“Saving Lives and Protecting Religious Freedom”

A Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5783

Rabbi Renni S. Altman, DD

Vassar Temple

The news reports of the start of a new Supreme Court term this week may well have triggered feelings of anger, fear, and anxiety in many of us, bringing us back to the announcement of decisions from the last term, most especially Dobbs, the reverberations of which are ongoing.

Today in America, abortion is illegal in thirteen states, some with minimal exceptions.   Some states criminalize traveling to a different state for an abortion, others subject anyone who assists someone getting an abortion to criminal charges, which can be brought by anyone and for which bounty is being offered.

Fourteen states are considered “hostile,” meaning that they are on a path towards prohibition or severe restriction, and three are “not protected” which means abortion is still accessible, though without legal protections.  Twenty of the fifty states do protect abortion:  nine are considered “protected” states, meaning that there are some limitations on access to care, and eleven states, including New York, have expanded access to full reproductive care.[i]

More than 100 bills restricting abortion access were introduced this year; some would establish fetal personhood, while others would ban particular abortion methods, allow medical providers to refuse care, restrict insurance coverage or restrict access to telehealth services for medication abortions.  Some bills await passage, others are being adjudicated in the courts.

At the same time, this summer we witnessed the people of Kansas rejecting a proposed state constitutional amendment that would have made abortion illegal.  Similar ballot measures may be forthcoming in other states; Michigan just included one for this November.

Sara Rosenbaum, a health lawyer and professor of public health at George Washington University, who signed onto a friend-of-the-court brief in Dobbs analyzing “Medicaid’s role as the country’s leading health insurer for millions of vulnerable pregnant women, children, people with disabilities” recently commented, a  year later, that “the harms she and her colleagues laid out — particularly the disparate impact on marginalized people — are already beginning to come to pass. 

“We’ve never lived through anything like this.  We are now living in a world in which if my daughter was a resident of Texas or Oklahoma or Tennessee or Idaho or any of the states with these bans, I would tell her: Do not get pregnant… If she were a physician, I would tell her: Do not practice obstetrics or gynecology. You are suddenly in a world that is impossible to navigate, either as a patient or a physician. We have made the world completely unsafe for people who want to have a baby or who practice in a lot of states.”[ii]

The right to abortion is now dictated by geography and that poses tremendous danger to millions.  According to the Guttmacher Institute, a leading research and policy organization committed to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights worldwide:

“the Dobbs decision has resulted in a chaotic legal patchwork that, as of August 2022, leaves some 22 million US women of reproductive age living under highly restrictive laws more typical of low- and middle-income countries than of high-income countries…

Evidence from countries around the globe suggests that, although restrictive abortion laws in many US states are unlikely to substantially lower the incidence of abortion, they will likely increase the proportion of abortions done under unsafe conditions.”[iii]

With studies showing that one in four American women will have an abortion by age 45, you can do the math to determine just how many women’s lives are at stake (and that may not include all who can get pregnant, meaning those in the LGBTQ population who do not label themselves as women). 

I would imagine that this information is not new to most of you, nor is it the first time many of you have heard me speak about abortion rights.  Yet, on this most holy day of our Jewish year, when we recognize just how precious life is, when we fast and contemplate the very meaning of our existence, I feel compelled to speak to this topic once again because of this most dangerous situation in our country and because it is, for a number of reasons, so very much a Jewish issue, one that demands our on-going concern as well as action.

Our Torah reading this morning, taken from Parshat Nitzavim, near the end of the book of Deuteronomy, includes a covenantal affirmation ceremony with the younger generation of Israelites as they prepare to enter the Promised Land.  In exhorting them to follow the mitzvot, Moses reminds them that ultimately the choice is theirs: “life and death I have set before you, blessing and curse.  Choose life – so that you and children may live, by loving, obeying and staying close to Adonai your God.”[iv]

“Choosing life.”  In the context of reproductive rights, the language around choice to be “pro-life” was most cleverly usurped by the anti-abortion movement when it took form fifty years ago after Roe.  Judaism is very clear that the obligation to choose life in the case of a pregnancy, means choosing the life of the woman over the that of the fetus.  There are circumstances when abortion is not only permitted, but is demanded, because in Judaism life begins at birth and NOT at conception.

We learn this in Exodus, Chapter 21, which describes the case for damages when a pregnant woman miscarries as a result of being pushed. The responsible party must pay damages. If that pregnancy loss would have been considered murder, the penalty would have been life for life.

The Mishnah, codified in 200 CE, clarifies that life begins when the largest part of the fetus emerges in birth. Up until that point, if the mother’s life is in danger, one must abort. As Jewish law develops, opinions vary on situations when abortion is called for: the most stringent legal opinions limit abortion to cases when the mother’s life is physically at risk, while others – even within the Orthodox community – will permit abortion based on the mother’s physical, psychological or emotional wellbeing.  One case in the Talmud required abortion where the woman’s child could only have her breast milk which was not available while she was pregnant.  The principle here is that the pregnancy is to be terminated to save an existing life.  Certainly, within Reform Judaism, which is predicated on the principle of individual autonomy and choice that is informed by tradition and conscience, we support the right of individuals to make this most difficult, personal decision, based on any number of factors that impact their lives and the lives of their families.

In Jewish law, the fetus is considered to be part of the woman and not a separate entity.  That is why when a pregnant person converts to Judaism, the baby born is Jewish.   Rashi, the great biblical and Talmudic commentator of the 12th century, ruled that a fetus has no legal rights.  Even as a fetus is considered a life in development, Judaism rejects current notions of fetal personhood. 

Judaism teaches that human beings are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.  Therefore, all life is sacred and pikuah nefesh, saving a life, is our greatest obligation.   It is that principle that guides us in the debate about reproductive rights.  Today, protecting the lives of pregnant people means ensuring that they receive and have available to them, where they live, complete health and reproductive care, including abortion.  It means that medical personnel must also be able to treat their patients with all tools available to them and to provide their patients with their best medical advice.

The right to abortion is also a matter of justice.  As Jews, we are commanded to pursue justice:  “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof, Justice, Justice shall you pursue,” screams the Torah in Deuteronomy.[v] 

We cannot have a just society when women do not have full autonomy and control over their reproductive decisions, decisions that impact their lives and the lives of their families, when we are not allowed the dignity of being able to make these decisions privately, in consultation with our chosen advisors, without the threat of government interference.

We cannot have a just society where “barriers to health care place any individual’s autonomy, health, economic security, or well-being at risk.”[vi]

The populations hit hardest by current abortion restrictions are those who are already marginalized:  low-income women, who compromise 75% of those who get abortions; black and brown women; young people, 60% of women who get abortions are in their 20s; members of the LGBTQ population; and people with disabilities.  These are among the populations who cannot afford to travel cross country, who don’t have sick days available to them, who need childcare (59% of women seeking abortions already have one child), and who don’t have the financial resources to pay privately for safe reproductive services.[vii] These are the women whose lives are most at risk and the ones who may be forced to bear a child against their will. 

The danger of Dobbs extends past the physical, emotional and economic threats it poses for pregnant people.  Together with other recent Supreme Court decisions, it weakens that most precious wall that separates church and state in this country, the fundamental principle that ensures freedom for people of all faiths – or no faith – not to be bound by the religious beliefs or practices of another faith.  The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” guarantees freedom of religion.  The determination of when life begins is a matter of faith.  My faith teaches me that that life begins at birth and that the life of the pregnant person must take priority.   Laws outlawing or limiting abortion access deny my freedom of religion. 

Jews living in thirteen of the fifty states in this country are currently denied free expression of their religious freedom; they may soon lose that freedom in seventeen others.

But we are not powerless; we can fight for change and protect our rights and religious freedom.   Though we may be a minority, we can join in coalitions with others who support reproductive rights as part of a just society and believe in the preservation of the first amendment.

We can advocate for federal legislation in support of reproductive choice:

As the Women’s Health Protection Act seems out of reach for now, efforts in the Reform movement are focusing on the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance Act (EACH) that would repeal the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal insurance coverage, such as Medicaid, for abortions, with very narrow exceptions, thereby limiting abortion access for poor women.

We need to ensure that the broad protections and access currently in place in New York State remain that way, which is where our vote comes in!  There are efforts underway to pass an Equal Rights Amendment to our State Constitution.  It already passed in the legislature earlier this year but needs to pass another legislative vote before going to the ballot in the November 2024 election.  The ERA would protect New Yorkers from discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, national origin, age, disability, creed, religion and sex, and it will provide explicit protection of reproductive autonomy.

Al ta’mod al dam re’echa, “Don’t stand idly by while your neighbor reads.”[viii]  We will read this commandment from the Holiness Code of Leviticus this afternoon.  While we live in a state with expanded abortion protection and that welcomes and assists people from other states to come here for health care services, it is upon us to assist those who are not so fortunate.  A National Network of Abortion Funds has been established to ensure that patients get the care they need even when they have to travel far from home.  You can find out more about these funds and other opportunities to take action on the Women of Reform Judaism or the Religious Action Center websites.[ix] 

Local planned parenthood clinics are always looking for more escorts to help create a safer experience for their patients, who are coming to the clinic for any number of reasons, who must pass by protestors saying horrible things in an attempt to intimidate and frighten them. 

We must speak out on this issue, otherwise the only voices out in the public square, the only ones getting out the vote and speaking with their representatives, will be Conservative Christians and those who would like to suppress other religious voices.

We have an opportunity literally to be in the public square this coming Saturday, when there will be a Women’s March downtown as part of a National Day of Action, marking a month before the midterm elections.  The march will step off from the corner of Market and Main streets at noon and head to Waryas Park.  Our Civic Engagement committee is organizing a group to march together.   I will be joining them after services and encourage others to add their voices and presence.

In June the Supreme Court opened a door that has the potential to take our nation backwards to half a century ago.   Many states have already followed that path and others are prepared to follow.  Our individual rights, our religious liberties, are under siege.   It is hard to remain optimistic even as bright moments of hope do occasionally appear.  But ours is a people of great hope who despite overwhelming odds even of our very survival, has never given up, has never lost sight of that vision and promise of a better time, a world that is whole and at peace, that is yet to be.  Ours is the task to be God’s partner and take part in bringing that day about, to be relentless in our pursuit of justice.

And we have never given up on our commitment to the ideals of this great nation.  It is a long-standing Jewish practice to pray for the welfare of the country in which we have lived, “for in its prosperity you shall prosper,” taught the prophet Jeremiah.[x] Thus I close with part of the prayer for our country included in our mahzor:

God of holiness, we hear Your message: Justice, justice you shall pursue.  God of freedom, we hear Your charge: Proclaim liberty throughout the land.  Inspire us through Your teachings and commandments to love and uphold our precious democracy.  Let every citizen take responsibility for the rights and freedoms we cherish.  Let each of us be an advocate for justice, an activist for liberty, a defender of dignity.  And let us champion the values that make our nation a haven for the persecuted, a beacon of hope among the nations.

We pray for all who serve our country with selfless devotion – in peace and in war, from fields of battle to clinics and classrooms, from government to the grassroots:  all those whose noble deeds and sacrifice benefit our nation and our world.

We are grateful for the rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness that our founders ascribed to You, our Creator.  We pray for their wisdom and moral strength, that we may be guardians of these rights for ourselves and for the sake of all people, now and forever.[xi]  


[i] https://reproductiverights.org/abortion-trigger-bans-take-effect-in-three-states-tomorrow/

[ii] https://19thnews.org/2022/09/100-days-since-dobbs-decision/

[iii] https://www.guttmacher.org/article/2022/08/undoing-roe-v-wade-leaves-us-global-outlier-abortion

[iv] Deuteronomy 30:19-20

[v] Deuteronomy 16:20

[vi] https://www.ncjw.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Jewish-Values-and-Reproductive-Justice-.pdf 

[vii] https://www.guttmacher.org/united-states/abortion/demographics

[viii] Leviticus 19:16

[ix] www.wrj.org or www.rac.org

[x] Jeremiah 29:7

[xi] Mishkan HaNefesh, Yom Kippur, p. 286


A “Victim-Centered” Approach to Teshuvah

A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5783

Rabbi Renni S. Altman, DD

Vassar Temple

Video technology, such as zoom has had many positive impacts on our lives, including our ability to connect with so many people for these services who might not be able to attend otherwise.  Personally, I am also grateful for this technology for the learning that I have been able to do without leaving my study.  I honestly can’t remember if in the days before COVID my rabbinic organization, the CCAR, offered as many online webinars as it does now.  Especially in the weeks leading up to the Yamim Noraim, hundreds of rabbis took advantage of the opportunities provided to us to learn from and with colleagues and from experts in different fields, exploring various current issues and topics about which we might preach and teach during these holy days.

One such presenter, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, writer and scholar-in-residence at the National Council of Jewish Women, shared some new approaches to thinking about repentance.  She spoke about writing her recently published book, On Repentance and Repair:  Making Amends in an Unapologetic World, in the aftermath of the #Me Too revelations.  After engaging in multiple online discussions on the question of repentance, she decided to immerse herself in the writings of the major Jewish authority on repentance, the 12th century rabbinic scholar Moses Maimonides.  Her book applies that guidance to all kinds of situations –interpersonal relationships, public figures, institutions, even nations.

Maimonides’ steps for repentance include:  taking ownership of the wrongdoing, committing to change, making amends, apologizing and, finally, making different choices so as not to repeat that sin again.  Now, Maimonides’ steps for repentance are probably familiar to many of us. What I found different and really thought provoking in Ruttenberg’s book was the focus that she brought to the victim of the hurt.  For repentance to be effective, it must be victim centered.  All of these steps must be less about what it means for the perpetrator, the harm do-er, and more about the impact upon and needs of the victim.  On the one hand, this seems so obvious, and it probably was to Maimonides, but I fear that that focus is lost to most of us today, that we are not taking the needs of the victim of our hurt into account even as we may take on the steps of repentance.

Certainly, we do not see this in most public apologies – think back to the early days of #MeToo with men like Louis C.K. or Bill O’Reilly, who did not take ownership of their actions or acknowledge the hurt they caused.  Did Cleveland Browns Quarterback Deshaun Watson really take the needs of the women into account in his public statement: “I want to say that I am truly sorry to all of the women that I have impacted in this situation.”

It is not uncommon for some Jews, while sincerely trying to follow the obligations of Yom Kippur, to go up to people they know with the following apology: “If I’ve done anything to hurt you in this past year, I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”  Good intentions may be there, but without taking responsibility for their actions or having even an awareness of anything specific they’ve done, it is hardly a step in the process of repentance.

Then, of course there is the “I’m sorry if you were offended” in which the perpetrator takes no responsibility for their actions and, in fact, blames the victim for their hurt feelings.

So what does it actually mean to be “victim centered” in our repentance?

First, we do have to do the internal, personal work of acknowledging and owning what we have done wrong and committing to changing our behavior.  To be done seriously and meaningfully, these processes take reflection and time.

Only after we have done these initial steps in repentance, can we turn to that which ought to involve the one we have harmed:  making amends.

A key teaching on repentance is from the Mishnah, from 2000 years ago: “For sins between one person and another, the observance of Yom Kippur does not affect atonement until one has first appeased the person harmed.”[i]  Maimonides expands on this basic principle: “For instance, [if] one injures another, or curses them or plunders them, or offends them in like matters, [it] is ever not absolved unless they make restitution of what is owed and beg the forgiveness of the other.”[ii] Furthermore, he taught, that if one injures another physically, one “must pay damages on five fronts:  for the injury itself, the pain suffered, the medical costs, the time away from work, and the humiliation.”[iii] One can extrapolate from this premise to all kinds of situations and the different levels of restitution that ought to be made today.

Ultimately, proper restitution must be determined in consultation with the victim of the harm.  What does she need?  What does he require to feel whole?  As Ruttenberg points out, “the focus is the mental and emotional needs of the victim, not the boxes that a perpetrator needs to check in order to be let off the hook.”[iv]

Having realized and taken responsibility for our actions, we may be so anxious to absolve ourselves of our guilt that we lose sight of the needs of the victim, even of his or her readiness to speak with us about the hurt.

While I am not a fan of public apologies offered by public figures, I was curious to see Will Smith’s apology about slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars that was posted online this summer.  He took a few months to process the events before he made this public statement.  In his statement, he did recognize that Rock is not ready to speak with him yet and offered to do so whenever Rock is ready.  I would hope that when and if they do speak, they will reach an understanding regarding steps that Smith can take to make amends.

Smith also apologized to other people who were hurt by his actions, including Rock’s family and other nominees.  When we hurt someone, those who witness that event are also victims; and, we never know when our actions could also trigger something deeper in a witness, bringing up a previous injury.  That is why in some cases, public apologies, especially for a public act, are appropriate (and Maimonides actually encourages public confessions) as long as they do not replace the personal apology and other work of repentance.

“Deciding the correct course of action must always hold the twin poles:” writes Ruttenberg, “the desire to be fully accountable and care and concern for the needs of the victim.  Certainly, we all, when we mess up, want to feel forgiven and absolved.  But real repentance demands that we concentrate not on our own emotional gratification but rather on repairing, to the best of our abilities, the hole in the cosmos that we have created.”[v]

It is only once we have done the initial steps of repentance:  accepted responsibility for our actions, made a commitment to change, and appeased the person we have wronged, that we reach the appropriate moment to apologize.    Without doing that hard work, we cannot really understand the impact of our actions on the victim and repair that hurt.

“.. a true apology must be an interaction that honors the full humanity of the other; it is not transactional”, teaches Ruttenberg.  “There’s a difference between saying you’re sorry because you realize that a thing you did had a bad consequence, and doing so because you really understand that you hurt someone – and that person’s feelings, experience of the world, safety, and self all matter profoundly.

A true apology is about trying to see the human being in front of you, to connect with them and communicate to them, to make it clear – abundantly, absolutely, profoundly clear – that you get it now, and that their feeling better matters to you.  Your apology is a manifestation of genuine remorse.  It demands vulnerability, and it is a natural by-product of all the work of repentance and transformation that you’ve been doing up until this point.”[vi]

That sounds like a pretty tall order.  And with so many bad apologies out there, it can feel pretty overwhelming to figure out how to apologize correctly, remembering that the focus should be “on what the victim receives rather than what the perpetrator puts out.”[vii]

After enduring too many ineffective and even insulting apologies over the years, two Jewish educators, Lauren Cohen Fisher and Andrea Hoffman, decided it was time to find a better way.  They took a deep dive into studying Jewish teachings about apologies and overlaid a business model from the 1980s called “SMART” goals, designed to help ground aspirations in reality.[viii]  Note how this model centers on the victim of the hurt:

S – be Specific.  An effective apology must address the action that was hurtful.  “I’m sorry for what happened” doesn’t indicate ownership of behavior or awareness of it.  “I’m sorry I insulted you” does.   If you’re not sure what you did, take the time to ask the person.

M – empathize.  A sincere apology shows empathy for the victim of the harm that we’ve caused.  “I can see where that must have really made you feel lousy.”

A – accountability.  Our words must demonstrate that we are responsible for hurting the person, not that we’re sorry that they are hurt or upset.  This is where the “I” comes in.

R – reflective. We must take the time to be reflective before we apologize so that we actually address the issues of the hurt and commit ourselves to acting differently.

T – true.  Not only do our words have to be sincere, but we have to demonstrate that sincerity through our actions going forward by changing our behavior.

Hopefully, when one follows a SMART apology model and undergoes a process of repentance that is truly victim centered, their apology will be accepted, and they will be forgiven.  While a victim-centered approach also includes never pressuring someone to accept an apology, Ruttenberg does encourage the victim to be open to the sincere penitent:  “Just as we ask the perpetrator to actually see the hurt person in front of them, we could also ask the victim to try to recognize the hard, sincere repentance work that has been done, and to allow it to mean enough to settle accounts.  To see the full human being standing there, a sincere penitent.”[ix]

In the case where someone does not accept an apology, Maimonides teaches that the penitent should return with three friends to ask for pardon again.  If the person still refuses, they should return with those friends up to two more times.  Maimonides doesn’t indicate the reason for the friends.  On the one hand, they will serve as witnesses to the person’s apology.  Ruttenberg points out that as friends, they can offer the person the support that can be of help when making oneself so vulnerable.  They can also give feedback as to the person’s apology, how it might have been heard and suggest steps for improvement.

Sometimes this process does lead to a full reconciliation; in other cases, that’s not possible.  Indeed, there are some sins that may never be pardonable because they cause irreparable harm.  The Talmud offers examples such as slander, because one doesn’t know all the people who heard the remarks; or, a merchant who defrauds with weights and measures, because they can never know all of the people who they cheated to make amends.  We can certainly extrapolate to contemporary situations, especially on social media, where it may be impossible to do full teshuvah.

There may be another approach as well.  One of the Hebrew words for forgiveness is mechilah; it literally means to pardon or to remit a debt.  In a case where full reconciliation isn’t possible, where the hurt party is not willing or able to go back to the way things were before the hurt, they may be able offer mechilah, pardon to the sincere penitent and agree to put the event in the past so that both parties can now move forward with their lives.  Sometimes, that is the best we can do or hope for.

The steps of teshuvah, when done sincerely and with the needs of the person we’ve hurt utmost in our minds, are certainly not easy, but they are possible and can lead to healing for all parties. 

We can start to learn this path, even at a young age.  We teach it to the children in our synagogue.  One of the songs that has become very popular for young children tries to convey a message about sincere repentance.   Since it is sung by a group of children, it doesn’t get into apologizing for specific sins – hopefully, that follows in conversation with parents and siblings afterwards!

It is sung to the melody of Avinu Malkeinu:

I’m sorry for what I did wrong,

I’m sorry for what I did wrong.

I’ll try to be better, no matter whatever

I’m sorry for what I did wrong.

I’ll try, I’ll try to be,

The best that I can be.

I’ll try, I’ll try, to do what is right

And be the best that I can be.

I’m sorry for what I did wrong;

I’m sorry for what I did wrong;

I’ll try to be caring, more loving and sharing,

Forgive me for what I did wrong!

I’ll try, I’ll try to be,

The best that I can be,

I’ll try, I’ll try with all of my might

To do what I know is right.

I’m sorry for what I did wrong…

If we start with the premise of this simple children’s song and then move into SMART apologies, we will go a long way in bringing healing to our relationships and repairing holes we may have created in the cosmos.  May we have the strength, courage and wisdom to do so.

[i] Mishnah Yoma 8:9

[ii] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance 2:9, as translated by Danya Ruttenberg 

[iii] Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Personal or property injury 1:1 as translated by Danya Ruttenberg

[iv] Danya Ruttenberg, On Repentance and Repair:  Making Amends in an Unapologetic World, p. 41

[v] Ibid., p. 68

[vi] Ibid., p. 174 

[vii] Ibid., p. 41

[viii] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-year-of-better

[ix] Ruttenberg, p. 179

President Lisa-Sue Quackenbush’s RH Address, 2022

President’s Rosh Hashanah Address 2022

In the September Bulletin, I wrote about being present. I was referring to being mindful, focussed, and in the moment. This is one definition of being present and certainly an important one, especially during these High Holy Days. Introspection, mindfulness and truly sitting within yourself helps you really avail yourself to the liturgy and meaningfulness of the Holidays. And while I believe this to be an essential process to experience these Days of Awe, I also believe that being present can have another meaning.

Being present can include actively engaging, embracing and availing yourself to connect to what’s around you. In many ways, you are already present. You are here (either in the Sanctuary or via Zoom). You have paid your yearly dues. And while we are incredibly happy and appreciative to see you physically in our midst and to receive your very necessary, monetary support, is that enough for you? Is that enough for us?

Please do not misunderstand my intentions here. My appreciation of your support of Vassar Temple is truly heartfelt and sincere. My question for you is this, are the membership dues that you pay worth simply receiving the monthly Bulletin and attending a couple services a year? Could you be getting more bang for your buck? I think so. And while monetary support is what pays the bills, it’s not the only thing that makes a Congregation. I send my payments and donations in because it’s necessary and certainty commits me financially. I serve this Congregation because it fills my heart and soul and connects me to people. Ultimately people are what make this the warm and engaging Congregation that Vassar Temple is known for. I believe that you get back what you put in and more at Vassar Temple. It is my honor and pleasure to give you some examples that can help you “stretch” and become more present, engaged and connected at Vassar Temple.

Let me start off by inviting you to join (if you are not already a member) our very active and dedicated Brotherhood and Sisterhood. The contributions of these groups to so many aspects of Temple Life cannot be overstated. We truly could not function without their diverse, physical and long-time financial support. We welcome your membership and participation in these essential auxiliaries.

As far as committees go, let’s first look at the physicality of our Temple. As any homeowner knows, no matter how much future planning is involved, there are always projects and surprises that pop up and must be addressed. We have a House Committee that assesses this building on a regular basis for safety needs, maintenance and upkeep. We have a Technology Committee that ensures we can have both in person. remote, and hybrid Services, meetings and educational experiences that reach as many congregants as possible. We have a Security Committee and a separate Health and Safety Committee. Both of these committees strive to always be at least one step ahead, in mitigating congregation and community safety and health concerns for our Congregants. We have a Robust Cemetery Committee that is in the process of updating and clarifying our policies as well as ensuring the upkeep of the final resting place of our Congregants, in our cemeteries.

We have both vibrant Ritual and Music Committees who are tasked with making our multitude of Services varied, joyful, spiritual, and continue to meet the changing needs and wants of our Congregation. We have very active Adult Education and Religious School Committees who work hard at stimulating both the younger and older minds, and developing and bringing in topical and interesting programs for this community.

We have a warm and wonderful Reyut Committee who reach out into the Congregation when anyone might have a need. They bring food to the homebound and offer rides for people to various appointments.

It’s not surprising that We have a multitude of Committees dealing with Finances at our Temple. This is such challenging work. We have a General Finance Committee, Fundraising Committee, Endowment Committee, Investment Committee, and Scrip. These committees are made up of great collaborative and financially conscious people who find a multitude of ways to not only maintain, but to grow our money and investments at Vassar Temple.

We have incredibly energetic Social Action and Civic Engagement Committees that not only boost up and support our local communities with multiple and varied food drives, and donations of health and safety supplies for the homeless, but support our society as a whole with programs like Reclaim Our Vote and collections for various global disasters, which unfortunately happen way too often.

We have hard working and dedicated Membership and Outreach Committees that are always making new connections and working to expand and invite families to join our growing and diverse Congregation.

We have had a Refugee Resettlement Committee that has helped a few families over the years acclimate to their new lives in America, most recently working with HIAS and MHIA to resettle an Afghan family.

We will soon be assembling a House Green Committee that will assist Vassar Temple in participating in productive and concrete ways so that we can make a smaller carbon footprint in this community and the world. We will also be assembling a 175th Anniversary Year Committee to begin orchestrating and planning all the ways we will celebrate Vassar Temple’s 175th year (which is next year).

We have a Publicity Committee that gets the word out there to local publications and Social Media to keep people engaged and informed as to who we are and what we do as a Congregation. We have a Nominating Committee that looks into our Congregation every year to entice and invite members to become leaders in governance of our Temple.

This Congregation has quite a few, very active leaders, whom I deeply respect and enjoy working with side-by-side. And while the focused work and value of their efforts cannot be denied, don’t be fooled by what you see. They are not exclusively running the Temple. Committees are working relentlessly on pivoting and tweaking goals and ways to achieve them as our society and community seems to continually change. In the same way that there is a driver (our leaders) steering the car. The car does not go anywhere if all systems (active committees) are not primed, in place and working to full capacity.

I have just named over 25 active and necessary committees at Vassar Temple. I’m sure I will hear from those I inadvertently left out. I’m sorry if I missed you in this very expansive list. I’m hoping that I have enlightened you to the many ways in which you can be present, engaged, and connected. If there is a relevant committee that you can think of that we don’t have, please let me know. We will initiate one. Some of these committees are large. Some are small. Most committees meet once every month or two. Some meet more often. Some meet less. Many committees meet via Zoom. Some meet in person and some are hybrid. All committees welcome new members. Committees should represent our membership. That only happens if you join. What committee speaks to you? Where do your strengths and interests lie? How can we help you get more bang for your buck at Vassar Temple? Most importantly, how can we assist you in becoming more engaged, connected and present in Temple life? In the coming days and weeks, please reach out to me, any member of the Board or the Office and ask questions. Attend a Committee meeting or two. See what works and feels right for you.

I can tell you, from personal experience, that I have gotten to know so many members just by serving and working side-by-side on various committees over the years. Friendships and special bonds are formed from working on common interests and goals. There is truly a camaraderie and family feeling here when it comes to Vassar Temple. Working alongside one another for a common cause enhances the feeling of belonging to something bigger than ourselves and empowers us to feel useful, connected and truly being engaged in the future of Vassar Temple.

Merriam- Webster defines the word Committee as: a body of persons delegated to consider, investigate, take action on, or report in some manner. I would offer my own take on this by saying that it is a group of individuals coming together in collaboration for a common goal. I am a firm believer in both of the sayings; “Many hands make light work.” and “We only reap what we sow.” In this year 5783, may we join hands and minds and come together and work towards a common goal. May we work together to plant the seeds of our future here at Vassar Temple. I look forward to collaborating alongside you in making the commitment to be just a little more engaged, connected and present in Temple life. I am certain that like myself, you’ll be glad you did.
L’Shanah Tovah.

Lisa-Sue Quackenbush
Vassar Temple


What Angell Will Stay our Hands? Renni S. Altman, DD, Rosh Hashanah morning

“What Angel Will Stay Our Hands?”
A Sermon for Rosh HaShanah Morning 5783
Rabbi Renni S. Altman, DD
Vassar Temple
Every year I cringe as we approach the Torah reading on Rosh Hashanah. I hope that young children aren’t present. How can you begin to explain to a child that on one of our holiest days of the year we read this most perplexing story of a father’s near sacrifice of his son?
Yet we are not unique.
In the Greek tragedy, Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to appease a goddess and be granted favorable winds to sail against Troy.
In Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus kills his daughter, Lavinia, after she has been raped and maimed by attackers to preserve the family honor.
And child sacrifice is not just part of literature, it was part of ancient cultures:
The Aztecs and Mayans sacrificed both children and adults to their gods. Exposing an unwanted child to the elements or wild animals was a common practice throughout the Greco-Roman world. The Carthaginians of North Africa sacrificed their infants and children to pagan gods over a period of several centuries.
Even in ancient Israel there were kings who adopted the cultic practices of the Canaanites and “consigned [their] sons to the fire in the Valley of Ben-hinnom.”
So, at the time of the writing of the Akedah, its message that the God of Israel did not want child sacrifice had real, lifesaving, meaning. This story was central in setting Israel apart from child sacrificing nations, emphasizing that ours is a unique and loving God who demands that we act ethically in our treatment of one another, especially our children.
By the time our liturgical practices developed, however, child sacrifice had become a rare phenomenon. Still, this story has maintained its place as a high moment in our Rosh Hashanah service. And it is not only the Torah reading, but the shofar, the most unique and prominent aspect of Rosh Hashanah, that takes us back to that moment. The rabbis taught that in sounding the shofar, we remind God of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son and as Abraham’s descendants, we are worthy of God’s mercy and forgiveness.
Need we be reminded annually that our God would put a person through such a test, even to teach this most powerful, lifesaving lesson?
Need we remember year after year, this darkest moment in the life of Abraham? This man who so boldly dared to challenge God, the Judge of all the world, to deal justly with the innocent of Sodom and Gemorrah, yet remains silent when God tells him to bring his son, his only son, the one he loves, Isaac, up to the mountain as an offering? What about Isaac and justice for innocent Isaac? Where is the plea for your own son, Abraham?
Throughout the ages, we Jews have wrestled with this story. Did Abraham pass the test? What exactly was the test? Was it that he was so willing to sacrifice his son, or did he really believe that God wouldn’t let him go that far?
So intent was Abraham on his mission that the angel had to call his name twice, “Avraham, Avraham” — to get him to stop!
For centuries, Jews have been reading this story on Rosh Hashanah. Even our reform movement, with all its creativity and changes, wouldn’t omit it. The traditional practice is to read Genesis 21 about the birth of Isaac and the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael on the first day and the Akedah on the second – both challenging stories! When Reform Judaism omitted second day observances, the one Torah reading chosen was the Akedah, I’m guessing in large part, because of its connection to the ram and the shofar.
The Gates of Repentance offered an alternative reading: the story of creation, since this is the birthday of the world. Most likely, it was included for the growing number of congregations observing a second day and not as a replacement for the Akedah.
It wasn’t until Mishkan Hanefesh that the traditional first and second day readings, Genesis 21 and 22, are both included. Two alternative readings are at the back of the mahzor: the story of creation and the passage where Abraham challenges God about Sodom and Gemorrah.
It is hard to imagine a Reform congregation, even those observing two days, where the Binding of Isaac, is not being read today. So ingrained is it in our Rosh Hashanah experience that it wouldn’t feel like the holiday without it.
Here we are again, poised to read this horrific tale. I must confess, I came close to being renegade and suggesting that we read an alternative passage. Then, I heard the voice of that angel crying out to me. She is crying out to all of us: stop sacrificing your children! Yes, today, in the 21st century, we are sacrificing our children and it is not to appease any gods or for some supposedly noble cause, but for completely selfish reasons.
When an 18-year-old can legally acquire a weapon of war and murder 19 children and two teachers, when firearms continue to be the leading cause of death for American children and teens , hen this great nation cannot find its way to end gun violence, can we honestly say that we are not sacrificing our children?
Judaism teaches that Adam was created alone, to teach that if you take a life, it is as if you have destroyed an entire world, and if you save one life, it is as if you have saved an entire world.
Nineteen children, gone in a matter of seconds; nineteen worlds, erased.
The news accounts of the children returning to school in Uvalde, TX earlier this month were simply heartbreaking. Nineteen children did not return to school. Nineteen families sent one less child to school this year. Two teachers are forever missing from their classrooms. Some children are being home schooled; others are going to new schools. Their school has been torn down. Children are traumatized and fearful of going back to school; they don’t have faith that the additional police can protect them. Imagine their parents’ fear. An entire town has been forever changed.
After ten years of unfulfilled promises of gun safety legislation following the Sandy Hook shooting, it took Uvalde for Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, whose state that carried those 26 deaths for the past ten years, to be able to bring together senators from both sides of the aisle who could overcome partisanship and agree upon the first major gun safety legislation in decades. While not banning any weapons, it is an important first step towards sensible gun control.
Personally, I am grateful for New York’s strong gun safety laws and the prohibition against carrying guns in sensitive places such as this synagogue. We are taking appropriate safety precautions and leaving weapons in the hands of those most trained to use them.
If we are to save and not sacrifice our children’s lives, these legislative protections must not be the last. Creative minds can certainly find ways to protect life within the legitimate parameters of the second amendment.
On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the birthday of the world. In the biblical account of creation, Adam and Eve were put in charge, given free reign, though tasked with the responsibility to “work and protect” the Garden. A midrash envisions God warning them, “See my works, how fine and excellent they are! All that I have created I have created for you. Think upon this and do not corrupt and desolate My world; for if you corrupt it, there is no one else to set it right after you.”
Look at our world today: increasing land and ocean temperatures, rising sea levels, ice loss at the poles and in mountain glaciers, increasing frequency of extreme weather conditions such as hurricanes, heat waves, droughts, floods and wildfires — so much of it the result of human activity, especially the burning of fossil fuels.
We are failing in our roles as stewards of this world. The world’s children are dying – in fires and hurricanes, from cancer caused by pollutants, from hunger and malnutrition due to food insecurity brought on by climate change.
We are sacrificing our children on the altar of our unquenchable thirst for the world’s resources, our inability to put future generations’ needs ahead of our own, the polarizing partisanship that precludes compromise, stagnation that inhibits the possibilities of new approaches and innovative solutions.
If we cannot find ways to slow the increasing temperature, we will be desolating our world, leaving an inhospitable environment for future generations. The recent climate legislation included in the Inflation Reduction Act is a first step upon which we must continue to build if our children and our children’s children will have a healthy world in which to live.
Gun violence, climate change – these are but two of the many challenges we are facing in our society for which our children are suffering. We can all name more. What angel will stay our hand?
When protesting against the Vietnam war, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, said “in a free society, some are guilty and all are responsible.” The responsibility for our children is upon all of us. Judaism commands us to save life; pikuach nefesh overrides all.
Yet, it feels so overwhelming. What difference can we make?

Ruth Messenger, a great Jewish social activist and immediate past President of the American Jewish World Service, challenged attendees at a Reform Movement biennial convention some years ago on just this issue:
“We have to confront…the feeling that we are too insignificant to do this work,” she said.
“We feel overwhelmed by the statistical realities or the political challenges, but we do not have that luxury. We cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed. We bemoan the lack of leaders for our time, but…we are those leaders. We have that power. We need to believe more in ourselves.”
I remind you as well of a much older teaching, from R. Tarfon, who lived through the destruction of the Second Temple: “It is not upon you to complete the task, neither are you free to desist from it.”

Every step we take, even the small ones, makes a difference. With every action, we lower that knife from the necks of our children.

And when it feels too overwhelming and we lose sight of the big picture, remember the starfish. A man walking on the beach, sees piles of starfish washed up on shore. In the distance, he says a woman bending down and straightening up, bending down and straightening up. When the man reaches her, he sees that she is picking up a starfish and casting it back into the ocean. “What are you doing?” asks the man. “There must be thousands of starfish along this beach. You cannot possibly save them all. What difference can you make?” The woman looked at the man, bent down, picked up another starfish, threw it back into the ocean and said, “Made a difference to that one!”

We do not have to complete the task, neither are we free to desist from it.
If you save a life, you save a whole world.
In a society, some are guilty, all are responsible.
We cannot afford the luxury of being overwhelmed.

We are responsible to stop the sacrifice of our children.
We can begin personally, making changes in our own lives: limiting our use of fossil fuels,
supporting solar farms even if we cannot have solar power ourselves.

We can get involved in community efforts and support organizations that help the causes we care about.

Through the efforts of our social action committee, we offer so many ways to make a difference in the lives of those within our own Poughkeepsie community who are struggling:
You can make food for lunch box or the homeless shelter
You can provide school supplies and winter clothes for children at Morse School, or volunteer there as some of our congregants do
When you shop, buy some items for the can jam to go to the food pantry
You can be an escort at Planned Parenthood,
You can be part of a building-level green team being formed here to assess and improve our sustainability.
These are just some of the efforts in which this congregation is engaged to help save lives.

Perhaps the most important, far reaching and long-lasting tool that we have to protect our children is that of our vote. Our democracy gives us the great gift of voting, the opportunity to participate in the election of representatives who will be our voice – on the local, county, state, and federal levels. We can counter the frightening rise of those that would limit what teachers can teach and what books children can read, by voting in school board elections. This year we can vote to protect our environment by supporting the Environmental Bond Act. Remember, our voices matter not only on election day, but at all times to convey our concerns to our representatives.

I invite you to join with our Civic Engagement Committee and participate in our Reform Movement’s, Every Voice, Every Vote Campaign, to help increase voter turnout. We are partnering with the non-partisan Common Ground for the Common Good and sending postcards to people in other states who may be in danger of being dropped from the rolls, encouraging them to register and vote.

So, did Abraham pass the test? In the end, Isaac is not sacrificed. The ram that suddenly appeared is offered in his place. But God never speaks to Abraham again. And Abraham walks down the mountain – alone. He never sees or speaks to Isaac again.
Will we pass the test of protecting our children? This is the challenge articulated in the moving words of the poet Amanda Gordon, written the morning after the Uvalde shooting:

“Hymn for the Hurting”
Everything hurts,
Our hearts shadowed and strange,
Minds made muddied and mute.
We carry tragedy, terrifying and true.
And yet none of it is new;
We knew it as home,
As horror,
As heritage.
Even our children
Cannot be children,
Cannot be.
Everything hurts.
It’s a hard time to be alive,
And even harder to stay that way.
We’re burdened to live out these days,
While at the same time, blessed to outlive them.
This alarm is how we know
We must be altered —
That we must differ or die,
That we must triumph or try.
Thus while hate cannot be terminated,
It can be transformed
Into a love that lets us live.
May we not just grieve, but give:
May we not just ache, but act;
May our signed right to bear arms
Never blind our sight from shared harm;
May we choose our children over chaos.
May another innocent never be lost.
Maybe everything hurts,
Our hearts shadowed & strange.
But only when everything hurts
May everything change.
May 5783 be a time of such change. Strengthen us, O God, in our resolve to act so as to protect and cherish our children and the generations to come.

Seeing New Possibilities, Renni S. Altman, DD

“Seeing New Possibilities”
A Sermon for Erev Rosh HaShanah 5783
Rabbi Renni S. Altman, DD
Vassar Temple

How many of you have seen images from the James Webb Space telescope? Pretty awesome, right? I have to admit, astronomy is not my thing. I actually dropped Intro to Astronomy with Carl Sagan in college because I just couldn’t follow what he was saying. Those images, though, are simply mind boggling.

When they were first revealed this summer, President Biden captured our amazement at what NASA described as our deepest view into our universe’s past, when he said “We can see possibilities no one has ever seen before.”

Seeing possibilities. This really is the essence of these Yamim Noraim. We set aside these days annually to search within ourselves, striving to see possibilities we may have never seen before. Judaism begins the New Year with ten days of repentance precisely because we believe in the possibility of change. The past – things that happened to us or things we did – does not have to determine our future. We have the opportunity to write that ourselves, to choose how we will live.

Among the opening reflections in our mahzor is a teaching by Rabbi Laura Geller that underscores this fundamental principle of our faith:

“Your Book of Life doesn’t begin today, on Rosh HaShanah. It began when you were born. Some of the chapters were written by other people: your parents, siblings, and teachers. Parts of your book were crafted out of experiences you had because of other people’s decisions: where you lived, what schools you went to, what your homes were like. But the message of Rosh HaShanah, the anniversary of the creation of the world, is that everything can be made new again, that much of your book is written every day by the choices you make. The book is not written and sealed; you get to edit it, decide what parts you want to leave behind. Shanah tovah means both a good year, and a good change. Today you can change the rest of your life. It is never too late.”

The notion of choice, so fundamental in Judaism, is very empowering. It is the guiding principle of the work of psychologist, Dr. Edith Eva Eger. Her inspiring memoir, The Choice: Embrace the Possible, describes her incredible life story: a native of Hungary, she was 16 when she and her family were sent to Auschwitz. She and her sister survived; her parents perished. Today, in her 90s, Eger still maintains her psychology practice, lectures and serves as a consultant for the US Army and Navy in resiliency training and the treatment of PTSD. Her memoir interweaves with the stories of her patients her own life journey, the challenges she faced, and how she ultimately found healing from her traumatic past, eventually confronting her deepest pain by returning to Auschwitz. She empowers her patients to choose to break free from the experiences and thought processes that have imprisoned them and to embrace true freedom by opening their hearts to see the possible.

For many years Eger couldn’t bear to talk about Auschwitz, she didn’t even want her children to know that she was there and would get angry at her husband if he mentioned it. She struggled with flashbacks and survivor’s guilt. Then someone gave her Victor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. A key teaching in his book about how he survived the camps struck her deeply: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” “Each moment is a choice,” writes Eger. “No matter how frustrating or boring or constraining or painful or oppressive our experience, we can always choose how we respond. And I finally begin to understand that I, too, have choice. This realization will change my life.

The recognition that we have the power to choose how we respond to the experiences of our lives, while certainly powerful for those who have suffered trauma, is not limited to such dramatic situations. It is a lesson for anyone who has faced challenges, anyone who has wrestled with disappointments or experienced failure, anyone who has made mistakes – and that means all of us.

“We can’t choose to vanish the dark,” teaches Eger, “but we can choose to kindle the light.” We can choose to take a different path, to embrace new possibilities, but that will take effort and commitment on our part. As we all know, change isn’t easy. Our old prayer book for Selichot had a reading I appreciated as it expressed well the challenge of change:

“Now is the time for turning. The leaves are beginning to turn from green to red and orange and yellow. The birds are beginning to turn towards the South in their annual migration. The animals are beginning to turn to store their food for the winter. For leaves, birds and animals turning comes instinctively. But for us turning does not come so easily. It takes an act of will for us to turn. It means breaking with old habits. It means admitting that we have been wrong, and this is never easy. It means starting all over again, and this is always painful. It means saying, “I am sorry.” It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. These things are terribly hard to do. But unless we turn, we will be trapped for ever in yesterday’s ways.

These are the steps of Teshuva, of repentance, that our tradition lies out for us.

Eger offers her readers and patients a similar process. We can only change, we can only embrace the possible she writes “when we choose to take responsibility, when we choose to take risks, and finally, when we choose to release the wound, to let of the past or the grief.”

We can begin to change when we take responsibility for our actions and recognize that we have a part in maintaining unhealthy patterns, that which keep us stuck in old ways, in fear, in anger. While it may be that others are responsible as well, if we absolve ourselves and only blame others or circumstances, then we give up the essential control of our lives that is necessary to become the person we want to be, the person we can be.

We will begin to change when we choose to take risks and dare to go down a different path. That means breaking out of old habits, leaving behind that which, while harmful, is familiar and, ironically, feels safe, to try something new. Certainly, it will be uncomfortable at first and it is to be unexpected that there may well be steps backwards, but if we persevere, we will be better for it in the long run.

Finally, embracing the possible requires letting go of the past, of the hurt, of the anger, of the grief. Where appropriate, it means forgiveness. In some cases, there is no possibility of or warrant for forgiveness; then there can only be an acceptance of what was and a separation from, a leaving behind, that can free us to move forward.

All too often, it is hardest to forgive ourselves. In so many of the patient stories that Eger shared in her book, people carried tremendous guilt for things for which they blamed themselves that were not at all in their control: the parents who couldn’t have prevented their son’s suicide, the woman who could not have fought back against the family friend who raped her as a child. It was only when, with Eger’s guidance, they were able to forgive themselves, for something that wasn’t their fault, that they were finally able to take important steps towards healing and change.

Speaking to an army unit that had just returned from combat in Afghanistan, a unit with a high suicide rate, Eger shared the importance of forgiving oneself: “to run away from the past or to fight against our present pain is to imprison ourselves. “Freedom is in accepting what is and forgiving ourselves, in opening our hearts to discover the miracles that exist now.”

For most of us, I would imagine, it is the ability to forgive ourselves for things that we have done wrong that is the challenge. Forgiving ourselves is an essential step in the process of teshuvah, of making amends with others for ways that we have hurt them. It is also essential if we are to learn from those mistakes and change in the future.

Dr. Maya Angelou paints a powerful picture of the impact that unforgiven mistakes can have on us: “I don’t know if I continue, even today, always liking myself. But what I learned to do many years ago was to forgive myself. It is very important for every human being to forgive herself or himself because if you live, you will make mistakes. It is inevitable. But once you do and you see the mistake, then you forgive yourself and say, “Well, if I’d known better I’d have done better,” that’s all. So you say to yourself, “I’m sorry.”

If we all hold onto the mistake, we can’t see our own glory in the mirror because we have the mistake between our faces and the mirror. We can’t see what we’re capable of being. You can ask forgiveness of others, but in the end the real forgiveness is in one’s own self.”

On Rosh Hashanah, we strive to see what we are capable of being, to see beyond the mistakes, beyond the pain, trauma, and disappointment, to “see possibilities we have never seen before.” We get to decide what parts of our Book of Life we want to carry forward and what we want to write anew, what we want to transform with a Shanah Tovah, a good change.

On Rosh Hashanah, we say Hayom Harat HaOlam – this is the world’s birthday. A colleague pointed out recently that this expression translates literally as “today, the world is pregnant.”
This is an instance where the literal translation is preferable to the idiomatic as it captures the Jewish attitude towards each new year:

It is pregnant with possibilities: the possibility of new beginnings, of starting over, of being different, of returning to who we really are and want to be. We believe in the possibility of change — in ourselves, in others, in our world.

May we be blessed with the strength, wisdom and open heartedness to discover new possibilities in this new year.

L’shanah tovah tikateivu – may you be written in the Book of Life for a good change this year.

“In response to the Leaked Opinion” A Sermon by Rabbi Renni S. Altman

Wednesday night, I participated in an emergency call with the National Conference of Jewish Women (NCJW), organized in response to the leaked Supreme Court draft opinion.  The woman running the call first asked people to write in chat words to describe how they were feeling: outrage, anger, hopelessness, despair, fear.  (I asked people to share their feelings in the chat and in the congregation.)

The leaking of the document in and of itself is, of course, quite troubling as it is highly destructive to the integrity of the Court and its processes.

The decision itself is of great concern:

1.  it points to the increasing politicization and partisan nature of the Court;

2.  it undermines our faith in the Court and its commitment to preserving stated law, especially for that which has been in place for half a century – a principle also affirmed in the confirmation hearings of the most recently appointed justices; and

3.  there is real fear that stated law for other protections affirmed under right to privacy – the right to contraception, same-sex marriage – even interracial marriage – may also be overturned.

It is not hard to imagine states where conservative majorities gaining hold in legislatures –

states enacting laws curtailing rights of the transgender, would take the next step to reverse the right for same sex marriage.

It is no longer inconceivable in states where the influence of groups supporting white supremacist philosophy are gaining strength could reach the point of banning interracial marriage.

Did we think we would see book banning in public schools, limitations on what teachers could teach?  I call your attention to the upcoming Board of Education elections on May 17th where individuals supporting these efforts are running for positions.

These are all very real causes for concern and action.

But my attention tonight is on the essence of this potential decision, a subject which I know I have addressed a number of times before but current circumstances demand that it be addressed once again:  the implications of overturning Roe V. Wade for the rights of people who able to get pregnant (in addition to women, we must also include transgender and non-binary people), to control their own bodies; to have access to full, safe health care; to make one of the most painful, personal decisions of their lives in private, in consultation with loved ones, their medical practitioners, with those whom they choose for guidance  – without fear of government interference or retribution. 

While abortion is still legal and a constitutional right, if this draft opinion becomes a reality in a few months

  • 26 states could swiftly move to ban abortion–including 13 states with laws that could immediately go into effect. That means in half the country, people would no longer have power over their own bodies and their own lives.
  • 36 million people — nearly half of the women of reproductive age (18-49) in the United States — plus people who can become pregnant, could soon lose abortion access.
  • 58% of women 13–44 live in a state hostile or extremely hostile to abortion rights.
  • 24% of people who can get pregnant in the US will have an abortion by age 45. *

In addition to the violation of the right to health care and choice over one’s body, overturning Roe v. Wade is also a violation of religious freedom as the government is imposing one religion’s belief over all others, including those that disagree with it.  It is a violation of my religious freedom because Judaism not only supports the right to abortion, at times it demands it. 

Judaism is very clear that life begins at birth, not at conception.  Our sacred texts, beginning with Torah, through Mishnah and Talmud and medieval codes, rule that until birth, the mother’s life and health must take precedence over that of the fetus.  Though a potential life, the fetus is not a living being, it has no rights, nor is it considered as something separate and apart from the woman.  Thus, when a pregnant woman converts to Judaism, the baby born is Jewish.  Certainly, differences arise among the interpreters of Jewish law and between the denominations about how broadly one may define the mother’s health or the situations in which an abortion would be appropriate.  Our Reform movement has consistently taken strong stands in support of reproductive choice and access to reproductive health care.     

Reproductive rights are also a matter of economic and racial justice. We know that those with financial means will always have access to safe abortion, even if it will become more challenging and costly to obtain.  Abortion restrictions and bans disproportionately hurt those who already face discriminatory obstacles to health care, including Black, indigenous, and People of Color, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, young people, people with disabilities, and lower-income individuals.  Time and again, our tradition demands that we take responsibility for the disenfranchised in society, “that we care for the stranger,” that we act with justice.  So many of these teachings are articulated in the very Torah portion we read this week, Kedoshim, the holiness code and re-enforced throughout the teachings of the prophets.

In the draft opinion, Justice Alito writes that this decision should be in the hands of the people.    While half of the states are poised to ban or severely limit access to abortion, poll after poll demonstrate that the majority of Americans favor reproductive rights.   83% of Jews support the right to abortion. **

I’ve been thinking about the disconnect between the people’s desires, state legislation and this monumental decision of the Supreme Court and I’m reminded of Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare.  In this case, those of us who are pro-choice seem to be in the role of hare.  With the decision of Roe V. Wade, later affirmed in Casey in 1992, we thought we had won this race and secured reproductive rights.  But the anti-choice camp, from the moment they usurped the term “pro-life”, has been working hard like the tortoise, slowly, strategically, planning and moving forward – building a single-issue constituency, fiercely committed to electing local and national legislators who will, step by step, enact laws first restricting and now eliminating reproductive rights and, as we’ve seen, appointing judges who will support such legislation.  The majority in this country who support reproductive rights have been silent for too long.  Yes, there have been moments when we’ve raised our voices and marched in Washington, but we have not been there consistently.  And while I would never endorse being single-issue in our voting practices, it is quite clear that this issue has not been high enough on the agenda of those who support reproductive rights.

There are actions that we can — indeed, that we must – take to ensure reproductive justice for all in our country.

The Women’s Health Protection Act would essentially codify Roe, protecting the right to access legal abortion care across the country by providing safeguards against state bans and medically unnecessary hurdles.  Thought it passed in the House in September, it was defeated in the Senate in March.  A modified version of the bill, with changes in some of the language though not the guarantees, is being brought to the floor on Tuesday.   It is pretty clear that it will not pass – the filibuster has once again raised its head and there is neither enough support to overturn the filibuster nor to support the bill.  Nonetheless, supporters believe that it is important to move forward with the vote to have it on the record, especially for those Senators up for re-election.   Sen. Schumer and Gillibrand are co-sponsors of the bill and Sen. Schumer, as majority leader, is working hard to try to get it passed; they still need to hear from voices of support in their state.  Through the Religious Action or the Women of Reform Judaism websites you can send an email thanking them for their efforts.

While we can proudly say that New York is among those states that have enshrined reproductive rights into law, we cannot sit back on those laurels and ignore the lives and health of so many in our nation that are now at risk.   Our parsha, Kedoshim, reminds us of our responsibility to those outside of our own immediate circle, with that clarion call to “not stand idly by while our neighbor bleeds.”  Gov Hochul has invited anyone in need of an abortion to come to NY where they will be welcomed and cared for.  Our clinics will need extra staff and funding to meet those needs.  While thanking the Governor, we must also demand state funding to support that call.

The NCJW is organizing a Jewish Pro-Abortion Rights Rally in Washington DC on May 17th (the same day as our local school board elections, unfortunately).  Weather permitting and it is outside, it will be livestreamed.   We were also told that there will be rallies throughout the country sponsored by coalitions of abortion rights supporters on May 14th.  Please keep a look out and I will share any information I get.  Steps for further action will certainly be forthcoming.

Our most important voice as US citizens is the voice of our vote.  If we want to ensure reproductive justice for all in this country, we need to use that vote to elect leaders who will support and advocate for that essential right.

I close with words of poetry, written in response to the leaked draft, by Rabbi Zoe Klein of Temple Isaiah in LA.  It is entitled, “Confessional to the Women We’ve Failed” and is styled after the Viddui, the confessional prayer recited just before Yom Kippur.  In her powerful words, she reminds us of all that is at stake in this battle for reproductive justice:

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

the woman with kidney disease whose doctors say her pregnancy is
life threatening,
the woman who has high blood pressure whose doctors say her
pregnancy may kill her,
the woman with clinical depression and suicide ideation who is criminalized for saving herself,

the woman who doesn’t know for months that she is pregnant
because of heavy spotting,
the woman who doesn’t know for months that she is pregnant
because of an irregular period,
the girl who doesn’t know for months that she is pregnant
because she has only just started puberty,

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

the woman suffering an ectopic pregnancy who is called “murderer”
on her way to her appointment,
the parents who are told their baby will be born with anencephaly,
without a brain, and are called “murderers,”
the woman who is told there is no heartbeat and is called “murderer”
on her way to the clinic,

the woman who miscarries and is criminalized because she cannot
prove it was natural,
the parent who is told that if born, their baby will live in excruciating pain and won’t survive past infancy,
the girl who is ostracized, shamed and criminalized
while he who impregnates her is free,

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

the family who doesn’t have health insurance
and barely survives paycheck to paycheck,
the woman living in a rural, remote town who cannot afford
the transportation, hotel and time off for a procedure,
the partner who loses their job for taking the days needed
to travel over state lines for their spouse’s care,
the children who are not taught sex education and are not
given access to birth control,
the families who are not given paid parental leave or affordable childcare,
the woman who religiously took birth control to prevent pregnancy,
but the birth control failed,

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

the woman who is a victim of reproductive coercion
by a domestic abuser,
the woman who is impregnated as a victim of sex trafficking,
the girl who is impregnated through sexual violence
and then retraumatized by the court,

the girl who is overpowered by a relative or person of authority,
the woman of color who faces racial and ethnic disparity in medicine, and less access to quality contraceptive services,
the Ukrainian woman refugee who was raped by the same Russian soldier who murdered her children,

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

the mother who is imprisoned for acquiring misoprostol
to end her teen daughter’s traumatic pregnancy,
the mother who is imprisoned for having an abortion in order to better feed and care for her children,
the woman who is imprisoned for terminating a pregnancy
that was not conceived in love,

the daughter who suffers long-term agony from terminating her pregnancy in unhygienic environments, at the hands of untrained individuals,
leaving her to suffer vaginal and rectal tearing, future infertility,
uterine perforations, hemorrhage, sepsis, blunt trauma, poisoning, and ruptured bowel, the daughter who is too scared to ask for help and dies of torturous infection and blood loss from the rusty tools
of a medical charlatan, the daughter who doesn’t have any reason
to trust lawmakers and adults, and suffers excruciating, unnecessary death.

Al cheit shechatanu l’fanayech
For the sin we have sinned against you…

For all of our failures to protect you, our daughters, mothers,
partners and friends,
Don’t forgive us. Don’t pardon us. Don’t lead us to atonement.

* statistics are from the Guttmacher Institute

** from NCJW

“After Colleyville” A Sermon by Rabbi Renni S. Altman, Shabbat Yitro 5782

Baruch Atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha-olam, matir asurim.

Blessed are You, God, Sovereign of the universe, Who frees the captives.

This blessing is one that is said daily, as part of the morning blessings known as Nissim B’chol Yom, daily miracles.  It is also part of a prayer we will say tonight in the Tefillah, the second blessing called the Gevurot in which we praise God, who frees the captives.

Could any of us have imagined that we would be saying this blessing in thanks for a Rabbi and three members of a congregation, a small Reform congregation at that, making it feel even closer to us.

The world is certainly upside down when a sanctuary becomes the opposite of being a sanctuary.  As Deborah Lipstadt wrote earlier this week, “It is not radical to say that going to services, whether to converse with God or with the neighbors you see only once a week, should not be an act of courage. And yet this weekend we were once again reminded that it can be precisely that.”  (New York Times, 1/18/22)

A journalist for the Forward interviewed a number of rabbis about what they would say this Shabbat.  One rabbi in Detroit commented that she didn’t have to really wonder what to say, she already had sermons prepared.  After Pittsburgh, after Poway, after the Hanukkah attack, after Jersey City — here we are once again….

This was different; it was a hostage taking.  Thankfully all of the hostages made it out safely, though surely emotionally scarred.  This attack was of such a different nature that it even elicited debate:  was it an act of antisemitism or was it just terrorism?  Ultimately, the FBI did officially classify it as a terrorist attack against the Jewish community, an act of antisemitism.

There was an unusual twist from other antisemitic attacks which may explain, in part, the initial lack of clarify surrounding it.  The hostage taker, Malik Faisal Akram, said multiple times that he didn’t want to hurt the hostages.  This was not the kind of antisemitic attack to which we are accustomed.  He very carefully, intentionally chose a synagogue as the vehicle through which he believed he could get the release of Aafia Siddiqui, because as Rabbi Cytron-Walker recalled: 

“… it was basically the notion that Jews were more important in his mind than everyone else, and that America would do more to save Jews than it would for anyone else,” …. “That’s why he specifically targeted a synagogue. That ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ type of antisemitism — that’s why he focused on us.”

A very old antisemitic trope – Jews rule the world, the media, the banks, etc.

In what was a truly bizarre twist, the hostage taker’s very first demand was to speak with Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in Manhattan.  Why?  This was completely unclear to us for quite some time.  I thought that maybe it was because they might well have the most hits on livestream; therefore, that synagogue is perceived of as the most important.  One podcast I listened to pointed to the name of the congregation: Central Synagogue.  Rabbi Cytron-Walker said that Akram knew that she played the guitar; he “thought she was the most influential rabbi.”

After the hostages were all free, we heaved a sigh of relief, but only for a moment as the we were reminded, once again, of the sad reality that antisemitism is so pervasive, it is not going away any time soon.  As Lipstadt pointed out: At least for time being, American synagogues are coming to resemble European synagogues, with their high security and locked doors.

Pittsburgh was a wakeup call to realities of antisemitism in 21century America – on the left, on the right, internationally.  There are so many complicated layers to fight it and try to eradicate it.  Even as we do, we have to accept the reality that antisemitism will be with us for some time to come and address the challenges of learning to live with it.

How do we do that?

First and foremost, we must be prepared. Security is of paramount importance.

Even as the hostage taking was still unfolding, our president, Susan Karnes Hecht, and our housing chair, Alan Kaflowitz, were already reviewing our current procedures and engaging with local law enforcement who is paying attention. Police and local law enforcement are there for us.

Numerous times Rabbi Cytron-Walker and other hostages spoke about the importance of the active shooter training they had received, that it clearly saved their lives.  After Pittsburgh, many of you participated in training that we held here.  We will repeat that and are working through Federation to organize training sessions for our community.

Yesterday I attended a webinar sponsored by the ADL which had, as I later found out, 7000 attendees.  The speakers including ADL Executive Director, Jonathan Greenblatt, Rabbi Cytron-Walker and FBI Director Christopher Wray.  Director Wray spoke about the on-going investigation into the background of the hostage taker.  He also said something very important that I hadn’t heard before.   The nature of terrorist attacks has changed.  By and large, there no longer seem to be sleeper cells such as organized the  9-11 attacks.  Rather, they are lone attackers.  The good thing is that these attackers are generally less sophisticated.  The challenge is there is less lead time and fewer leads for investigators to follow.  That means that it is even more important for us to report anything suspicious; you never know when one lead may match up with another and help investigators prevent an attack.   

The FBI maintains a close relationship with the ADL and other Jewish organizations.  You should be familiar with the Secure Community Network (SCN), founded in 2004, under the auspices of The Jewish Federations of North America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.  It is the official homeland security and safety initiative of the organized Jewish community in North America.   It provides threat information and crisis management; it offers guidance on security practices and procedures and trainings and education.  It serves as the formal liaison for the Jewish community with Federal Law enforcement

During the ADL webinar, Rabbi Cytron-Walker for the first time about why he let the guy in.  He appeared to be a person needing warmth and shelter.  The rabbi was with him until the service started, he was the one who gave him tea. He kept reading the man’s face and his actions, saw no hints of anything to come, of ulterior motives; no nervousness, he looked the rabbi in the eye.  Rabbi Cytron-Walker had lots of training, more than the average person, and in that moment, the man seemed ok.  You can be prepared and, as Rabbi Cytron-Walker said, sometimes stuff still happens.

Frankly, I don’t know that I would have done the same, that I would have let him in.  And it pains me to say that. 

We are all trying to figure out the balance between two essential Jewish values: lance – hachnasat orchim, being welcoming, and pikuah nefesh, saving and protecting lives. 

So we will continue to keep our doors locked.  At the same time, we must keep putting messages out there that we are an open and welcoming community.

We actually had to do this early on with zoom.  We learned from one incident with zoom bombers that we couldn’t just post the links on our website.  We have a two-step process for those not on our mailing list.    Are there people who might have joined us and didn’t, perhaps.  Even so, new people have still found us.

Things that we can do to be proactive.  We can ask our government to act.  The service reminder email that was sent out today includes links for each of these actions:

1.  Demand that our representatives in the House increase funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program to support security for houses of worship;

2. Demand that the Senate confirm Deborah Lipstadt as the US Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism.  Although this is an international position and not a domestica one, it will send an important message that the US takes combatting antisemitism seriously and will encourage other governments to as well.

We must keep our eyes open; pay attention and report anything suspicious to the police.  The ADL asks that we report, on their website, any hate crimes as they are tracking and monitoring them.

In a webinar this summer, Jonathan Greenblatt said that, ultimately, antisemitism is best combatted through changing hearts and minds on local level not through legislation (though we need to do both).  We saw the tremendous support that Congregation Beth Israel received from the interfaith community in Colleyville, because the rabbi and the congregation were part of that.  We must continue to build and strengthen such relationships.

Above all, we cannot let fear paralyze us.  On the anniversary of President Biden’s inauguration, Amanda Gorman, who delivered that oh so powerful poem that day, wrote an op-ed in the Times, in which she revealed that she almost declined invitation out of fear – fear of        COVID, fear of being attacked after January 6th. She thought long and hard and ultimately decided that she would not let fear overtake her; she owned her fear. She concluded her piece as follows:

“And yes, I still am terrified every day. Yet fear can be love trying its best in the dark. So do not fear your fear. Own it. Free it. This isn’t a liberation that I or anyone can give you — it’s a power you must look for, learn, love, lead and locate for yourself.

Why? The truth is, hope isn’t a promise we give. It’s a promise we live. Tell it like this, and we, like our words, will not rest.

And the rest is history.”

Finally, our best response to antisemitism is to live fully and proudly as Jews.  In the conclusion of her book, Antisemitism Here and Now, Deborah Lipdstadt wrote “What is necessary for Jews to survive and flourish as a people is neither dark pessimism nor cockeyed optimism, but realism.  It would be ludicrous to dismiss as paranoid the concerned of those who react strongly to the escalating acts of antisemitism in recent times….. But at the same time, it would be folly for Jews to make this the organizing principle of their lives.”  She continued to tell the story of entering her synagogue with a friend and her five-year-old daughter.  As they entered, the friend said to her daughter, “Let’s say hi and thank you to the guard for keeping us safe.”  The little girl looked puzzled.  To her the synagogue was not a place where she would need protection; it was the place where she played in the playground with her friends, sang songs in the children’s service, where they came into the sanctuary to help close the service and get lollipops from the rabbi. Lipstadt continued, “My hope for my little friend is that as she grows up, her awareness of the dangers that may threaten her well-being at the synagogue or at any other Jewish venue will never overshadow the joys she finds here.

So may it be for us and for our children and their children after us.

It is with joy that we now turn to our Shabbat worship….

Welcoming our new members 10/29/21 -remarks by Vivian Garber

Shabbat Shalom.

When Rabbi asked me to speak about my experiences at Vassar Temple, I initially said no because I am not comfortable speaking in public. However, as I thought about how important Vassar Temple has been to me and my family over the many years that we have been members, I decided to push beyond my comfort zone and share with you my life at Vassar Temple.

My first experience with Vassar was more than 40 years ago when Ed and I were invited to a Bat Mitzvah here. At the time, we were unaffiliated and were trying to decide where to join. We had a young son and wanted him to learn about Judaism and have the experience of being a part of a Jewish community. We walked into the sanctuary that day, experienced the warmth of the congregation and immediately felt at home.

My husband, Ed, had never been a member of a synagogue until we moved to Poughkeepsie. He was so touched by the Vassar community that he decided that he had to get involved. Over the years, he has served on many committees including nomination committee, House committee and finance committee. He also served on the board eventually getting elected President.    

Vassar Temple also became a very integral part of our son’s life. He attended religious school, was Bar Mitzvahed and confirmed here, tutored other children for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, participated in the youth group taking leadership roles and even lead services during the summer. Because of what he learned and absorbed here at Vassar, he now shares that with his synagogue in MA even joining the board.

Vassar Temple has been so much to us. It has been our second home. We have worshipped together, we have laughed and celebrated together and, yes, we have cried together and held each other up in difficult times.  The Vassar community is vibrant and caring offering a multitude of opportunities to its members as well as to our neighbors outside of the Vassar community. We help to feed the hungry, offer assistance to the local schools both in the classrooms and by helping to provide needed supplies, volunteer our time where needed in the community and  join together with other organizations to help the disenfranchised. I could not be prouder of the members of our congregation who so graciously give of their time and resources to others without looking for recognition or praise.

However, you need not leave the confines of Vassar Temple to experience the caring and amazing empathy that is what the Vassar family offers. There is always food in our freezer waiting to be delivered to a member of our Vassar family when needed. Hamentaschen during Passover is delivered to those who are shut-in, calls and visits are made to those who are ill or suffering from a loss. When I broke my ankle and could not put any weight on that leg, I was the recipient of so much good food. That was especially appreciated by Ed since cooking is not one of his skills.

Besides serving the spiritual and material needs of our congregation, there are lots of interesting courses and programs to stimulate our minds from book club to cultural events and study groups. There is always something of interest in which to participate.

I am so very proud to be a part of the wonderful Vassar Temple family. And, family, is what we are. I am deeply thankful for all of the wonderful friendships that I have made. Since Ed and I have no family locally, our friends have become our family and we have been blessed.

To our new members, I say welcome. I encourage you to become fully involved in our community. You will not regret it. I truly hope that Vassar Temple becomes to you what it has been to my family. 

Thank you.

President’s Remarks, Rosh Hashanah 2021

A year ago I was forced to pre-record my Torah reading and remarks. It was honestly crushing for me, having had several years to anticipate these responsibilities and privileges.I was angry; I felt cheated. For the past several months, things seemed to be improving, and I looked forward to being able to stand here today and say “we’re back.” But here we are tonight, and that’s only partially true. Circumstances have prevented our reopening from coming to complete fruition. Nevertheless, I see an analogy between this long, challenging journey and the more typical act of coming into the temple. I suggest that we are, at this moment, in the lobby, figuratively speaking, and ask you to join me there for a few minutes.

And, of course, I think of the mishkan, the tabernacle in the desert, with its different layered spaces requiring increasing preparation, privileges, and sacrifices as one approached the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies.

Regardless, the common denominator of these interim spaces is that they are transitional and preparatory, places where change takes place. 

We pass through a foyer when entering this sanctuary. We pass a beautiful painting and our tree of life, but this is not simply a physical passage. Here at Vassar Temple we have two sets of doors before you reach the sanctuary; those same two doors must be navigated to re-enter the outside world. What do we bring in and take out with us? Is it a casual drop-off for you? a lifesaving protocol? or a crushing, negative obligation? Are these deliberate choices, or dictated by other people or forces? And how do you use that intervening space to prepare for the transition in or out? Do you leave anything in the lobby temporarily to pick back up on your way out? 

Like coming into our physical temple, we can stop, pause, and take stock of where we are in our pandemic passage.  Let’s all ask what we can leave behind and what we should take in with us. 

We have been forced by Covid to prioritize, and I hope that you have found this community to be not only a priority but also an incredible resource. While we have learned that we are not defined by our building, nonetheless as we pass together through the real and figurative lobby, hopefully sooner rather than later, we intend to build on those rediscovered connections and use the lessons to strengthen ourselves.

The holy days also offer us a passage. Please use your time there to consider what you want to bring in, what you want to place on hold, what you want to leave behind, and what you hope to take with you when you emerge.  Personally, I’m at least attempting to leave behind that anger – some days are easier and some are harder – and focus on the happier moments and the love and support of family, friends, and especially the friends who might as well be family – you know who you are.

Wherever you are tonight, whether here physically or virtually, I welcome you to enter fully into this sacred space and time and to our unique annual opportunity to take stock.  L’shanah tovah. 

“Teshuvah and Reparations”

A Sermon for Yom Kippur 5782

Yom Kippur brings to a close Aseret Y’mei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance.  Hopefully, we have spent these days addressing areas in our own lives in need of attention.  We move through our liturgy today with a sense of urgency; these are the final moments as we head towards the closing gates of Neilah

And yet, our tradition says, the gates of repentance are never completely locked.  Despite the urgency to do this now, the sages recognized that repentance, when taken seriously, is not a quick or easy process.  It involves a number of steps:

1.  Recognizing what you did wrong and expressing regret

2.  Stopping the harmful action

3. Confessing and asking for forgiveness

4.  Making the commitment not to repeat past mistakes

5.  Repaying what was taken and receiving forgiveness.

Teshuvah is challenging, to be sure.  And this is just one individual towards another.

This year I’ve been wrestling with teshuvah on a grander scale.

As you may recall, last year I invited people to join me in a learning process about racism.  I’m so pleased that more than a dozen of us gathered about once a month for our “Racism Reading Group”.  We’ve read five books thus far.  It was a wonderful and challenging year of engaging in frank and open discussion.  With a special session on implicit bias, it really became a consciousness raising experience, as we developed a greater awareness of our own subconscious – and sometimes conscious – prejudices as well as ways in which we can become better allies.

Through all of this reading as well as watching compelling programs addressing the experience of Blacks in America, I kept asking myself: How can we possibly do teshuvah?  How can we make it up to Blacks in this country for all that has been taken away from them, opportunities that have been closed off by decades of subjugation?  And yet, how can we not? 

In her powerful book, Caste, Isabel Wilkerson, discusses the challenges of taking a first step, the same first step that we talk about in teshuvah: taking ownership of our wrongdoing.

 “Americans are loathe to talk about enslavement,” she writes, “in part because what little we know about it goes against our perception of our country as a just and enlightened nation, a beacon of democracy for the world.  Slavery is commonly dismissed as a “sad, dark chapter” in the country’s history.  It is as if the greater the distance we can create between slavery and ourselves, the better to stave off the guilt or shame it induces. 

But in the same way that individuals cannot move forward, become whole and healthy, unless they examine the domestic violence they witnessed as children or the alcoholism that runs in their family, the country cannot become whole until it confronts what was not a chapter in its history, but the basis of its economic and social order.”[i] 

Should we feel guilty for something that happened hundreds of years ago?  Are we to be held responsible?  Dr. Aaron Lazare, Chancellor and Dean at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, addresses these questions in his book On Apology  “…. people are not guilty for actions in which they did not participate.  But just as people take pride in things for which they had no responsibility (such as famous ancestors, national championships of their sports teams or great accomplishments of their nation), so, too, must these people accept the shame (but not guilt) of their family, their athletic teams, and their nations.  Accepting national pride must include willingness to accept national shame when one’s country has not measured up to reasonable standards….  Second, people have benefited from these actions…  the use of slave labor by a nation … may continue to benefit future generations of citizens.  Such beneficiaries, while not guilty, may feel a moral responsibility to those who suffered as a result of the offense.[ii]

Wilkerson makes many comparisons between the German response to its past and the lack of doing so here in the United States.  She relates the experience of a group of German students on a tour of the history of the Third Reich.  When asked if they feel guilt for what the Germans did, they said, “Yes, we are Germans and Germans perpetrated this.  … it is the older Germans who were here who should feel guilt.  We were not here.  We ourselves did not do this. But we do feel that, as the younger generation, we should acknowledge and accept the responsibility.  And for the generations that come after us, we should be the guardians of the truth.”[iii]

Being guardians of the truth about slavery, about Jim Crow, about the struggle for civil rights and the on-going inequities – teaching the truth – doesn’t mean that we are a racist nation today.  It means that we are coming to terms with horrific parts of our past.  Owning that past is difficult and disturbing.  The more I learn, the more I am so deeply ashamed of my country – of its past and of the ways in which racism has embedded itself in all aspects of our society and continues today.

Any guilt we should bear will be dependent upon how we act today – if we enable racism to continue.   Doing teshuvah demands that we commit to not repeating sins of the past and to finding ways to make whole those who have been so wronged and who continue to suffer from our nation’s sins.

Last week, a statue of Robert E. Lee, the first of six Confederate monuments to be erected on what become known as Monument Avenue in Richmond, VA, once the capital of the Confederacy, was the last to be removed, following a year of legal struggles.  Though these statues were once at the heart of Richmond’s identity, events of recent years, including the riots in Charlottesville and the murder of George Floyd, along with the growing diversity of Richmond itself, have brought about changes such that the statues were removed without a huge public backlash, as might have been anticipated.   One longtime resident, Irv Cantor, who is white, expressed his own evolution on the issue, “I was naively thinking that we could keep these statues and just add new ones to show the true history, and everything would be fine…Now I understand the resentment that folks have toward these monuments.  I don’t think they can exist anymore.”[iv]

The successful removal of these monuments also reflects decades of work on racial reconciliation in the city.   It has not been, nor will it be, a straight path moving forward.   Certainly, everyone does not agree with Mr. Cantor.  

At Third Church, a mostly white, largely conservative congregation, Pastor Corey Widmer has been working hard to help his congregants accept the directions in which the country is moving about race.  “There’s so much fear and so much political polarization,” he said.   “…Every pastor in Richmond who is trying to help white Christians see Black Americans’ perspective and “reckon with our own responsibility has really been grieved by the conflict and pain that it has caused.”

 “And yet this is how we change. Face it head on. Work through it. Love each other. Try to stay at the table. And just keep working. I don’t know what else to do.”[v]

Of course, these statues are symbolic of deeper core issues, struggles about who gets to define America’s history and how we understand the nature of racism in our country.

Though removal of these symbols is only the beginning, it is an important step in addressing the pain of Black Americans and demonstrating that, as a nation, we are taking responsibility for our past.  We know well the impact of symbols, the pain we experience when vandals either acting out of hate or just seeking attention, scratch swastikas outside synagogues or other Jewish institutions.  Rightfully we demand a swift response from authorities. 

In Germany, displaying a swastika is a crime punishable by up to three years in prison.  And Germany has no monuments that celebrate the Nazi armed forces.  Rather, they have built monuments and memorials to the victims of the Nazi atrocities and museums to preserve and educate about this dark chapter in their history.  They even paved over Hitler’s bunker.

Gary Flowers, a Black radio show host in Richmond, planned to celebrate the removal of Lee’s statue “by telling pictures of his dead relatives that ‘the humiliation and agony and pain [they] suffered has been partly lifted.’”[vi]

Removing these offensive symbols is one of the steps of reparations that America needs to do to make teshuvah for its treatment of Blacks.

Yes, I said reparations.  Reparations is an essential step in our process of teshuvah.  We are required to make up to the person wronged for what we have done.  According to Maimonides, we are to repay what was taken, with interest.

In his second inaugural address, Lincoln called for reparations: “let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds.. to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

That call has yet to be followed up.  In fact, after the war, Lincoln supported reparations to former slave owners for the loss of their human property.  Andrew Johnson vetoed a bill for reparations for the formerly enslaved.

How does one make restitution to a people degraded and dehumanized by 250 years of slavery, by 90 years of Jim Crow and on-going systematic racism that discriminates and subjugates people based on the color of their skin?

Racial inequity is present in virtually every aspect of American life. 

According to a 2016 study of the wealth gap between blacks and whites, if disparities in wealth continue at current rates, it would take Black families 228 years to amass the wealth that white families have now. (Caste, 381)

Black women experience maternal deaths at three to four times that of white women.

Black infants are more than twice as likely to die before their first birthday compared to white babies.

Blacks are incarcerated at a rate 5.1 times higher than that of whites.[vii]

And the list goes on.

The questions surrounding reparations are numerous to be sure:  to whom are reparations owed?  How does one measure suffering and damages?  What would be adequate payment?  What forms should reparations take?  And, fundamentally, how would reparations change the social conditions that perpetuate the offense?[viii]

We do know of reparations in modern history:  Germany paid reparations to the government of Israel for Holocaust survivors; our government made reparations to Japanese Americans interned in WWII.  These payments were but one part of the process of teshuvah; they represented taking ownership of the wrong and they did provide some help to the victims.

There have been numerous attempts over the years to put forward federal legislation to explore reparations.  HR 40, a bill to establish a Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans was first introduced in 1989 and reintroduced every year in Congress since.  At its Biennial convention in 2019 our Reform movement voted in favor of establishing such a commission.   Finally, this past April, the proposal was moved from the judiciary committee to the House floor for a vote.  President Biden has agreed to sign it once it gains approval in Congress.

Even as federal legislation is still in doubt, changes are taking place slowly on the local level.  Universities such as Brown and Georgetown have established scholarships for descendants of slaves whose owners were affiliated with that school. 

The Minneapolis Council of Churches has established a 10-year project that will include Truth and Reconciliation commissions; Diversity, Equity and Inclusion trainings in congregations; and reparations to Black and Indigenous people of color for the harm done by white supremacy in Minnesota.

Reparations is not only financial; it also involves institutional change.

Our teshuvah means ensuring that everyone has access to one of most important elements of our democratic society – the right to vote.  At Vassar Temple our Civic Engagement committee continues to work through our movement’s “Every Voice, Every Vote Campaign” to fight voter suppression.  We continue to have non-partisan postcard writing projects to people who may be in danger of being dropped from the roles, encouraging them to register.  At the same time, we need legislation that will ensure that this essential right is available and accessible to all eligible voters.  An agreement may be at hand in Congress to pass a voting rights bill. 

Some white Jews may say that with the rise of antisemitism, that should be our priority, not racism.  It is true, antisemitism is on the rise and is of great concern.  But we have learned and seen time again, hate is not limited to one group.    Where there is antisemitism, racism is there as well, and vice versa.  Besides, 12-15% of the Jewish community are people of color.  Fighting racism is an act of solidarity with fellow Jews. White supremacy is our collective enemy, and we must commit to dismantling it.[ix]

We will have an opportunity in a few weeks to participate in a such an expression of solidarity.  I hope that you will join me on Sunday, October 3rd at 2 pm. for a United March Against Hate downtown, co-sponsored thus far by Jewish Federation, the Dutchess County Commission on Human Rights, the Dutchess County African American Clergy Association and the “All-For-One” organization.

As our nation takes initial steps to make teshuvah, each of us is called upon to examine our own responsibility for enabling racism.  Wilkerson reminds of us that we have the power to change the status quo: 

“A caste system persists in part because we, each and every one of us, allow it to exist- in large and small ways, in our everyday actions, in how we elevate or demean embrace or exclude, on the basis of the meaning attached to people’s physical traits.  … we have a choice.  We can be born to the dominant caste but choose not to dominate.  We can be born to a subordinate caste but resist the box others force upon us.  And all of us can sharpen our powers of discernment to see past the external and to value the character of a person rather than demean those who are already marginalized or worship those born to false pedastals.”[x]

During these days of Repentance, we are held accountable for our actions.  Now we prepare again to confess our sins and plea to God for forgiveness through the Al Chet prayer.  Though written in the plural voice, the Al Chet includes sins that we as individuals surely did not commit.  And yet, we stand in solidarity with the larger community.  We recognize that we are complicit in the sins of society and that we obligated to work with others to strive to eradicate them.

Before we turn to that prayer, I want to conclude with excerpts of an Al Chet prayer written by Yavila McCoy, a pioneer of the Jewish diversity and equity movement.  I hope that you will carry into your prayers and actions the sentiments incorporated in her words:

I am saying Al Chet

For the sins we have committed through conscious and unconscious racial bias.

For the sins we have committed through hardening our hearts to the need for change.

For the sins of colluding with racism both openly and secretly.

For the sins we have committed through uttering racist words.

For the sins we have committed through acts of racial micro-aggression.

I am saying Al Chet

For the sins we have committed through the denial of the tzelem elokim (the divine spark) within Black bodies.

For the sins we have committed through segregating Black bodies from participation and leadership within our institutions.

For the sins we have committed in deceiving others by not teaching our children the worth, value and contributions of Black people.

For all these sins, we seek pardon, forgiveness and atonement.

For the sins of racism we have committed through passing judgement.

For the sins of racism that we have committed through baseless hatred.

For the sins of racism that we have committed through turning a blind-eye to pain and suffering around us.

For the sins of racism that we have committed by not seeing racism as an evil among us.

For the sins of racism that we have committed by not committing to end it.

For all these, we seek pardon, forgiveness and atonement.[xi]

[i] Isabel Wilkerson, Caste:  The Origins of Our Discontents, p. 43

[ii] Aaron Lazare, On Apology, p. 41-42

[iii] Wilkerson, p. 349

[iv] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/08/us/robert-e-lee-statue-virginia.html?referrer=masthead

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] https://urj.org/what-we-believe/resolutions/resolution-study-and-development-reparations-slavery-and-systemic

[viii] Lazare, p. 132

[ix] https://reformjudaism.org/blog/addressing-antisemitism-while-keeping-our-eyes-collective-freedom-and-racial-justice

[x] Wilkerson, p. 380

[xi] https://www.truah.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Al_Chet_for_Racism_Yavilah_McCoy.pdf