“No Justice, No Peace”

A Sermon for Yom Kippur morning 5781 by Rabbi Renni S. Altman

If you hadn’t been aware before her death, I would imagine that you’ve learned since about the multiple pieces of artwork Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg had in her office with this famous passage from Deuteronomy.

In her essay in the book I am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl, Justice Ginsberg wrote:

“The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition. …I [am] fortunate to be linked to that heritage and to live in the United States at a time when Jewish people residing here face few closed doors and do not fear letting the world know who we are. 

“For example, I say who I am in certain visible signs. The command from Deuteronomy appears in artworks, in Hebrew letters, on three walls and a table in my chambers.    ‘Zedek, zedek, tirdof –Justice, Justice shalt thou pursue!’  these artworks proclaim: they are ever-present reminders to me of what judges must do “that they may thrive.”[i]  

Indeed, the pursuit of justice marked Justice Ginsberg’s life and her career, most especially for women in her landmark court battles against discrimination based on sex. 

In her eulogy, Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt from Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC spoke of Justice Ginsberg’s accomplishments:  “To be born into a world that does not see you, that does not believe in your potential, that does not give you a path for opportunity or a clear path for education — and despite this, to be able to see beyond the world you are in, to imagine that something can be different — that is the job of a prophet.  It’s the rare prophet who not only imagines a new world, but also makes that new world a reality in her lifetime.”[ii]

Through her life experiences, Justice Ginsberg knew the plight of the stranger, the feeling of one who is not seen.  Her commitment to the pursuit of justice, inspired her to pursue justice not only for women but for all who are the unseen in our society.

This summer the streets of our nation were filled with protests and the cry for justice for black lives.  Now again, there is the call for justice in response to the grand jury decision in Louisville that left no one accountable for the death of Brianna Taylor.   Black lives matter, they cry, because while, yes, all lives matter, the events of recent months have reminded us all too painfully that black lives have not mattered in this country, that they have not and do not receive justice, and despite legal steps taken towards equality, despite a black president who held office for eight years living in a house built by slaves, black lives still do not matter enough.  Sadly, King’s dream that his “four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” is far from realized.

Not when black Americans continue to experience the highest COVID-19 mortality rates nationwide, 3.4 times as high as whites;[iii]

not when one in every ten black males in his thirties is in prison or jail on any given day;

not when the unemployment rate for blacks is more than twice that of whites;

not when the median wealth of black households is 1/13th that of white households;[iv]

not when unarmed blacks are about twice as likely to be killed as unarmed whites;[v]

and not when a black man is killed under the knee of a police officer who held it there for over 8 minutes, while George Floyd screamed for breath and cried for his mother. 

Floyd’s death was the tipping point that caused our nation to erupt in protest – black and white, young and old — protesting in masks during a pandemic because the status quo is simply no longer tolerable, the demand for police reform, among other changes, is so great.

It’s not just about justice for George Floyd or for Brianna Taylor or for Ahmaud Aubery or for any of those shot down because of the color of their skin.  It’s about the pervasive, systemic racial injustice in America that goes back now 401 years to… when the first African Americans were brought to these shores as slaves and the journey and discrimination that has endured throughout the generations of the descendants of those slaves – and expanded to all people of color.

Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof my faith teaches me. 

Justice, justice shall you pursue!

Justice, Justice – it is so important, so urgent, that the word is repeated twice.

And the text doesn’t say act with justice, it commands us to pursue justice.  It is not enough to observe wrongdoing, taught the rabbis, one must act to do something about it.[vi] 

We know what it is to be treated otherwise, to be the unseen, the stranger.  The very foundation story of the Jewish people is one of having been the stranger — the exodus from slavery in Egypt.  Annually we re-enact our liberation from bondage through the Passover seder so that we might rise from that table having internalized its message to cherish our freedom and fight for the freedom of all. “You must care for the stranger, because you were the stranger” we are commanded over and over again, thiry-six times in the Torah, more than any other commandment.  This story and its lessons are fundamental to our identity as Jews. 

And throughout so much of our history, we have known injustice, prejudice and hate, and with the rise of white supremacy in this country we have experienced that hate once again in the deepest and most profound of ways.  

The common experience of being that stranger, the outsider, once brought blacks and white Jews together in the struggle for civil rights; once again, we need to be united in our common struggle against hate wherever and in whatever forms it appears.  Hate is never limited to one group, as Prof. Deborah Lipstadt has taught us, “the existence of prejudice in any of its forms is a threat to all those who value an inclusive democratic, and multicultural society.  … Antisemism flourishes in a society that is intolerant of others, be they immigrants or racial and religious minorities.”[vii]

In the aftermath of the Floyd killing and protests, I participated in a number of webinars through our Reform movement about combatting racism.  In one, a speaker made the following point:  Blacks have been fighting this battle for generations; if we want to be real allies, we have to commit for the long haul.  And we have to begin by listening; not jumping in with what we think the black community needs, but to listening to black voices.

And we have started to do just that.  Many of you were with us on the Shabbat immediately following Floyd’s death when we listened to the voices of two of our own members, Jasmaine Russo and Melissa Wall who shared their own painful stories and struggles with racism.  We showed a video that Jas had made and posted on Facebook where she shared her reactions to the events and stories from her life, among them what it feels like when time after time, people look past her for the nursing supervisor in the facility where she is the nursing supervisor because they assume the supervisor could not be black; and of the mixed feelings she was holding towards the police because it was the police who shot her unarmed cousin and it was also police who helped save her daughter’s life during an asthma attack.  Melissa spoke of childhood memories of how at age 4 a Santa had pushed her off of his lap because she was black and how she grew up learning the proper way to speak to a police officer, with head down and standing at a distance.  She told us of her mother’s utter shock when here in Poughkeepsie a police officer held a door for her and said, “Good morning mam.”

Later in the summer, on a podcast, I heard black poet and educator, Clint Smith, read part of a letter that he had written back in 2015 to a then imagined son.  I was moved and deeply saddened by what he wrote and share some of it now as it speaks so poignantly to being black in America: 


I want to tell you how difficult it is to tell someone they are both beautiful and endangered. So worthy of life, yet so despised for living. I do not intend to scare you. My father, your grandfather, taught me to follow a certain set of rules before I even knew their purpose. He told me that these rules would not apply to everyone, that they would not even apply to all of my friends. But they were rules to abide by nonetheless. Too many black boys are killed for doing what others give no second thought. Playing our music too loud, wearing a sweatshirt with the hood up, playing with a toy in the park. My father knew these things. He knew that there was no room for error. He knew it was not fair. But he loved me too much not to teach me, to protect me.

…. Many a Saturday morning, my friends and I would ride bikes throughout the neighborhood together. … We were a motley crew, an interracial assemblage of young boys that would have made the Disney Channel proud. … On one afternoon, we went to the field where we so often played football… This time, however, the field was closed. The fence bolted by a lock that could not be snapped. One friend, whose long, blond hair dangled gently over his eyes, tossed the football to me, and immediately began to climb the fence. I watched him: the ease with which he lifted one foot over another, the indifference of his disposition to the fact that this was an area we were quite clearly not supposed to enter. I remember hearing the soft, distant echo of a police siren. Perhaps a few blocks away. Perhaps headed in a different direction. I couldn’t be sure, but I knew better than to ignore it. He reached the other side, and looked back, beckoning the rest of us to join him. I held the football in my hand, looking at him through the chain link fence between us. It was at this moment I realized how different he and I were, before I had the words to explain them to either him or myself. How he could break a rule without a second thought, whereas for me any mistake might have the most dire of consequences…

I want you to realize that sometimes it will not be the things the world tells you, but the things it does not tell you. It will be the omissions, rather than the direct affronts that do the most damage. Your textbooks will likely not tell you how Thomas Jefferson thought that blacks were “inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind”; how Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal left a hole just wide enough for black families to fall through while lifting the rest of the country into the middle class…. They will not tell you these things, and because of that they will expect you to believe that the contemporary reality of our community is of our own doing, that we simply did not work hard enough, that things would be different if we would simply change our attitudes, the way we speak, the way we dress.

With that said, do not for one moment think you cannot change what exists. … This world was built; it can be rebuilt. Use everything that you accrue to reimagine the world…

I pray that you never have to stand on the other side of a fence and know that it is a world you cannot enter simply because of your skin.”[viii]

I never had to write such a letter to my son or to my daughters.  In a just country, neither would Smith.

Listening to these voices, coupled with witnessing the horrific killing of Floyd and others and the protests that followed, my eyes have been opened anew to the realities of being black in America and to a deeper awareness of the privileges that I have simply because of the color of my skin.   I also came to a new understanding of the slogan so often chanted and held aloft at protests: “No justice, no peace.”  How can there possibly be peace – in Hebrew, Shalom, meaning wholeness — when there is the brokenness of racial injustice?  There can be no wholeness in America until there is equity for all. 

“Justice, Justice we must pursue.”  A first step in the pursuit of justice and healing is to gain greater understanding of what it means to live with racism, to listen to more black voices.  To that end, under the auspices of our adult education committee, we are starting a “Racism Reading Group” whose first meeting will be at the end of October.  We will read books and articles that explore racism.  All who want to engage in open and honest dialogue are welcome to join.  Please let Karen in the office know of your interest.  We are collecting recommended materials and welcome more ideas.  See the October bulletin and forthcoming newsletters for more details.

Even as this is a long-term project, there are immediate actions that we can take in our pursuit of justice in this nation.  This afternoon’s Torah portion, the Holiness Code from Leviticus, guides us on speaking out: Hokeach tokiach et amitecha, “Reprove your kinsman.”  Hokeah tokiach – again, the verb repetition for emphasis.  You cannot remain silent, especially when it is your kinsman doing something wrong.  We must speak out against racism, wherever we see it, beginning among those closest to us — calling out our family, friends or co-workers if they use racist language. 

Pursuit of justice also means partnering with others in joint efforts to combat racial injustice in our community and beyond.  One of the steps towards justice that our Civic Engagement Committee is taking right now is fighting attempts at voter suppression and voter list purging, aimed especially at people of color, by sending postcards reminding people in states most endangered to register and to vote.   Our Reform Movement has joined many other religious and secular organizations in this nonpartisan campaign led by the non-profit Center for Common Ground.  I’m so proud that our Vassar Temple volunteers have thus far sent out over 5,700 postcards.  If you are interested in participating in this effort, please contact Howard Susser or Marge Groten.

I know that these are just baby steps in what right now seems like an impossible dream of achieving racial justice.  But every journey begins with one hopeful step. Ibram Kendi, author of How to be an Antiracist, maintains a commitment to striving for this dream even against such overwhelming challenges in the conclusion to his book:

… racism is one of the fastest-spreading and most fatal cancers humanity has ever known. It is hard to find a place where its cancer cells are not dividing and multiplying. There is nothing I see in our world today, in our history, giving me hope that one day antiracists will win the fight, that one day the flag of antiracism will fly over a world of equity. What gives me hope is a simple truism. Once we lose hope, we are guaranteed to lose. But if we ignore the odds and fight to create an antiracist world, then we give humanity a chance to one day survive, a chance to live in communion, a chance to be forever free.[ix]

Let us also take hope from the “prophet” Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who was able to imagine a world far different from the one into which she was born and thereby made great strides towards making it more just.

Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof – strengthen us, O God, in our pursuit of justice so that one day there will, indeed, be justice and there will be peace.

[i] Judea and Ruth Pearl, Ed., I am Jewish:  Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl, p.201

[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/23/us/politics/ruth-bader-ginsburg-supreme-court.html

[iii] https://www.apmresearchlab.org/covid/deaths-by-race

[iv] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/uncovering-my-white-privi_b_8191410?guccounter=1

[v] Ibram X. Kendi, How to be an Antiracist, p. 73

[vi] Leviticus Rabbah

[vii] Deborah E. Lipstadt, Antisemitism Here and Now, p. xi

[viii] Ted Radio Hour, original broadcast 05/01/15; https://ideas.ted.com/my-hopes-dreams-fears-for-my-future-black-son/

[ix] Kendi, p.238

“Accepting our Cracks”

A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5781 by Rabbi Renni S. Altman

Every year, we Jews get a do-over.  Like our GPS saying, recalculate – we get to find a new route.   Or pressing that button on our phone to restore it to its original settings.  We get a chance to wipe the slate clean and try again.  We begin on Rosh Hashanah (or if we’re really good, a month before that in Elul) to reflect on our actions, recognize where we’ve gone wrong, turn to those whom we’ve hurt – intentionally or not — make amends and then we are ready for Yom Kippur, now we can ask God to forgive us.  We look forward to a new beginning.  But then we start our worship with the most unusual prayer:  we ask God to forget any promises that we make if we’re not able to fulfill them:

Kol Nidrei

All vows—

Resolves and commitments, vows of abstinence and terms of obligation,

Sworn promises and oaths of dedication –

That we promise and swear to God, and take upon ourselves

From this Day of Atonement until next Day of Atonement, may it find us well:

We regret them and for all of them we repent.

Let all of them be discarded and forgotten, abolished and undone;

They are not valid and they are not binding.

Our vows shall not be vows; our resolves shall not be resolves;

And our oaths – they shall not be oaths.

This odd statement has puzzled many throughout the generations and there have even been attempts to replace it with something that seems more appropriate to the day than declaring vows we cannot fulfill null and void.    And yet, despite its rather curious message and the mysterious nature of its origins, not only has Kol Nidrei been retained but our evening service has become known by its name.  Its melody is so powerful that it has forever earned a place in the heart of the Jewish people.  We recite it three times to ensure that even the latecomers will hear its words.

There are numerous interpretations to Kol Nidrei.  One that I find most appealing, especially in the challenging times in which we find ourselves when we are all under so much pressure, is that Kol Nidrei gives us permission to fail.  It acknowledges that though we will try our best, there are times when we will surely fall short, that we will not always achieve our goals, despite our best intentions.  Failure is part of our humanity; unlike the angels, we are flawed, imperfect beings.  In making this public proclamation we pray that, if we sincerely try our best, God will forgive us when we fall short of meeting those promises, which we have made with the fullest intention of keeping.   The beauty of this prayer is that it gives us the ability to promise; where would the world be if we didn’t make promises to achieve ideals? 

Jewish legend has long associated Kol Nidrei with the Morranos, the hidden Jews during the time of the Spanish Inquisition who lived outwardly as Christians and secretly as Jews. Though scholarship has determined that the prayer is of much earlier authorship, this legend still holds sway.  In an essay about Kol Nidrei, Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso relates a story she heard about a woman who grew up Catholic, but every Friday night placed two candles on her dining room table.   Before lighting them, she would turn the picture of Jesus that was hanging in her dining room to the wall; on the other side, she had placed a mirror.  At least once a week, as she lit the candles, she would see who she really was.  “At the beginning of Yom Kippur,” teaches Sasso, “we look in that mirror to see who we really are.   We come together on Kol Nidrei and we admit it.  We tell the truth. We hold up the mirror and look into it.  We make no pretense.  We wear no masks. (This was written well before COVID – she meant masks that hide our identity; not masks that protect our health!)  We admit that we are not all that we hope to be.  Once a year we acknowledge that we are not always at our best…”[i]   

Kol Nidrei urges us to look at our true selves, blemishes and all.  It forces us to acknowledge that we will not achieve all that we want to achieve or always be who we want to be.  It demands that we recognize our imperfections.  It is, in many ways, as one colleague said, “an anti-dote to self-righteousness.”

Admitting our failings is no easy task.  As we prepared to hear Kol Nidrei tonight, we read words from our Mahzor that affirmed just how difficult it is to admit imperfections and how we can draw strength by doing so together in community.

In response to Kol Nidrei, God promises:  S’lachachti k’dvarchecha – “I forgive, as you have asked.”  And with that knowledge, we can now move forward towards a new beginning – provided that we can also do what God has done: forgive ourselves.  You see, until we can forgive ourselves, we won’t actually be able to meet our goals, as we will be weighed down by feelings like guilt; until we can forgive ourselves for our flaws and imperfections, we will never be able to see beyond them to other possibilities that lie before us.   The following folktale illustrates what I mean:

A long, long time ago in India there lived a water bearer. He had two pots and a very long pole, which he balanced across his very broad shoulders. He would hang one pot from each end of the pole. Each day the man left his home with his empty pots and his pole draped across his shoulders and walked down the path to the stream. Once at the stream, the man filled both his pots with water.  Then he put the pots back on his pole, balanced his pole across his shoulders, and walked back home. Now what you should know is this: One of the man’s pots had a crack in it! And just as you’d expect, every time the man arrived home, the cracked pot was only half full of water.

But that didn’t change the man’s routine: Every day he walked down the path to the stream, collected his water, and arrived home with one pot full of water and the other pot half full. This went on every day, week after week, month after month, year after year.  The cracked pot felt sad and ashamed. Finally, one day, the cracked pot mustered up the courage to speak to the man. “Excuse me, sir. I’m so sorry,” said the pot. “And I really want to apologize and beg your forgiveness.” “Why?” asked the man. “What do you have to apologize for?”

“Over the years that I’ve helped you, I’ve never been able to deliver a full load of water for you. I’ve never been able to do my fair share. You work so hard, but because of my crack you never get the full amount of water. So your efforts are never completely rewarded, and it’s all because of me and my crack.” Hearing this, the man felt sorry for the pot. “Listen,” he said. “It’s okay. Really, it is. In fact, the next time we go to collect water, as we walk along, I want you to look out over your side of the path.” The pot agreed. The next day, the water bearer followed his normal routine, filling the two pots with water at the stream, and placing one at each end of his pole. Then he started for home. Instead of worrying about the crack and the water that was falling out, the pot did as the man had instructed. She looked out along the side of the path. And what she saw was amazing: fields of beautiful flowers!

The man stopped. “Do you see all those flowers? And have you noticed that these gorgeous flowers are only on your side of the path? It’s because I knew that water leaked from your crack, so I planted seeds along the way. That way, every day when we walked back up to the house, you watered the seeds. It’s thanks to you that we have these beautiful flowers growing along the path. Without your crack, we wouldn’t have these colorful flowers to brighten my day and bring beauty to the world. So I need to thank you. Thank you for being a cracked pot.”[ii]

In some ways, each of us is a cracked pot; none of us are perfect.  While, of course, we want to try to do our best and be our best, and improve ourselves where possible, there are some limitations and flaws that are just part of who we are.   It is only when we can accept them and forgive ourselves for them, that we can do for ourselves what the man did for the pot – find ways to turn those flaws into blessings.

We are all living through an extraordinarily stressful time.  No doubt, one day we will be able to reflect back on this time and recognize living in quarantine during a pandemic as among the top stressful life situations. Certainly, under these circumstances, it is easy for our flaws and imperfections to become magnified.  I would imagine that most of us are trying our best to be understanding of others, especially those with whom we live, and cutting them some slack.  Kol Nidrei comes to remind us to cut ourselves some slack as well.  If we can be generous towards ourselves, if we can recognize and forgive ourselves for our limitations and flaws, then perhaps we will be better able to see and appreciate our own gifts, just as we try to in others.

Granting forgiveness is not always easy, and often hardest when it’s directed towards ourselves.  May we draw strength from the perspective that Rabbi Karyn Kedar offers in the following poem:

Forgiveness is a process, a path without an end,

a bridge that leads to restoration

of what you have lost.

It is a shift in perspective,

a way of being.

Forgiveness is what you do to your soul when you

Choose to live in light rather than in darkness.[iii]

May 5781 be a year in which we choose to find the light.

[i] Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, “The Kol Nidrei Mirror into Our Soul,” in All These Vows: Kol Nidrei, Ed. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, PhD, p. 202

[ii] “The Cracked Pot,” as told by Rabbi Francine Green Roston in Three Times Chai:  54 Rabbis Tell Their Favorite Stories, ed. Laney Katz Becker

[iii] Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar, Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetery, And Mindfulness Practice, p. 66.\

High Holy Day Appeal 2020

by Lisa-Sue Quackenbush, First Vice President

Good Evening, my Temple family.

I hope you are all well. Needless to say, this is not the High Holy Days or the Yom Kippur we all envisioned. This is such a mixture of both the comfortable and the uncomfortable.  On one hand, many of us are in the comfort of our homes. Maybe you are watching this from your living rooms or from patios, sitting on comfortable couches or in your favorite chairs. Maybe you are in your favorite loungewear, wearing your favorite slippers (no judgement on my part). So, yes, there is some actual physical comfort involved. But how comfortable are you feeling, observing this holiest day of the year over a computer screen, not in our beloved Temple sanctuary, not side by side with the rest of our Temple family? I have to tell you, I am struggling with this and I know I am not alone. 

This pandemic has personally made me dive deeply into both the comfortable and the uncomfortable on many levels. ’m not totally comfortable with technology, but if I don’t try to upgrade my knowledge, I will get left behind and have difficulty communicating with the rest of the world (namely my children) – and without that communication, let’s face it, I would be extremely uncomfortable! And so a little discomfort in learning is better than the great discomfort in getting left behind. And we’ve all been doing these trade-offs for months now. “If I stay home, and wear my mask when I do go out, it’s a little uncomfortable, but it’s a whole lot better than getting sick or getting others sick. Should I eat out? Is inside dining safe? Maybe outside dining is OK. Maybe we’ll get takeout or curbside pick up.  Maybe we’ll just cook at home.” How much risk is too much risk, and how much risk am I willing to take?  

Comfort vs. discomfort for the greater good. I know what would make me comfortable. If Kurt and I could just have a Happy Hour here with our Temple family, holding a glass of wine, and a nibble of food and asking about your families. If we could socially gather around a table in the Social Hall for a Shabbat dinner and casually converse without wearing masks. If I could physically sit in our sanctuary and enjoy a Friday night service with my Temple family and wish you a “Good Shabbos” with a hug, and then watch you enjoy my homemade brownies and cookies (that are presently piling up in my freezer at home- Kurt is doing his part, but he can only eat so many). All of this, I know will happen. But not yet. We have to return to our Temple activities thoughtfully and carefully. The health and safety of our congregants and community is of the utmost importance. We have a dedicated committee that is working very hard at how best to meet the needs and wants of our congregation, and we so appreciated the many of you who responded to the survey we sent out a few months ago regarding these important safety issues. Rest assured, we are listening and acting accordingly.

There is a great deal of history here at Vassar Temple. We are nearing 175 years as a Congregation. I, myself, have a long history here at Vassar Temple. I have been a member here since I was 11 years old; 45 years of membership here is certainly an appreciable investment. I was given a Torah scroll for completing my first year of Religious School on this very bimah. I both attended Religious School and taught Religious School here. I was confirmed here, as were all three of our children. I literally grew up here. Kurt and I have raised our family here. We both know our way around the Temple in different capacities; Kurt through Brotherhood (formerly Men’s Club), and I have participated in many different activities. We both know the kitchen very well. Kurt is always found preparing and creating a wonderful meal at our annual Purim Pasta Dinner and I am usually found baking hamantaschen and busy at any number of cooking events at Temple. It’s no secret to anyone that knows me that the litchen is one of my favorite and cherished spots in Vassar Temple. During  my time here I have served as Sisterhood President.  I have served on the Board twice.  I’ve seen Rabbis and Cantors come and go. I’ve seen this Temple deal with flooded basements, broken boilers and leaky roofs. We have dealt with fiscal crisis and budget Issues. We have dealt with the devastating and sometimes sudden losses of great leaders and members of our Temple family. We will get through this pandemic as well. This is my Temple home and you are my Temple family. And families stick together through joys and sorrows, easy times and the difficult times. That’s ultimately what makes us stronger for the future.

Let me state the obvious. There is a future here at Vassar Temple. Both Sisterhood and Brotherhood are working on future programs. Even during this pandemic, new members are joining and prospective members are asking about our upcoming programs and our outreach in the community. Our Religious School has already met on the Temple lawn, following all the proper, socially distant protocols, and will continue to virtually gather for learning experiences. We are excited to be the future interim home of the Jewish Community Preschool of the Hudson Valley, which is currently offering virtual programming for our future little learners. This congregation is not sitting idle. It is vibrant and growing even under these precarious circumstances.

So this brings me to do that which makes both you and me uncomfortable. This is of course, the High Holy Day Appeal. Now I know that through the great perks of technology you can, at this point, turn me off, but I’m asking if you’ve invested in me this far, please hang in there. We can be uncomfortable for a few more minutes together.  Let me start by stating the obvious.  If there had been no pandemic, Vassar Temple would have had all kinds of dundraisers by now.  There was a Movable Feast planned for this summer. We usually have some kind of Gala/Auction event.  We have Happy Hours and dinners throughout the year. These events help bring in money to offset our expenses. Clearly these events and others like them – namely any event that involves person-to-person socializing – is not going to happen any time in the near future. This is a huge problem, as bills still need to be paid.  The physical upkeep of our building has not changed much. We still need to pay for employees, insurance, electricity, heat, mowing in the summer and shoveling in the winter. Now rest assured that the Board and Finance Committee have worked incredibly hard in many areas. Early on, all the pertinent  information was gathered and submitted so that we successfully received a PPP loan. This was an incredible help to maintain our payroll.  Line items in our yearly budget have been tweaked as to where we can save money, and we have saved in many areas already.  There may, however, be new expenditures involved in upgrading our physical space for health, safety, security and technology. The technology piece is being so generously subsidized by the new Lila Matlin Technology Fund.  You are all benefiting from the first phase of this technology investment over the High Holy Days. We are so grateful for your donations to this new fund and all of our other sustaining funds. We are also very grateful for your generous participation in our very successful Golden Gelt Fundraiser earlier this year. Scrip purchases have gone up during this pandemic and that helps as well. But we can always do more. There are other fundraisers that are smaller in scale, that we are working on to extend to the congregation in the future.  Frankly all of this is helpful, but it is just not enough. Even though we like to think of Vassar Temple as our home, it is also a business. And like all businesses, this one is taking a huge hit during this pandemic. It puts me in an uncomfortable position to say that due to the pandemic and lack of typical socialization fundraisers, it is necessary for this High Holy Day Appeal to become our biggest fundraiser of the year.  

Remember how I said earlier comfort vs discomfort for the greater good? As uncomfortable as I am asking this of you here and now, I know I would be much more uncomfortable standing before you, my Temple family and telling you as a leader of the congregation, what we can no longer afford to have. We have a beautiful building that we need to maintain with the goal of at some point gettingback inside to pray and study and socialize together on a regular basis.  We have an Incredible Rabbi, wonderful Cantor, talented accompanist, highly skilled office and maintenance staff that are always available to us and truly are holding it all together. I would hate to lose any of these integral parts of our Vassar Temple family or part of our Vassar Temple home. Throughout this pandemic, the Temple has been and is still working hard for us.  Sisterhood and Brotherhood are still active.  The Board is still meeting.  services are still happening.  Torah Study is still happening. Many of our committees have not stopped working and are actually working harder than ever throughout the pandemic, as there is a greater need in our congregation and community for help of various kinds. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been able to adjust to these tumultuous times. A year ago I had never even heard of Zoom, and now I cannot imagine how any of us would be living without it. We are all adjusting. When we are able to eventually, regularly come back inside, there will be more adjustments, I am sure of it. We will be ready, and our Temple home will be equipped with whatever is needed to ensure the health and safety of our staff and congregants, while maintaining an environment of learning, socializing and spiritual respite that we’ve come to know and love. Those of you coming in for pre-scheduled meditation times tomorrow in the sanctuary will notice many of these additions.  

I thank you for joining me in these few moments of discomfort. No one likes to “be asked” for money, and no one likes to “ask” for money.  However, if you feel the kind of connection to this Vassar Temple family and Vassar Temple home that I do, I hope you will support this year’s High Holy Day Appeal. You will soon receive a letter in the mail from Vassar Temple, signed by me, a member of your Temple family, asking for your support.  May we all continue to stay safe and healthy. May we all be able to be seated comfortably together in our beautiful sanctuary soon. Our Vassar Temple home is where you belong.

 G’mar Tov.

President’s Remarks on Rosh Hashanah 5781/2020

By Susan Karnes Hecht

L’Shanah Tovah. It’s a very great honor to address you as Vassar Temple President.

About 2½ years ago, when I committed to my current stint on the executive committee, I knew I would be expected to stand here today to share an inspiring message. I had many expectations, about many things, 2½ years ago that had to be set aside because the world has changed drastically, especially in 2020.  I’ve been forced to re-envision and re-prioritize my term. Through it all, this community has been a lifeline to me and to so many others. During the holidays, we’ll have sermons.  We’ll have a holiday appeal. I leave that to others; today, I want to focus on a different message.

Like many of you, we’ve been getting a lot of takeout. We need a break from the stress, we want to support local businesses, and let’s face it, this is really a time for comfort food.

A few weeks ago we picked up our favorite Chinese takeout from Chan’s on Raymond Avenue. Having savored my egg roll, fried rice and orange chicken, I cracked open my fortune cookie hoping to be momentarily distracted by an insipid quotation. (I held up the fortune.) Here it is.

On the first side, I saw “now is the time to take the census.”  Pretty amazing timing (and incidentally, I hope that all of you have done the census! If not, please do it – after the service).

I then turned it over, ready to check out my lucky numbers or perhaps learn a Chinese word, and saw:

“Character is who you are when no one is watching.”

(I repeated.) “Character is who you are when no one is watching.”

An omen. I knew at that moment that my message today must be one about character, and about gratitude. Gratitude for the comfort food for the soul that emanates from the good works done by this temple family. Gratitude to counteract the significant personal and congregational losses that we are now grieving.

Every month we list the donations in the Bulletin. When we have a Gala we publicize the pledges. We give awards and make proclamations and engrave all of these plaques.  (I indicated the sanctuary.)

And then, there are all the others.  Those who are rarely recognized, who feed the soul by being a blessing when no one is looking. Today is the time to say thank you. So, here I go:

– To our parents and generations of grandparents for their legacy of values, always present here with us.

– To our children, a constant source of learning and inspiration.

– To our friends, always there for us.

– To those who silently drop coins, and sometimes huge bills, into the Tzedakah box to help our neighbors in need.

– To those who donate anonymously to every social action drive.

– To those who quietly transport heavy bags of food to the pantries. And to those who cheerfully wash dishes at Lunch Box.

– To those who, after a hard day or week, give of their time off to maintain our congregational house.

– To those who say “use my credit card on file” or mail a check when the temple has an unforeseen need.

– To those who habitually pay above and beyond temple dues so that others may have dignity and share equally in temple life.

– To those who slip a few meals into the freezer for Reyut.

– To those who make it their business to show up at every shiva to make sure there’s a minyan for a grieving family. 

– To those who leave their comfortable homes to spend the night at the homeless shelter.

– To those who go out of their way to provide a ride to someone who wants to come to temple or needs groceries.

– To those who get out of bed in the middle of the night to go to the hospital or house where there is sickness.

– To those who cook week after week to brighten our Shabbat gatherings. We will be back!

– To our stalwart office volunteers who provide hours of writing and envelope stuffing, and camaraderie.

– To those who volunteer their professional skills to support the synagogue and its members.

– To our dedicated staff who go above and beyond their hours to keep the temple humming.

– To our Vassar Temple technology heroes.

– To our clergy, our teachers, our health care and all of the other essential workers.

– To those who travel to the border, stand in the blistering heat and witness.

– To those who have deliberately begun to examine bias and do the work to break it down.

– To those who practice tolerance and model for their children against hate in all its forms.

– And for the sudden discovery, in the midst of mourning for normalcy, of a source of optimism, of something for which I am exceedingly grateful – that is, the ability and privilege to make decisions that keep everyone safe.

Hakarat hatov:  recognizing the good and being grateful. Turning disappointment into appreciation.  Being thankful for what we have instead of wishing for what we don’t have.

I know I’ve missed many of you in these thanks. Listed or not, today we see all of you. Thank you for feeding our souls.  Thank you for being a blessing to Vassar Temple. May you and yours be inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet year.

“Together Apart: Gathering Outside of our Sanctuary” A sermon for Vayakhel/Pekudei

In 2012, MIT professor, Sherry Turkle coined the phrase “Alone Together” for her book exploring the impact of technology on our human interactions– think: teens sitting around the table, texting one another rather than talking to one another.  In an op-ed in the New York Times this week, Priya Parker, author of The Art of Gathering: How we meet and why it matters, entitled her piece, “How to be together apart in the time of Coronavirus”

Alone together// together apart.

We know that we can be alone in the midst of community, whether it is our technology that is taking us away from human interactions or just because we may not be connecting to those around us.   Our challenge now is to find ways to feel together while we are physically apart.

For us as a religious community, there is an added element to our being apart – being out of our sacred space.  For us, our community generally means being together here, in our synagogue, at Vassar Temple.

Coincidentally (or perhaps, not), for these past few weeks, our Torah reading has focused on building the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness.  Three weeks ago, we read about how Moses received the command from God to build it, last week we had the diversion of the Golden Calf, and this week Moses gives the command to the Israelites and they immediately respond by bringing all of the items needed to build the Tabernacle.  Exodus ends with the erection of the Tabernacle.

With such focus on a physical space where the Israelites would meet God, it may be surprising to find the deeper messages within that, despite all of the details describing it, it’s not really about the space at all.

Indeed, the command given to Moses to build the sanctuary was

וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃

And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.

Exodus 25:8

The language is clear – that I might dwell among them, not within it.

The Tabernacle could only be built from the contributions from those whose hearts so moved them, from the people working together with a willing spirit.  Indeed, the opening words of this week’s parsha further emphasize the communal element of this project:  Vayakhel Moshe et Kol adat b’nei Yisrael – and Moses convoked the whole community of Israel.. (Exodus 35:1) and the whole community responded.

It wasn’t the structure that invited God’s presence to dwell within; rather, it was the people joined together in a united effort that created the space for the Divine.

Furthermore, within the details for the Tabernacle, God designs the inner court containing the Ark with the tablets, with a cover over it of pure gold with two cherubim on its ends.  It is unclear just what cherubim were, but they were winged creatures with faces – most likely figures with animal bodies and human faces.

Thus, says God:  “There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.”  (Exodus. 25:22)

It is in this structure, in between these two figures most closely representing human beings, that God’s presence would be experienced.

We experience God in human relationships.  We see that linguistically as well.

The Hebrew name for the Tabernacle, Mishkan, comes from the root for the word to dwell.  The Hebrew word for neighbor is scheinah; one of the names for God is Shechinah, Divine Presence, Indwelling.  When we are acting as true neighbors, as community, we invite Shechinah to dwell among us.

Once settled in the Promised land, our ancestors understood God’s presence as being felt most closely in the Temple in Jerusalem, the one place where sacrifices could be offered.  And so it was for 1000 years.  The destruction of the Temple and the exile of the people from Judea, could have been cataclysmic for Jewish life, but the rabbis understood that God was not limited to that space, as they taught:   “You find that whenever they were exiled, the Shechinah was exiled with them…. And when they return, the Shechinah will return with them…”  (Midrash Sifrei Bamidbar 84)

So, even if we are exiled, as it were, from our synagogue, from our sacred space, the Shechinah will be with us as we find new ways to gather as a Kehilah Kedoshah, a sacred community.

Such innovation, adaptation, though perhaps unnerving, is not new to us.  In fact, innovation is intrinsic to Jewish survival.   Indeed, when the 2nd Temple was destroyed by Romans 70 CE, it seemed to portend the end of Jewish life.  However, because of the courage and ingenuity of the rabbis – standing up to others who opposed their creativity – Judaism was transformed into what we know today.  If we could no longer worship God through sacrifice, we would through prayer and the synagogue replaced the Temple.  The Shabbat table became our altar and Torah study, a path to experience God.  The Festivals were “repurposed.”  Passover, for example, emphasized the Exodus rather than spring harvest offerings; the rabbis developed the most commonly practiced ritual in Jewish life, the Seder, modeled after Roman meals.

So, too, today, can we continue in this tradition of adaptation and redefine what it means to be a community, taking advantage of the tools of technology to connect us – not only now, in this time of national emergency, but even integrating technology into our regular activities to connect more people for worship, for learning, for community.

“There I will meet you,” said God.  Wherever we gather, if we are face to face, physically or virtually, we can invite God’s presence to dwell among us — if we are in real relationship with one another.  Martin Buber, the great German Jewish philosopher of 20th c, whose seminal work redefined our understanding of God’s presence to be in real, “I -Thou” relationships between people, wrote critically of modern society.  He challenged many community structures as not being real community because they don’t foster true connections between people, because they are based on so much superficiality and not on deep, lasting relationships.  He called for something more meaningful:

“The divine may come to life in individual man, may reveal itself from within individual man; but it attains its earthly fullness only where … individual beings open themselves to one another, disclose themselves to one another, help one another; where immediacy is established between one human being and another… Where this takes place, where the eternal rises in the Between, the seemingly empty space: that true place of realization is community, and true community is that relationship in which the Divine comes to its realization between man and man…Judaism therefore is not concerned with a God who lives in the far beyond, for its God is content to reside in the realm between one earthly being and the other, as if they were cherubim on the Holy Ark …“ (“The Holy Way,” in On Judaism, pp.109-111)

This is the community we strive to create, one that fosters real relationships, where we can share our truest selves.  On the one hand, that may seem especially challenging now but perhaps we might find that space in the more intimate connections we can make as we strive to overcome our social isolation through phone conversations, face time, virtual dinners with friends.   These can be opportunities for developing deeper bonds – to be alone together.

Our understanding of community has taken on additional new meaning in this health crisis.  As we strive to stop its spread, to “flatten the curve,” we have come to understand just how interconnected we are.

First and foremost, being part of the larger community – whether it means Poughkeepsie and its environs, New York, the United States and the global community of humanity now united in fighting this virus – means that we have obligations to others.  Following health care protocols, including social distancing is not only for our own health and well being and that of those who are closest to us, but it is for other members of this larger community, most especially those who are most vulnerable.

It is absolutely appalling to see news reports of young people on beaches, in bars, gathered together in large groups as if nothing is going on.  Yes, young people often do have a sense of invincibility, but this is about so more than them.

If you have young people within your family circle, I implore you to underscore to them how important it is that they follow these guidelines for the health of others.

Our new sense of community calls upon everyone to step up to help out; as our leaders have been saying, this is a time of war.   In whatever ways that we can, we need to support those on the front lines – our health care workers, emergency responders.  They must have adequate equipment to function; they are putting their health at risk to care for others.  Similarly, we owe a sense of gratitude and support to those who are keeping essential businesses open so that our needs can be met.

As the numbers of those sick and dying continue to increase, we will be called upon to support one another in ways that we could not have imagined before this moment.  The economic impact of this virus is simply beyond comprehension and we know that its affects will be felt long after that day when the virus itself is finally conquered.  Our Federation is coordinating an effort to support those who are in need and provide opportunities for those who are able to volunteer.   Mitzvah Day is being transformed from a one-day event (that can no longer happen as had been scheduled) to on-going opportunities to help others.

Being a community means that we will be there for one another, that we will stand together for the long haul, that we will support one another and make it through this time – whether we can be together physically or not.

This afternoon Gov. Cuomo announced an executive order taking effect Sunday night that all non-essential workers are to stay home.   We will figure out our plan to keep the Temple functioning and we will develop more opportunities to connect virtually.

Sadly, but necessarily, it will mean more social isolation.

We are grateful to Judy Rosenfeld, Reyut chair, for coordinating an effort to reach out to those who may be most isolated or at risk of being so and developing a group of callers who will keep in touch.   Thanks to many who have stepped up to make calls.

Even more, we can each be intentional – every day – to reach out to friends, to neighbors – to stay connected so that we are not in exile from one another, even as we are isolated.

Have virtual dinners with friends or virtual Shabbat dinners (and send us photos to post on Facebook).   We need to spread the message that we can be “alone together” for social isolation is, indeed, frightening.

I happened to catch part of Gov. Cuomo’s press conference on Tuesday.  I was moved by how personally he spoke and addressed the very real fears we all have in this most uncertain time.

At one point, he held up his hands – one finger in each hand like this — and said “ it is this much time.”  We don’t know if it’s 3 months, 6 months, or 9 months,  but it is this much time – and we will get through it.

There is a beginning and an end point; we don’t know the end date nor what will transpire in between, but there will be an end point.  And we will get through it together – as we learn how to be “alone together.”

The book of Exodus began with the enslavement of the Israelites; we conclude it this Shabbat with the erection of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, the Place of God’s Indwelling.

In his commentary on the book of Exodus, the noted biblical scholar and German Reform Rabbi Benno Jacob wrote:   “Our book which began in darkness concludes in the brilliant illumination of God’s glory before the eyes of the entire House of Israel.” (Eitz Chaim Torah Commentary, p. 572)

So, may we, through support of one another, through true community that invites Shechinah to dwell among us, transform this time of darkness into one of light and of hope.

Ken Y’hi Ratzon


“Thinking About Sin Anew” A Sermon for Kol Nidrei 5780 Rabbi Renni S. Altman Vassar Temple

A number of years ago, before there were memes, an email went viral among rabbis right before Rosh Hashanah, as it related to the ritual of Tashlikh, when we throw bread into the water as we symbolically rid ourselves of our sins.  In response to queries from people wondering what kind of bread to use, the following recommendations were offered:

For ordinary sins – white bread

For exotic sins – French or Italian bread

For dark sins – Pumpernickel

For complex sins – Multi-grain

For truly warped sins – Pretzels

For sins of indecision – Waffles

For sins committed in haste – Matzah

For substance abuse – Poppy

For committing arson – Toast

For being ill-tempered – Sourdough

For silliness – Nut Bread

For not giving full value – Short bread

For political chauvinism – Yankee Doodles

For excessive use of irony – Rye Bread

For continual bad jokes – Corn Bread

For hardening our hearts – Jelly Doughnuts


It ends with the prayer:  May you not run out of bread.   It is a given that we will never run out of sins!

“Sin.”  Not a very comfortable word for many of us; some say if feels very Christian; Original Sin is not something we believe in.  Sin conveys “bad;” it is laden with guilt.  Can sinners really change?

But sin is a very Jewish concept, as we are reminded each year on Yom Kippur.    The Jewish understanding of sin can be derived from the common Hebrew word for sin, Cheit, which is also the word for arrow, thus conveying the notion that when we sin, when we do something wrong, we have missed the mark.  It is our actions that our wrong, not the essence of our being.  Our challenge is to correct our aim, to strive to be better.

Sin is part of our humanity.    We cannot have Yom Kippur without sinners.  Though Mishkan Hanefesh softens the translation of the introduction to Kol Nidrei by saying “Let none be excluded from our community of prayer,” the literal translation of the Hebrew is “we hold it lawful to pray with those who have transgressed.”  We don’t exclude those who have erred because we, too, are among them; in fact, we need to invite sinners in.  Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, a leading rabbinic scholar of the 13th century, added these words into the prayer to incorporate the Talmudic teaching that “A public fast that does not include the sinners of Israel is no fast; see, the odor of galbanum is unpleasant and yet it was included in the spices for the incense [in the Temple].” [i]

Judaism teaches us that we are not stuck in our sinful behavior; we can change at any point in time, but we focus on that process and potential during these Days of Awe which now move toward their climactic ending with Yom Kippur.  The urgency is great, for with the setting sun tomorrow, the gates of repentance will close.

The first step in true repentance is to confront the realities of our sins and acknowledge our failings; only then can we move beyond them and make the repairs necessary for teshuvah. 

We are about to begin the section of the Yom Kippur liturgy that engages us in this process:  the Vidui.  When I decided that the Vidui would be the focus of my remarks this evening, I thought it would make the most sense to speak now rather than in the usual sermon spot later on in the service, in the hopes of deepening your experience of this powerful section of the liturgy.  I invite you to follow along in the mahzor, beginning on 82.

Vidui:  The translation here as Confession, though correct, misses an element that is conveyed in the more literal meaning of the term:  Declaration.  Teshuvah demands that one must first articulate one’s sin.  Such declaration has always been part of Judaism.  In ancient days, if one committed a sin, one brought an offering and making a public declaration of one’s sin was part of that offering.  Following the destruction of the second temple and the end of the sacrificial cult, confessional prayers developed to replace these sacrificial offerings.  In time, the practice moved from enumerating aloud – declaring—one’s personal sins to reciting a fixed list of sins as part of the communal liturgy, followed by an opportunity for private confessional where, presumably, one would declare one’s actual sins.

What is the nature of these declarations and what do they teach us about real confession?

If we look at the opening, what is called the Vidui Zuta, the short confessional, the most important phrase of this plea to God is the last three Hebrew words – aval anachnu chatanu, translated here as “We have done wrong.”  The way that the text is translated here, the main point of this phrase is somewhat obscured.  The most important word is aval.  A common word in modern Hebrew, it means “but”.  Aval appears only twice in the Torah where it is understood to mean “in truth.”  Verily, indeed, in other words:  In truth, we admit — we have sinned, we have done wrong.  (In this translation, “In truth” is in the line above.)

A story is told in the Talmud by Samuel’s student, Bar Hamdudi, who reports of his teacher: “I was standing before Samuel, and he was seated. When the prayer leader arrived at the phrase ‘But we have sinned [Aval Anachnua Chatanu] Samuel stood up.  We learn that this is the essence of confession.”[ii]

Aval is the turning point in our teshuvah, when we can admit and recognize our sins, even if that means bringing up things we have buried long ago.  It is only when we own our mistakes, when we stop kidding ourselves, when we no longer blame others, when we recognize what might be some ugly truths, it is only then that the real process of repentance can begin.  Vidui as declaration; we need to hear ourselves say the words:  aval anachnu hatanu; in truth, we have sinned.   These words are so important that some have taught, including Maimonides, that if one says them with sincerity and the commitment not to repeat the sin, no further confessional is necessary.

Nonetheless, the confessional continues with the Ashamnu, or our Alphabet of Woe as it was referred to in the Gates of Repentance.  For non-Hebrew readers—each word of this litany of sins begins with the successive letter of the alphabet, beginning with the aleph and ending with taf (or from A to Z as we would say in English).  Perhaps this was simply a creative exercise by the liturgist; more, it is understood as conveying a sense of completeness regarding our list of sins, encouraging us to try our best to remember all – each and every one—of our sins this past year.

This sense of the need to take responsibility for our sins is further emphasized in the section of the liturgy between the Ashamnu and the Long Vidui, known as the Al Chet.  “What can we say before You, Eternal One” we ask; nothing is concealed from You, You know the secrets of the human heart.”  What point then to our confession if God knows all of our sins?  God does not need our confession, but we do.  Just as when Adam hid after discovering his nakedness and God asks, “Ayeka, Where are you?”  Does God not know?  Rather, it is Adam who must take responsibility for his actions.  By declaring our sins, we begin to take responsibility for them.  And the secrets God knows, well, they may be sins that we are not yet able to own, secrets buried so deep within that we are not yet fully aware of them, but as we open our hearts in this communal confessional, we may be able to begin to explore them.

It is not only the aval that is unusual in the phrase aval anachnu hatanu.  A moment of Hebrew grammar:  the nu at the end of hatanu means we have sinned; anachnu means we.  Why this double emphasis on we?  Dr. Larry Hoffman, Professor of Liturgy at HUC-JIR, teaches that it emphasizes this sense of ownership of our sins: “It is we who have sinned.”[iii]  At the same time, the first person plural sets the tone for the entire public confessional, a tone that has challenged many throughout the ages:  ashamnu, WE are guilty; al heit shechatanu, for the sin that WE have sinned.  Why am I confessing to sins I have never committed?  What kind of confessional is that?

We recite this confessional in the language of “We” because we are part of the Jewish people – past, present and future – and that comes with both responsibilities and with benefits.

The notion of collective responsibility is ancient within Judaism. Time and again in the Torah we are told of the blessings we would receive for doing what’s right and the curses that would befall us if we are not.  Even as Moses speaks to the entire people of this responsibility, his language directs his message to each individual Israelite.  As you will hear in tomorrow morning’s Torah reading:  Moses gathers all the people to reaffirm their entrance into the covenant.  “I call heaven and earth to witness against you (plural) this day:  I have put before you (singular) life and death; blessing and curse.  Choose life that you and your offspring will live.”  (Deut. 30:19)  We are held accountable for our own actions and for the actions of the community as a whole.

Tomorrow afternoon’s Torah reading from the Holiness Code in Leviticus underscores this responsibility when it commands:  Hocheach tokiach – you shall surely rebuke your fellow.”  Later, the Talmudic sages developed the principle Kol Yisrael Arevim zeh lazeh, all Israel is bound up with/responsible for one another.  They said further, “whoever can stop others within one’s community from sinning, but does not, is held responsible for what those others do.”[iv]  We are culpable if we are witness to others doing wrong and don’t do anything to stop them or counter their behaviors.  As a people, we know too well the ramifications of being silent bystanders to wrongdoing.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a leading Orthodox rabbi of the 20th century, philosopher and social activist, when protesting against the Vietnam war said “in a free society, some are guilty and all are responsible.”   Al Cheit she chantanu, for the sin that we have committed.

The way in which we act as individuals does impact our community and all members of that community bear the consequences of those actions, as Dr. Ellen Umansky, professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University teaches:

“… a community that tolerates or condones sexual immorality, financial dishonesty, family violence, indifference to those in need, a disrespect for the rights of others, and so on will not only be cursed but ultimately will be destroyed, if not by God, then by its members.  Indifference breeds indifference, violence breeds violence, and hatred breeds hatred.  When we recite the words of Al Chet, we ask God to forgive us for the sins that we have knowingly committed, individually or communally, recognizing that what we do, and choose not to do, has an impact on others.  In the end, how we think, speak and act shapes not only our life but also the communities and societies of which we are members.”[v]

On the positive side, by standing with community to publicly confess sins, whether we actually committed those sins or not, we offer great support to one another.


By joining our voices together, we avoid shaming individuals who may have committed any of the listed sins.  Not only that, by standing in solidarity with them, we say that no one is perfect, and we can give others the strength to take ownership of their sins and undertake the difficult work of repentance.  Hearing others confess may even give us the strength to face those sins that lay buried deep within.

The great Orthodox scholar and thinker, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, writing about the difference between individual and communal confession taught, “When the individual confesses, he does so from a state of …despair… In contrast, Knesset Israel confesses out of a sense of confidence and even rejoicing for it does so in the presence of a loyal ally.”  “That may explain,” he continues, “why in some Jewish communities it is customary to since the Al Cheit .. in a heartwarming melody.”[vi] There is strength in numbers and in community.

Soloveitchik’s teaching helps to address the disconnect I’ve always felt between the words of the Ashamnu and the upbeat tone of the folk melody that we sing.  Even as we take confession of our sins seriously, our burden feels a little lighter knowing that we are not on this journey alone.

Then we get to the litany of sins that is the Al Chet.  If you are looking in the mahzor, you will note that on the right side of the page is the traditional prayer (though shortened) and, on the left side, are more contemporary interpretations.   But their themes are similar and notable for what they are not about.  Though they are all framed in the language of “For the sin that we have committed against You (God) they do not seem to address what we might think of as sins against God:  ritual infractions, taking God’s name in vain, violating Shabbat, etc. Rather, almost all declarations address our failings in our interactions with other people.  In other words, we wrong God by wronging others.

As we utter these words of confession, the Ashamnu and the Al Chet, some of us will beat our chests with each declaration of sin.  Why?  If you ask three people, you’ll probably get more than three different answers:

Self-flagellation, I’m beating myself up for what I did wrong;

To show that I’m sorry;

To help me focus on each sin;

To knock the bad things out of me so that I can begin anew with a clean slate;

I don’t know – it’s what I grew up with and it feels right.

I found the following interpretations to be helpful in offering new meaning to this ritual:

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, a Reform rabbi and disciple of the Hassidic masters, views confessional on Yom Kippur as an opportunity to examine the bad things we have done, not to excise the evil, but to try to discover its deepest motivation and seek out the good that is buried deep within – the good that had initially motivated us, but got lost somewhere in the process.  Losing our temper because we really are impatient for others to do what is right; interfering too much in our children’s lives because we just want them to succeed and to do well; chastising others because we are afraid to confront our own wrongs.  We must take responsibility for the evil, regret what we did, take ownership of and accept the behavior, then we can make amends and move on.  In accepting these failings as part of ourselves, we don’t beat ourselves up during the Al Chet and the Ashamnu, we hold ourselves and cry.[vii]

Dr.Ron Wolfson, renown educator in the Conservative movement, views beating the chest differently. He thinks of it as “percussing the heart” as when a musician beats a drum or a doctor percusses the abdomen during a physical.  “Beating my chest,” writes Wolfson, “reminds me that I cannot reach a state of spiritual cleanliness for the new year without experiencing the most difficult forgiveness of all—forgiving myself.  I beat my chest as a reminder that I must stop beating myself up over the ways I’ve missed the mark.  I have to recognize my mistakes, my shortcomings, but I must forgive myself before I can ever hope to forgive others.  I must forgive myself before I can ask for forgiveness from others – including God.

Percussing the heart is another innovation of the rabbis to awaken us from our spiritual slumber.  Just as the piercing sounds of the shofar are a clarion call to action, the beating of the chest emphasizes the importance, the seriousness, of our confessional prayers.  Percussing the heart is the alarm clock for the soul.”[viii]

With these thoughts in mind, we turn now to the first of our confessional prayers.  We will repeat them in tomorrow morning’s service, in the afternoon and finally in Neilah as the liturgy builds towards the final promises of God’s forgiveness.

I hope that my teaching tonight will deepen your experience of these confessional prayers and bring your intention to different aspects of them in each service, as you direct your heart to your own confessions.  May we each find the strength to take ownership of our failings and shortcomings and make the sincere commitment to strive to be better.  Whether we choose to beat our chests, or hold our hearts, may these prayers help us to us awaken our souls.  May we find strength, comfort and support in standing together.

In its creative approach to this challenging liturgy, Mishkan HaNefesh adds a section called “For Acts of Healing and Repair” to focus on our positive actions in addition to our failings.  Indeed, too much negative (remembering only the “I am but dust and ashes”) is not good for us; it is important to remember the positive, to remember the good that we have done as well as our shortcomings.

At the same time, the process of repentance demands that we take ownership of our sins and failings as a precursor to atoning for them.  While there are times when we should also recognize the good that we have done, sometimes we try to hide behind the good in order to avoid accepting the times that have done wrong, where we have missed the mark.   Tonight, I invite you to focus your attention on the challenging task of addressing our sins, collectively and individually.  Therefore, we will not read aloud the page “For acts of healing and repair,” though you are welcome to do so as part of your private confessional.  Let us begin.

[i]  Babylonian Talmud, K’ritot 6b

[ii]  Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 87b

[iii] Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, PhD, We have Sinned:  Sin and Confession in Judaism (Jewish Lights, 2012), p. 10

[iv]  Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 54b

[v]  Hoffman, p. 234

[vi] Lecture by Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, “Five Minutes, Five Questions” at HUC-JIR, Feb. 22, 2012

[vii] Hoffman, p. 195

[viii] Ibid., p. 241


“The Leopard in the Temple” A Sermon for Yom Kippur Morning 5780 Rabbi Renni S. Altman Vassar Temple

Imagine the scene:  It is the late 8th century, BCE.  The people of Judah are gathered in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem on the holiest day of the year – Yom Kippur.  The high priest is officiating at the ancient sacrificial rite,confessing his sins and the sins of the people over the scapegoat and over the goat to be sacrificed to Adonai.

In the midst of this solemnity, in bursts Isaiah ben Amoz, the prophet, who disrupts the worship; his words cry out like the sound of the shofar as in his rage he voices God’s anger with their Israelites:

“Tell My people their transgression, and the House of Jacob their sin.

Yes, they seek Me daily,

As though eager to learn My ways —

as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not abandoned God’s


They say, ‘Why did we fast, and You do not see it?

afflict ourselves, and You do not know it?’

Because even on your fast day you think only of desire,

While oppressing all who work for you…

Is this the fast I desire?

A day to afflict body and soul?…

Do you call this a fast – a day worthy of the favor of Adonai?

Is not this the fast I desire—

to break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke;

to let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry

And to take the homeless poor into your home,

and never to neglect your own flesh and blood?….

If you remove the chains of oppression,

the menacing hand, the malicious word;

if you offer your compassion to the hungry and satisfy the suffering

then shall your light shine through the darkness

and your night become as bright as noon…”[i]

Isaiah decries the hypocrisy of those who could think that their prayers and fasting on this day would be pleasing to God when on other days they ignore the cause of the poor and the stranger; he chastises the wealthy who prostrate themselves in prayer but commit fraud in the marketplace, and he calls out the corrupt priests, the religious leaders, who defile the holy temple by keeping for themselves the people’s contributions meant for the sanctuary.

“The offerings of those who act in this way are repugnant to the God of Israel who upholds the cause of the orphan, the poor, the widow and the stranger,” cries the prophet; God rejects the offerings of those who do not act with justice towards one another.

Imagine the response of the Israelites sitting in Temple that day!

In a short story, Franz Kafka envisioned the moment: “One day a leopard stalked into the synagogue, roaring and lashing its tail. Three weeks later,” Kafka wrote, “it had become part of the liturgy.”[ii]   And, now, we sit passively listening to his words.

Imagine if Isaiah stormed in here today.  What might he say to us?

“Is this the fast I desire, when my earth is in danger?”

“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.  We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth – how dare you!  (words of Greta Thunberg, 16-year old Swedish climate activist)[iii]

“Is this the fast I desire, when my children are dying?”

Every day 100 Americans are killed with guns.[iv] There have been more mass shootings in America this year than days of the week; as of Oct 8th, the 281st day of the year, there have been 325 mass shootings.[v]

“When politicians send their thoughts and prayers with no action, we say: No more” (words of David Hogg, student activist from Mary Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL)[vi]

“Is this the fast I desire, when the voice of the stranger cries out to Me?”

“I’m hungry here at Clint all the time. I’m so hungry that I have woken up in the middle of the night with hunger. Sometimes I wake up from hunger at 4 a.m., sometimes at other hours. I’m too scared to ask the officials here for any more food, even though there is not enough food here for me.” (words of a 12-year-old boy)[vii]

The words of Isaiah cry out to us as they did to the Israelites over 2800 years ago:  we sit in here praying and fasting, but what are we doing to alleviate suffering out there?   To protect the earth? To save lives?  To care for the stranger?

Our prayers and fasting this day in synagogue are empty if they are not accompanied by actions that lead toward a more just world outside of these walls.  Rituals are empty if they are not matched by our actions in our secular lives.  One cannot make a separation between ritual and ethical; Judaism demands that we do both.   Furthermore, it is not enough to “do no harm;” a religious Jew must act with compassion to alleviate suffering.

I appreciate that some people may be uncomfortable with my raising social issues like gun control, refugees or climate change on this holy day and would prefer to hear something more “spiritual.”  Yet, that is precisely Isaiah’s message – justice is spiritual.  It is one of the reasons why the Talmud teaches that “A person may only pray in a house with windows…”[viii] Yes, we come into a sanctuary for respite from the daily grind, and we seek solace in our prayers, in our music, in moments for private reflection, in community.  But the windows remind us that we are part of the world; through windows we can look to the heavens, but through windows we also allow the outside world in.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods.  The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision”[ix]

Heschel, a true disciple of the ancient prophets, lived out his words.  He was a trail blazer, not only within the Orthodox Jewish world but for the larger Jewish community, as he joined hands with other faith leaders and marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.  Reflecting on his participation in the march in Selma, Heschel wrote, “For many of us, the march… was about protest and prayer.  Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling.  And yet our legs uttered songs.  Even without words, our march was worship.  I felt my legs were praying.”[x]

In Judaism, we find the sacred not by escaping to some monastic life meditating in the mountains; rather, we find the sacred by dealing with the challenges of daily existence and bringing the obligation to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy people” to those challenges.  The Torah passage we will read this afternoon known as the Holiness Code reminds us that holiness is found when we are fair in our business practices and deal honestly with one another, through our obligation to care for the stranger, the poor, the widow and the orphan, when we are responsible for one another, and when we love our neighbor as ourselves.

If we do not address the ways in which we can bring our values to bear on the challenges of our lives and in our world, then the Torah, our ancient teachings and Judaism as a whole will become irrelevant.

Current demographics of the Jewish community attest to this reality as we learned from the Pew Research Center’s landmark 2013 study, A Portrait of Jewish Americans.  Two of the top three answers to the question “What does it mean to be Jewish” were leading an ethical and moral life and working for justice/equality. (The top reason was “remembering the Holocaust” which generally translates to a concern to fight against antisemitism, hatred and discrimination.)  While working for a just society was a high priority for the majority of Jews, commitments to synagogue, measured by membership or service attendance was much lower.   22% of the Jewish community falls into the category of “nones” meaning they are either secular, cultural or Jews of no religion.    Among millennials, only 32% see themselves as Jews by religion, though the vast majority have a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people.  And their sense of what means to be a Jew mirrors the average; social justice is essential to millennial’s Jewish identity while prayer and synagogue are virtually meaningless.[xi]

If we want to be relevant to the younger generation, civic engagement and social activism offer a powerful gateway into Jewish life.

This is, indeed, an overwhelming time in our nation and in the world; there are so many issues that call for our attention that we don’t know where to turn first; with so much coming at us, we can be completely paralyzed into inaction.  At such times, let us remember the teaching of R. Tarfon: You are not required to complete the task, neither are you free to desist from it.[xii]

It reminds me of one of my favorite stories:   a man was walking on the beach one morning and was shocked at how the beach was just filled with starfish, washed up during high tide.  In the distance, he saw another man who kept bending down and standing up.  As he got closer, he saw that the man was bending down to pick up a starfish, standing up to throw it back into the ocean, then repeating his action over and over.  The man walking on the beach caught up to the one throwing in the starfish and said to him: “You can’t possibly think you can return all of the starfish to the ocean; the beach is just riddled with them. What difference can you make?”  The man didn’t stop what he was doing.  As he bent down to pick up a starfish, he looked at the man, threw the starfish into the ocean and replied, “Made a difference to that one!”

Each act of justice we do, makes a difference to “that one.”  As the Talmud teaches, “If you save a life, you save a world.”[xiii]

I had thought about focusing my remarks today on a particular issue, but there are too many from which to choose and no way to raise up one over another.  We all have to act on what it is that we are passionate about.

Instead, I want to talk with you about a process for taking action, a process of civic engagement by which our Social Action committee hopes to galvanize this congregation into deeper and more effective efforts to respond to Isaiah’s call and address inequities and injustice today.  Civic engagement, as defined by Thomas Ehrlich, editor of Civic Responsibility and Higher Education, means “working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make the difference.  It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and nonpolitical processes.”[xiv]

Civic engagement, though it may involve political processes to change local, state or federal policies, is non-partisan.

A parable may help explain what I mean:  A villager walking by the river sees a person in the water thrashing about and, without even stopping to think, jumps in and saves that person from drowning.  The incident becomes known in the village and the good citizen is highly praised for her courage and quick action.  It happens again and soon a schedule of lifeguards is established; every few days another villager is hailed as a hero after pulling another stranger from the river.  As more and more resources are devoted to these rescues, someone finally stands up and says, “Maybe we should travel upstream and see why so many people are falling in the river.”

Vassar Temple, as with many synagogues, churches, mosques and other religious institutions, has many good hands on projects run by our Social Action Committee under the leadership of Marian Schwartz that play a vital role in positively impacting the lives of those in this community who are suffering, whether it is providing hot meals to the hungry at Lunch Box, collecting food to fill the shelves of food pantries, supporting underprivileged children by providing school supplies or volunteering to help at the library at the Morse school – and the list goes on.

Our Board recently approved our participation in a community solar project, under the umbrella of DCIC, that will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and will promote the development of green infrastructure and jobs in our region. You will be hearing more about this exciting project in future bulletin articles and we will all have the opportunity to participate as residential customers.

Actions like these are important; like the lifeguards in the parable, they save lives.  But until we travel upstream and address the deeper causes of these problems, people will keep falling into the river and some will drown.

I first heard this parable in a course I took through JOIN for Justice, the Jewish Organizing Institute and Network, that applies the principles of community organizing to social justice work.  The Vassar Temple Social Justice Team, under the leadership of Howard Susser, will be introducing this community organizing approach to our congregation this year.  Successful in many synagogues and churches throughout the country, community organizing is a grass roots approach that will enable us to determine where best to focus our energies for civic engagement as a synagogue.

Now, I know that we are accustomed to a different approach.  Generally, Temple leadership through its committees decides on the issues or organizations to support.  And a small, but very dedicated group of people, will step up and get involved.

The community organizing approach is different, more grass roots.  If we are to engage more people in this sacred work of tikun olam, we first need to learn what is important to us, what is it that will motivate our involvement.  So we ask, “What are you worried about?”  A favorite question of community organizing is “what keeps you up at night?”  By listening to one another, sharing our stories, we build relationships around common bonds that will lead us to towards more effective engagement.

Thus, we will begin by conducting listening campaigns.  Note I said: “listening campaigns”.  They involve active listening – really hearing what someone else is saying without jumping to defend your position or offering solutions.  The social just team is reaching out to potential leaders for such an effort who will then facilitate house meetings – gatherings of about a dozen congregants who will engage in one-on-one conversations to learn about one another and each other’s concerns.

This social just team will be trained by the Senior Organizer of RAC-NY, formerly the Reform Jewish Voice, a locally-led network of Reform Jewish communities working together to build a more just and merciful New York State.  This training has nothing to do with any issue; it is training in the community organizing approach to justice work.  The issue or issues that we take on will emerge from these house meetings.  Each of you will have the opportunity to participate and let your voice be heard – and listen to others.

We recognize that we are certainly not of one voice in this congregation on any issue.  Yes, we are democrats, republicans and independents.  We are progressives and we are conservatives.  We are undecideds; and some are not defined by category or label.  This is an opportunity to meet across those divides, to listen to one another and see where the energies and interests coalesce.

Once an issue is decided upon, a program of education will follow:  to learn more about that issue, to seek out partners with whom we can collaborate since there is much greater strength in numbers, and to determine steps for action.

Two examples of Reform congregations that went upstream, to the source of the problems in their communities, conducted listening campaigns and decided on actions that positively impacted their communities:

After Sandy Hook, Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA joined with other Boston-area congregations to lobby for a gun violence reduction bill.  Four of the five key provisions they proposed were included in a bill that became Massachusetts law in 2014.  The next year, local police officers pointed to specific cases where lives were saved because of that bill.

Members of Temple Beth-El in Charlotte, NC actively engaged in volunteering with different agencies that served the homeless and poor.  In an effort to help get to the root of the problems, the temple board passed a resolution encouraging the temple, its leaders and members to speak out on homelessness and affordable housing in the community.  This public position led to collaboration with a group of churches that resulted in a $20 million public/private endowment to fund families on a path from homelessness to financial independence.  In its third year, the endowment was subsidizing rent and arranging for supportive services for 99 families.[xv]

We do not enter into this process to promote any particular issue or action; our path will emerge from the process itself, one that will be as broad as is the participation of the temple membership.  We invite you to travel with us upstream as we strive to build a more just world.

Obviously, this will not be a quick or short-term process; effective change takes time and patience.  We are just at the beginning of this effort.  You can read more about it in the November bulletin and announcements about next steps will emerge in the course of the year.  Even as the social justice team is working on this project, our social action committee will continue to guide our civic engagement through the many important on-going projects.  (The next one is the CROP Walk — and if you haven’t yet signed up to walk to help fight hunger in Dutchess County on Oct. 20th, it’s not too late. Or you can support any of the Vassar Temple Team walkers, including your rabbi!)

Judaism has always been a religion of hope with an unwavering belief in the possibility of redemption.  Yes, Isaiah chastised the people for their sins, but he always held before them the promise of God’s forgiveness, if they but change their ways.

There are numerous times in the Bible when people respond to God or to one another with the expression, Hineni, Here I am here.  It was Abraham’s response to God’s call and to his son, Isaac; Hineini is an affirmation of one’s presence, one’s willingness to serve.  There is one time that God responds with that same phrase, and it is in our Haftarah, in the words of Isaiah:

“Is not this the fast I desire—

to break the bonds of injustice and remove the heavy yoke;

to let the oppressed go free and release all those enslaved?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry

And to take the homeless poor into your home,

and never to neglect your own flesh and blood?

Then shall your light burst forth like the dawn,

and your wounds shall quickly heal,

your Righteous One leading the way before you

the Presence of Adonai guarding you from behind.

Then when you call, Adonai will answer,

and, when you cry, Adonai will respond, Hineini.”[xvi]


May it be so.

[i] Isaiah 58:1-8

[ii] https://theshalomcenter.org/franz-kafka-leopard-yom-kippur

[iii] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/video/2019/sep/23/greta-thunberg-to-world-leaders-how-dare-you-you-have-stolen-my-dreams-and-my-childhood-video

[iv] https://everytownresearch.org/gun-violence-america/

[v] https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/

[vi] https://www.bustle.com/p/7-videos-of-parkland-survivors-speeches-that-will-inspire-you-to-keep-up-the-fight-15944443

[vii] “For These Things Do I Weep “Voices of Exiles and Refugees, Past and Present, Tisha B’Av Service, August 10, 2019, Woodstock Jewish Congregation

[viii] BT Berakhot 34b

[ix] Rabbi Judith Schindler and Judy Seldin-Cohen, Recharging Judaism, p. 55

[x] Rabbi Seth Limmer and Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority, p. 52

[xi] Schindler, p. 56-60

[xii] Pirkei Avot 2:16

[xiii] Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a

[xiv] Thomas Ehrlich, Ed.,Civic Responsibility and Higher Education, Preface, page vi

[xv] Schindler, pp 7-8

[xvi] Isaiah 58:6-9

“Responding to the New Antisemtism: A sermon for Rosh Hashanah Morning 5780″

כל העולם כלו גשר צר מאוד והעקר לא לפחד כלל

 “The whole world is but a narrow bridge; the most important thing is not to be afraid.”

I have clung to these words of Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav many times in recent years, but no more strongly than I did on Oct. 27th of last year, when 11 Jews were gunned down in prayer simply for being Jewish.  Just as the peace of that Shabbat morning was shattered by gunfire, so was any remnant of a sense of security that we Jews have had in the United States.

We’ve witnessed antisemitic attacks in France and we said, “can’t happen here.”  We see the rise of antisemitism among government leaders in Britain, and we say, “can’t happen here.”  Even as we’ve heard about the increase in antisemitic incidents in the US in recent years, we brushed them off as acts of troubled individuals, we painted over swastikas and we moved on.

Then Charlottesville happened and we were awakened to the truth of the growth of White Supremacism here, the Goldeneh Medinah, the land in which many of our grandparents or great grandparents sought refuge from pogroms, from the Czar’s army, from the Nazis.

Then came Pittsburgh and then Poway … and a new reality set in and with it came new synagogue security procedures, locked doors, “run, hide, fight drills,” all part of the brave new world that is America (certainly until our leaders can find a way to control the gun epidemic that plagues us).

Holocaust historian, Deborah Lipstadt concludes the introduction to her latest book, Antisemitism Here and Now, published in 2019 but written before Pittsburgh, with the following prescient statement:  “Sadly, given the unending saga that is antisemitism, I feel comfortable predicting that by the time this book appears there will have been new examples of antisemtism that should have been part of the narrative.[i]

Indeed, antisemitism is an “unending saga,” persisting for thousands of years, morphing in different forms from its religious origins, to race-based prejudice to its social and political manifestations.  Jews have been the scapegoat at various points across the centuries, conspiracy theories abound and resurface, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion will not disappear.

Those of you who are long term Poughkeepsie area residents have witnessed first hand the changes that have taken place since the days when Jews were barred from social clubs and from practicing medicine in certain hospitals.  Today, Jews stand proudly in leadership positions in this community and in our government.  While we have not been immune from antisemitic incidents over the years, thankfully they have not been of a violent nature.

Jews in America now find ourselves in a rather unique situation.  According to a Pew research study from 2017, Americans express warm feelings toward Jews, with half of U.S. adults rating them the highest of all religious groups.[ii]  Unfortunately, Jews also scored highest in hate crimes. According to the research of the Anti-Defamation League, “anti-Semitism is still the number one hate target in America…. To this day, [there are] more attacks, more assaults, against Jews than any other faith… [and] the number of incidents last year remained at near-historic levels.[iii]

Events since last Rosh Hashanah have brought to the surface new dimensions to antisemtisim.  We are being battered by forces on the extreme left as well as on the extreme right such that physically and politically, nowhere feels safe.  Antisemitism on the right emanates from the White Supremacists and all those who would fan their flames of hatred, and has led to horrific loss of life, so it appears to be the greater danger.  But Antisemitism on the left, perhaps more insidious, presents a different kind of danger not only to the Jewish community but to our nation as a whole.

Before Pittsburgh and El Paso shared the common bond of hate crimes, Lipstadt wrote about the fundamental connection between antisemitism and racism:

“.. the existence of prejudice in any of its forms is a threat to all those who value an inclusive, democratic and multicultural society.  It is axiomatic that if Jews are being targeted with hateful rhetoric and prejudice, other minorities should not feel immune; this is not likely to end with Jews.  And, conversely, if other minority groups are being targeted with hatred and prejudice, Jews should not feel immune… Antisemitism flourishes in a society that is intolerant of others, be they immigrants or racial and religious minorities…. the existence of Jew-hatred within a society is an indication that something about the entire society is amiss.  No healthy society harbors extensive antisemitism — or any other form of hatred.”[iv]

There is a hate that is corrupting American society, with rhetoric that only serves to exacerbate the situation while the freedom of the internet fuels the flames.

The racism and antisemitism that have been brought to the surface in Charlottesville, Pittsburgh and El Paso have been festering for decades.  In an article entitled, Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism, Eric Ward, a long time civil rights strategist, explains that

White nationalists in the United States perceive the country as having plunged into unending crisis since the social ruptures of the 1960s supposedly dispossessed White people of their very nation. The successes of the civil rights movement created a terrible problem for White supremacist ideology…

Jews function for today’s White nationalists as they often have for antisemites through the centuries: as the demons stirring an otherwise changing and heterogeneous pot of lesser evils….

[Antisemtism is] the fuel that White nationalist ideology uses to power its anti-Black racism, its contempt for other people of color, and its xenophobia—as well as the misogyny and other forms of hatred it holds dear.

[it] positions Jews as the absolute other, the driving force of white dispossession—which means the other channels of its hatred cannot be intercepted without directly taking on antisemitism. … at the bedrock of the movement is an explicit claim that Jews are a race of their own, and that their ostensible position as White folks in the U.S. represents the greatest trick the devil ever played.[v]

This background helps us to understand the hateful chant of the white supremacists in Charlottesville: “Jews will not replace us.” They are motivated by the fear of losing their supremacy to those they see as inferior.

In an ironic twist that is part of this “new” antisemitism, some months after the events in Charlottesville,  the Jewish Leadership Council of UVA was denied membership in the Minority Rights Coalition, an organization formed in the aftermath of the events to support minorities on campus and to fight white supremacy in Charlottesville, because the Council included a Zionist group. In response to protest from students and alumni, the MRC offered the group a couple of options, including joining without the Zionist group, but the JLC stood firm: “We recognize that the Israel-Palestine Conflict is complicated and heavily debated… We deeply understand the need for dialogue surrounding this complex issue, but at the same time we cannot and will not apologize for our right to support a Jewish homeland.”  The two groups pledged to continue the dialogue.

This frustrating experience brings together two dominant themes of antisemitism on the left that are repeated across college campuses, came to a head in the Women’s March in January and have even become political fodder.

The first element is that within many progressive groups, Jews are not viewed as a minority, subject to prejudice and attack. Bari Weiss, a NY Times columnist who grew up at Congregation Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, explains in her recently released book, How to Fight Antisemitism, that in the progressive camp, victimhood confers a sense of moral purity.  The more one is a victim, the greater is one’s claim to truth and morality.[vi]  In this world, Jews are perceived of as white, privileged and successful (of course this claim disregards the approximately 1 million Jews of color in America, comprising about 12-15% of American Jews).[vii]  In this hierarchy Jews are near the bottom rung of the ladder.  Such thinking blinds progressives to the genuine attacks that have been made against Jews throughout the ages.

Unfortunately, as with the case of the students at UVA, it also limits our participation in the coalition building that is so necessary to counter the forces of hate that are attacking all minorities.  Such was the case this year with the Women’s March in NYC where antisemtism diluted the power and message of the march.   Among various criticisms about the leadership of the march were charges of antisemitism: Jews were not originally included in the list of minority groups; two of the key leaders, Linda Sasour and Tamika Mallory, made numerous antisemitic statements; and Mallory refused to condemn Louis Farrakhan for his virulent antisemitism.  In response, a group broke away and formed an alternative march.

Synagogues and other Jewish groups were torn about what to do.  Just days before the march, two rabbis who had worked with Sasour previously convened a meeting of 13 rabbis with Sasour and Mallory to see if they could reach an understanding.  After some very honest, forthright and painful conversations, most rabbis present signed a letter recognizing the dangers of division between Jews and people of color especially in enabling White Supremacists, appreciating the power and potential in a “multi-racial, multi-faith, women-led movement that is the ideal of the Women’s March,” and calling for on-going dialogue and for attendance at the march to support Jewish women of color who had asked for that support.

Responses varied:  some chose to participate in the official Women’s March, others joined the alternative march, others attended a Unity Rally and some congregations did nothing.  One attendee at that meeting, Rabbi Felicia Sol from Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, was asked if she felt that Sasour and Mallory had really heard their concerns. “Good question,” she answered, but then added, “I’m not willing to walk away. The injustices are too pernicious, the work is too great to break from this inspiring, agitated country of women who are rising up to work toward change…. If I’m not in relationships with Tamika or Linda, then what hope do we have about changing their hearts and minds?”[viii]

Earlier this month, the Women’s March announced that Sasour and Mallory had stepped down from the Board.  One of the new Board members is Ginna Green, chief strategy officer of Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish group. While charges of antisemitism are already surfacing regarding other new members, one can only hope that Green’s presence will have some ameliorating effect.

There is no one or easy answer when it comes to participation in such partnerships, where the overall mission is positive and aligns with our values and where divisions only undermine our efforts at combating hate.  Even as we must speak out against antisemitism wherever we see it, so too must we strive to engage in honest dialogue that seeks understanding of and appreciation for the other’s pain, through which we can find common ground and optimize the strength that can exist in partnership.

The other element of antisemitism within progressive groups is around Israel.  Progressive ideology that favors victimhood tends to see Israel only as oppressor and Palestinians only as victims, thus Students for Justice in Palestine is welcome in the Minority Rights Coalition at UVA but not the Students for Israel group.  As the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians continues with no end in sight, this victimhood ideology will only get stronger.  Sorely lacking is any nuanced view or discussion that distinguishes between the right of Israel to exist and policies of the Israeli government.   In part, it is hard to blame college students when they don’t see such conversation modeled in society at large – not even within the Jewish community, let alone in the halls of Congress or the White House.  Instead of demonstrating the diversity of views within the Jewish community and the fact that the vast majority support a two-state solution, the loudest voices brand any critique of current policies of the Israeli government as anti-Zionist and antisemitic.

As Lipstadt cautions, “we must carefully differentiate between campaigns that disagree with Israeli policy and those that essentially call for the elimination of the Jewish state.  [such as BDS] There is a vast difference between being opposed to the policies of the Israeli government and being an antisemite.  Those of us who want to fight this scourge do ourselves no favor if we automatically brand ideas with which we disagree “antisemitic.”[ix]

These two manifestations of antisemitism in America, from the extreme right and the extreme left, converged in a rather surreal moment this summer when the President used charges of antisemitism and being anti-Israel against four congresswomen as a political tool for his advancement.  As a Jew I felt used.   It is the worst of chutzpah and the height of hypocrisy for this president who refused to condemn the white supremacists of Charlottesville, or David Duke, the KKK or other avowedly antisemities and racists among his supporters, and even worse who has amplified their messages by tweeting them and posting them on social media, to make such claims.

After the rally in North Carolina and the furor that erupted, Montana Senator Steve Daines, proclaiming his solidarity with the President, tweeted, “Montanans are sick and tired of listening to anti-American, anti-Semite, radical Democrats trash our country and our ideals.”  In an open letter written in response to Daines, the Montana Association of Rabbis wrote, “We refuse to allow the real threat of anti-Semitism to be weaponized and exploited by those who themselves share a large part of the responsibility for the rise of white nationalist and anti-Semitic violence in this country.”[x]

Thankfully, the President’s outrageous attempt to sow divisions among democrats by charging Jews who vote for a Democrat as being “disloyal to the Jewish people and… very disloyal to Israel,” were roundly condemned.

So here we are — caught in the middle, like a tennis ball going back and forth, each side denying its own prejudice and casting aspersions across the divide.

What do we do about it?

First, we have to be realistic and keep our communities safe.  Under the leadership of our President Alan Kaflowitz, we have expanded our safety procedures.  While it saddens us not to have our doors physically open all the time, we will continue to be an open and welcoming congregation, but we have to smart and safe.  Doors are locked 15 minutes after services or a program begins.  But not to worry, ring the bell and a greeter will come and open the door for you.   Just as we have a security guard here during the holy days, so do we have someone for outdoor events such as Picnic Shabbat.  Other times, our own temple members lend a hand by being a presence, watching the door while an activity goes on.

We have to continue to build and strengthen relationships with others who share our values and believe in preserving the diversity that is America.   Let us hold up all who stood with us after Pittsburgh; let us recognize the good work of the Muslim community there that raised over $200,000 to help.  Let us stand in solidarity with all who suffer attacks of hate, just as many of us went to the Mid-Hudson Islamic Association in Wappingers for prayer after the shooting in New Zealand.

Even more important than standing with others in time of crisis, we need to build bridges of understanding and common purpose at all times.  It is wonderful that we will be strengthening our relationship with the mosque in Wappingers by partnering in preparing and serving food to the hungry at Lunch Box each month.

I would love to see these efforts expanded to include dialogue with African American churches and groups, with Christian groups.  I don’t have a plan yet, but I have had preliminary conversations about how the DCIC can help to foster greater connections between its constituent groups.

We can also fight hate through our American judicial system.  Integrity First America, a non-profit organization, acting on behalf of a diverse coalition of Charlottesville community members who were injured in the protests in 2017, is bringing a civil lawsuit against the two dozen neo-Nazis, white supremacists and hate groups responsible.  Sines v. Kessler is the first such suit to take on the white nationalist leadership responsible for the escalating violence in our country.  It has the potential to bankrupt and dismantle the groups and the individuals responsible.  And, as the IFA materials state, “It sends a clear message:  violent hate has no place here.”   I encourage you to visit the IFA website where you can sign your name in support of the Charlottesville victims and, if you choose, donate to support this landmark lawsuit.

Even as we fight hate in the courts, we need to combat hate in our communities and in our daily encounters.  If you haven’t yet put up a sign that says “Hate has no home here” I urge you to do; it sends an important message about what we value and what we demand in our community and in our country.

Ultimately, in addition to what we do, it is the words that we speak that can incite hate or quell it.  Words matter, especially in our public discourse.  We need words that condemn racism, antisemitism and hatred rather than inflame; words that build up rather than break down; words that unite rather than separate.

We, Jews, have been victims of words that mobilized forces of human evil beyond imagination.  A plaque towards the end of the Auschwitz exhibit at the Jewish Heritage Museum caught my attention during our recent trip; it is a quote from the Director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, dated this year:

“…The words of hatred poison the imagination and stupefy consciousness.  Maybe this is why so many remain silent while confronted with evil….The words of hatred create hatred.  The words of dehumanization dehumanize.  The words of menace increase the threat. We have already started paying for this.  Raphael Esrail [a survivor] wrote: “the camp is not just a memory.  For the majority of us, its reality is omnipresent in our everyday life.”  I have never heard a more terrible warning. The warning against our own words.”

The last section of Deborah Lipstadt’s book is entitled “Oy versus Joy:  Rejecting Victimhood.”  This is the final message with which I want to leave you on this Rosh Hashanah.  One can look at Jewish history through the eyes of “oy,” focusing only on the suffering we have endured throughout the ages, seeing enemies everywhere.  If that is the lens through which we continue to live our lives, however, then ultimately Judaism will be lost and devoid of meaning.  Seeing ourselves as perennial victims, says Lipstadt, means we “cede to the oppressor control over one’s destiny.  It leaves many Jews … aware of what it to be against but not what to be for.”[xi]  Our best response to antisemites is to live proudly and with joy as Jews, to strengthen and enrich our communities and congregations, and to be engaged in and engage future generations in a Judaism that is vibrant, relevant and hopeful for tomorrow.

As we begin the year 5780, let us take the necessary measures to keep us safe, let us reach out to others and join in partnerships that will lift up our world and let us celebrate this ancient religion that is ours and through which we can add meaning and purpose to our lives.  Together we can build a better world (lead into song: Olam Hesed Yibaneh).

[i] Deborah Lipstadt, Antisemitism Here and Now, p. xii

[ii] https://www.pewforum.org/2017/02/15/americans-express-increasingly-warm-feelings-toward-religious-groups/

[iii] https://www.adl.org/news/press-releases/anti-semitic-incidents-remained-at-near-historic-levels-in-2018-assaults]

[iv] Lipstadt, p. xi

[v] Eric K. Ward, “Skin in the Game: How Antisemitism Animates White Nationalism,” The Public Eye, Summer 2017, published by Political Research Associates

[vi] Interview with Bari Weiss, The Brian Lehrer Show, WNYC, Sept. 17, 2019, https://www.wnyc.org/story/anti-semitism-city/

[vii] https://forward.com/news/national/425129/jews-of-color-survey-jewish-population

[viii] https://forward.com/news/national/417618/rabbis-womens-march-secret-meeting-sarsour-mallory/

[ix] Lipstadt, p.205-6

[x] Michelle Goldberg, Defenders of a Racist President Use Jews as Human Shields, New York Times, July 19, 2019 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/19/opinion/trump-ilhan-omar.html

[xi] Lipstadt, p. 240.

“Unpacking Our Boxes” A sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780


As many of you know, my husband and I moved into a beautiful home this summer.  This is now the 4th move in our 30 year marriage and the most unusual.  Since we haven’t yet sold our house on Long Island yet, we can’t empty it out, so we’re moving in stages.  Brings new meaning to the term “staging a house.”   Each week I pack up more boxes, load up the car and then unpack the boxes here.


Spending so much time packing and unpacking boxes has given me the chance to contemplate the nature of all those boxes and the contents they hold.  It occurs to me that they into three categories:


The first I’ll call “Attic boxes.”   These are the never used wedding presents, no longer listened to record albums, slightly worn out kitchen items that might possibly be used again or are good as a back up and other paraphernalia that we don’t like and don’t use, but which we certainly wouldn’t throw out because “you never know!”  We promise ourselves that we will go through them one day and get rid of stuff, but we never do and when we do move we don’t have the time and so we often end up moving them from attic to attic.  Attic boxes collect dust, take up space and are worthless to the owner, though they might have value to someone else.  (Temple rummage sales love attic boxes!)


Of course, not all boxes are dust collectors. The second kind of boxes are filled with items that are worthless to the outsider but invaluable to the owner.   I’ll call them “Sentimental boxes.”  They contain objects of memorabilia: old school papers, children’s art creations, one-of-a-kind photographs.  I confess:  I have plastic storage boxes of all the birthday and anniversary cards I’ve received ever since my kids could draw.  I never look through them, but I know they’re there.  I can’t throw them away, either.  Such items are among our most precious possessions. They are irreplaceable and serve as a link to and reminder of some of the most wonderful moments of our lives and to people we love.  Yet, as poignant as it can be to look through sentimental boxes, we tend to keep their contents packed away, taking them out only on the rarest of occasions, maybe only when we move.

Eventually, we tear ourselves away from the sentimental boxes and we turn to the majority of our boxes, the ones I’ll call “Basic Boxes” because they are filled with the basics of our lives: our material possessions, items on which both we and the outside world can place a value. Basic boxes tend to get overwhelming because, no matter how much we try to pare down our closets before we pack, we always seem to have more than expected. Maybe you’ve done the Marie Kondone, “keep only what brings you joy,” but I haven’t.  Depending on the size of one’s new home, choices may have to be made.


At this season each year, the holy days call us to undergo a spiritual inventory; we call it heshbon hanefesh, literally an accounting of our souls.  We review our lives, reflecting on past deeds as we also look ahead; we consider what we did wrong and, hopefully, what we did right; and we commit ourselves to trying to be better.  We open the contents of our metaphorical “boxes” – decide what to keep, what needs to be discarded, and what should be taken out and reviewed more often.


So, let’s see what’s in our boxes.


For most of us, the thought of going through attic boxes brings a heavy sigh and an immediate desire to run and do almost anything else. Going through real attic boxes is drudge work, requiring us to go through stuff that we have put off dealing with for years. Going through our metaphorical attic boxes is way more challenging.  Their contents cannot simply be thrown away.  Opening these boxes requires real soul searching and confronting someone or some issue that we have been avoiding, often for a long time.  Ridding ourselves of these boxes demands that we do something quite challenging:  letting go of grudges and forgiving.


Forgiveness is such an important value in Judaism that we devote our holiest time of the year to it. The Ten Days of Repentance are meant to be a time of asking and granting forgiveness. One of the basic principles of these Yamim Noraim is that we will not be granted atonement for the sins we have committed against another person unless and until we appease that person. Therefore, when someone does turn to us to make amends, we the wronged party actually hold their destiny in our hands. When we withhold our forgiveness, for the sake of pride, the need to be right or the desire simply to be the victim, we are merciless, say the rabbis, and we become the sinner. In doing so, we don’t punish the other person as much as we punish ourselves.


One of the great sages of the second century, Rabbi Gamliel, taught that the human ability to be merciful is so important that God’ s mercy is dependent upon it : “If you are merciful, then God will be merciful towards you and if you are not merciful, God will not be merciful towards you.” (Sifra 89a) Our prayers during these Days of Awe are directed towards gaining God’s mercy. The rabbis envisioned God in the heavenly court as the Divine Judge, sitting on one of two thrones: the Throne of Judgment or the Throne of Mercy.   Sounding the shofar is our plea, urging God to move from Judgment to Mercy when judging us.  Rabbi Gamliel’s words remind us that those prayers are ineffective unless we are first merciful in our judgment of others.

One of the most difficult funerals at which I have officiated was that of a 28 year old woman who committed suicide. This young woman had been troubled since childhood and, despite attempts by loved ones to reach out to her, she could never quite get her life together. It was very sad to listen to the distress of the family as they talked about her life and tried to understand her death. Although most everyone at my meeting with them had something to add, I noticed that her sister was silent and withdrawn. In spending time with their mother, I came to learn that the two sisters often fought and recently had had a major falling out. Shortly before her death, the deceased had tried to reach out to her sister, who, reluctantly, had only just begun to accept her advances when the young woman took her life. No wonder she was so withdrawn. Certainly, everyone who is close to someone who commits suicide feels a sense of guilt and wonders, “Could I have done more to stop her?” In the sister’s case, I imagine that her guilt and sense of loss of what might have been were even more profound.


I marvel at how often it seems to take the finite nature of death to teach us important lessons of life. The shofar calls out to us with the same message: now is the time, not only to ask for forgiveness, but to be merciful in granting forgiveness to those who turn to us.  Sometimes, that involves accepting someone’s limitations and recognizing that they may be doing the best that they can.  The rabbinic sages teach this message in the following midrash:  a prince runs away from the palace and doesn’t feel he can go back home.  His father the king sends him a message:  come back as far as you can, and I will go the rest of the way to meet you.  That is the message God conveys to us through the prophet Malachi, “Return to Me and I will return to You.”


It takes so much energy to hold a grudge, to maintain anger; how much lighter we would feel if we could just let it go.  We can put that energy to much better use in rebuilding a fractured relationship.


Having gotten rid of our useless stuff, we can turn to that which is most valuable to us.  While everyone’s sentimental boxes are different, their contents tend to fall into two categories:  those that remind us of people we love, both living and deceased; and those that praise our accomplishments.

Ironically, as important as these items are to us, we rarely look at or use them.  For too many of us, our feelings are like those boxes; we keep them packed away, hesitant to share them with others. As we learned from so much tragedy this year, life is precious, but it could be taken away at any moment. The words “I love you” or “I am proud of you” ought not be reserved for birthdays, graduations or other special moments; they can and should be intertwined with our daily lives. Likewise, feelings of anger or disappointment should be shared and worked through, rather than internalized to fester over time and erupt when least expected or, as in the case of the sister of the woman who committed suicide, never worked through at all.  As we begin a new year, we are reminded not to take our dear ones for granted or to let the knowledge of our love be assumed.


Perhaps like many of you, in addition to family memorabilia, I’ve held onto items from my professional career.  Among the most precious are thank you notes expressing ways in which I positively impacted someone’s life (often unknown to me).  Once in a while, when things are particularly overwhelming or when it seems that I’m doing everything wrong, I have turned to those notes and found solace. They have helped me to put those gray days in proper perspective.


While we all know people who benefit by some letters of a different nature to deflate an overly enlarged ego, the vast majority of us tend to be far too self-critical and could benefit by some praise on occasion. One of the great early Hassidic Masters, Rabbi Simha Bunam, taught his disciples an important lesson for maintaining a proper perspective: “Everyone must have two pockets, so that he can reach into the one or the other, according to his need. In his right pocket are to be the words, ‘For my sake was the world created,” and in his left: ‘I am but dust and ashes.’”  For too many of us, the “dust and ashes” is the easy part; stresses at home, pressures in the office, failures that are part of life – – all these remind us of our limitations. Remembering that “the world was created for my sake” is more difficult. Making those sentimental boxes more accessible, keeping a file of those special thank you notes and commendations on hand, are good sources of affirmation of our strengths and self-worth.


Even more important, we can be that affirmation for others.  Why does it seem that words of criticism come more easily from our lips than do words of praise? Positive reinforcement is not only a good means for discipling a child; it is an appropriate way to respond to others at all times. Do we remember to praise a secretary for a job well done or only critique him when something goes wrong? Do we commend our partner for a good meal or for fixing a broken sink or do we only complain when she is late or a chore is forgotten, while taking the rest for granted? We would help those we love and those with whom we work if we remembered the thank you notes in our files and gave them, in word or deed, more often to others.


Finally, we get to our basic boxes, the bulk of our material possessions. One of the more common problems with basic boxes is that we generally have more than we think we do. I call it the “How did we get so much stuff?” phenomenon.  A similar process takes place in our lives. We go through each day fulfilling various obligations to home, to work, to community, to others. For so many of us, our days are overflowing with appointments, things we need to do. We calendar in kids’ and grandkids’ soccer games, business trips, visits to aging parents, even making “dates” with our spouses so we’re almost sure to have some quality time together.   We do our best to keep up the juggling act, unaware that we’re even doing it, because if we stopped to think about it, everything might fall apart. Most of us go along fine, until there’s a crisis in our system: a family member becomes seriously ill, an emergency at work, our marriage suddenly feels lost.  Once a year, Jewish tradition offers us the opportunity, without a crisis atmosphere, to regain perspective on our lives, to rethink our priorities and to begin making positive changes.


Twenty-three years ago on this day, I gave a sermon to my congregation about the need to be more present for our families — and I shared my own challenges balancing career and family.  I also announced that, after ten years with the congregation, with the strong support of the temple leadership, I was cutting back to three-quarters time to be able to be more present to my family.  It was a compromise that enabled me to continue my work as a rabbi which was and is central to my identity while also being present for and with my family, also central to my identity.


Certainly, some progress has been made in the two decades since then in terms of things like family leave, but on a daily basis it doesn’t seem that our society has improved all that much in terms of life balance.   The advent of technology was supposed to help us in this quest, making us far more efficient in using and allocating our time.  Our electronic devices certainly do help to make us more efficient in many ways, but they haven’t given us more free time; in fact, they make us available all the time.  Some companies make it clear that they expect their employees to reply to emails at all hours of the night.   A recent study found that the mere “expectation of availability” during non-working hours can cause anxiety and stress.  A researcher noted: “Our research exposes the reality: ‘flexible work boundaries’ often turn into ‘work without boundaries,’ compromising an employee’s and their family’s health and well-being.”[1]


And yet, even when we have time together, too often we are not really together – we may physically be in the same space, but we’re all on our devices, “together but apart.”


Some of you may remember Sen. Paul Tsongas from Massachusetts.  Back in the early 80s, he was a rising star on Capitol Hill, often spoken of as a future presidential candidate.  At the age of 43 he was diagnosed with cancer and forced to undergo deep personal reflection about how wanted to spend his remaining time on this earth.  He chose family over the senate, foregoing the opportunity to try to help shape the nation to more directly help shape the lives of his children and to experience the joy of being with his family for as much time as he could.  A friend sent him a note congratulating him on getting his priorities right and included what has now become a well-known expression (generally attributed to Tsongas himself):  “No one on his deathbed ever said, I wish I had spent more time on my business.”


Now is the time to make those hard decisions, to set our priorities, even if it means discarding or temporarily setting aside certain things, creating tech free time zones (in Judaism, we call it Shabbat), or learning when to say “no” – so that we can yes to achieving the balance that will bring the most meaning to our lives.


I wish I could say that our boxes are all unpacked, but I know there are more to come.  We are slowing growing into our new home and our new life.  After almost 30 years of marriage, we have begun a new journey together and our hearts are filled with excitement, anticipation and anxiety. It is also the start of a new year, filled with promise.


This weekend we finally put up the mezuzot. Now it really feels like a home. After affixing the mezuzah we say the shehechiyanu – We thank you, Source of life, for giving us life, for sustaining us and for enabling us to reach this wonderful moment, this season of renewal; for giving us loved ones who are so dear to our lives; and for the ability that you have implanted within each of us to forgive, to change and to grow. May we make this new year, indeed, a new beginning and create within our lives a sense of balance, a sense of wholeness and a sense of peace. Amen.



[1] https://www.biospace.com/article/do-you-check-your-email-after-work-hours-new-study-says-simply-thinking-about-it-could-be-harmful/


Abortion is My First Amendment Right

“Abortion is My First Amendment Right”
Rabbi Renni Altman
Shabbat Emor
May 17, 2019

Our rights and liberties as Jews are under attack.
I’m not talking about the threat from the White supremacist movement, though that is very real. I’m talking about the anti-abortion legislation signed this week in Georgia and Alabama, and today in Missouri, joining states like Ohio, Kentucky, and Mississippi — with more to follow.

Back in January, after our New York State legislature courageously passed a law protecting reproductive rights as codified in the constitution under Roe V. Wade, with protections even surpassing that law, I spoke in support of that law and about Judaism’s views on abortion and when life begins. Given the events of this week and the grave danger these states’ actions pose to women’s health and lives, to constitutionally protected rights and to the separation of church and state in our country, I cannot remain silent – or speak about anything else this week — for this issue is so important to me that to not address it would feel like an abdication of my responsibilities as your rabbi. So, at the risk of repeating myself, I beg your indulgence.

The mages are frightening:

  • protestors dressed in costume from The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s frightening and powerful vision of a dystopian society where one class of women serve as the womb for another;
  • legislators who are making decisions impacting women’s lives but who cannot speak intelligently about reproduction;
  • laws being passed that will undoubtedly impact the poor who will not have the means to travel to get health care that those with financial means will be able to obtain, forced to bear a child that they did not intend to conceive and that may well have been a product of rape or of incest;
  • cases where the pregnancy may put the mother’s health at risk while not necessarily her life;
  • instances where the fetus is diagnosed with some terminal birth defect and enduring a pregnancy that will only end in the death of that fetus will cause unnecessary emotional pain that no one should be forced to endure;
  • or places where doctors will be limited from performing a medical procedure that they believe is in the best interests of their patients – at the risk of being sentenced to 99 years in prison!

I heard an interview from one of the organizers of the anti-choice movement in Alabama who was not at all bothered by the fact that under the new law the doctor who performs an abortion on a 15 year old who was raped could face a longer prison term than the rapist!

Intellectually, I do understand how those who believe that life begins at conception will, therefore, view abortion as murder and, consequently, will not allow an exception for rape or incest as such a termination would still be murder. I can appreciate how such people would be motivated to prevent what they understand to be murder from happening.

However, the notion of when life begins is not a scientifically proven fact; it is a matter of personal belief that, for many of us, is based on our faith.

In the second story of creation in Genesis, we read that God breathed into the first man the breath of life. When do we understand that happening today? When a baby is born and takes that breath? At conception? When a fetus is viable to survive? What is the status of a 6 week old fetus?

My faith guides me in this determination. It teaches quite clearly that a fetus is a life in potential, but that it is not yet a human life. When does life as a full life begin according to Judaism? The answer is codified in the Mishnah, the first of the law codes to follow the Bible, dating back to the year 200 CE: when the largest part of the fetus emerges in birth. Until that point, a fetus is a potential life, but the woman’s life ALWAYS takes precedence.

The basis for this determination is a case of damages recorded in the Book of Exodus. It presents the case of a pregnant woman who is injured accidentally when two men are fighting. If she miscarries, the man who caused the injury must pay the husband damages; if, however, that pregnancy loss would have been considered murder, the penalty would have been lex talions – life for life.

Throughout the development of Jewish law, the woman’s life takes precedence over that of the fetus. We do find differences in the interpretation of that principle as it applies to cases where the woman’s life is not literally at risk, but where the pregnancy or having a baby could lead to various difficulties. These are instances when the pregnancy would cause severe emotional distress to the woman or where that pregnancy would threaten the life of another child (in other words, another existing life).

The rabbis even understood different stages of pregnancy. Back in the 12th century, the great Biblical and Talmudic commentator, Rashi, taught “in the first forty days, it is mere fluid.”

NONETHELESS, the rabbis recognized that the fetus is a life in development. Thus, in the Talmud they taught that in the case of a pregnant woman who dies on Shabbat, one would violate Shabbat to save the fetus under the principle of pikuach nefesh, saving a life, even though the fetus is not yet a life. “Profane for his sake one Sabbath, so that he may keep many Sabbaths.” (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 85b)

My faith, my understanding of life, teaches me that ABORTION IS NOT MURDER. The life, health and emotional well-being of the pregnant woman must always take precedence. Yet, as a potential for life, as a human being in process, in development, a fetus is in a different category from an appendix or some other bodily part that can easily be removed. But regarding how the determination of when a pregnancy should be terminated and how the different factors impacting a woman’s life and well-being are to be considered, my faith teaches me that those decisions should be left up to the woman (based upon her faith or moral grounding and understanding of when life begins), in consultation with her medical provider and, if she so desires her religious leader, and, where appropriate, her sexual partner.

It is this right to make this most difficult and personal decision that is currently protected by the 14th Amendment of the Constitution as affirmed by the Supreme Court Decision of Roe V. Wade. These new anti-abortion laws are a clear violation of this right.

I also understand these laws to be a violation of my religious freedom as guaranteed by the establishment cause of the First Amendment of the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Frankly, I’m surprised that this aspect of the abortion debate has not been given much attention in the media. Thus, I was pleased to read this morning in the now only digital version of the Forward a column by Jane Eisner that begins: “In enacting a law that would make performing virtually all abortions a crime, the state of Alabama is impinging on my religious freedom as a Jew.” (https://forward.com/opinion/424456/jews-need-to-stand-up-for-abortion/ )

It is the same principle by which we fight prayer in public schools. For many years now, we have witnessed the wall separating church and state begin to crumble. In the Hobby Lobby case in the Supreme Court, for example, employers were given the right to refuse to include contraception in health insurance coverage for their employees because it violates their religious beliefs, regardless of the beliefs of their employees.

A recent ruling by the Department of Health and Human Services gives health care workers and institutions (such as religiously funded hospitals) the leeway to refuse to provide services if they cite a religious or conscientious objection; that would include abortion, sterilization, and overriding a Do Not Resuscitate order!

The “fetal personhood” movement is another glaring violation of my religious freedom. Again, Judaism teaches that a fetus is not a separate being; it is understood that a fetus is part of the mother. As far back as the 12th century, Rashi said that fetus has no separate legal rights or identity. Thus, when a pregnant woman converts to Judaism, the baby born is Jewish.

The supporters of this movement would charge women with murder for having an abortion. In her column in today’s New York Times, Michelle Goldberg wrote, “Already today, some states have legislated “fetal personhood” and women have been arrested on suspicion of harming or endangering their fetuses by using drugs, attempting suicide or delaying a caesarean section…. In 2014, a woman was arrested under Alabama’s “chemical endangerment of a child” statute for taking half a Valium while she was pregnant” (Post-Roe America won’t be like Pre-Roe America. It will be worse. Michelle Goldberg, NYT 5/16/19)

These laws and actions are steps that are tearing down the separation of church and state, a bedrock our democracy. This is not a Christian country! The United States of America is a nation founded on the principle of freedom of religion.

As a religious minority that now thrives in this country (despite rising anti-Semitism), it is incumbent upon us to speak up to protect this fundamental principle upon which our nation was founded – not only for ourselves but for all minorities.

So what can we do?

A week from Wednesday, I will be joining with members of Concerned Clergy for Choice in Albany to meet with our lawmakers.

First and foremost, I want to thank them for the swift action they took on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision to strengthen support for reproductive rights in our state and to protect the doctors and medical personnel who provide these medical services for women by moving these laws out of the penal code and into the health care laws where they belong. We don’t thank our legislators enough; they need to know that they have our support, especially in such controversial matters.

We will also be asking our legislators to support a renewed initiative to bring sex education to New York State. All sides on this debate can agree that we are in favor of minimizing the number of abortions in our country. One of the best ways to do that is to educate our children about reproduction and contraception. If the energy and funding that is going into the current anti-abortion debate would be directed towards such efforts, we would go a long way to preventing the abortions they are fighting against.

If you believe in supporting reproductive rights and protecting religious rights in our country, I would urge you to support organizations that are now taking on this battle in states where these rights are in danger. They need financial support to carry on the legal battles that will ensue.

For much of the past forty-six years since the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, supporters of reproductive rights have breathed a sigh of relief and moved on while the anti-choice movement has never moved away from this cause and has been building up their efforts for a time such as this, with a President who supports them and has changed the balance in the Supreme Court.

For many years now, anti-abortion groups have taken intermediary steps to limit women’s access to abortion, often under the guise of protecting women’s health

Such steps have included

  • creating unnecessary requirements for clinics to be able to perform abortions that have resulted in the closing of clinics:
    o In 2017, in 25 states, more than half of the women lived in a county without an abortion provider
    o In 2014, some 44% of New York counties had no clinics that provided abortions,
    and 10% of New York women live in those counties (Guttmacher Institute)
  • Requiring an additional sonogram close to the date of the abortion that have required women to make additional trips to the clinics.
  • Mandated waiting periods, parental notification for minors, etc
  • Most recently, effective this month, President Trump reinstated the Gag rule withholding Title X funding from organizations (such as Planned Parenthood) that provide counseling or referrals about abortion. This ruling is currently in the courts.

Some of these laws have been struck down on the basis of the 1992 Supreme Court decision in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey that ruled that abortion restrictions cannot place an undue burden on women.

These latest state rulings in states such as Alabama that effectively ban abortion and make the doctors liable for criminal action, have taken a more dramatic step in their very openly stated goal of overturning Roe. It is not yet clear if that will be achieved, but if these state laws make it to the Supreme Court, the future of Roe is anything but guaranteed. Analysts imagine that the rights guaranteed by Roe may be whittled away piece by piece, rather than overturned all at once.

Either way, the future may be more frightening for women than it was in the pre-Roe days. While medically induced abortions may replace the dark days of back alley abortions, women may be forced to get those medications online without professional guidance or support (or back up in case of any complications). Women who have or attempt abortions may be charged with murder or attempted murder.

The majority of Americans believe that abortion should be a matter of personal choice; we can no longer be a silent majority.

Rabbi Renni Altman