel as a Jewish and democratic state and to realize the promise of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which states that “The State of Israel… will uphold freedom of religion and conscience and ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion.”
The new organization was launched at a press conference in Tel Aviv, Israel on September 14th, held at the historic building where, on May 14, 1948, Israel’s independence was announced and David Ben Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, read Israel’s Declaration of Independence.
Hiddush is led by Israeli and Jerusalem-based Rabbi Uri Regev, Esq. as its president and CEO (husband to Garri Regev, my former Bar Mitzvah tutor and clarinet teacher), and chaired by prominent Los Angeles-based American businessman and Jewish philanthropic and communal leader Stanley P. Gold. On its Board of Directors are author and activist Amos Oz and Rabbi Henry (Hank) Skirball, former head of NFTY in Israel.
This launch marks the first time that Jewish leaders hailing from the worlds of religion, finance, entertainment, academia, and more have come together from the various Jewish religious streams and secular Judaism and from diverse political views, to promote religious freedom and diversity in Israel.
Once I heard about the creation of Hiddush, its leadership and direction, it took me about 5 seconds to decide to sign up and support it. You should too! Support Hiddush here.

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”