When the Ordinary Becomes Tragic, and the Tragic Becomes Ordinary

A d’var Torah on parashat Terumah, in response to this week’s shooting in Parkland, FL. For the Jewish texts, I relied heavily on Dena Weiss’s “From Table to Grave.” Cross-posted to This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

The name of this week’s Torah portion is Terumah, which means “gift,” and it refers to the gifts that God requests from the Israelites for the purpose of building the mishkan. The mishkan is a dwelling place for God, also called a mikdash, or holy place. The Torah tells us:

“The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Tell the Israelites to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved….and let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them. Exactly as I show you—the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings—so shall you make it” (Exodus 25:1-9).

The instructions that follow deal with the interior furnishings—the ark, the table, and the menorah—as well as the external structure—the coverings, frames, and textiles, the altar and the enclosure.

The juxtaposition of the instructions for the aron, the Ark of the Covenant, and the shulchan, the table for the bread of display, caught the attention of 14th century Spanish Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, and reminded him of a peculiar custom of his French neighbors:

“It is the practice of the pious in France that they make their casket ([also called an] aron) for burial out of their table. [They do this] to show that a person will not take anything in his hand and nothing of his labor will accompany him, except for the tzedaka that he did in his life and the goodness he bestowed at his table. Therefore the Rabbis said, ‘One who sits at his table has his days and years lengthened’ (Berakhot 54b).”

At first glance, this custom reminded me of a story I told last month at Tisch Shabbat, in which a miserly man finds himself poor and hungry in olam habah, the afterlife, because he didn’t send anything ahead for himself (except for a piece of cake that had fallen on the ground). Whether we believe in such a model for the afterlife or not, stories like this remind us to share what we have while we are here, because we can’t take anything with us when we go.

This custom is, in a way, one step beyond the humility normally required in a Jewish burial. While our custom is to bury our loved ones in a plain pine box, here the aron must not only be plain, but recycled.

While for Rabbi Bachya ben Asher, the connection between ark and table signifies what awaits us after our death, forDena Weiss of Mechon Hadar, this custom might impact how we live our lives. An aron is a place of storage, whether we are talking about the Ark of the Covenant, our household closets, or our final resting place. As such, an aron has a sense of permanence and stasis, rather than of change and movement. A table, on the other hand, is “the domain of the temporary,” and as such, items—and people—are in constant motion, coming to the table, and being cleared away. Weiss writes:

“If your table becomes your coffin when you die, every time you see your table, eat at your table, set something upon it, or remove something from it, you are reminded that you are still alive. So long as your table is still a table, it is not a coffin, and you still have the option to do what you want and need to do with the days that remain. Yes, life is short, but it is not over.”

I had this realization myself about a year ago, when I asked the funeral director for a ride to a graveside burial during a snowstorm. He ended up putting me in the hearse. Someone later asked me what it was like, and I said, “Well, if you’re in the front seat, I guess there’s nothing to complain about.”

Sometimes it takes riding in a hearse, having a near miss, or realizing that your table will be your coffin, to shake us out of the fog of routine that keeps us from seeing clearly.

Weiss tells us that, if we let habit control our lives, our table can easily become a coffin in our lifetime. However, she adds, the reverse is also true: “You can look at your life’s course, look at your habits, and decide to revive what feels dead, hopeless, and irrelevant.”

When I initially read this interpretation of the Torah portion, I planned to give a lovely, upbeat little drash on how we can transform our coffin-like ways to a more table-like existence of movement, possibility, and generosity. And I hope that you do take that message away with you. I hope you take time this Shabbat to think about how you can make sure you are living your life fully present at the table, and not with one foot already in your coffin.

But this week, in the wake of the 18th school shooting in 2018, I can’t help thinking about how easily one’s table can become one’s coffin. On Wednesday morning, thousands of high schoolers in Parkland, FL woke up, probably reluctantly, checked their social media, showered, got dressed, did their hair and makeup, grabbed something for breakfast as they rushed out the door. It was Valentines’ Day: maybe they were engrossed in some romantic drama, their own or their friends’. It was Ash Wednesday: Maybe some of them stopped at Church on their way to school, felt the priest’s thumb on their forehead as they said, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” How many of them fought with their parents over hugging or kissing goodbye, since, as far as they knew, it was just going to be an ordinary day?


What ordinary coursework were they studying—or not studying—when the fire alarm went off? How many of them were staring at the clock, willing it to be the end of the school day, as they always did, when 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz entered the campus, armed with an AR-15, and began shooting?

Nearly 3,000 students went to school that morning, thinking it was an ordinary day. As of this writing, 17 of them will only come home in a coffin. Many others have been injured, and for everyone at that school, their family, their friends, and their neighbors—life as they know it has been changed forever.

All of these children are our children, but particularly close to our hearts in the Reform Jewish community was Alyssa Alhadeff, a fourteen-year-old freshman who spent her summers at URJ Camp Coleman. Her cousins go to synagogue with my cousins, at the Reform Temple of Rockland, just over an hour from here. She is part of our family.

Her mother, Lori Alhadeff, wrote on social media:

16victims-alyssa-master180“My Daughter Alyssa was killed today by a horrific act of violence. I just sent her to school and she was shot and killed. Alyssa was a talented soccer player, so smart, an amazing personality, incredible creative writer, and all she had to offer the world was love. She believed in people for being so honest. A knife is stabbed in my heart. I wish I could [have] taken those bullets for you. I will always love you and your memory will live on forever. Please kiss your children, tell them you love them, stand by them no matter what they want to be. To Alyssa’s Friends honor Alyssa by doing something fabulous in your life. Don’t ever give up and inspire for greatness. Live for Alyssa! Be her voice and breathe for her. Alyssa loved you all forever!”

Alyssa’s death, and the death of her classmates, is a painful reminder of how quickly our table—our ordinary routine—can become our coffin. But it is also a disturbing reminder that our coffin has become our table.

This is the 18th school shooting in the first six weeks of 2018. That means that, on average, children are being shot in our schools three times a week. We have allowed the tragic to become the ordinary.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. As long as we are still alive, we owe it to those who have died to use our voices and our votes and our resources to bring about meaningful change.

This might take many forms. We can advocate for safer schools, not just with the presence of metal detectors and law enforcement, but with funding for social workers and psychologists who can address mental health issues, at school and at home, before they lead to tragedies like this one.

We can advocate for better mental health care in our communities, something that is always on the chopping block in state and national conversations about health care.

And we can and should demand sensible gun laws, particularly regarding background checks and the sale of assault rifles and semi-automatic weapons. Many recent shootings have been carried out with AR-15s, what some call a consumer version of a military-grade weapon. It is lightweight, affordable, and capable of penetrating a human body and the wall behind it. It can quickly fire off multiple rounds, particularly when modified with a bump stock, which is also legal, despite attempts to ban them following the Las Vegas shooting in 2017.

An AR-15 is not a handgun. An AR-15 is not a hunting rifle. An AR-15 is designed to kill people, quickly and efficiently, and it can legally be purchased many places in the United States. AR-15s, as “semi-automatic assault rifles,” were part of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban that was in effect from 1994 to 2004. Now they part of the epidemic that is killing our children, nearly three times a week on average. We have allowed them to become ordinary.

But as long as we are alive, we can still, as Dena Weiss suggests, “look at the priorities that [we] have stored away in [our] closet and restore them to [our] table.” After Shabbat, I encourage you to visit the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and Everytown for Gun Safety to learn more about what you can do to remove the stain of gun violence from our table.

I offer, in closing, the words of Rabbi David Wirtschafter:

“It is the word gift, t’rumah, … that this Torah portion, Parashat T’rumah, takes its name. The slaughter of more young people, the squandering of yet more gifts, constitutes a level of grief that we cannot accept. The spilling of innocent blood can never become acceptable. It can not be tolerated, rationalized, trivialized, marginalized, or stoically endured. No one should have to endure it. So, may every person, whose heart so moves us, consider the cost of our current state of affairs.

May we be moved to ask if this is how God intended us to use the gift of life.

May we be moved to go beyond thoughts and prayers.

May we be moved to act on behalf of our children, our students, our neighbors, and our communities to demand a more responsible use of our most precious resource.

Children are among God’s greatest gifts to us.

Our ability to cherish, protect, nurture, love, and value them, is among the greatest gifts we have to offer in return.

To receive a gift is to accept the promise that comes with it.

To give a gift is to express the expectation that it will be received with gratitude and utilized responsibly.

For the sake of our children, past, present, and future let us become better guardians of our gifts. May this be our blessing, and let us say:





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.

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.

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.

Black Lives Matter – by Adam Ciminello

An Explanation of the Black Lives Matter Movement
by Adam Ciminello

[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Adam Ciminello. This topic is being approached from the perspective of social justice, NOT from a political standpoint. NO candidate or party is being endorsed or promoted.]

Good Evening, Shabbat Shalom. Members of the Congregation, Members of our larger local community, Binei Mitzvah Betty Gibbs and Family, and Rabbi Berkowitz. Thank you for sharing your Friday evening with me. It is truly a pleasure to be standing before you in a place where so many of my childhood memories were forged. Before I begin discussing my involvement with Black Lives Matter – a movement which has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life to march with – I would like to make it known now and totally of my own fruition that this sermon is NOT one of political urging. NO endorsements of any candidates will be made. I am here to discuss a moral crisis, one which America and its white communities have consistently deflected away from but can no longer outrun, one which involves the continued prejudice and pain of an American race whose history in this country I would wager predates everybody in this room tonight. There is nothing political about this issue that any single candidate could cure. There are solutions on how to move forward as a people which we will discuss, some of which necessarily will be implemented through political means, but this not a ‘blue state’ or ‘red state’ issue. Basic humanity, oppression, and institutionalized racism cannot, and should not, be quantified on a political spectrum. This is America’s issue. On a micro-level – in a community blessed with such proud diversity and multi-culturalism – this is Poughkeepsie’s issue. This is Vassar Temple’s issue. So I hope this alleviates any initial concerns.

To begin, I’d like to read a few statistics that highlight racial biases in our criminal justice system and in the larger context of America’s institutions. Know that these data points are a window into a larger systemic issue, but I am pressed for time. In each larger statistical category, hundreds of additional examples can be found. Please see me afterwards if you’d like the citations/sources.
• When charged with the same crime, a black male is six times more likely to go to jail than a white male. In spite of being only 12% of the population, black people make up 38% of arrests for violent crimes. They are twice as likely to be victims of the threat of, or actual use of force by the police (Sentencingproject.org).
• In specific localities, the unequal enforcement of our laws is even starker. Black people make up 15% of drivers, 42% of stops, and 73% of arrests on the NJ turnpike, although they violate traffic laws at almost identical rates. In spite of white people being more likely to be caught carrying guns, drugs, and other contraband, 52% of those stopped by NYC’s Stop and Frisk policy were black (sentencingproject.org).
• Studies show that only 13 % of drug users in this country are black – in line with their share of the overall population – yet they account for nearly 36% of those arrested and 46% of those convicted for drug-related offenses (sentencingproject.org)
• Institutional racism does not stop at the arrest. There is also racial bias in jury selection, which leads to illegally turning away qualified black jurors at rates as often as 80% of the time (equaljusticeinitiative.org)
• Black people are sentenced to 20% longer prison terms than white people for similar crimes (WSJ.com).
• A black man convicted of a drug offense spends as much time in prison as a white man convicted of a violent offense (NAACP)
• Even black children are treated as second-class citizens. Black children are 18 times more likely to be sentenced as adults than white children and make up 58% of children admitted in prisons (apa.org)
• In the workplace, black college graduates are twice as likely to be unemployed as college graduates overall. People with ‘black sounding names’ need to send 50% more job applications than people with ‘white sounding names’ to get a call back (nber.org)
• A white applicant with a criminal record is (epi.org) is more likely to get an interview than a black man with a clean record

I’ve chosen to highlight three different sectors – policing, the court room, and the work place – to hopefully offer a small window into the blatant discrimination that black communities survive and endure on a daily basis. Given these unequal opportunities, and combined with the disastrously shameful effects of larger policy initiatives like redlining, gerrymandering, and predatory practices from the private sector, it should come as no surprise that black communities continue to feel marginalized, oppressed, and as though their lives do not matter. We are not removing personal accountability from black communities or black citizens by acknowledging that this systemic condition is the primary reason white supremacy continues to persist in this country. Yes, white supremacy, the centuries old elephant in the room. Often this term sociologically is prescribed to the Bull Connors, the George Wallace’s, and more recently the Dylan Roof’s of the world, but I’d like you to challenge yourselves here and now to see this term as being applicable to anybody who finds themselves content in the face of such undeniable inequality, where white communities enjoy a higher quality of life than their black counterparts. By extension, friends, that implies that this term is applicable to many of us in this room tonight at one point or another in our lives. White supremacy isn’t merely a deranged man with a Rhodesian badge sh¬ooting up a black church in Charleston; it’s also the guy who calls Black Lives Matter a ‘Hate Group’ because he feels threatened at the idea of a movement seeking true equality for black communities or worse, pretends that our black brothers and sisters already know true equality under the law and its institutions, that racism is a thing of the past. By reading the news yet doing nothing, by throwing our hands up in the air as if to say “What more can we do”, by constantly telling black communities in the words of Martin Luther King Jr “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action,” by arguing on social media and Thanksgiving talks alike with our families ‘It’s time for them get over it,’ when we know very well that ‘It’ is still going on, we too are white supremacists, because we too are content to see the system remain intact.

We have witnessed some truly shocking displays of police brutality over the past year, and sadly they are displays that are not a new phenomenon to black communities. They are not a revelation to which naturally begs sudden admonishment or newfound sadness, or even collective outrage. They are an everyday part of black history in this country. We just simply now have the technology to fully capture its breadth and horror. And yet, after every single fatality, we immediately see the media, local government, law enforcement, and concerned white citizens everywhere defame, dehumanize, and demonize that fallen citizen’s character. As though marijuana in your blood stream is a tangible reason to take a life. As though a series of minor, non-violent arrests is a tangible reason to take a life. As though a legal switchblade is a tangible reason to take a life. As though holding a toy gun in Wal Mart is tangible reason to take a life. Not too long ago, the media and government once used these tactics to justify Emmett Till’s murder – ‘he shouldn’t have whistled at that white woman that way, what was he doing in that shop unaccompanied, he was asking for trouble’ – and sadly we already know it worked there too.

So this is why we say Black Lives Matter. This is why we march. This is why we are blocking traffic with our hands up. This is why we are filming police and yes, this is why we’re getting arrested. White Supremacy – this idea of being comfortable with the work we’ve done while completely disregarding that which we didn’t, that which we elected not to, that which we looked the other way from, or that which our silence allowed to persist – is alive and well in this country and we have a moral obligation as Jews to play an active role in its total eradication. All Lives Matter – this we know and need little reminder of from the naysayers worried their own life somehow now matters less – but over 200 years after the American Dream was constitutionally created, as our founding fathers so boldly set out to create a better world, the oldest demographic of Americans are still fundamentally denied its most basic opportunities. It’s most basic principles. We’ve seen distinctly defined waves of immigration come to America and define Americanism in search of opportunity, in search of a better life. We’ve seen Irish peasants escape famine, Italian merchants in search of economic freedom, Eastern Europeans seeking political escape, Central Americans escaping crime and cartels, South Americans running from corrupt governments, East and Southeast Asians fleeing from classism and caste systems, all driven by the rightful and just idea that in America, your merit and your worth are measured by your drive. By your character. And yet, we continue to restrict the opportunities to which black merit, black worth, and black character are measured amongst its everyday citizens, all while extolling and appropriating the virtues its exceptional citizens – the LeBron James’, the James Brown’s, the Maya Angelou’s of the world – produce for this country. We cannot proudly support black celebrities while in the same breath ignoring the oppression and injustices the communities from which they were raised continue to endure in 2015. Black Lives Matter is simply a movement attempting to change this. Attempting to change a country which still treats individual circumstances of implicit racial biases against its own citizens – from the casual, to the grotesque, to the sometimes fatal – with callous indifference.

It is NOT about black lives mattering more. It is NOT about hurting police officers. It is NOT about starting a ‘race war,’ whatever that means. It is about urging America and by extension all of us in this room tonight to come to terms with our country’s original sin, to understand that we have not done nearly enough and mostly, to understand that TOGETHER WE CAN CHANGE THIS. If you truly value human life – the life of your neighbor no less – you will have no problem outwardly supporting our cause.

As heirs of a people biblically enslaved for 400 years, as an ethnic race of Jews who escaped political and religious persecution worldwide, as descendants and survivors of the most diabolical genocide mankind has ever known, and most importantly as community members of a progressive synagogue right here long dedicated to civil rights and social justice, I call on you now to act. I call on you now to challenge yourselves. I call on you now to make yourself uncomfortable. I call on you now to think about racial inequality every single day, as our black brothers and sisters are forced to, to understand that racism in this country is still systemic, and that our silence is the loudest form of consent we give towards its perpetuity. As American Jews, we have been fortunate enough to never know in this great country the level of oppression that black communities have endured – the antisemitism that has plagued us globally thankfully never made its way fully onto American shores – but historically as a people we know all too well what it is like to be treated as second-class citizens, to cry out our plight while our neighbors remained silent. From Egypt, to the Inquisition, to the Pogroms, to the Nuremberg Codes, we understand the pain it feels to be judged by your race and your physical appearance. In Midrash Devarim Rabbah, it is explained that God loves justice even more importantly than sacrifice. It is explained, “To do what is right and just is MORE desired by the Lord than sacrifice.” Not as much as sacrifice, MORE than sacrifice. How we treat those who are less fortunate is forever a core foundation of what it means to be Jewish, but it is not enough to treat those less fortunate with tsedakah, as though to imply this condition will never change. We must work to change the condition itself. As the Torah in Deuteronomy Shoftim insists “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” I call on you tonight to carry out this virtue for our black friends, for our black families, and for our black citizens right here in this community. I call on you now to pursue justice.

So, in a practical sense, what does this mean? We can agree that human suffering is inherently wrong, that racism is inherently bad, but what does Black Lives Matter want, and what can we do to help? First and foremost this means supporting communities of color, giving them the space to speak for themselves, and truly listening to their concerns, even if they seem to contradict yours. When you’re walking home and you see a black man walking in your direction, in more cases than you might be willing to realize, he is a lot more afraid of you than you are of his presence. He’s afraid of walking home in a society where he is 15X more likely to be targeted by the police. He’s afraid because his father sat him down when he was ten and said “The world will come to fear you when you’re older son, you will be scary to most who aren’t black, and law enforcement will assume you’re up to no good.” He’s afraid because his mother is terrified every second when he’s not home. Because of the color of his skin. Because of the demonization of his character which leads to the denial of his basic humanity. I cite this day-to-day example to illustrate a basic component that contributes to our collective racial ignorance. I implore you to meaningfully interact. Reach out to communities of color and ask them the question “What does being black in America mean to you?” And then, listen. Really listen. Listen to what they are saying. Too often, conversations about race are directed and dictated by white people with little consideration for the black community. Again, so we can feel better about ourselves. Often, even the perspectives on what it is like to be black in this country will be spoken for by white people. From Woodrow Wilson, to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to Bill Clinton, to most recently Jeb Bush claiming black communities vote democratic for the ‘free stuff,’ – ironically coming from a man who’s experienced traditional wealth and free stuff his whole life – white politicians and social leaders have continued to speak for, and on behalf of, black communities instead of giving their leaders the support and separation to speak for themselves and call discriminatory policies for what they really are without fear of being labeled a Black Panther, or otherwise radical. You can be an ally in this regard by reaching out to your local black leaders in Poughkeepsie. Listen to what they are saying. Do not dismiss it as conforming to an “angry black male” or “crazy black lady” stereotype if you don’t automatically agree. Challenge yourself to understand fully. Do not confuse this with blind agreement or support, either. Dialogue and love are our greatest weapons against ignorance and fear.

Second, recognize that white people have the luxury of being white and appreciate that this privilege is real. Recognizing that allows us to engage on a platform where social hierarchy might start to change. I proudly wear a BLM shirt today to prove this point. Riding the subways to marches, I am often ostracized by all groups of people. White people think I’m crazy, Black people think I bought it for fun, and police officers think I want to kill them. None of those are remotely true, and it can feel deeply hurtful at times to see a movement founded on love be treated with such hate and vitriol. But when I’m feeling overwhelmed from the pain and sadness of these wildly untrue stereotypes, friends, do you know I do? I put a sweatshirt on to cover it up, and instantly I’m simply another white male in America living the American dream and appreciating the privilege that being white affords me when I choose – that being the ability to not think about race. Our black friends and family have no such luxury of escaping the toxic stereotypes placed on them solely by the color of their skin. They cannot escape the color of their skin. They cannot escape the implications it brings each day in this country.

Thirdly, support the political processes – not the candidates – engendering change. Make this one of your ‘issues’ when going to the polls and evaluating candidates. Pay attention to who’s talking about racial justice and more importantly, pay attention to who’s avoiding talking about it at all costs. Pay attention to who’s risking alienating their political base to make people uncomfortable. A radical social intervention is needed nationwide when it comes to talking about race. Urge your local leaders to allocate funding for body cams to help us understand fully what happened when violence is used, to provide additional training for de-escalation practices, to adopt methods of advanced psychoanalytical screening for incoming officers using techniques like word association to ensure that all law enforcement officers – black or white – have a better understanding of the implicit racial biases they may be bringing with them into the field. It can save lives. It can build bridges of trust in communities that need them most. Police forces should look like, and be actively involved in the communities they are sworn to protect. Blatantly discriminatory policing policies like Stop and Frisk and Broken Windows must end, or be more transparently monitored.

Finally, once we move beyond this, we are not finished. Two years ago, 5 conservative Supreme Court justices eviscerated critical parts of the Voting Rights Act, and now in local, state and federal elections we are seeing basic denials of America’s most cherished liberty. Alabama recently passed a law requiring a license for voter registration, and then promptly closed DMV’s in ‘black belt’ communities, to very little uproar. See these atrocities for what they really are and urge your local, state and federal leaders to understand that this is not a ‘red state’ or ‘blue state’ issue. This is America’s issue. This Poughkeepsie’s issue. This is Judaism’s issue. This our issue.
As I close tonight, ultimately, friends, I want all of you to do more. None of us in this room tonight have done enough. I want you to see yourself in the faces of black communities, to see your children in the faces of their children, to see their plight and continued oppression as your plight and continued oppression. We’ve all built this country together, woven a fabric that tells a mighty tale of triumph and exceptionalism. We are the greatest country in the world, and despite our imperfections the world is a better place with America leading. And yet, despite our patriotism, despite our global standing, despite our financial security, none of us will ever know freedom until all of us know equality. We will never be truly free until all of us are truly equal. So tonight I will leave you with this: Let us join together as Jews and Local Citizens of the Hudson Valley to do what we can right now to push ourselves slightly closer to that goal, to creating a country which fully establishes in the words of Senator Elizabeth Warren “That Black Lives Matter, That Black Citizens Matter, That Black Families Matter.” For if we ever get to that place – that sacred heaven of radical love, universal humanity, and colorblind equality – All Lives might actually start to matter. Thank you, Shabbat Shalom.