Yom Kippur: If this were our last year

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not….

Who shall live and who shall die.
Some of us will not be here next year. Some of our loved ones will not be here next year.
This is not a threat of judgment, but a fact of life.
There is a time to be born and a time to die, and all of us will die.

Sheila/Paul: I feel like I’m dying. You are!

We are all dying.

And yet, some months ago, when my teacher, Rabbi Rachel Cowan, decided to stop treatment for the glioblastoma that took her life her two weeks ago, her doctor gave her some advice she found very helpful. She said: You are not dying. You are living with a terminal illness.

As we are all living.

On Yom Kippur, we add to the fearful awesome life and death words of the Unetaneh Tokef we recited as well on Rosh HaShanah by our actions. The traditional practices of Yom Kippur (fasting, etc.) are meant to take us out of our physical bodies and from the activities of daily life. I am wearing the kittel in which I will be buried. We are rehearsing our death.

The words are powerful, and today we try to embody them, to truly take in a sense of life’s preciousness and precariousness, so that we might live accordingly.

Would you live your life differently if you knew this was your last year?

Last year, BBC presented the film: A Time to Live. Sue Bourne interviewed many people with a terminal diagnosis and, over and over, she heard how that terminal diagnosis had been a changing point in their lives, and how they were glad for it.

Glad for it?!?

In the words of one person profiled: “Being told you have months to live doesn’t have to be a death sentence. It can actually be a live sentence.”

How would you live, if you knew your time was limited? Which, of course, it is.

There’s an app that was recently created to do for the broader community what Yom Kippur offers to Jews. On a daily basis, 5 times a day, it will send you a text that says: “You will die.” The app is called: We Croak.

Last week, for research (😊), I saw the movie: The Bucket List. Perhaps you saw it when it came out. It’s about two men, played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, unlikely roommates in the hospital, who receive terminal diagnoses and develop a list of the things they’d like to do before they die. They set off on adventure. They skydive, they go to the Riviera, the Pyramids, the Himalayas.

Thanks to the movie, the term “bucket list,” a list of things you want to do before you die, is very common. Some say that bucket lists are very helpful. They make you stop and think what you actually want to experience in this lifetime. They remind you that life is short and we should live it to its fullest. They even increase our happiness because they help us cultivate both hope and curiosity (qualities that support human flourishing).

Do you have a bucket list? What’s on it? Is your list filled with travel and adventure, or do you have other goals?

In Sue Bourne’s film, A Time to Live, those with one year to live didn’t all of a sudden pick up and go see the world. And after their adventure, the Morgan Freeman character just wanted to go home and reconnect with his wife and children. In fact, his “bucket list” was less about adventure and more about connection and experience:
• Help a complete stranger
• Laugh until I cry
• Witness something truly majestic

And, for both characters, the most meaningful thing on their list is reconnection with family.

The movie is fiction, but this holds true in real life as well. On a blog that asked the question, what would you do if you had 24 hours to live, most people wanted to spend time with loved ones. Perhaps the most poignant answer came from a woman who said she would patch up a rift with a sibling, they used to be very close. “When I die I’d like to have everything, all my relationships in a good place.” She paused and dabbed at her eye. “What am I waiting for?”

What are we waiting for?

Leonard Cohen, of blessed memory, wrote a song based on this prayer:
And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of May,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?

Today we are called.
A story from the Talmud:
Rabbi Yehoshua asked Elijah: When will the Messiah come?
Elijah answered, Go and ask him. Rabbi Yehoshua asked: Where is he?
Elijah said, You can find him at the gates of Rome. He sits among the lepers. They unwind all of their bandages at the same time and then cover their sores with clean bandages. The Messiah is the only one who unwinds and rewinds his bandages one at a time, thinking, I want to be ready at a moment’s notice if I am called.

Rabbi Yehoshua went to the gates of Rome and approached the Messiah and said, Peace be upon you, my master and teacher. The leper looked knowingly at him and replied, Peace be upon you, son of Levi. Rabbi Yehoshua asked him, When will the master come? Today, said the leper. Rabbi Yehoshua returned to Elijah and said, He lied to me, saying, Today I will come. But he has not come. Elijah said, No, he did not say that he would come today. Rather, he was quoting a Psalm verse to you: Today, if only you will listen to His voice (Psalm 95:7). (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98a)

What is the messiah? Most of us don’t think an actual person will come, riding a white donkey, we pray for redemption, not a redeemer. So what is redemption? When our lives are filled with meaning and purpose and love.

And in the words of Danny Siegel:
If you always assume / The one sitting next to you
Is the Messiah
Waiting for some simple human kindness –
You will soon come to weigh your words and watch your hands.
And if the Messiah chooses not to be revealed in your time – It will not matter.

The metaphor of these days is the Book of Life:
The Cantor will soon chant:
It is You who shall open the book of Remembrance, but its contents shall speak for themselves, for it bears the imprint of us all – our signature is on the page.

The 11th century Spanish rabbi and philosopher Bachya ibn Pakuda wrote: “Days are scrolls – write on them what you want to be remembered.”

Let us, out of our lives, write beautiful books.

Kol Nidre: We Pray with the Sinners

We began the service tonight with the odd statement:
We permit ourselves to pray with the sinners.

Or, as our interpretive translation softens the harsher Hebrew text:
We accept into our midst whoever seeks to pray.
Whether righteous or unrighteous, all shall pray as one community.

We come here from so many places and backgrounds – Jews and lovers of Jews, believers and non-believers, intellectuals and spiritual people, old and young, religious, non-religious and even anti-religious.

So many of you are here for your only time in synagogue all year. What brings you here?

And what brings our “regulars” here, today and so many times every year?

Why are we all here tonight?

We connect with who we are, our history, our family, our traditions.
We connect with community.

Judaism calls us together tonight.

What is it calling us to do?

Our ancestors who wrote the Bible, who created rabbinic Judaism, were trying to create a society, a community, that gave meaning to their lives, helped people live together in a just way, and helped us reach beyond ourselves to connect with the Source of All.

Ultimately, I believe that Judaism is a technology of repair. Repair, Tikkun in Hebrew. Probably you’ve all heard the term tikkun olam – repair of the world. Even Mr. Rogers, a Presbyterian minister, said that “We are all called to be ‘Tikkun Olam,’ (tikkunei olam) repairers of creation.”

Tikkun Olam is what a lot of people think about when they think about what’s important to them about Judaism. And it is important. Tomorrow, in our haftarah reading, on this most synagogue-based and liturgy-filled day of the year, we will read these words from the book of Isaiah, imagining the words of G!d:

Is this the fast I desire,
A day for people to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast, A day when the LORD is favorable?
No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock fetters of wickedness, And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free; To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe them, And not to ignore your own kin.

It is so powerful that the rabbis of our ancient tradition included these words in our liturgy today. They’re not saying: don’t fast, but that our rituals have a purpose beyond themselves – and beyond ourselves.

Judaism is a technology of repair. And not only tikkun olam, repair of the world, but also, tikkun hanefesh, repair of the soul.

Judaism teaches us gratitude – tradition invites us to say 100 blessings a day, not so that we mumble to ourselves all the time, but so that we notice the miracles of our daily life. Like the first brachah tradition gives us to say in the morning – the blessing for going to the bathroom. People usually laugh about this, but if you think about it, it’s really extraordinary. As the blessing states:
humanity is with wisdom, and created
within us are many openings and many cavities.
It is obvious and known …that if but one of them were to be ruptured,
or but one of them were to be blocked, it would be impossible to survive . It invites us to say:
Blessed are You, God, Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.

Judaism encourages mindfulness and presence. When you make a brachah, a blessing, you notice, call attention to, pay attention to (in Hebrew: titen lev, give heart) to what you are doing. So often, we are mindless, multi-tasking and so not paying attention. How many times have I eaten lunch at my desk and not noticed what I’ve eaten, or even that I’ve eaten. I’ve looked into my bag for my apple or next thing, only to find that it is gone, eaten, and I have no memory or awareness of doing so. And what a gift, to have sufficient, healthy, nutritious and delicious food to nourish my body. And what an amazing thing, that food gives me energy to do the things I want to do. And what a loss to not even notice.

When I pay attention, give heart, to this, it transforms my perspective on the moment. It opens my heart. It makes the ordinary extra-ordinary. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying: there are two ways to live: one is as though nothing is a miracle; the other is as though everything is a miracle. What a joy to notice the beauty of the moment. What a gift to be present to our experience.

You could do this by yourself, but Judaism isn’t a solitary tradition. We don’t advocate individual practice, escape to the top of a mountain to commune alone with nature, ourselves or the Divine. Why?

I find that in community I’m reminded of the values that are important to me. I can get distracted (more multi-tasking!) and am reminded by the examples of the beautiful people around me about what’s important to me. There’s a saying in Zen that, like pebbles in a bag, the monks polish each other. I think that’s true beyond Zen monks.

We are all the “sinners” mentioned at the beginning of our service – we are all people who miss the mark. We are all “righteous” and “unrighteous.” On those days when I miss the mark, someone else is there as a model, a guide, an example. And as a friend. Judaism considers friendship to be essential.

I learned from my teacher, Rabbi Jim Ponet, who led Yale Hillel for nearly 40 years, that there is a blessing to be said when you haven’t seen a friend in some time. More blessings!
What brachah might you imagine?
It is the traditional blessing that concludes the second prayer of the Amidah:
Blessed is the Holy One, who gives life to the dead.
How is that?
Because our friends, our intimate relationships, draw out parts of ourselves that we cannot draw out alone. We come more fully alive in relationship.

The book of Ecclesiastes, which is mythologically attributed to King Solomon, it is written, “Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, the one will lift up the other; but woe to the one that is alone when they fall, for they have not another to help them up” (4:9-10).

Doing stuff on your own is not the same as doing it with a community.

You can’t write yourself a get-well card like one Kehillath Shalom member writes to everyone in our community who is ill.

You can’t, on your own, create an experience for your child and family in a community of families like our dedicated volunteers do.

You can’t bring yourself a meal after surgery.

You can’t comfort yourself after a death.

You can’t share your joys and sorrows with your mirror.

One of the most important sayings of the great first-century sage Hillel is: al tifrosh min hatzibur. Do not separate yourself from the community. The tradition understands the ancient punishment of karet, exclusion from the community, to be literally a fate worse than death. They believed that death was temporary, but separation from the community could be forever.

When we finish reading a book of the Torah, the congregation stands and calls out: Hazak, hazak, v’nitchazek. Strong, strong, and let us strengthen each one other.

Let us love one another.

Let us strengthen one another.

Let us support each other in good times and bad.

Let us give heart to our moments, our days, and to each other.

As synagogue community is traditionally referred to as a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community:

Let us sanctify life for each other.

Shanah tovah.

Rosh HaShanah Morning

The Torah reading this morning is one of longing and despair and power and fear and jealousy and ruthlessness. It is a human story and is also the story of the start of the Jewish people.

To summarize:
Sarah and Abraham couldn’t have a child
Sarah had a maid, really an Egyptian slave, and gave her to Abraham to be a surrogate mother. Hagar was not consulted.
When Hagar (whose name means “the stranger”) became pregnant, her status changed, and Sarah feels that Hagar disrespected her. Sarah abuses her and she runs away. This single, pregnant slave risked the harsh desert over the intolerable situation.
Where an angel met her and sent her to go back.
She had a son, Ishmael – whose name means “G!d will listen.”
Today, we read:
Sarah finally has a son, Isaac. Some years later, she sees Ishmael and Isaac playing and fears for her son’s safety and inheritance and again expels Hagar, this time along with Ishmael. They are sent into the desert with only 1 skin of water, which of course runs out.

I find this story so painful. Our holy ancestors, our patriarch and matriarch, are abusive slaveholders who rape an African woman to breed her. That may be a harsh way to read narrative, but I think it’s not inaccurate. This is a complicated story, and I wonder, with which character is the Torah asking us to identify? With Sarah’s pain in her infertility and fear or with Hagar’s suffering and powerlessness? With Abraham’s ambivalence and passivity? Are we to feel relief in the clarity of Isaac’s inheritance or joy when Abraham and Hagar are reunited after Sarah dies?

The Spike Lee movie BlacKkKlansman, asks similar questions about identity and identification. Based on a true story, it is the story of Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer in Colorado Springs, who infiltrated the Klan. He couldn’t actually show up to Klan events, so he recruited another policeman to be him in person. In the movie, Flip, the “other Ron,” was Jewish.

While primarily a film about blackness and anti-blackness, BlacKkKlansman is a most profound and moving meditation on Jewish identity, responsibility, and survival. In one scene, Ron and Flip are arguing over difficulties in the undercover operation and Ron tries to point out that Flip, as a Jew, has “skin in the game” in the crusade against the Klan. Flip, in a rare moment of vulnerability, begins to talk about his life as an American Jew in the latter half of the 20th century. “I’m Jewish, yes, but I wasn’t raised to be,” he says. No Jewish rituals, no deep education about Jewish history, not even a bar mitzvah ceremony — “I was just another white kid.” But something is changing, something primal and maybe genetic. “I never thought much about it,” he says of being Jewish. “Now I think about it all the time.”

To what do we owe this awakening? Well, Flip started talking to Klansmen, and if that won’t accelerate your awareness of being a member of a minority group, nothing will. And like Hagar with Abraham and Sarah, he wasn’t known by his name in the Klan.

Flip Zimmerman didn’t have a sense of Jewish identity and identified with his white colleagues – many of whom were racist and perpetrated racist acts. He was “just another white kid.” He did not identify with people of color or other minorities. He had to be schooled by the black cop.

With whom do we identify? Do we, most of us Jews of European descent, do we identify with other white Americans? Do we see ourselves as white? What if we’re white to ourselves but not to others? Flip Zimmerman certainly wasn’t white in the eyes of the Klan and neither are Jews in the minds of the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

For much of his life, he “passed,” as “just another white kid.” How much do we pass? Many Jews have more than one name – I’m Lina Zerbarini, but I’m also Liba Rut Leah bat Meir v’Yocheved Noa. My Jewish name is not the same as my everyday, public name. That’s probably true for most of us. Were we named this way so that we weren’t so obviously Jewish? In the words of Mordecai Kaplan, Our emancipation will not be complete until we are free of the fear of being Jews.

Because many Jews are “white,” we have the choice of how public to be about our Jewishness. However, “white” is not exactly a skin color, but a category marking power. American Jews do have power, and are also often viewed with suspicion (look at our own history in Cold Spring Harbor); and having power is no assurance of protection. According to FBI hate-crime statistics, the majority of religiously motivated hate-crime offenses are committed against Jews each year. This has been the case every year since the FBI first began reporting hate-crime statistics in 1995, when more than 80 percent of religiously motivated crimes were against Jews. These days, that percentage is closer to 50 percent—a sign not that Jews are safer, but that other groups have been increasingly targeted.

Conversely, what if we’re white in the eyes of others but not in our own eyes? Much of the American Jewish community has experienced much success and holds true power: (at about 2% of the US population, we are disproportionately represented in government: 7 senators, 22 representatives, 3 justices on the supreme court, and are leaders of industry: finance, real estate, tv, film, journalism, social media). We have been able to assimilate and achieve in this country. We are, at the same time, both powerful and at risk. We are a privileged minority.

Race and racism are among of the most challenging aspects of American society, and Jews have been involved on both sides. As slavers and slave owners, as leaders of the Confederacy, as slumlords and as people who use slurs to speak of black people. And as abolitionists and freedom riders and marchers and civil rights workers and as activists for racial justice.

And all of us carry unconscious bias absorbed from the society and culture we live in. So how do we see ourselves? And with whom do we identify? Are our anxieties reflected in those who fear the browning of America (there will be no majority racial group in 25 years)? Or do we see ourselves as a part of the diversity of this country? Whose struggles are our struggles?

In the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, are we asked to identify with our ancestors, or with their slave? I think we’re asked to open our eyes to the humanity and complexity of all of them. To see them and, thus, to see ourselves.

The Torah stories we read today and tomorrow are stories of not seeing: Hagar and Ishmael are about to die of thirst when her eyes are opened and see sees a well in front of her. Avraham is about to slaughter his son Isaac in blind devotion to G!d when his name is called and he lifts his eyes and sees the ram in the thicket. Why did not each of these see what was right in front of them? Was Hagar’s blindness a result of her trauma and fear? Was Avraham’s due to his laser focus on his task and unwillingness to look around him? And Sarah – was she able to see nothing but her own struggle?

Hagar, the Egyptian slave, is the first in the Bible to name G!d. She calls G!d: El Roi – the One who sees me. Abraham and Sarah couldn’t see her – in fact, they called her only “the slave girl.” But G!d saw her and saved her.
May we be like G!d, seeing and helping others see.

May we be like Flip Zimmerman who, through his experience, found the courage to claim his Jewish identity, fight white supremacy and stand for people of color.

May we be like Ron Stallworth, fighting for what is right and leading others to do so as well.

In the movie, black radical Kwame Ture, the man formerly known as Stokely Carmichael, surprisingly utters a few sentences familiar to many of us: the three questions of first-century sage Hillel. As Ture puts them, “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” Then he caps it off with a fourth question, one that sums up Lee and his writers’ message: “And if not you, who?”

Tisha B’Av: Transforming Suffering into Love

As Jewish days begin at night (“and it was evening, and it was morning, the first day”), tonight begins Tisha B’Av – the 9th day of the month of Av. This day commemorates many calamities in Jewish history, including and especially the destruction of both the First (in 586 bce) and Second (in 70 ce) Temples in Jerusalem.

It’s a day of mourning and fasting about the disaster of the destruction, the loss of sovereignty in Israel and the exile of the Jewish people.

With the establishment of the state of Israel, the possibility of Jews to return to our historical homeland, how is Tisha B’Av relevant? Why should we make ourselves uncomfortable for events of the distant past?

The destructions of Jerusalem were cataclysmic events, on the scale of the Holocaust. You can read the heartbreaking descriptions of suffering that people experienced the first time in the Book of Lamentations, which is read in synagogue tonight and tomorrow morning. What does this have to do with today?

I observe the fast because Tisha B’Av invites me to reconnect with the anguish of my people so as to stay aware of the tremendous sufferings of so many people that I might otherwise try to avoid really thinking about. The reason the Torah says over and over again: “remember you were strangers in Egypt” is because “you shall love the stranger as yourself.” The stranger is the most vulnerable member of a community. The memory of our own suffering is to lead us to love and compassion for others.

In my Thursday meditation class, we began to practice tonglen meditation – connecting with our suffering and that of others so that we might transform it to compassion.

Some say that the 2nd Temple was destroyed due to people hating each other for no reason – our time seems to have resonances with the 1st Century. May all our sufferings be eased, may we see each other as friends and not strangers, and may the world grow in kindness.

An Expansive Heart


It is bashert that I was assigned to respond to this portion for my meditation teacher training program, as it has been compelling to me for more than 25 years. The portion  is called Terumah (Offerings) and begins:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept terumah (gifts/offerings) for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. And these are the terumah that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper;  blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair;  tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood;  oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense;  lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastpiece.  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)

This portion calls to me: What is my offering? What do I need to bring now? What is the sanctuary that I need to build?

The Malbim (Meir Leibush ben Yehiel Michael Wisser (1809 -1879) interprets

“Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among (or within) them” as in them, the people, not in it, the sanctuary. Each person is to build God a Tabernacle in her own heart for God to dwell in.

For God to dwell, there must be space. The chasidim speak of mochin d’katnut and mochin d’gadlut – the small, or constricted, mind and the large, or expansive, mind. Or, as Jeff Roth says, the “heart-mind.” So often, my heart is constricted, small and tight like a fist, due to fear and distraction. How do I make space in my heart?

In our portion, there is a specific plan for the building of the tabernacle: definite items are needed and there is a precise blueprint. It doesn’t happen only due to people’s intention and willingness, but also through their effort.

I have found that mindfulness practices soften and expand my heart. And the practice needs to be regular, at hand, ready to counter the moment of contraction.

  • When I sit and pay attention to my breath, and check in with the body, the bonds of rigidity loosen.
  • When I bring non-judgmental attention to the sensations, thoughts or emotions that arise, my heart softens.
  • When I do lovingkindness meditation towards those at home or work, my heart opens in love. Sometimes I call upon the practice even during a conversation, if I notice that feelings of frustration, defensiveness, fear or anger or arising.
  • When I remind myself about what is important to me, my perspective broadens. A gospel song from the ‘50s has found its way into the Jewish community (which makes sense, as it’s based on our portion), and reflects my deepest aspiration:

O Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true.

And in thanksgiving, I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.

וְעָשֹוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם (Exodus 25:8)

V’ah-soo lee mik-dash v’sha-hantee b’to-ham…

  • When I act to build a sanctuary not only in my heart but in my world, to create a safe space for others, I expand my heart beyond myself. I connect to others’ hearts, and together we create space for God.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk asked his students “Where is the dwelling of God?” They said: “What a thing to ask! Is not the whole world full of God’s glory?!?” Then he answered his own question: “God dwells wherever we let God in.”

May our hearts, our lives, and our world be open.



Strangers Among Us, Strangers Are Us

Sara Beltran-Hernandez, 26, from El Salvador, a mother of two young children, was bound by her hands and feet and removed by wheelchair from Huguley Hospital in Fort Worth late Wednesday by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents who brought her to a detention facility in Alvarado, Texas. She  was awaiting emergency surgery for a brain tumor.

Beltran-Hernandez  was picked up by immigration agents in November 2015 while trying to get from El Salvador to New York to visit her mother and other relatives who live in Queens. She has been detained ever since at the Prairieland Detention Center in Alvarado, Texas, while her family petitioned for asylum, citing threats of violence against her, from a domestic partner, among others.

Guadalupe Olivas Valencia threw himself off a bridge on Wednesday.

Valles de Espinoza said she believed her uncle threw himself off the bridge “in desperation over the deportation” because he had had trouble finding work in Mexico.

“He was doing this to take care of his children,” she said. “They were his entire life.”

We read in today’s portion:


20 You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. 21 You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. 22 If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, 23 and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.


9 You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.

According to the Rabbis of the Talmud (BT Bava Mezia 59b), the Torah admonishes us about the treatment of strangers no fewer than 36 times. No other commandment is repeated so often.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks taught that to be a Jew is to be a stranger. “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is why Abraham is commanded to leave land, home and father’s house; why he is told that his descendants would be “strangers in a land not their own”; why Moses had to suffer personal exile before assuming leadership of the people; why the Israelites underwent persecution before inheriting their own land; and why the Torah is so insistent that this experience – the retelling of the story on Pesach, along with the never-forgotten taste of the bread of affliction and the bitter herbs of slavery – should become a permanent part of their collective memory.” Indeed, our memories of bondage and exile are meant to protect us against the impulses of exploitation, oppression, and xenophobia. A history of alienation and slavery, the memories of humiliation and strangeness are meant to prevail against intolerance.

The current president of the United States campaigned on a promise to effect a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”  Now he is trying to deter some refugees (many fleeing persecution in Central America), and to ban other refugees (many fleeing persecution in the Middle East), from entering the United States.

On December 2, 1783 – George Washington said: “The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.”

How many of the St. Louis — the ship full of refugees turned away from the United States in 1939 and returned to Europe, where most were murdered by the Nazis — would have lived and their stories and lives flourished here if we had welcomed them?

We all know that the Frank children were murdered by the Nazis, but what is less known is the way Anne’s fate was sealed by a callous fear of refugees, among the world’s most desperate people. A volunteer found that plea for help in 2005 when she was sorting old World War II refugee files in New York City. It looked like countless other files, until she saw the children’s names. Along with the letter were many others by Otto Frank, frantically seeking help to flee Nazi persecution and obtain a visa to America, Britain or Cuba — but getting nowhere because of global indifference to Jewish refugees…

Some object: But Jews weren’t a threat the way Syrian refugees are! In the 1930s and ’40s, though, a world war was underway and Jews were widely seen as potential Communists or even Nazis. There were widespread fears that Germany would infiltrate the U.S. with spies and saboteurs under the cover that they were Jewish refugees.

“When the safety of the country is imperiled, it seems fully justifiable to resolve any possible doubts in favor of the country, rather than in favor of the aliens,” the State Department instructed in 1941. The New York Times in 1938 quoted the granddaughter of President Ulysses S. Grant warning about “so-called Jewish refugees” and hinting that they were Communists “coming to this country to join the ranks of those who hate our institutions and want to overthrow them.”

After the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom against Jews, a poll found that 94 percent of Americans disapproved of Nazi treatment of Jews, but 72 percent still objected to admitting large numbers of Jews. The reasons for the opposition then were the same as they are for rejecting Syrians or Hondurans today: We can’t afford it, we should look after Americans first, we can’t accept everybody, they’ll take American jobs, they’re dangerous and different.

“Refugees” are people found to have a “well-founded fear of persecution” on particular grounds, who undergo months or years of background checks before they are allowed to come to the U.S.  “Asylees” are people recognized as refugees after having come to the U.S.; they undergo extensive background checks too.

The Refugee Act of 1980, 8 U.S.C. § 1101, begins:

The Congress declares that it is the historic policy of the United States to respond to the urgent needs of persons subject to persecution in their homelands, including, where appropriate, . . . aid for necessary transportation and processing, admission to this country of refugees of special humanitarian concerns to the United States, and transitional assistance to refugees in the United States. . . .  The objectives of this Act are to provide a permanent and systematic procedure for the admission to this country of refugees of special humanitarian concern to the United States, and to provide comprehensive and uniform provisions for the effective resettlement and absorption of those refugees who are admitted.

Our law says foreigners have the right to ask for refuge, outside our country, at the border, or from within.  It says we respond.  We hear them.  We adjudicate.  We admit.  We resettle.  We absorb.  And we set aside money to pay for it.

Let’s keep things in perspective.  Eight hundred thousand refugees have been admitted to the United States since the 9/11 attack.  Americans killed by refugee terrorists:  zero.  Depending on how you slice the numbers, American deaths from terror attacks worldwide since 9/11: under 400.  American deaths from U.S. gun violence since 9/11: almost 400,000.

In the words of Nicholas Kristof, Today, to our shame, Anne Frank is a Syrian girl. Or a Sudanese, or a Somali, or a Honduran.

As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “This is no time for neutrality. We Jews cannot remain aloof or indifferent. We, too, are either ministers of the sacred or slaves of evil.”

To adapt the words of Pastor Niemoller:

First they came for the Muslims

Then they came for the Trans kids

Then they came for the immigrants

Mark Oppenheimer wrote in an article in the Washington Post last week: it doesn’t always start with us, but it always ends with us

Next week, we read: build me a sanctuary and I will dwell within you.

God will dwell within us because we make space.  Because we recognize God’s presence.

Rabbi Art Green teaches that the 2nd commandment (no graven images) exists because the image of God is already present in this world – in people – all people. If we make images, we forget that God is present. If we make a sanctuary for others, we make a sanctuary for God.

The Sanctuary Movement was a religious and political campaign in the United States that began in the early 1980s to provide safe-haven for Central American refugees fleeing civil conflict. It responded to federal immigration policies that made obtaining asylum difficult for Central Americans.  At its peak, Sanctuary involved over 500 congregations in the United States that, by declaring themselves official “sanctuaries,” committed to providing shelter, material goods and often legal advice to Central American refugees. In 1984, the Rabbinical Assembly wrote:

The Rabbinical Assembly endorses the concept of Sanctuary as provided by synagogues, churches and other communities of faith in the United States.

Today, a growing movement of immigrant and over 800 faith communities doing what Congress and the Administration refuse to do: protect and stand with immigrants facing deportation. On Friday, T’ruah, A Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, the organization representing over 1800 rabbis and cantors, will hold a conference call to help congregations explore the possibilities and implications of becoming a sanctuary congregation.

Over the next few weeks, we will read about all the details of building the sanctuary. As we read, let us consider the command we read today – to care for the stranger. Let us think about creating of our sanctuary, a sanctuary for others.

As our portion concluded, we read:


3 Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of the Lord and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that the Lord has commanded we will do!” 4 Moses then wrote down all the commands of the Lord. Early in the morning, he set up an altar at the foot of the mountain, with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 He designated some young men among the Israelites, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as offerings of well-being to the Lord. 6 Moses took one part of the blood and put it in basins, and the other part of the blood he dashed against the altar. 7 Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will faithfully do!” 

May we continue to affirm the commitment our ancestors made.


Kristof – Anne Frank Today is a Syrian Girl

Oppenheimer – http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-antisemitism-jews-trump-alt-right-20170218-story.html

Jeffrey Heller – https://rideforhumanrights.wordpress.com/2017/02/22/afraid-of-nothing/


Life’s Surprises, an Adoption Story

I was born Nancy Lee Upton. On Thursday, I buried my grandmother, Ann Upton.

That I ever met her was the first surprise. For seventeen years I searched for my birth mom and never once thought about a grandmother.

Then when Janis and I found each other in 2004 and she learned I was a rabbi, she wrote “oooh, Lina, this is so weird. My mom was also adopted and her biological mother was Jewish.”

This was the second surprise. I’d learned that my birth father was Jewish from the non-identifying information I was able to get from the New York Foundling when I was 20 (which was another surprise), but since the Foundling is a Catholic agency, I certainly didn’t expect to discover a maternal Jewish connection.

So the last 12 years gave Ann and me a bit of time to get to know each other and to share our somewhat parallel stories.  What wasn’t similar were our adoption situations: Ann’s family was not a loving one, and she had many difficult memories. She did not speak  of her origins for many years; it was painful for her.

Her eldest daughter, Nancy Lee (are you paying attention?  If not, go back and read the first sentence), married a Jewish man and formally converted, as Ann’s birth certificate stating her mother’s religion as Jewish wasn’t enough proof for her rabbi. Something opened inside Ann. She wore a big Jewish star. And she loved having a rabbi for a granddaughter.

As she came to the end of her life, she decided she wanted to be buried as a Jew and asked for me to conduct her funeral. Tuesday evening I joined her children at the nursing home in Staten Island where Ann had lived for the past few years and I led them in prayers for release, forgiveness, and a peaceful transition. They were so beautifully concerned about honoring her wishes to follow the traditions of her heritage in death. On Thursday, it was my privilege to fulfill my grandmother’s wishes as I buried her. And today we gathered in her daughter’s home, where she lived for 10 years, in observance of shiva.

This has been one of the most extraordinary weeks of my life.  Never would I have imagined myself officiating at my  biological grandmother’s funeral, surrounded by people I am related to. To honor her and to help her children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren (there are even great-great-grandchildren) move through this journey of loss and mourning has been one of the greatest blessings of my life.

Our connection has been healing for both of us. It’s meant so much to me to be able to trace a Jewish family tree through her. I think it has been significant to her to share an experience of adoption and of Jewish heritage with me, a granddaughter, who treasures both.

It is now nearly half a century since I was born, and closer to a whole one since Ann’s journey began, and I am deeply grateful that our stories continue to unfold.

ann janis and nancy

Ann, Janis, and Nancy Lee

Blessed is the One who brings newness each day of creation.






Atoning through Kindness

I offered this teaching at Hewlett-East Rockaway Jewish Centre on Rosh HaShanah – but it’s timely for Yom Kippur, as well.  

Chanah is one of two wives to her husband, Elkanah. The other wife, Peninah, has sons, but Chanah has no children.  They’re a good Jewish family – showing up at shul on the holidays (in their case, the sacred alter at Shilo), making generous donations and saying their prayers.  They’re not just good Jews, they act a lot like real Jews, real people. There is the real stuff of family relationship here: love and disappointment and loss and hardship and hope and fears.

  • Peninah needles Chanah about her lack of children – even cruelly mocking her at times, saying: why don’t you get this for your older son, or this for the little one?
  • Elkanah, seeing Chanah in tears, asks: why are you weeping? But it turns out this is a rhetorical question and he doesn’t really want an answer. And furthermore, when he says “aren’t I more to you than 10 sons” (Rashi – that Peninah bore me) he seems to me to rub it in – a husband belittling his wife’s feelings, even as he’s maybe attempting to be kind
  • Even Eli, the priest, when Chanah pours out her heart in prayer, assumes the worst of her, saying “put away your liquor!”

These are people committed to being good people, to fulfilling God’s mission for them, as we see by their schlepping up to offer sacrifices every holiday – and we see them hurting each other.

So why do we read this story on RH? Tradition says of this and the Torah reading: it is because God Remembered Chanah, God remembered Sarah.  But I think it is because their lives are messy, and our lives are messy.

Why might Chanah’s family have behaved the way they did?

Why wouldn’t Peninah be kind? She had all those sons.  But she didn’t have the one thing Chanah did have: the love of her husband.  She probably felt: jealousy, loss, envy, disappointment, loneliness. And so she lashed out.

And Elkanah – for sure he must have wanted to have children with his beloved – he can’t bear his pain or hers, so he shuts her down – tries to make up for it in gifts, but becomes angry that Chanah is still upset – and can’t just be with her, recognizing her pain and loss and fear and disappointment and hopes.

How often do we lash out or shut down those close to us when we are having these uncomfortable feelings – instead of turning toward each other?

Chanah prays to God to see her sorrow – (the Hebrew emphasizes the seeing): she wants to be seen, fully, for who she is and what she is experiencing.

Our own heightened feelings at this time:

About issues large:

The losses and failures we may have suffered

The frustrations that we might be making the same vows and commitments we make every year

The fears we have for ourselves, our parents, our children, as we look to the future

And maybe not so large:

The anxieties over our holiday meal and the interesting family dynamics that brings out! Holidays are supposed to be celebratory, but, perhaps like Chanah, we’ve been upset about who didn’t come or what expectations weren’t met or what people may have said or not said.

But this story doesn’t come simply to tell us what not to do, it offers us a model. Despite Chanah’s desperate longing for a child, she lets go of her son, knowing, perhaps, that loving him means accepting who he is, what he will be, where his path must take him.

Perhaps we, too, can love with a little more openness, a little more gratitude for the blessings we have, letting our love overflow our fears, and seeing each other for who we truly are.

Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai and Rabbi Joshua were walking by the ruins of the Temple. Rabbi Joshua said, “Woe to us that the place where the atonement for the sins of Israel was made has been destroyed!” But Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai replied, “Do not be grieved, my son. Do you not know that we have a means of making atonement that is as good as this? And what is it? Gemilut hassadim – acts of loving-kindness, as it is said, ‘For I desire hesed – loving-kindness – and not sacrifice!'” (Hosea 6:6). Avot d’Rabbi Natan 4:21.

At his time of year, when we come to shul and pray and recite and reenact the rituals that Chanah and her family performed, attempting, once again, to make a fresh start, a rabbi from 2000 years ago tells us: the important stuff is how we treat each other. The real offerings are our caring for one another.

As we taste honey to wish for a sweet year, may the sweetness in our mouths help draw sweetness from our mouths. May our words be loving and kind and may our actions bring peace to the world.

The Declaration: An Inspiration and an Aspiration

In the Declaration of Independence, we read:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

These basic values upon which the United States was established are grounded in the foundation of Jewish teaching, in the Torah:

God created the human beings in the divine image, creating them in the image of God, creating them male and female.

(Genesis 1:27)

To be a Jew, to be a human being, means to adopt the sacred mission of continuing the process of creation, building a world that will realize these values of human equality, potential and possibility.

Although the Declaration said “all men are created equal,” in practice, the United States that emerged from this document did not see all men, or most women, as included in this statement.  It has taken many years of evolution and struggle for our country to expand the notion of “all men” to “all people,” and we have not yet achieved it.

As individuals and as a society, the recognition of divinity, of holiness, of worth, in other people is an ongoing process.  As a Jew, my personal spiritual work is to grow in love and compassion and caring for others: “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). My responsibility as citizen is simply an extension of this: to create a society that lives up to the vision of our founding fathers.

The Inspiration of Revelation: Black and Jewish Clergy for Justice

Last week, 8 rabbis and 10 African-American ministers gathered for the first time.  After a painful year of terrible events across the country (Ferguson, Staten Island, Baltimore, etc.), the Long Island Board of Rabbis and the Rabbinical Assembly of Nassau, Suffolk and Queens reached out to the Long Island Clergy Coalition and invited them to come together to share hopes and a meal.

We want to be able to respond, in the event, God forbid, that a similar tragedy happens here on Long Island.  More than that, we want to prevent such an occurrence.  We want to make Long Island a better place for all of its residents. We recalled the early days of the Civil Rights movement, when Jews and Blacks worked together.  When rabbis protested segregation and marched with Dr. King.  When the vision of the Beloved Community[1] felt achievable.SelmaHeschelMarch

As clergy, we are people of faith, but our faith isn’t about “believing six impossible things before breakfast[2]” – it’s the hope and the courage to act for the betterment of our world.  To believe that we can make a difference.

So we began immediately. The Black ministers invited the rabbis to an LICC meeting with the Nassau County Police Department.  We met yesterday, sharing the vision of this new organization, demonstrating that we all believe that #blacklivesmatter.  That we want to work in coalition, faith groups with the police, to make our communities not only safe, but strong.

This weekend, both of our communities celebrate holidays of revelation and inspiration.  For the Jews, it’s Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah.  The Torah that commands us to work for the welfare of the city[3] and to love our neighbors as ourselves[4]. For Christians, it’s Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit visited Jesus’ followers, renewing their faith and hope in the future.  We are Black and Jewish Clergy for Justice, and we have faith.


[1] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “But the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opposers into friends. The type of love that I stress here is not eros, a sort of esthetic or romantic love; not philia, a sort of reciprocal love between personal friends; but it is agape which is understanding goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is the love of God working in the lives of men. This is the love that may well be the salvation of our civilization.” from “The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma,” 1957

[2] Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland: “Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’ I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

[3] Jeremiah 29:7

[4] Leviticus 19:18