The Story Begins When the Stranger Arrives

This week’s d’var Torah on parashat Vayera, in observance of Immigrant Justice Shabbat. Cross-posted to This Is What A Rabbi Looks Like.

The story starts when the stranger comes to town.

This is one of the cardinal rules of storytelling. The arrival of a stranger can be a breath of fresh air, a new love interest, a source of tumult, or, in most plot-lines, some combination of the three.

The arrival of the stranger is also a recurring theme in the Bible, especially in this week’s parasha. This week, we read several stories that start with the arrival of strangers: the most famous of which are the announcement of Isaac’s birth, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorroh.

Parashat Vayera opens with the arrival of three strangers in Mamre, where Abraham lives with his wife Sarah. Seeing three men approaching from a distance, Abraham leaps into action: preparing—or having his wife and servants prepare—food, drink, water to bathe, and a place to rest for his guests. Abraham doesn’t know that the strangers are there to bring good news—that Sarah, long barren, will finally give birth to a son. The story gives the impression that this is just what Abraham does for all weary travelers.

This act of hospitality will result in a tremendous reward, but Abraham has no way of knowing this when he does it.

Cut to Sodom and Gomorroh, where two strangers have just arrived at the city gate. Here they are explicitly described as “angels,” whereas in the previous story, it is not clear whether the strangers are human or divine. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, doesn’t want the men to sleep alone in the city square—he knows his neighbors aren’t the most hospitable people. Indeed, no sooner does Lot invite the strangers in, than the townspeople come pounding on the door. They want Lot to surrender the two strangers for their own nefarious purposes, but Lot refuses, offering his own daughters instead. The townspeople reject this offer, and are about to attack Lot, when the angels intervene, blinding the townspeople and rescuing Lot’s family from the condemned cities of Sodom and Gomorroh.

Lot’s hospitality temporarily endangers his entire family, but Lot has no way of knowing this when he does it.

Later in the parasha, we see the tables turned, and Abraham’s family become the strangers: Abraham and Sarah, sojourning in Gerar, find themselves in a vulnerable position as strangers in a strange land. Hagar and Ishmael, once an integral part of Abraham and Sarah’s family in spite of Hagar’s foreign origin, are banished from the household and nearly die of thirst.

The story begins when the stranger arrives. Sometimes it turns out for the best, sometimes it leads to something traumatic. But we have no way of knowing, until we see how the story unfolds.

The rabbis tease out of this parasha two very different approaches to welcoming strangers. Abraham is what we would probably today call an outreach and engagement specialist. According to rabbinic legend, Abraham kept the four sides of his tent open, so that strangers coming from all directions could enter right away. But he also went out in order to find strangers and bring them home with him. Moreover, he set up well-stocked way-stations all over the desert, so that he could serve the stranger even when they weren’t going to cross his path (Avot De Rabbi Nathan 7).

Taking the opposite approach were the people of Sodom and Gomorroh. Legend has it that these cities held unimaginable wealth: the roots of their vegetables were literally encrusted with gold flakes and jewels. But this led them to take a protective stance, putting up barriers to keep strangers out, and harshly mistreating them if they dared to come in. They attackedthem physically, robbed them of their property, imposed ridiculous tolls and fees for entry, and even executed those who dared to help them (Sanhedrin 109a-b).

The Jewish tradition praises Abraham’s behavior, which we call hachnasat orchim, welcoming the stranger. But it’s not difficult to see why we often take a more protective approach.

This week, we watched in horror as the news unfolded, regarding a terrorist attack in New York City. Eight people were killed and 11 injured when a man plowed a pickup truck into the bike path along the Hudson River. As the story developed, we learned that the man had been radicalized and committed this heinous crime as a purposeful act of terror. Some voices are choosing to emphasize that the man was an immigrant, and that incidents like this wouldn’t happen if we had higher walls or closed borders.

But that is just untrue. Putting aside how many acts of terror originate from native-born Americans, we must remember that, for every person we let into this country who ultimately hurts another person, there are thousands of people who come here to live peacefully with their neighbors, and contribute positively to the country we all live in. Like Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael, each of these immigrants took great risks coming here, sustained by their dreams of a better life. And when that better life is threatened, it falls on our community to speak up.

The Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism has marked tonight as an Immigrant Justice Shabbat, with a particular focus on DREAM-ers. Dreamers are immigrants between the ages of 16 and 31, who have been in the country for at least five years. There are currently 800,000 people in this program, 87% of which are currently in the workforce. Their average age upon arrival was six and a half. The 2012 DREAM Act, also known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, made it possible for young immigrants to get work permits and attend school without fear of deportation.

Just two months ago, it was announced that this program would be terminated in six months. The only hope for DREAM-ers now is for Congress to pass a Clean DREAM Act, which would grant conditional permanent resident status for all DREAM-ers, as well as lawful permanent resident status and a path to citizenship for those Dreamers who attend college, work in the US, or serve in the U.S. military.

The Religious Action Center has also declared this Monday, November 6th, as a call-in day, to encourage our senators and representatives to co-sponsor the new DREAM Act. After Shabbat, I encourage you  to learn more about this legislation, and how you can help turn these immigrants’ dreams into reality.

Because our news cycle is so often dominated by stories of immigrants who do harm, let us consider the stories of immigrants doing good:

Benita Veliz came to the U.S. from Mexico with her parents in 1993, when she was 8. Benita graduated as the valedictorian of her high school class at the age of 16. She received a full scholarship to St. Mary’s University, where she graduated from the Honors program with a double major in biology and sociology. Benita’s honors thesis was on the DREAM Act. She dreams of becoming an attorney. In a letter to Senator Durbin (IL), Benita wrote: “I can’t wait to be able to give back to the community that has given me so much. I was recently asked to sing the national anthems for both the U.S. and Mexico at a Cinco de Mayo community assembly. Without missing a beat, I quickly belted out the Star Spangled Banner. To my embarrassment, I then realized that I had no idea how to sing the Mexican national anthem. I am American. My dream is American. It’s time to make our dreams a reality. It’s time to pass the Dream Act.”

Sometimes the stranger brings something bad…and sometimes the stranger brings something good. But, like our biblical ancestors, we don’t get to know that in advance. This leaves us with two choices: do we take an Abrahamic approach, letting everyone in in hopes of doing good? Or do we follow the example of Sodom and Gomorroh, shutting people out, even when it means committing an act of cruelty, even when it precipitates our own downfall?

Thirty-six times the Torah tells us to welcome the stranger, to live with our doors and our hearts open. We see in tonight’s stories how doing so can make us vulnerable. But let us not forget how opening our doors to the stranger can also open doors for us: doors of possibility and doors of blessing.

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Lech Lecha: Walking Each Other Halfway

This week’s sermon on parashat Lech Lecha. Cross-posted to This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

“Go forth from your native land, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you…”

Imagine you are hearing these words for the first time, and that they are directed at you. Imagine they come from a voice that you’ve never heard before: a voice claiming to be the one true God. What is your next move?

I posed this question to our seventh graders, whose first response was, “New phone, who dis?”

But immediately afterwards—with only a brief interlude into “What do I wear?” and “What do I pack?”—came what is possibly the most important question: “Who do I get to take with me?”

Abram doesn’t ask any of these questions. In fact, he says nothing at all. He just listens, and starts walking. It is the text that provides our answers: “Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan” (Gen. 12:5).

If we truly want to answer the question of “Who do I get to take with me?” we also have to address the question, “Who am I leaving behind?” To answer that inquiry, we have to flip back a few pages to last week’s Torah portion.

At the end of parshat Noach, we find out that, although God has not yet called Abram to “go forth,” his entire family has already started the journey. We read: “Terach took his son, Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, the wife of his son Abram, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there. And the days of Terach were two hundred and five years; and Terach died in Haran” (Gen. 11:31-32).

Why is it that they started on this journey in the first place, prior to God’s call? And, having done so, why did they stop in Haran?

This was no quick jaunt across town. Ur to Haran was essentially the Southeastern most corner of Iraq; Haran was located at the Northernmost tip of Syria. It is quite possible that Terach and his family were simply exhausted. As modern readers, we might read a bit into the word “settled”: he was comfortable, so he stayed where he was. Or Terach might have fallen ill, and died before he could continue on to his original destination.

But the rabbis point out that there are 65 years between when Abram left for Canaan and when Terach died at the ripe old age of 205. Why then, does Abram’s departure appear AFTER Terach’s death in the Torah? Rabbi Isaac says that, “the wicked, even during their lifetime, are called dead.” This hints at the rabbinic tradition that paints Terach as an idol-maker, who clashed with his son, the monotheist, at every turn. Terach couldn’t go forward. He was stuck in his old ways.

But Rabbi Isaac isn’t finished. “For Abram was afraid,” he says, “saying, ‘Shall I go out and bring dishonor upon the Divine Name, as people will say, ‘He left his father in his old age and departed’?’ Therefore the Holy One, blessed be God, reassured him: ‘I exempt you from the duty of honoring your parents, though I exempt no one for this duty. Moreover, I will record his death before your departure” so that no one will think that you left him alone to die (Gen. R. 39: 7).

Whether Terach was physically dead, or spiritually dead, when Abram left for Canaan, most rabbis agree that there was no way Terach could have completed the journey with Abram. My teacher, Rabbi Norman Cohen, suggested that it was psychologically and spiritually necessary for Abram to lose his father before answering God’s call. Many rabbis translate lech-lecha as “go to yourself,” become your own person, pursue your own destiny. Abram, Rabbi Cohen supposed, could only begin this journey of self-discovery after his father’s death.

The rabbis have many reasons for why Terach couldn’t complete the journey. But I wasn’t able to find any answers regarding why he started it. How did he know that he needed to move in this direction? Why did he undertake such an arduous journey, knowing he couldn’t complete it?

I hadn’t paid much attention to Terach before: he’s kind of an afterthought at the end of parshat Noach. But this week, I found myself thinking that, rather than deride Terach for not being strong enough to reach Canaan, we might instead give him some credit for walking his son halfway.

As some of you know, my great-uncle Billy passed away last week, and I went up to Albany for his funeral. Billy lived a long, full life: he was 92 years old, and was married for 69 years to my great-aunt Muriel. He danced at a few of his grandchildren’s weddings and met a great-grandchild. It was a good life, and a reasonably good death. But it was still hard on his family, and ours.

Though I hadn’t seen him in awhile, Billy was a fixture of my childhood from our annual pilgrimage to Albany. His snoring was audible throughout their ranch house. He made us Mickey-Mouse and Star Wars themed pancakes like we were his own grandchildren.

The loss was particularly difficult for my mother. She grew up spending family holidays going from house to house on the one street where her aunts, uncles, and grandmother lived. On Passover, she would eat three breakfasts so she could have matzah brie in every kitchen. The cousins all slept on rollaway cots in one basement. She attended college in Troy in part to be near them, and even changed her wedding date so that all of them could attend. When her own mother died young, her aunts and uncles took care of her as if she were their own child.

Their love was expansive. There was always room for one more.

The morning after Billy died, my mom told me a story she had never shared before. She was traveling by bus from New York City to Utica, so that she could visit her dying father. The bus made an hour-long stopover in Albany, and all of her aunts and uncles drove downtown, just to sit with her in the bus station, and then wave goodbye to her as the bus pulled away.

That is a special kind of love. It is a rare person who is with us on our life’s journey from beginning to end. Sometimes, all we can do is walk them part of the way. And sometimes, all we can do is sit in one place with them for a stretch of time.

At first, I wasn’t sure whether I could attend the funeral, given my own full schedule of meetings about other families’ life-cycle events (one great irony of the rabbinate). But when my mom told me this story, I decided to make it work, and I’m grateful that the community was so supportive. I hadn’t been able to spend much time with my Albany family over the years. I don’t even see my immediate family as often as I’d like. But for these few hours, I was given the opportunity to be with my mother while she was grieving. I couldn’t do anything to make it better. But I could sit with her, just for that hour.

Sometimes, that’s all we can do. And sometimes, that’s all that matters.

We might say that Terach got too comfortable, or stuck, or was too weak to go the distance. We might posit that Abram could only achieve his full potential when he left his father behind. But we might also see Terach’s journey, incomplete as it was, as an act of love.

The text doesn’t say that Terach and his family set out for Haran. It says that they set out for Canaan. Even though God had not yet called to Abram to tell him where to go, his father knew to start moving the family in that direction, even if they wouldn’t make it all the way there.

Maybe he was there to wave goodbye to Abram as the caravan pulled away, and maybe he wasn’t. Either way, Terach started a journey with Abram that he knew he might not be able to finish. Perhaps he loved his son so much that he decided to walk him halfway, and then sat with him, as long as he could, so that Abram could prepare himself to move forward on his own.

The spiritual teacher Ram Dass once said that, in life, “We are all just walking one another home.” And sometimes, we only make it halfway. Sometimes, that’s all we can do. And sometimes, that’s all that matters.

 

 

 

The Stranger Within Your Camp

havdalah crane lake camp panoramaMy sermon this Shabbat on parshat Nitzavim-Vayeilech. Cross-posted to This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

After each of the four summers that I attended URJ Camp Harlam, I’d get a terrible case of laryngitis. By my final summer as a camper, it was so bad that the only noise I could make for a week was a honk. This wasn’t just from screaming cheers during color war, or staying up all night talking with my bunkmates. It was actually because I, previously the quietest child in my family, talked for the entire two-hour drive home to Philadelphia. I told my parents every last detail, stories that I thought were hysterical, and that they likely didn’t understand, many of which I still remember today.

For example, one summer, we had a British counselor named Sarah, and there was a running joke where campers would try to get her to say “to-mah-to” so that they could make fun of her accent. By the end of the summer, she would say, in an exaggerated American accent, “to-may-to.”

One evening, while we were camping, our counselors decided to make banana boats: basically a s’more, stuffed in a banana, wrapped in tin foil, and cooked over an open fire. They got really hot, and Sarah was put in charge of warning us. She made each of us raise our right hand and repeat after her, in a proper English accent, “I will not touch my hot ba-nah-nah boat because it will buhrn my tongue.”

I don’t know why I still remember this, but it still makes me laugh, every single time I think of it.

Now, you are probably thinking: Rabbi Berkowitz has run out of sermon ideas, and is now just telling silly camp stories. I assure you that is not the case. I told this story because I wanted to explain to you tonight how international staff have become an integral part of the fabric of URJ summer camps. This is important for you to know, because the current administration is considering doing away with the J-1 visa program, which would affect international au pairs, as well as international staff at summer camps.

The attack on the J-1 visa program is part of a “Buy American, Hire American” initiative in the White House. Encouraging us to spend our money on American products and American workers is a noble and admirable goal. However, doing away with the J-1 visa program would be detrimental to our summer camp programs, are an essential component to fostering Jewish identity and a relationship to Israel in our young people.

For starters, I’m not sure how many camps would be able to stay open without hiring international staff. Sadly, with the rise of the unpaid internship, fewer and fewer American college students choose to spend the summer being a camp counselor, let alone work in the kitchen or tending the grounds. But there are plenty of international candidates who would happily make thousands of gluten-free pancakes a day, teach arts and crafts, or supervise 12 eight-year-olds for eight weeks, in exchange for a subsidized trip to the U.S.

More importantly, however, having international staff at camp provides an important opportunity for cultural exchange. As the Jewish community becomes increasingly diverse, it can be incredibly moving for campers to relate to Jews from all over the world. It helps both sides to see that Jews around the world are very different, or in some cases, very similar, to them. Last summer, Crane Lake Camp hosted two Jewish girls from Uganda as counselors. How incredible it must have been, on both sides, for these counselors to interact with campers of color, who rarely see an adult Jew who looks like them?

Not every international staff member is Jewish, which means that often, we are teaching young adults from around the world about Judaism and Jews. As we experience global spikes in anti-semitism, one of the best things we can do is give people from other faiths and other nations a positive experience with American Jews.

For those staff members who are members of the tribe, meeting Jews from around the world gives both campers and counselors a different perspective on what it means to be Jewish, whether the staff in question comes from Europe, Australia, Africa, or Israel.

Having Israeli staff on camp is particularly important, and not only for the reasons you would think. Yes, Israeli staff teach our campers about real life in Israel, and introduce them to the language and culture of their spiritual homeland. They teach Israeli music and dancing, and design celebrations for the camp-only festivals such as Yom Israel Day. They also spend eight weeks with our children, building relationships that can long outlast the summer. One of our Israeli counselors at Camp Harlam later served as a staff member on our NFTY in Israel trip, and we came to know him as our protector. When there was an incident of hate near the camp in Pennsylvania, he kept watch on the porch all night so that we could feel safe. When there was an attempted bombing during our travels in Israel, he gave us a very real perspective about what it means to live in Israel and to be constantly under threat.

But there is yet another side to the Israeli staff coin. As a rabbi on faculty, I now realize that, as much as we want our American Reform Jewish kids to meet real live Israelis, it is imperative that Israelis meet real live American Reform Jews. Reform Judaism is often disparaged, and even discriminated against, in Israel. This may not seem like a big deal here, where there is friendly competition between all the denominations. But in Israel, where the line between synagogue in state is blurred, this distaste for Reform Judaism can have far-reaching implications. Israel is a country where many secular Jews allow an Orthodox rabbinate to dictate what is permissible in both public and private spheres. The rabbinate controls not only what goes on at the Kotel, but also marriage, divorce, and conversion, all of which have implications for citizenship, the equality of women, and the inclusion of LGBTQ individuals.

You might be aware that, for nearly three decades now, Women of the Wall and the Israel Religious Action Center have been fighting for an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. In 2016, a plan for this space was agreed upon by all parties. But in June, the project was suspended. The rising tension came to a head when the chief rabbi of Jerusalem reacted to protests by calling Reform Jews, “evil,” an “abomination,” and “worse than Holocaust deniers.” Rabbi Rick Jacobs warned that such statements had the power to incite violence, as just over a week ago, he and two major Reform leaders in Israel received death threats from an Orthodox man in B’nei Brak.

We need secular Israelis to see—and to tell their families and friends—that Reform Judaism is not an abomination, or a joke, but rather a valid and vibrant way of practicing Judaism. And I would argue that that is something that happens at URJ summer camps more than it happens anywhere else. It doesn’t always mean that they stop being secular—in fact secular Judaism in Israel can look very similar to Reform Judaism in America—but it might mean that the sight of a woman in a kippah or holding a Torah scroll won’t seem foreign to them anymore. It might mean that they see a positive Jewish identity blossoming in a child of intermarriage–something the Orthodox rabbinate currently renders legally impossible, such that an interfaith couple could only be married abroad. It might mean that they decide to read from the Torah for the first time themselves, and realize that doors that the Orthodox rabbinate closes for them might yet be opened. And that might mean a change in how they think, feel, speak, and vote.

Whatever it means, it won’t happen if the J-1 visa program is canceled. There is so much going on in the world right now, and we are all fighting battles big and small. This is an opportunity for us to make an impact. After Shabbat, and after Selichot, I hope that you will contact our senators, the President, and the Secretary of State to let them know how important it is for us to continue the J-1 visa program, so that we can continue to have international staff at our summer camps.

In this week’s Torah portion, we read the famous passage listing all the people that Moses is speaking to in his final address: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God—your tribal heads, your elders and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to water drawer—to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God” (Deuteronomy 29:9-11).

While clearly Moses was speaking about a different kind of camp, his words remind us that, when something really matters to us, we need all hands on deck, regardless of status. Whether they are scrubbing pots in the kitchen, teaching our children to swim, or making sure they don’t burn their tongues on hot banana boats, the stranger within our camp is an essential piece in the summer camp puzzle. And when we welcome them into our home and our hearts, we give ourselves the opportunity to become a part of their Jewish story as well.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

 

Do We Trust Women?

Rabbi Berkowitz’s piece in this week’s Poughkeepsie Journal. To take action on this important legislation, visit Planned Parenthood Empire State Acts.

The debate over reproductive rights is nothing new. We’ve discussed it from a faith perspective, we’ve studied the economics, and we’ve debated it through the lens of public health. But all it really comes down to is this: Do we trust women?

I’m a woman in a profession traditionally populated by men, and I can say with some authority that there are a lot of times when the answer is “no.” I often have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously in my field. But who knows the “field” of women’s reproductive health better than a woman and her health care provider?

Reproductive rights are under attack on the national scale. Anti-abortion legislation is forcing clinics to close and forces women to travel out of state to receive vital medical care, or to go back to the unsafe, illegal methods used before Roe v. Wade. Our nation’s leaders threaten constantly to defund the vital services provided by Planned Parenthood, going so far as to shut female legislators out of the drafting of the AHCA.

So it’s time to ask again: Do we trust women?

Do we trust women to decide when the time is right for them to become sexually active? If that is the case, our only course of action is to provide young people with education about healthy relationships and safer sex, and provide affordable, accessible contraception.

Do we trust women to decide when and if they want to start a family? If so, we need to support legislation such as the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act, which helps ensure affordable insurance coverage for contraceptives.

Do we trust women to decide how big they want their family to be, and how to space the births of their children? If yes, passing the CCCA can make this easier for women by allowing them to access 12 months of contraception on the same prescription, and to access Emergency Contraception at a pharmacy without a copay.

Supporting the CCCA shows that we trust women to be partners in the fight against STIs and unintended pregnancy. Trusting women to manage their reproductive health has been shown to reduce the need for abortion.

Do we trust women to consult with their medical professionals to make the best decision for themselves and their families? One overlooked aspect of the abortion debate is what happens when a pregnancy that was planned for and desperately wanted cannot continue. Abortion is a necessary component of women’s health care and should be treated as such.

The Reproductive Health Act would update New York state law to ensure that access to safe and legal abortion will always be available in New York as currently protected by Roe v. Wade. The RHA provides for abortion after 24 weeks to protect the health of the woman or when a fetus is not viable. The RHA recognizes that advance practice clinicians, within their scope of practice, can provide abortion care and regulates abortion under public health law.

In 1970, New York was a leader in legalizing abortion. Now, in 2017, New York has the opportunity to make the statement that we trust our women to make the best decisions for ourselves and our families.

Some People Count, Some People Don’t

This Week’s Sermon on parashat Bamidbar. Cross-posed to the This Is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

“Some people count, some people don’t.”

It’s a line only a movie villain could say, in this case, the womanizing waiter in the movie Dirty Dancing (a television remake aired this past Wednesday, so I had to sneak that in there).

But these words might have very well been spoken by God and Moses, as we begin reading the book of Numbers. In Hebrew, this book is called Bamidbar, “in the wilderness,” because of where the events of the book take place. However, the English name, Numbers, is pretty spot on. The first commandment we receive in this book is, “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms” (Numbers 1:2).

The Israelites do what God commands, reaching a total of 603,550.  Though some call this figure “impossibly large,” it is still only a sliver of the Israelite community (Etz Chayim 773). In this census, some people count, and some people don’t. The distinction reveals a great deal about the priorities of the community. At this moment, when the Israelites are preparing for military action, it makes sense that the only people they care to count are men who can serve in the army. This census excludes women, children, and the disabled. It also excludes the Levites, the caretakers of the temple, who, though essential to the Israelite community, do not fight in the military. This particular exclusion makes it clear that not counting doesn’t mean you aren’t important (check out the triple negative!), but rather that you aren’t a necessary player in this particular mission.

Some people count, and some people don’t.

Nowadays, congregations have different ways of counting people. I recently learned that churches measure their congregations by ASA—“Average Sabbath Attendance.” By this metric, we are growing, so I happen to like it better. But it is interesting to put the two metrics side-by-side: do we count the membership of our congregation by who fills out a form or writes a check, or by who comes through the door and takes part in the life of the synagogue? For a house of worship to thrive, both metrics matter.

But more than the numbers themselves, what matters is whether or not people feel that they “count” as a part of our community.

This past week, I read a children’s book called Almost a Minyan. Someone had referred to the book as “groundbreaking,” and I wanted to see why. The story is about a girl anticipating the day that she can count in a minyan, one of the ten adults—traditionally men—needed to say Kaddish in the synagogue. At first, I was offended that anyone would think of it as “groundbreaking” to have a young woman “count” in a minyan, or to wear tallit and tefillin, as this young woman does in the illustrations. Women counting in the synagogue? That was sooooo 100 years ago!

But two things made this book special. The first was that there was no dramatic tension about the young woman counting in the minyan—the drama of the story came from someplace else. No one was against it. It was just a matter of her reaching the appropriate age. Once she turned twelve, wasn’t any question of whether or not she “counted.”

Moreover, the faces in the book represented different races and genders, though none of this was mentioned or explained in the text. This might not seem that groundbreaking to us—we have all kinds of people here in our synagogue. But imagine that you are a young woman, or a person of color, in a Jewish community where there aren’t many people who look like you. Seeing a face like yours, or a story like yours, on the page, reminds you (or maybe tells you for the first time) that you matter. You count.

We have come quite a far way from counting only adult, combat-ready males in the Jewish community. We give equal weight to men and women, to the disabled and the abled, to adults and to children, even if certain privileges only come with b’nai mitzvah. In the Reform movement, we have taken extra steps to make sure that individuals, and households, are counted equally, regardless of their size, shape, color, ability, economic status, or orientation.

This is the ideal, but there are times when we fall short. Each of us has probably known a time when we didn’t feel “counted” in a community: when our voice was not heard, or our needs were not met, or we did not feel welcomed because we were different in some way. It is our responsibility as a sacred community to consider who might still be outside our doors, because they don’t feel that they “count” here, and how we can communicate to every person in our community that they matter.

Some people count, and some people don’t.

We are also seeing this phrase play out on the national scale. We have our own census coming up in 2020, and there is a debate over who will be counted. While the 1990 census was the first to count same-sex couples, the 2020 census was going to be the first to include questions about LGBTQ individuals. But the Census Bureau revealed a few weeks ago that these questions would not be included in this census.

Why does this matter? It matters to researchers and agencies who serve these populations, so that they can have the best information about the people living in any given community, and address the particular challenges that each community might face. And it matters to LGBTQ individuals, who view this as an attempt to “erase” them. They want to know that they “count.”

This past week, the White House released a budget proposal for next year that has raised further questions about who “counts” in our society. The proposal suggests making cuts to programs that serve children, the poor, and the disabled. The White House Budget Director, Mick Mulvaney, urged the public not to focus solely on the numbers:

“We are no longer going to measure compassion by the number of programs or the number of people on those programs. We are going to measure compassion and success by the number of people we help get off those programs and get back in charge of their own lives.”

This is an admirable goal. There is no higher form of tzedaka than empowering a person to become self-sufficient. But we must ask those in positions of leadership: how will you care for those who are counted as recipients of SNAP, Medicaid, and Social Security Disability? How will you bring them from public assistance to independence, and how will you care for them in the meantime? How will you say to these people: “You count”?

We might be focused on the big numbers, such as the 44 million people in the United States who receive food stamps, or the $192 billion dollar cut to that program. But for each individual or family, it’s the smaller numbers that make the biggest difference: a thousand dollar child tax credit, a dollar difference in the minimum wage, a student loan payment, a medical bill. I’m not callous enough to say that none of these programs could be run with less waste or more efficiency. We’re trying to do that here, too. But the huge scale of these proposed cuts sends a message to the people who rely on them: You don’t count.

Some people count, and some people don’t.

Elsewhere in the Torah it is seen as bad luck to do count people, so much so that, in another census, they collected a half-shekel from each Israelite instead of counting heads. So the rabbis ask, why, here, are the Israelites counted? They compare God to a dealer of precious stones. If the merchant is selling glass beads, they might not bother to count their inventory. But the Israelites, they say, are like fine pearls. God needs us to be counted because each of us is precious (Numbers Rabbah 4:2).

Similarly, another midrash explains that the number given in this week’s census is equal to the number of letters in the Torah. This shows the importance of each individual. If one letter in the Torah is missing, the scroll is invalid. Likewise, if one person is left out, the Jewish community cannot thrive (Itturei Torah on Genesis 1:1).

Some people count, and some people don’t.

It is an ugly truth in every society. But you know who counts? We do. As members of this community, and citizens of this nation, we can speak up for those who may feel like they don’t count. We must communicate to our leadership that each individual in our community, and in our country, is more than just a number. It is our responsibility to work towards the day that each person is counted, not as a half-shekel, but as a precious pearl.

Vassar Temple Advocacy Group Goes to Albany!

Andi Ciminello, Howard Susser and Marge Groten joined other Reform Jewish Congregations in Albany on Monday, May 8th for a Lobby Day organized by Reform Jewish Voice of New York State.  The event was attended by approximately 30 people.

The morning session was devoted to training the participants on the issues on the organization’s agenda for the day of lobbying and on lobbying techniques.  Presenters included the Co-chairs of Reform Jewish Voice; Assemblywoman Pat Fahey; staff from NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office and a legislative assistant from the Religious Action Center, in Washington DC.
We were asked to advocate for:
  • support of measures that curb the growing influence of money in politics,
  • support of the New York Votes Act to make voting more accessible to New Yorkers,
  • support of the Reproductive Rights Health Act and the Comprehensive Contraceptive Coverage Act, and
  • opposition to the Education Affordability Act, which would provide extremely generous tax credits to those making donations to private and parochial schools.
In the afternoon we meet with Assemblyman Frank Skartados, a staff person working for Assemblywoman DidI Barrett (a Vassar Temple member) and a staff person in Senator Sue Serino’s office to discuss all of the issues on the day’s agenda.  We all felt the event was very worthwhile and encourage Temple members to take the opportunity—either in Albany or locally—to lobby our state legislators on issues identified by Reform Jewish Voice of New York. Speak to one of us if you are interested.
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Dress for Success: What Biblical Clothes Can Tell Us About Modern Leadership

This week’s sermon on Purim and Parashat Tetzaveh. Cross posted to This Is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

Every year, when I sit down to do my taxes, I scroll through my Amazon history to determine what I spent on books, office supplies, and other work-related items. When I get to February and March, I am filled with gratitude that I am in a profession where a Marilyn Monroe wig is a business expense.

Purim is upon us, and that means we are paying special attention to our clothing. We dress in costume, of course (a reminder that this year we will have prizes for doing so!). But the theme of clothing is also woven through the Purim story: who is wearing it, and who isn’t wearing it. The King asks Vashti to appear before his friends wearing her royal crown—perhaps, the rabbis suggest, only her royal crown—and she refuses. After banishing Vashti, the King places that same crown on Esther’s head. Mordechai wears sackcloth and ashes when he hears of the edict to execute the Jews of Shushan, and the king’s own royal robes, when a jealous Haman is forced to honor his rival. Esther employs perfumes and cosmetics to win the king’s heart, and puts on royal robes to change the king’s mind. And while Haman’s famous hat doesn’t appear anywhere in the biblical story, we all know to associate its triangular shape with evil, or possibly, with prune filling.

Clothing is more than what covers our bodies. It is part of what defines us as human beings. As Nechama Leibowitz points out: “Humans are the only creatures in the universe who do not rest content with their natural skin” (Etz Chayim, p. 504). Clothing sends a message both to the wearer and to the outside world. Nowhere is this more apparent than in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, where we learn the design of the clothing of the priesthood, particularly the elaborate garments of the high priest.

In a society where most clothing would have been overwhelmingly beige, the colorful design of the high priest’s outfit indicates his elevated status. The embroidery alone requires the work of many dedicated Israelites. Gold, blue, purple, and red dyes—all expensive to produce—figure prominently in the high priests’ outfit. Precious stones and metals decorate his forehead, shoulders, chest, and ankles.

These fancy pieces did not just serve to show the Israelites who is boss. In fact, it is likely that they did exactly the opposite.

high priest outfitWhile the other priests wore simple, modest linen garments—tunics, sashes, turbans, and pants—the high priest’s outfit included a more decorative item called an ephod, which resembles a heavily embroidered apron. The centerpiece of this ephod was the choshen mishpat, the “breastpiece of decision,” containing the Urim and Thummim, a pair of stones used to divine God’s will. The choshen is embellished with 12 precious stones, each engraved with the name of one of the tribes of Israel. Furthermore, on each of his shoulders, the high priest wears one of two onyx stones, each engraved with the names of six of the 12 tribes. “Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision over his heart before the Eternal at all times” (Exodus 28: 30).

Why would God insist that the high priest be so…bedazzled? Wouldn’t all that bling be heavy to carry around?

While the use of precious stones was an indicator of the high priest’s status, the engraving on the stones serves a dual purpose. The first is so that, when the high priest appeared before God, God would remember the covenant God had made with all the Israelites. The second is so that neither the high priest nor the Israelites would ever forget that the high priest was their representative. Biblical archaeologist Carol Meyers writes that the breastplate, “symbolizes the presence of all Israel in the decisions made with the ephod and gives authority to those rulings; it also carries the implicit hope for divine awareness of the people and their needs” (The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 478). One rabbi adds that the gemstones “serve as a perpetual and humbling reminder to him that he is the representative of the entire community of Israel before God” (Etz Chayim, p. 506).

This means that, every day, when the High Priest puts on the ephod and the choshen, the gemstones force him to literally feel the weight of his responsibilities bearing down on his shoulders. He may be, as the gold piece on his forehead states, “Holy to the Eternal,” but he is also, in essence, a servant of the people.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we had something like that for our leaders today?

When I was training to be a camp counselor at URJ Camp Eisner, the director read us a letter from a first-time camper’s parent. I don’t remember exactly what it said, only that the parent was grateful, and that the child’s name was Emma. I remember this because, after reading about the great summer the camp had provided for her, someone printed up stickers saying, “I do it for Emma.” I still have the sticker on my now rarely-used camp counselor clipboard. While I’ve long since forgotten who Emma was (I don’t even know if I ever met her, though she’s probably 25 by now) the sticker still serves as a reminder that a great deal of what we do as leaders needs to be remembering whom we work so hard for.

No matter what our profession or calling, it helps to keep a reminder of why we do what we do, and whom we do it for, close to our hearts. And no one needs this reminder more than our elected officials.

As I was reading this Torah portion, I couldn’t help but imagine what a choshen mishpat might look like for our government leaders. Would the president wear a stone for each of the 50 states? Would a senator’s breastpiece feature the names of all of their districts? Would a representative engrave their constituents’ zip codes on their shoulder stones? What would it feel like if a local, state, or national leader had to carry the weight of their constituents with them wherever they went?

We don’t have ephods or breastpieces today: not for our Jewish leaders, and not for our political ones. Thus, it is incumbent upon us to remind our leaders whom they serve. Rabbis get these reminders when we meet with our lay leadership, and when people come to us directly to tell us what they need or want. Although we cannot possibly please everyone, even in a small community, knowing what our community is thinking and feeling helps us to be better rabbis. It helps us to point ourselves in the right direction, not necessarily where we want the congregation to go, but where we believe the congregation itself wants to be.

Politicians get these reminders when we visit, call, or write to them. In the wake of recent events, some organizations are suggesting we do this every day. This is relatively new territory for me, as I previously only spoke to my representatives on a handful of designated advocacy days. Now I receive daily reminders to call, write, or visit our local, state, and national leaders, to remind them who I am, what my values are, and that I will support any effort the government makes to take better care of the people.

On the flip side of this, as a leader myself, I am feeling the weight of our community’s needs. Many people we serve here at Vassar Temple have expressed a desire to advocate publicly for Jewish values in partnership with our synagogue community. Just as many of our people have expressed a desire for the synagogue to be a refuge from political activity, and we respect that desire as well. With six on one shoulder and a half dozen on the other, we aim to strike a reasonable balance.

This Sunday, at 7 p.m., the Vassar Temple Advocacy Group will be meeting to set its course for the coming year. While this group does not represent Vassar Temple as an institution, it provides an opportunity for our members to engage in advocacy that is in line with our Jewish values, in partnership with our sacred community. We work in conjunction with Reform Jewish Voice of New York State, which is a non-partisan group that advocates on issues including hunger, reproductive rights, and equality for women and the LGBTQ community. While we do not expect the entire Reform Jewish community, or even all of Vassar Temple itself, to be aligned on how we approach these issues, we cannot deny that these are concerns we all share, and that part of being Jewish is standing up for what we believe in, whether we do this individual, or together.

Like the stones on the choshen mishpat, we are called to remind our leaders who it is they serve, to be the weight on their shoulders, and the precious stones that they display proudly to the world.

Tomorrow, we celebrate Purim, which, if we look beyond the elaborate costumes, celebrates the different ways we stand up against injustice. May we be like Vashti, who stamps her feet in protest. May we be like Mordechai, who supports and guides a new leader as she finds her voice. May we be like Esther, who uses her position of power to protect the vulnerable. And let us even give a little credit to King Ahasheurus who, when challenged by those he respects and admires, manages to do the right thing.

Whose stories are we not hearing?

Rabbi Berkowitz’s Shabbat sermon on parashat Yitro. Crossposted to This Is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

My brother and I were at Sinai

He kept a journal
of what he saw,
of what he heard,
of what it all meant to him.

I wish I had such a record
of what happened to me

It seems like every time I want to write
I can’t—
I’m always holding a baby,
one of my own,
or one for a friend,
always holding a baby
so my hands are never free
to write things down.

And then
as time passes,
the particulars,
the hard data,
the who what when where why,
slip away from me,
and all I’m left with is
the feeling.

But feelings are just sounds
the vowel barking of a mute.

My brother is so sure of what he heard—
after all he’s got a record of it—
consonant after consonant after consonant.

If we remembered it together
we could recreate holy time
sparks flying.

This poem by Merle Feld gives us a personal perspective of one of the most important collective experiences of the Jewish people: Receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. Because this moment, captured in this week’s Torah portion, was such an important part of the Jewish story, rabbis have spent centuries arguing about exactly who was there, who heard what, and who said what in response.

For instance, some rabbis argued that this historic gathering was not limited by the bounds of the space-time continuum. Therefore, it included the future prophets of Israel, the souls of those yet unborn, and the souls of future converts to Judaism (Exodus Rabbah 28:6). One rabbi imagined that the bellies of pregnant women became like glass, so that the fetuses in their wombs could affirm their commitment to the covenant (Midrash Aseret Ha-Dibrot).

But oddly enough, some rabbis argue over whether or not women were included, and whether they received all commandments, or just the most basic ones. One progressive amongst these rabbis concluded that the women must have been addressed first because they were “prompt in fulfilling the commandments” and would “lead their children to the study of Torah” (Exodus Rabbah 28:2).

Modern feminist scholars point out that Moses’ instructions to the people seem to imply that women were not to be included at all. This exclusion, they argue, did not come from God, but rather from Moses’ own biases. While God instructs Moses to make sure the people “stay pure,” Moses tells the people—or at least, the men—“Do not go near a woman” (Exodus 19: 10-15). In doing so, Moses has implied that “people” means “men,” and that “pure” and “woman” cannot exist in the same space.

Tikvah Frymer-Kensky wrote that “At this defining moment of revelation, Moses has introduced into Israel both gender exclusion and the separation between sexuality and spirituality. Two major concepts—and they are not divine” (Studies in Bible and Feminist Criticism, pp. 70-72). Judith Plaskow puts it more simply, “At this central moment of Jewish history, women are invisible” (Contemporary Jewish Theology, pp. 255). Given that, last week, the Torah amplified the voices of women–singing, dancing, and drumming on the shores of the sea– their silence here is almost audible.

And while these contemporary voices point out the exclusion of women from the Sinai narrative, these aren’t the only voices that we aren’t hearing. The Torah would have us believe that close to a million people were standing at Sinai. Surely they did not all have the same experience! But we only really hear about Moses, and God, and the Israelites as a collective entity. The experience of the individual is lost.

For instance, my friend Matan Koch once gave a brilliant sermon about the phrase “standing at Sinai.” Matan uses a power chair, and while he can make it go up and down when asked to “rise for the Barchu,” he cannot physically stand. He asked us to consider what his fate might have been at Sinai. Would God have miraculously enabled him to stand for the giving of the Torah? Would his fellow Israelites have propped him up to a standing position? Or would God have accepted him as he was, a person who cannot stand and therefore enters the covenant in a seated position?

All of this got me thinking about whose stories we might not be hearing, at Sinai, and now.

In a recent interview, the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich discussed her now-famous quote, “Well behaved women seldom make history.” This quote is beloved by activists and feminists everywhere. Some of us even have it printed on tote bags. But Ulrich had not meant for her words to serve as encouragement for revolutionary behavior. She had had actually been talking about the difficulty of her own research into the lives of ordinary women in the 19th century. All she had to work with were the journals of a handful of “well-behaved” women, because the patterns of their everyday lives were not considered newsworthy. Nor did the men around them take note of their behavior, unless it was erratic.

I have long been obsessed with stories, both real and imaginary, about people ordinary and extraordinary. In addition to my love of biblical stories and midrash on their characters, I enjoy storytelling podcasts and memoirs. Personal stories give me perspectives that differ from my own: such as what it was like to grow up poor in Appalachia and then go to Yale, or how it would feel to travel to Korea to impress one’s future husband’s grandparents.

One of my favorite parts of the rabbinate are the stories I hear when guiding people through the life-cycle. B’nai mitzvah parents tell me what their children were like as babies, trying to escape from their cribs, or tasting solid food for the first time. Wedding couples tell me why they love each other and how they knew it, or how many times their partner asked them out before they said yes. Families preparing for a funeral have the impossible task of telling me their loved one’s entire life story in about an hour, but they do it with tenderness and humor. These are the stories of ordinary people, everyday stories that rarely get told outside the inner circle of a family. There are many commonalities, but each one is different, and learning each other’s stories is vital to building meaningful relationships and sacred communities.

In the world we currently inhabit, our struggle to build these relationships is twofold. First of all, we might be too plugged in, too busy, or too uncomfortable to sit down with people in our circle to ask questions about their lives.

Our second challenge is that, even if we were to uncover the life stories of everyone we knew, we might still not hear the stories of those beyond our circle. We are a nation made up of diverse opinions and life experiences. This can cause a lot of tension between those who hold different viewpoints. What would it be like if everyone in our nation took the time to hear the stories of individual immigrants, refugees, people in poverty, people in business, people in law enforcement, those who live in East Coast cities and those who live in the rural Midwest, people of color and people of privilege, people from different religions, and, most of all, people from opposing political parties?

So while I try not to make a habit of telling you what to do, I’d like to suggest three action items to consider over this long weekend:

First of all, we can ask a loved one to tell us their story. The StoryCorps website and app have great lists of questions to ask.

Second, we can find someone in the synagogue that we don’t know very well, and make time to meet with them and learn their story. We’ve been talking a lot about how we might navigate these tumultuous times as a community. Sometimes we will be called upon to act together, sometimes to support one another. But what if the synagogue was a place where we could experience the stories of those who are not like us? Because even if we are all part of the Jewish community, we are not all the same.

Finally, we can seek out opportunities to hear the stories of those whose experiences and opinions might be different from our own. You might find them online through StoryCorps or The Moth, but also in our community. For instance, we are working with our Jewish, Muslim, and Christian neighbors to create joint programming where we can get to know each other better.

We also have an opportunity to hear stories on Saturday, March 25th, when the TMI Project will be hosting an evening called “Black Stories Matter” in Kingston. This is an opportunity to hear about experiences different—or perhaps not so different—from our own in an apolitical setting: just real snapshots of pivotal moments in other people’s ordinary lives.

There are those who believe that the Torah was given in 70 languages, so that everyone in the world could understand (Shabbbat 88a). One rabbi suggests that, just as manna tasted different to every Israelite, so the commandments sounded different to each individual: “Come and see how the voice went forth to all of Israel, to each and every one in keeping with their particular strength [koach]—to the elderly in keeping with their strength, to young men in keeping with their strength, to the little ones in keeping with their strength, and to the women in keeping with their strength” (Exodus Rabbah 5:9).

The better we know each other’s strengths and stories, the better we can speak to one another in the right language. Because even though the Israelites might each have heard or experienced something different at that Sinai moment, they all stood at the same mountain, they all had to adhere to the same covenant, and they all had to walk through the same wilderness, together. The same is true of us: our experiences may be different, but it is still incumbent upon us to move forward together. Then we might, as Merle Feld suggests, “recreate holy time, sparks flying.”

 

 

 

 

 

Fighting the Plague of Darkness

Rabbi Berkowitz’s remarks at the Mid-Hudson Solidarity March. You can watch a video of the speech here. Mid-Hudson welcomed its first refugee family, from Congo, this past Tuesday. The family our community has volunteered to welcome is delayed indefinitely.

For the sin of silence,
For the sin of indifference,
For the secret complicity of the neutral, 
For the closing of borders,
For the washing of hands,
For the crime of indifference,
For the sin of silence,
For the closing of borders.
For all that was done,
For all that was not done,
Let there be no forgetfulness before the Throne of
Glory;
Let there be remembrance within the human heart;
And let there at last be forgiveness
When your children, O God,
Are free and at peace.

From Chaim Stern, editor, Gates of Repentance (Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1978).

This week, the Jewish scriptural readings find us enslaved in Egypt, inching ever closer to that moment of liberation, but with many roadblocks along the way. With Pharaoh’s heart so hardened that even his most trusted advisors cannot sway him, God brings about the ninth plague: “a darkness upon the land of Egypt, a darkness that can be touched” (Exodus 10:21).

Unlike many of the other plagues, this one fell only on the houses of the Egyptians. What was the nature of this strange and selective darkness? The rabbis tell us that this is not a physical darkness, but a spiritual one, “the punishment that awaits those who cannot truly see their neighbors, who cannot feel the pain and recognize the dignity of their afflicted neighbors” (Etz Chayim 377).

This is a story that has recurred too many times in our history. Too many times, we have drawn the curtains and shut off the streetlights, turned off the television and silenced the radio, so that we did not have to bear witness to our neighbors’ suffering, so that we would not be held responsible for our inaction.

But we are here this evening to say: we will not give in to the darkness of ignorance and indifference. We will shine the light of solidarity, even in these dark times. Because, as the ancient rabbis tell us, the break of dawn is the moment we can first recognize the face of our friend (Berachot 9b).

We are here tonight, to say to our neighbors, to our faith communities, and to our public officials: We will not let the actions of our national leadership prevent us from seeing the humanity of our neighbors, whether they are our Muslim brothers and sisters living among us now, or our refugee cousins who are, in spite of everything, still hoping to make a home in our community. We will not allow our nation to fall victim to the plague of darkness.

We are here tonight to say to our neighbors.

Our lights have not been extinguished.

Our curtains are not drawn.

Our doors are not closed.

Our ears and eyes and hearts are open:

We see you.

We hear you.

We are you.

We are standing beside you.

We will welcome you.

And we will fight for you!

 Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-Olam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu lirdof tzedek ule’ehov et ha-ger.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who makes us holy through sacred obligations, and commands us to pursue justice, and to love the stranger.

A Referendum on the American Dream: Rabbi Berkowitz’s Yom Kippur Morning Sermon 5777

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This poem, written by Jewish poet Emma Lazarus, is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. These were the first words that many of our ancestors saw upon arriving in New York Harbor. They might not have been able to read them, but the message came across loud and clear in the Statue of Liberty’s outstretched arm. Its torch lit the way to what, for many of them, was considered a “Goldene Medene,” a new Promised Land.

Fleeing persecution and poverty, our ancestors set their sights on a land that promised freedom and opportunity. Once the harrowing journey was over, they would have the chance to build better lives for themselves and their children.

My grandmother didn’t come through Ellis Island. Seeking to enter the United States in the early 1920s, my great-grandparents entered New York by way of Canada, to establish British citizenship and circumvent quotas on immigrants from Eastern Europe. My great-grandmother, previously one of Warsaw’s elite, scrubbed floors, while my great-grandfather candled eggs, until they had enough money to open a grocery store in Harlem. They enrolled their three children in the New York public schools and cheder, and saw to it that all of them went to college. Their hard work ensured that their children and grandchildren would have access to a good education, gainful and meaningful employment, and a level of material comfort that they could not even imagine for themselves.

Many of us have stories like these, great “American Dream” narratives of coming here with nothing, working hard to make something of ourselves, and giving a better life to the next generation. These would be great “lift ourselves up by our bootstraps” narratives, except for one thing. We did not pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. In some shape or form, every one of us had help getting to where we are today.

There was private assistance: the relatives who sent money and set us up with our first jobs. There was also a vast network of Jewish and secular benevolent societies that provided education, medical care, free loans, and legal aid to people who were new to this country. State and local governments stepped in to assist and protect new Americans: providing funding for benevolent societies, free public education for the children of immigrants, and regulation of threats to public health and safety posed by tenements and sweatshops.

Public and private assistance to new Americans wasn’t perfect, but it was widespread, in both the Jewish and public spheres. This is because welcoming the stranger is deeply rooted in both the Jewish narrative and the American narrative. We, the Jewish people, are a nation of exiles. And we, the American people, are a nation of immigrants.

Jews have been immigrating to, and settling in, America since a group of Sephardic Jews arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654. While there were not yet quotas keeping us from entering the Americas, Jews and other religious minorities faced discrimination and intolerance in early American settlements, and even after the founders declared that, “all men were created equal.”

The question of what role Jews would play in this nascent country came to the foreground in 1790, when George Washington himself visited the Hebrew Congregations of Newport, Rhode Island. In a letter to the congregation, Washington stated that tolerance of diversity was not an indulgence, but a basic human right, and that the country he served as president would give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

For a people who had been repeatedly pushed down into the status of second-class citizen—or denied citizenship altogether—America felt akin to Canaan, the biblical Promised Land. For the first time in millennia, it felt like we might be able to stop our perpetual wandering.

But even the Promised Land isn’t promised unconditionally, as we read in this morning’s portion, Nitzavim:

“And later generations will ask—the children who succeed you, and foreigners who come from distant lands and see the plagues and diseases that the Eternal has inflicted upon that land…just like the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorroh… all nations will ask, ‘Why did the Eternal do thus to the land?’ … They will be told, ‘Because they forsook the covenant that the Eternal … made with them when God freed them from the land of Egypt….So the Eternal … uprooted them from their soil in anger, fury, and great wrath, and cast them into another land” (Deut. 29:21-27).

This passage was likely written by a people already in exile, trying to understand their displacement from the land given by God to their ancestors. The Promised Land wasn’t something we thought we could lose. Suddenly, we found ourselves strangers in a strange land, wondering how we got there.

It shouldn’t have been such a mystery to us. The narratives of the Torah are rife with stories of punishment, destruction and exile. Adam and Eve lost their place in the Garden of Eden for disobeying God’s command. Noah and his family watched as the rest of the world’s corrupt inhabitants drowned in a flood. The architects of Babel were scattered into 70 nations for attempting to storm the gates of heaven. And the people of Sodom and Gomorroh disappeared beneath a maelstrom of fire and brimstone.

Why is it that the people of Sodom were targeted for destruction? The plain text attributes Sodom’s fate to the perversion of its inhabitants, who attempt an assault on two strangers staying in the home of Abraham’s nephew, Lot. But the rabbis suggest that the people of Sodom didn’t come after the strangers because of their depravity, but because of their unwillingness to share what they had.

One might think this kind of miserliness comes from a place of scarcity. But the rabbis tell us that Sodom was a place of great wealth. Neither human beings walking below, nor birds flying above, could see through the dense foliage of the fruit-bearing trees. Gold flakes clung to the roots of their vegetables. The people of Sodom didn’t become stingy because they had too little, but because they had too much!

Rather than feel blessed by their abundance, the people of Sodom began to fear that foreigners would take what was rightfully theirs, saying: “We live in peace and plenty…What need have we to look after wayfarers, who come to us only to deprive us? Come, let us see to it that the duty of entertaining foot travelers be forgotten in our land!”

So the people of Sodom developed an elaborate anti-wayfarer campaign. They charged people four zuzim to cross the bridge into their town, and eight zuzim if they tried to evade the toll by wading through a river. If a wayfarer was too tall or too short for his bed, they would cut him or stretch him to fit. If he begged in the street, people would give him coins, but instruct the local shopkeepers not to sell him food. When the stranger inevitably died, the people would retrieve their money from his pockets.

The animosity of the people of Sodom was not reserved for the stranger. They also stole from each other, were violent towards one another, and refused to feed the hungry amongst themselves, even to the point of torturing those who took pity on the stranger.

The rabbis explain that God’s punishment of Sodom is a response to the outcry of Lot’s daughter, who had been secretly sustaining an impoverished person. When the townspeople discover her transgression, they burn her alive, and she cries out: “God of the universe … exact justice and judgment in my behalf from the Sodomites” (Book of Legends 36:30-32).

The price of their selfishness and greed was exile and destruction. Not because of the isolated actions of its individuals, but because, according to Rabbi Eliezar, “wickedness became public policy endorsed and approved by the authorities” (Pirke De Rabbi Eliezar 25).

We might hear this and think, “What does it have to do with us? We would never do anything like that in our country!” But only two years ago, a 90-year-old WWII veteran named Arnold Abbot was arrested multiple times for violating a local ordinance against feeding the homeless in public spaces in Florida. This may sound like just another irregular news item. But policy-making and political rhetoric against those in need is not. Those seeking public assistance are treated as a nuisance and a drain on our society, rather than the responsibility of a nation built by the tired, poor, and the tempest-tost.

It is not a coincidence that our country’s entrance bears the verse, “I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” In Emma Lazarus’s day, welcoming the stranger to this land of opportunity was a major point of American pride. But just over a century later, when the plenty in our land has only increased, we speak of replacing our golden doors with high walls, in the interest of preventing, and forcibly removing, those who seek to make a home here.

While it is impossible to speak of the American Dream without mentioning our immigrant past, it is not only immigrants and refugees who suffer from our scarcity mentality. Citizens of this nation also fall victim to the rhetoric of “us versus them.” Those of us in positions of privilege and power have become so concerned with protecting what we have, that we allow others to be oppressed in the name of our own security and comfort.

We support policies that deny workers fair wages and the most basic assistance in caring for themselves and their families, so that we can have cheap labor, cheap goods, and a lower bottom line. This doesn’t just impact the people at the bottom. Skilled workers and educated professionals too find themselves struggling to make ends meet, in a society that provides little help in the way of childcare, loan forgiveness, and pay equity.

We support a criminal justice system that disproportionately punishes poor people and people of color, so that we can feel safe, or even, in our worst moments, so that corporations might profit from the business of incarceration.

We balance our budgets on the backs of our public education and health care systems, as well as by cutting funds to other agencies that assist those living in poverty. Then we blame the poor for somehow not being gritty enough to pull themselves up, like we did.

We are so concerned with voter fraud, something that only happens only a few hundred times per election, that we would allow laws to pass that deny voting rights to tens of millions of American citizens, mostly the poor, the elderly, and people of color.

Many of us are so disgusted by our political system right now that we are tempted to throw up our hands and not participate at all. But it is not enough for us to hope that the rest of the country makes a good decision, or to resign ourselves to whatever the outcome of this election may be. Apathy is not an option for us, as Jews or as Americans, because every election is a referendum on the American Dream.

american-dream-word-cloud
This sermon as a word cloud.
Every election is an opportunity for us to decide who we want to be as a nation. Do we want to perpetuate the “bootstraps” myth of rugged individualism, or do we want to acknowledge that even the most tenacious and persistent of us would not be where we are today had we not received help from our community and our country? We have survived centuries of discrimination and persecution in this country and all over the world. Will we stand idly by as our country continues to push down its weaker citizens: its immigrants, its people of color, and even its women? Do we want to be a nation that tightens its borders and starves out the wayfarer, or do we want to be a nation that cares deeply for its own citizens, and welcomes the stranger, as we have been welcomed and cared for?

This election comes down to this: do we want to be Canaan, a land of promise and plenty, or do we want to be Sodom, a land of fear and self-preservation?

This question is very real to us as we begin this new year. We have just learned that Church World Service has been approved to open a Voluntary Agency for the resettlement of refugees in Dutchess County. Vassar Temple is working with local religious institutions, universities, and non-profits to support individual refugee families who will be resettled in our area.

Our community will be called upon to provide assistance in many different ways. I know that we will welcome these families to our community with open arms, and with generous support, because that is who we are as a community.

But what will we do for the 65 million others who are persecuted in, and displaced from, their home countries, as we once were? The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the very agency that helped many of us settle in this country, has shifted its focus to helping immigrants from outside of the Jewish community. They are calling upon us to support their work of helping refugees settle here and abroad. They are also asking us to urge our government leaders to increase the number of refugees we are accepting into this country. That number is now only 10,000, a small fraction, even of the 1% of refugees who are eligible for resettlement in the first place, and who have passed through our rigorous screening process.

This is what we can do for those who are strangers in a strange land. But what will we do for those citizens of our country who do not yet know the freedom and equality upon which the United States was founded? Our first step is to ensure that all of us can participate in the election this November. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has launched a campaign to increase voter participation and voter protection in this election, because ensuring that all people have the right to vote is the first step in ensuring that so many of our other rights will be protected.

I encourage you visit their websites, to learn what you can do to increase access to the American Dream, by welcoming more people into this great country, and by empowering those who are already here to make decisions about our nation’s future.

The RAC has named their campaign after this morning’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, which means, “you stand together.” At the start of this Torah portion, we hear who is standing on the banks of the Jordan, preparing to enter the Promised Land: “You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your God—your tribal heads, your elders, and your officials, all the men of Israel, your children, your women, even the stranger within your camp, from woodchopper to waterdrawer—to enter into the covenant of the Eternal your God” (Deut. 29:9-11).

Even in the patriarchal, particularistic religion of ancient Israel, Moses goes out of his way to mention groups that we might expect to be left on the margins. The speech is addressed, not only to the elders, the officials, and the men, but also to the women and the children, the day laborers, and the strangers in our midst.

God reminds us: “I make this covenant…not with you alone, but both with those who are standing here with us this day…and those who are not with us here this day” (Deut. 29: 14). “Those who are not with us today,” includes those of us who are sitting here this morning.

Every year at Passover, we remind ourselves that, in every generation, we are obligated to regard ourselves as if we, personally, went forth from Egypt. Even as we sit reclining at our dining room tables, we are commanded to remember the pain of slavery as a personal trauma, so that we will never lose our empathy for the downtrodden and the oppressed. The same can be said of our much more recent experience as new immigrants in this country.

We as Jews aren’t a people who believe that one can start from birth at zero. Even as we enjoy our comfortable lives, we carry with us the history—no, the memory—of previous generations: who wandered, who struggled, who knew persecution and discrimination, and who relied on public and private assistance to survive and to flourish in this country.

When we stood on the banks of the Jordan, we entered into a covenant that demanded that we help the poor, the vulnerable, and the stranger. Centuries later, when we passed through the “Golden Door” into this great country, we also entered into a sacred covenant, to take every opportunity that was granted to us, and to make sure that others would have the same opportunities that we once did.

As we open the door to a new year, may we honor these covenants. May we be ever-vigilant to protect the rights of the homeless, the poor, the stranger and the tempest-tost. May we remember that we are a nation whose founders swore to give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” And may we work diligently to fulfill that vision of a Promised Land inscribed on our nation’s entrance, “I lift my lamp beside the Golden Door.”  And let us say, Amen.