I Was Arrested On Capitol Hill While Protesting For A Clean DREAM Act

Last week I joined 100 Jewish community leaders from around the country in the rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building. Organized by Bend the Arc Jewish Action, we marched in together, many in Jewish ritual garb, sat down, and sang about building a world of compassion. When the U.S. Capitol police warned us that we were breaking the law and would be charged with obstruction and “incommoding,” we had a ready response. We sang “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

My own arrest was shown on MSNBC, reporting our action live to a million viewers and zooming in on the zip ties that the U.S. Capitol police put on my wrists.

It took the police forty minutes to move us all, and we continued singing down to the last two leaders who were arrested, handcuffed, and led away. Our answer to the police was melodious but not commodious.

We were singing and praying for hundreds of thousands of Dreamers, that youthful subsection of our population that, from childhood, has known no real home but the United States. One hundred of these young people surrounded our hundred, chanting “Dream Act Now!”

As Rev. Dr. William Barber has inspired the nation with North Carolina’s “Moral Mondays,” this was our “Moral Minyan.” Meanwhile, conservative Congressional leaders have been so afflicted by these young people that they shut down the U.S. Government for three days to avoid giving them a path to citizenship. Congress now faces a deadline of February 8 to act or shut down again. We have much work to do to obtain a clean Dream Act.

My arrest was one of the most empowering days of my life. I stood up when ordered by the Capitol Police and put out my hands for Dreamers, for Temple Hillel B’nai Torah in West Roxbury, and for the Jewish Labor Committee (JLC), whose regional board I co-chair. JLC has carried out a unique historical struggle for justice, which began with rescuing refugees in Europe in 1934. (Standing beside me in the video is JLC Executive Director Jonathan D. Rosenblum.) While my hands were pinned behind me, I had a visceral understanding of the vulnerability that others experience with the police. But I was not risking brutality or death. Our arrests resulted in no conviction on our records. We ended up in a frigid police garage for four hours and we had to pay a fine, but we did not truly encounter our country’s criminal justice system. As one man of color commented afterward, this was the easiest arrest he would ever know.

Still, all of the leaders from across the Jewish spectrum, from 18 to 78 years old, took time from their lives and took a risk, not knowing exactly what might happen in the Capitol. Through steadfast loving commitment, spirited singing, and connection with the Dreamers who stood as witnesses, my life felt transformed that day.

Why did I risk getting arrested?

I could put my body on the line, but the Dreamers cannot.

My arrest did not lead to a conviction. Their arrest could lead to deportation.

I wanted the Dreamers to know that we stand with them.

Wearing stickers that read “Jews for Dreamers,” we communicated to these brave immigrants that they are not alone. With tears in their eyes, and solidarity orange knit caps on their heads, they told us how isolated they felt because people in our country have told them they don’t belong here. Our action, our singing, our presence showed that we are with them.

I represented multitudes of Jews who support the Dreamers.

This arrest was not about the bravery of the Jewish leaders. It was a way to communicate to our elected officials that the Jewish community, recalling the Biblical injunction to protect the stranger, is solidly with the majority of Americans who polls show overwhelmingly want to give the Dreamers a path to citizenship.

I want others to stand up for the Dreamers in any way you can.

Congress may have reached an agreement to restore government operations, but our government remains far from an agreement to recognize the contributions of these individuals to our communities. In fact, 90 percent of these Dreamers have jobs, from fast food to the Fortune 500. In order to continue to protect education and work opportunities and facilitate a path to citizenship, we have much work to do.

Call your elected officials in Congress and tell them you’re also behind the Dreamers. They need to support a clean Dream Act, with no deal for walls, and no tradeoffs for military budgets.

Many Jews, like myself, recall our own immigrant forebears. We must not betray our ancestors or our American ideals by abandoning children or separating families. We must not become an America of concrete walls and broken dreams.

Read more: https://forward.com/scribe/393448/i-am-a-rabbi-and-i-was-arrested-on-capitol-hill-while-protesting-for-a-clea/

Article in the Jewish Advocate: https://www.thejewishadvocate.com/articles/penzner-protests-in-dc/

Posted on February 4, 2018 .

A Hanukkah Miracle at HBT

On the sixth day of Hanukkah, a miracle took place at HBT.

Monday morning, Dan Gelbtuch, son of long-time members Madelyn Bronitsky and Sam Gelbtuch, staffed a retreat that HBT hosted to shape a new revolution in Jewish life. Drawing from the vision of Rabbi David Jaffe, author of Changing the World from the Inside Out, the hand-picked group of Jewish leaders discussed ways to bring an integration of social justice, spirituality, and Judaism to the Jewish world.

For Dan, this was a homecoming. As you can read in the Boston Globe story from 1992, Dan represented the hope for the future of our synagogue when he became the first bar mitzvah at HBT in 30 years. At that time HBT’s sustainability was uncertain.

Dan grew up at HBT and went on to work for justice in Boston since college. He and his wife Leah had their aufruf (blessing before their marriage) here, and celebrated the naming of their daughter Hannah with us.

On Monday, twenty-four years after his bar mitzvah, Dan returned to HBT to point the way, once again, to the future of the Jewish community. I was blessed and proud to be in the room for that deep and prophetic conversation on Monday.

When you read the Globe article, I hope you will feel personal pride as you see how the vision of young HBT members in the 1990s has come to fruition in 2017. One shining example: on Sunday afternoon, thanks to a new generation of HBT young families, I led a public Hanukkah-menorah lighting in Adams Park in Roslindale Square. Parents, children, babies filled the square with light and joy in celebrating the Jewish presence in our neighborhood.

Throughout my 22 years at HBT, I have considered this synagogue a place where miracles happen. Every day, we rededicate ourselves to a thriving Jewish presence in West Roxbury. We celebrate the renewed vision of those who came before us, and the inspiring commitment of those who are with us today.

Happy end of Hanukkah! May we all find light in our homes and in our hearts.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Posted on December 20, 2017 .

Greeks, Maccabees, and Romans: Who owns Jerusalem?

When the Maccabees won their battle and rededicated the temple, they declared a moral victory. Not only had they defeated the Greek tyrant Antiochus and his armies, they defeated the despair and powerlessness that had overcome many Jews. The courageous Maccabees lit up the temple eternal lights once again, strengthening the Jewish people’s resolve to practice their religion freely, and overpowering the darkness of oppression. That is the lesson of Hanukkah that I believe is most relevant to our lives today.

Jewish liturgy on Hanukkah gives thanks for the miracles. Al Hanisim (“For the miracles,” the prayer recited 3 times a day on Hanukkah, as well as in the grace after meals), expresses gratitude for the  victory of the weak over the strong, the few over the many, the just over the wicked, and those immersed in the teachings of Torah over the brutal immorality of a dictator.

We approach the coming Hanukkah festival wondering who exactly are the Maccabees today?

Are we Jews the powerful or the powerless? Are we fighting for freedom or for our self-interest? Are we acting from our values, arising from Torah, or from some other source?

In the early years of modern-day Israel, the Maccabees were appropriated as a symbol of the State of Israel, small, righteous, and unfortified, and surrounded by enemies on all sides. Can the current Israeli government lay claim to being modern-day Maccabees?

In historical context, this government may well inherit the legacy of the Maccabees. The Maccabees established the Hasmonean dynasty, who ruled Judea for almost a hundred years. The Hasmoneans themselves became Hellenized rulers. They threw off the norms of Jewish law and took on the honors and symbolism of Greek rulers. And their worst miscalculation, according to the Rabbis of the Talmud who refused to mention the Maccabees in conjunction with the celebration of Hanukkah, was inviting the powerful Roman Empire to become their allies.

While Rome was happy to assist the small country of Judea in its ongoing battles with the Greek armies, they were even happier to colonize Judea. Within a hundred and fifty years, that same Roman Empire destroyed the (renovated) Temple, burned the city of Jerusalem, and exiled the survivors into the Diaspora. Judaism, and the Jewish people, were never the same.

I believe that most people believe that they are Maccabees, standing up for justice, overturning powerful dictators, defending our most cherished values and practices. Nevertheless, Jewish leaders are no more immune to corruption or the temptations of power than leaders from any other moral tradition.

Israel has the most powerful army in the Middle East. Israel has benefited from sharing responsibility for its own security with the Palestinian security forces. For the current government of Israel to welcome the support of a tyrant in order to consolidate its own hold on power is to welcome the Romans once again with open arms.

To declare Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel benefits no one, outside of the current prime minister of Israel. A more thoughtful, strategic, and potentially constructive move would be to declare West Jerusalem the capital of the State of Israel (which it is, in practice), and to simultaneously acknowledge East Jerusalem as the long-term legal home of close to half a million Palestinians (as it is, in practice). Just as Jerusalem is the historic holy site for the Jewish world, Jerusalem is likewise one of the most holy sites for the Muslim world. Jerusalem can only survive if it exists as a shared society.

I love Jerusalem. In total, I’ve lived in its neighborhoods and walked its many streets for three years plus. Our son was born in Jerusalem, and his American passport only lists the city, and not the country of Israel, as his birthplace. I take seriously the practice of turning toward Jerusalem in my daily prayers. Jerusalem is central to Jewish life.

However, more important than claiming the city of Jerusalem as a political birthright, Jews should be claiming peace as our ultimate dream.

Ir shalem, the city of peace, Jerusalem’s predecessor, is first mentioned in the Torah as the province of Melchizedek, a Canaanite priest who welcomed Abraham with bread and wine and blessing (Genesis 14:18-19). It is time that the Jewish people, wherever we reside, offer welcome and blessing to our Muslim and Christian neighbors.

To welcome Rome into Jerusalem is to spell our physical and spiritual doom.

Looking for light in these dark times, I wish you and yours the joys of family, gratitude, and generosity this Hanukkah.

Hag urim same’ach (Happy festival of lights),

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Posted on December 6, 2017 .

Turkey and Tomatoes

Turkey and Tomatoes—Counting our Blessings at our Thanksgiving Table

Did you know that the ancient psalms for Thanksgiving anticipated our turkey dinner? The word “hodu” (thanks) as in Hodu lAdonai ki tov (give thanks to God for all the goodness) also means “turkey” in Hebrew.

So the verse from psalms also means Turkey for God is good!

With or without turkey, I love Thanksgiving. Food and family. Stopping work and everyday life to gather together for a delicious few days, is a great privilege. I know that many people do not have the family ties, the capacity to travel, or the free time to enjoy this holiday. Many are hungry on Thanksgiving Day. Knowing how precious all this is, I am deeply grateful.

In our family, we always pause before digging in for each person to give voice to that gratitude. Awkward as that can be, I try to bring to mind people who make our meal possible. This year, I am particularly mindful of the migrant workers who pick our food. Living in fear of deportation, oppressed by growers who turn a blind eye to exploitation, sexual harassment, toxic chemicals, and other human rights abuses, their plight remains invisible to most of us.

To add insult to injury, it is shameful that those who are indispensable to our Thanksgiving meal are so poor they eat their Thanksgiving dinner at a soup kitchen.

Early in November, a group of local clergy met with Julie Taylor of the National Farm Worker Ministry. After reminiscing about the success of Cesar Chavez and the California grape boycott in the 1970s, we heard stories of migrant workers all over the country today who are struggling for basic survival: decent pay, housing, childcare, and healthcare.

We learned that 60% of farmworkers are undocumented. Surprisingly, growers are seeking to increase the number of temporary workers while trying to gut the legal protections for those workers. Today, farmworkers in the H2A (2014) program receive housing and compensation for their travel. Under proposed legislation, they would lose both.

Increasing the cap on guest workers would take jobs from migrant workers already in this country; yet they would receive lower pay, leading everyone to a downward spiral into poverty and exploitation.

We also heard of victories for farmworkers who have organized. You know about the United Farm Workers (UFW).  Familias Unidas por La Justicia  (FUL) won a negotiated settlement with berry growers in Washington State. I also learned that in addition to the Fair Food Program created by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), that protects workers who pick tomatoes, strawberries and peppers on the farms of Florida and the Southeast, the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) does the same for agricultural workers in the US and in Mexico, home of some of the worst human rights abuses.

Heartened by their courage, creativity, and commitment, I will continue to champion the rights of farmworkers. On Thursday, January 18, 2018, I’ll be fasting with clergy nationwide to draw attention to the human rights abuses that persist in the fields. That day I will be protesting at a local Wendy’s restaurant to urge Wendy’s management to join the Fair Food Program. Put that date on your calendar and come along!

Whether you give thanks for your health or your family, for your home or your job, I hope you will join me in bringing a farmworker (in spirit, or with a tomato centerpiece) to your Thanksgiving table. Here is a prayer that you can print and read before you enjoy the fruits of their labors—at Thanksgiving, or at any meal.

Hodu l’Adonai ki tov—we are so grateful for all the goodness in our lives.

May this Thanksgiving holiday help us realize how blessed we are, and encourage us all to give expression to our gratitude.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Posted on November 15, 2017 .

Open your eyes.

Know yourself.

Take courage.

These are the three essential teachings that Sasha Chanoff brought to a crowd of close to fifty people at last week’s Allen J. Worters Lecture. Mesmerizing us with his chilling tale of making a life-or-death moral choice in war-torn Congo, Sasha inspired the group by describing the work of RefugePoint, the refugee resettlement organization that he founded in 2005.

In his book, From Crisis to Calling: Finding your Moral Center in the Toughest Decisions, Sasha and his father demonstrate how we can respond as Sasha did, by opening our eyes to the problems — and solutions — right in front of us.

Like Hagar in last week’s Torah portion, he opened his eyes in a time of great despair and discovered — like the well of water in front of Hagar — a way to help resettle refugees.

By knowing himself and listening to the truth inside of him, Sasha took courage and made a decision that saved lives.

I urge you to learn more about the refugee crisis and about the work of RefugePoint.

You can hear Sasha’s story on Kind World or watch the video.

You can learn more about RefugePoint, get updates, and support their work, by sending an email or go directly to the site.

You can purchase Sasha’s book, From Crisis to Calling:  Finding your Moral Center in the Toughest Decisions, at Sasha’s site.

Below you will find the poem by African writer Chinua Achebe that I offered in my opening remarks on Friday night. The poem tells a story that does not need to end in death. We have the power to take action, even a small action, to save the life of a refugee mother and child. We must heed the commandment, “Do not despair!”

No Madonna and Child could touch
Her tenderness for a son
She soon would have to forget. . . .
The air was heavy with odors of diarrhea,
Of unwashed children with washed-out ribs
And dried-up bottoms waddling in labored steps

Behind blown-empty belliesOther mothers there
Had long ceased to care, but not this one
She held a ghost-smile between her teeth,
And in her eyes the memory
Of a mother’s pride. . . . She had bathed him
And rubbed him down with bare palms
took from their bundle of possessions
A broken comb and combed
The rust-colored hair left on his skull
And then—humming in her eyesbegan carefully to part it.
In their former life this was perhaps
A little daily act of no consequence

Before his breakfast and school; now she did it
Like putting flowers on a tiny grave.

Posted on November 8, 2017 .

Sukkot and Storms

On Sukkot, we leave our secure homes to dwell in simple huts, with a roof open to the skies, and walls swaying in the wind. The sukkah reminds us of the abundance in our lives. Yet what we have, our physical possessions, can disappear with a blast of wind, a torrent of rain.

The tenuousness of our lives and the fragility of our supposedly stable dwelling places became painfully clear during this past month of tragedies, natural and human. First Hurricane Harvey swamped Houston. Then Hurricane Irma forced thousands to evacuate Florida, with many returning to flattened homes and trailers that were no more. Then just before Rosh Hashanah the earthquake in Mexico City left thousands homeless. Hurricane Maria inundated the entire island of Puerto Rico, and the deaths and devastation, and duration of the residents’ travails is yet untold. And finally, tourists who trusted an open-air concert were mowed down in the streets of Las Vegas.

Our dwelling-places are no promise of security.

Not only that, but we should be cautious in making two common claims:

Natural disasters affect everyone equally


Hurricanes are a natural disaster while mass shootings are not.

These hurricanes, among the most powerful the country has seen, come from the sea and storms, but their force is exacerbated by climate change. The vast majority of scientists believe the data that shows that these extreme weather events are influenced by rising sea levels, warming oceans, and increased water vapor in the atmosphere. They are not random natural disasters, “acts of God,” but acts of careless humans.

And we also know that these disasters have the most devastating impact on the poor and the powerless. Poor communities are vulnerable to zoning that places them in harm’s way. Poorer communities cannot afford to improve their homes. Renters are subject to landlords who avoid necessary repairs. And when evacuation is ordered, who remains behind? Most often, those who have nowhere to go and no means to get there.

The disproportionate harm to the poor and the powerless does not stop with the end of the storm. While others return, drawing on financial resources and networks to rebuild and reestablish their lives, what happens to people who have no money in the bank, no insurance, and no jobs to return to? Every day without work takes food from their families’ mouths.

Then there are the undocumented immigrants, who are so fearful of deportation, they do not avail themselves of emergency assistance.

As Joseph F. Healey writes in Diversity and Society: Race, Ethnicity, and Gender, “the situation of a minority group in the present are the result of its experiences in the past.”

We are blessed to have homes to retreat to after the sukkot holiday. For those who are homeless, who have lost homes in hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes, for those who started off with very little and now have nothing, how will their lives go on? And how will we protect others from future extremes, whether weather conditions or human tragedies?

The joy of the Sukkah comes from what is inside of it, not what holds it up. The practice of building and dwelling in a Sukkah stems from our firm belief that our possessions are less important than our actions. That someday we will all share in the abundance of Sukkot. That sharing and caring are God’s way, while retreating into our comfortable homes and locking the doors will neither protect our bodies nor strengthen our souls. Sukkot begins with gratitude and ends in generosity.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we insisted that we have the means to overcome the evils that assail us. Through teshuva, tefila, and tsedaka, repentance, prayer, and giving, we can overcome the adversity. And though those holy days are behind us, we know that these tools are as necessary every day, not just once a year. It is time for us to give, to help those who have lost homes to hurricanes and earthquakes, to fight against new directives that harm our environment and increase climate change, to bring food to those in sanctuary, to show up when we are called, to do whatever small act we are capable of, to share our abundance.

As we have enjoyed the simple joy of the sukkah, let us all remember how blessed we are, and how much we have to share to bring blessing to all of God’s creatures.

Posted on October 9, 2017 .

To Be A Jew In The 21st Century

In 1944, Jewish poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote the following poem,

“To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century”              

To be a Jew in the twentieth century
Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse,
Wishing to be invisible, you choose
Death of the spirit, the stone insanity

Accepting, take full life. Full agonies:
Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood
Of those who resist, fail, and resist; and God
Reduced to a hostage among hostages.

The gift is torment. Not alone the still
Torture, isolation; or torture of the flesh.
That may come also. But the accepting wish,
The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee
For every human freedom, suffering to be free,
Daring to live for the impossible.

Daring to live for the impossible. That was an existential concern for Jews in 1944. To dare to remain a Jew. In the past century, what did our parents and grandparents choose? What was Muriel Rukeyser’s choice?

If you don’t know about the poet Muriel Rukeyser, you should. Rukeyser was an American journalist and activist all her life. She was arrested while covering the trial of the Scottsboro Boys in Alabama and witnessed the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. She spoke out as a feminist and partnered with a woman long before it was safe. She traveled to Hanoi with poet Denise Levertov on an unofficial peace mission and was arrested in Washington D.C. while protesting the Vietnam War. She wrote this poem as a Jewish response to fascism under Franco and under Hitler.

But Rukeyser, like most of us, was more complicated than that. Like many activist Jews of her era, Rukeyser grew up without Jewish observance, as she put it “no stories, no songs, no special food.” Yet her mother passed on a story to her as a child, a story that gave her a deep connection to her heritage. Her mother claimed that she was a direct descendant of one the greatest rabbis of the Talmud, Rabbi Akiba. Her mother described the famous rabbi as a martyr who resisted the Romans in the 1st century by teaching Torah publicly, knowing the penalty was death. She described to her daughter how Akiba was tortured and how he died saying ‘I know that I have loved God with all my heart and all my soul, and now I know that I love God with all my life.’ This story shaped Rukeyser’s own connections to Judaism for the rest of her life

So here we are, all of us descendants or disciples of Rabbi Akiba, and we ask ourselves, what does it mean to be a Jew in the 21st century? Does the experience of being a Jew look different from being a Jew in the 20st century?

Until a year or so ago, I would have enthusiastically answered, yes, it does look different. We no longer need to choose to be invisible. We can walk proudly as Jews in almost every corner of American life. Yiddish words like schlemiel have entered the American vocabulary. Bagels are no longer ethnic food. Jerry Seinfeld became a household representative of the Jewish people: insightful, funny, a bit neurotic, and successful. Moreover, while some of us have known anti-semitism personally, most of us in this room have never felt persecuted as a Jew, never been victims of anti-semitic taunts, of vandalism, of threats to our life and well-being.

But like so many other places where Jews have risen to prominence: Spain, England, France, Germany, our position is always tentative. Like so many before us, the Jews of America have safely accepted the illusion that we can integrate ourselves seamlessly into American culture.

That is, until the dramatic rise in anti-semitic acts immediately following the election. Until the vandalism in Jewish cemeteries following the inauguration. Until the shattering of the Boston Holocaust Memorial this summer. Until Charlottesville.

What changed at Charlottesville was that the anti-semitism of the tiki-torch-bearers, the assault-rifle-toters, and the marchers in riot-gear chanting hate slogans—the hatred—came out in the open. Not only that, the police stood by and allowed it to happen. With the president’s unrepentant acceptance of support from the Nazis and the KKK and other white-nationalist groups, their actions appear to be state supported, if not explicitly state-sponsored. The president’s own rhetoric has given permission for others to do and say what until now, our government has not dared to do or say. This is what the ADL refers to as “an unprecedented mainstreaming of hate and discrimination in our communities.”

After Charlottesville, we have no choice but to discuss anti-semitism. And to stand up to it wherever we find it.

It’s easy to decry the KKK and the Nazis. But what happens when the hatred comes from someplace closer to home, from people we consider allies?

Many of us were heartbroken to hear earlier this summer about the Chicago Dyke March, an annual Gay Pride event, where three Jewish women were asked to leave the March because they were carrying rainbow flags with Stars of David. According to one of the women, they were shouted over, cursed at, interrogated, and ultimately forced out by organizers.  Later, March leaders issued a statement asserting that the Chicago Dyke March was explicitly “anti-Zionist” and stated “Zionism is an inherently white-supremacist ideology.”

Banning people for carrying a Star of David flag is not anti-Zionist. It is anti-semitic. These women were not there as spokespeople for Israel. They were Jewish lesbians who had attended the march for years, who were told that by expressing their identity as Jews, they were promoting a white-supremacist ideology.

No matter what our views on Israel and Palestine, we need to pay attention to this painful story. When we hear familiar anti-Semitic tropes, such as the claim that Jews are in control, we need to be prepared to decry those attacks as vigorously as we decry the alt-right. It is one thing to criticize a country, even Israel, if you believe it is failing to live up to its human rights obligations. But as Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah, The Rabbinic Voice for Human Rights, argues, “if you think Israel is the cause of all of the world's problems, that Zionists are pulling strings everywhere, you're in anti-Semitism territory.”

With anti-semitic rhetoric coming from the people we thought were our allies as well as people we despise, we might indeed refuse the gift, wishing to be invisible.

I want to share a story that illustrates this lose-lose situation. It took place in a different time, in a small Tennessee town. I’ll tell the story as recounted by the author years later, in 1968.

“As a result of state legislation, the local buses had just been integrated. A city statute, however, sought to defy the state and force Negroes to sit only in the rear of the buses. Testing segregation, a few Negroes sat in the front of the bus and they were arrested. Someone put up the required bail money and they were released.

“In the lobby of the whites-only hotel in that town, this is what you could hear from more than one patron: ‘Don’t go to Cohen’s Department Store. Cohen is the one who bailed them out.’ (Alas, Cohen was in the Bahamas at the time and was not involved in any way.)

That same day, however, you could walk across the street to Cohen’s Department Store and this is what you would have seen: Negro pickets parading in front of the store with signs reading: ‘Don’t patronize Cohen’s Department Store! Cohen’s has a segregated lunch counter.’”

This story came from activist Rabbi Robert Marx. Founder of Chicago’s progressive Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and a founding board member of Interfaith Worker Justice, Rabbi Marx is still considered one of the most important leaders in strengthening relations between the Jews and Blacks of Chicago for fifty years.

Obviously, we would claim that the picketers in front of Cohen’s store had adequate cause to protest, while the patrons in the hotel had none. As Marx described it, the two perspectives on Cohen's Department Store provide an example of how Jews can be depicted as the enemy of both parties to a social conflict. In telling the story Rabbi Marx wanted to point to the subtle ways in which the Jewish community plays both sides in a conflict.

The story comes from his 1968 essay, “The People in-between,” where Rabbi Marx offered a compelling analysis of the Jewish condition. Just as the story demonstrates, Jews have been the target of attacks from all sides throughout history, all of whom see Jews as Other.

He explains, “The Jewish community was truly interstitial, truly located between the parts of the social structure of western societies. Neither a part of the masses nor of the power structure, Jews were uniquely positioned so that they fulfilled certain vital yet dispensable functions. They discovered that they were totally dispensable in the society in which they lived…. Interstitiality… may open a path to the gas chamber or it may lead to prophetic heights that enable the Jewish people to rise above parochialism or nationalism.”

This vulnerable position of being somewhere in-between the powerful and the powerless started with Joseph serving as Pharaoh’s viceroy in Egypt, and continues even today. To join with the powerful can offer a promise of protection, as Joseph was able to save his family from famine. But when the powerful change, or simply change their minds, we are left more vulnerable than before, subject to a king “who did not know Joseph.” That story ended in the enslavement of Joseph’s descendants, only to be liberated by another outsider, Moses, who was raised in the palace despite being a Hebrew. On the other hand, to join with the powerless may appear to weaken us, but in the end, such alliances strengthen all who are oppressed.

Just as the poet invites us to accept or refuse the gift, in every age our ancestors have been forced to decide: Do we ally ourselves with the powerful to gain protection for our people? Or do we ally ourselves with the powerless so that together we become powerful?

Even though not all Jews are white, we have benefited from white privilege in America, being lifted up the economic ladder while people of color were kept down. Yet you and I know that we are not as powerful as those who hate us believe. One of the characteristics of anti-semitism is the belief that Jews have outsized power. As researcher and organizer Eric Ward has said, “In oppression, identity is forced on you.” In his recent essay, “Skin in the Game: How Anti-Semitism Animates White Nationalism,” Ward describes how White nationalists see Jews today. Having studied White nationalism for almost three decades, Ward tells us, “White nationalists argue that Whites are a biologically defined people and that, once the White revolutionary spirit awakens, they will take down the federal government, remove people of color, and build a state … of their own.” He asserts that “antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism.” Surprisingly, Eric Ward claims, to White nationalists Jews are not white.

Ward tells us, “Jews function for today’s White nationalists as they often have for anti-semites through the centuries: as the demons stirring an otherwise changing and heterogeneous pot of lesser evils.” These evils, he explains, include civil rights, gay rights, and women’s rights. In the eyes of White nationalists, Jews are at the heart of a vast international conspiracy, controlling “television, banking, entertainment, education, and even Washington, D.C.” Furthermore, according to Ward, they believe that Jews have brainwashed white people into giving up their own race consciousness by supporting non-whites and other marginalized groups.

What has changed after Charlottesville is that white Jews can no longer depend on our white privilege to protect us. While American Jews have benefited from oppression of people of color, we are also the targets of oppression.  Understanding our place as the in-between people, our fate depends on forming alliances with all targets of oppression. Our oppression is linked inextricably to the oppression of people of color in this country. And the marchers in Charlottesville made that link explicit, along with the oppression of women, Muslims, and the LGBTQ community.

If we choose to deny that link, if we abandon our common struggle for justice, then we are complicit in handing victory to those who can only gain by dividing those they oppress.

Terrifying as the story of the Dyke March is, the threat of anti-semitism from individuals on the left cannot be compared to the dangers of institutional anti-semitism. As Robert Marx says, “anti-semitism on the part of a minority group is not nearly as dangerous as when a majority group seizes upon it as a way of maintaining power.

To be a Jew in the 21st century, we must speak out against anti-semitism in all its forms, whether from friend or foe. When we makes claims on our allies, we help them recognize what we have come to understand: that we all bound together in the struggle for justice.

To be a Jew in the 21st century is to be given a gift. The gift, however, neither allows us to be invisible, nor does it require that we close ranks, us against the world. The gift is to make a choice that brings honor to the Jews and justice to the world.

We live in a world of complexity, where diversity does not only exist on the outside, it lives within each of us. Our community is comprised of Jews as well as their Christian and Muslim and Hindu and UU family members. We are white and brown and black. We are individuals who hold many identities inside one body. We are each a combination of privileges and oppressions, victims and oppressors. Just as the Torah insisted that we advocate and care for the orphan, the widow, the stranger, and the poor among us, today we must continue to open our doors to those on the margins. Our response to oppression as a Jewish community must likewise be complex and nuanced.

And we need to remember that as frightening as it is, anti-semitism in America does not have the force of racism, which is baked into American history, pervading every aspect of society from education to housing to criminal justice to jobs. Anti-semitism is not systemic in America. The threats to Jews and Jewish institutions are the result of American terrorists, not government policy. When we stand with our allies against oppression, against intolerance, against hatred, it is not out of a shared sense of fear, but a shared sense of justice.

This summer’s events could mark a turning point in uniting those who stand against hate in all its forms. You may be aware that tomorrow, September 30th, the March for Racial Justice will take place in Washington DC. When Jews first learned that the planned march coincided with Yom Kippur, accusations of anti-semitism inundated social media. Fortunately, thoughtful Jewish leaders including Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah decided to take a different route. They reached out to the organizers to ask questions and to share the concerns of the Jewish community, many of whom did not want to make a choice between Yom Kippur and standing for Racial Justice. 

The March organizers explained that this date was chosen for its symbolic meaning to the African-American community. It recalled the Elaine Massacre on September 30, 1919, one of the deadliest racial attacks our country has known. White mobs in rural Arkansas attacked and slaughtered over 200 black men and women, many of whom had recently returned from military service in World War I. The date harkens back to events that eerily resemble today’s racial animus.

After hearing from Jewish leaders directly, the March organizers spent some time considering how to respond.

Three days after the Charlottesville clashes, on August 15, the organizers of the March for Racial Justice issued a lengthy public apology. I’d like to share some key sections from that apology, because they demonstrate the power of dialogue, of relationships, and of seeking to work together rather than standing apart.

The statement reads: “The March for Racial Justice is committed to standing for racial justice with allies from across all races, ethnicities, and communities. We believe that none of us are free until all of us are free.

“The organizers of the March for Racial Justice did not realize that September 30 was Yom Kippur when we were factoring … other considerations and applying for permits.

“Choosing this date, we now know, was a grave and hurtful oversight on our part. It was unintentional and we are sorry for this pain as well as for the time it has taken for us to respond. Our mistake highlights the need for our communities to form stronger relationships.

“…We have learned from our Jewish friends that Yom Kippur is a day of making amends and of asking and receiving forgiveness. We hope that our sincere apology will be received with compassion, and that we will build a stronger relationship among all our communities as a result….

“We are marching in solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters who are observing the holiest of days on the Jewish calendar. Holding fast to Jewish tradition is also an act of resistance, in the face of growing anti-Semitism.”

The organizers taught us an important lesson about teshuva, worth sharing on this holy day, and worth responding to with compassion.

They also taught us another lesson many of us had forgotten:

“Holding fast to Jewish tradition is also an act of resistance.”

Which brings us back to Rabbi Akiba. Just as Rabbi Akiba continued to teach and practice Judaism publicly knowing it meant a death sentence, we can proudly hold fast to Jewish tradition as an act of resistance.

Praying together is an act of resistance.

Taking time for Shabbat is an act of resistance.

Becoming knowledgeable Jews is an act of resistance.

Teaching our children is an act of resistance.

Being authentic and true to our heritage is an act of resistance.

The main difference I see between Jews of the 20th century and Jews of the 21st, is that today we know that we cannot build our identity on fear of persecution. In a pluralistic society, we cannot build our Jewish lives in isolation. And we also know that we cannot be invisible allies. It is not enough to show up; how we show up matters. Proudly as Jews, as a Jewish community, we hold fast to our values, to our teachings, and to our practices. We do not trade away what is precious and timeless for what is fleeting. When we form alliances, we bring our full selves, as people of Torah and mitzvot, without shame or fear. And when we need to, we speak our truth.

To be a Jew in the twenty-first century is a gift.

May we all find the courage, the dedication, and the wisdom to accept that gift, even with the torment that comes along with it.  

As the poet wrote,
The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee
For every human freedom, suffering to be free,
Daring to live for the impossible.                                            Ken yehi ratzon.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Yom Kippur 5778.

Posted on October 2, 2017 .

The Voice of the Shofar: From Wholeness to Brokeness to Wholeness, Again.

A hundred years ago, in one of the neighborhoods of Jerusalem, a group of workers was under pressure to complete a particular building, and they continued working during the Rosh Hashanah holiday.

When the neighbors realized what was happening, they immediately notified Rav Kook, the greatest spiritual leader of the time, esteemed by religious and secular Jews alike. Shortly thereafter, a messenger of the Rav arrived at the construction site with a shofar in his hand. He approached the workers, who were surprised to see him, and offered New Year's greetings. He then announced that Rav Kook had sent him to blow the shofar for them, in accordance with the obligation to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. He respectfully asked them to take a break from their work and listen. The messenger then proceeded to recite the blessing and began to blow.

The words from the Rav and the sounds of the shofar achieved their goal. Each blast shook the delicate chords of the soul and awakened the Jewish spark in the hearts of the young workers. They set down their work tools and gathered around the man blowing the shofar. Some were so moved that they began to cry. The ancient blasts of the shofar, reverberating in the unfinished building, transported them back to Europe, to their parents’ houses in the shtetl. They saw images of their grandparents, the houses and the synagogue, a world of Jews standing in prayer.

Questions began to pour out, one after another. What has happened to us? Where are we? What have we come to? The young men stood around the emissary, confused and absorbed in thought.

When the shofar-blowing was over, there was no need for words. The workers unanimously decided to stop working. Some asked the messenger if they could accompany him. They quickly changed their clothes and joined in the holiday prayers with Rav Kook.

In a short while, we will all stand, like that world of Jews, in some ways different from them, with our non-Jewish family and friends, adults and children together, to hear the calls of the Shofar. Unlike the workers in the story, we have chosen to stop work in order to be here on this holy day. Still, the shofar is calling to each of us. Wherever we are, those primal strains, the piercing notes of the ram’s horn are meant to wake us up.

How are we asleep? 

We don’t live in normal times. I don’t need to enumerate the many ways that the norms of democracy and decency have been upended, and there is no end in sight. We have found multiple ways to cope. We may be working very hard to resist. We may be hyper alert to every news bulletin, every article, every post, every comedy show. We may studiously avoid the news bulletins, articles, and posts. We may be filled with righteous anger, living with despair, or dwelling in overwhelm. Undoubtedly, most of us are worrying about what is wrong today. At the same time, are we mindlessly sleepwalking through the rest of our lives? It is time to wake up—to a new way of being alive.

This ongoing crisis may bring us the opportunity for a radical transformation. We don’t know whether our country will go back to the way we consider normal. It is up to us, now more than ever, to live in the world as we wish it to be. Not only to fight the battles, join the protests, sign the petitions. We also need to envision and to take steps to create a world of unity and civil discourse, a world of compassion and concern, a world of stability and the comfort of predictability. 

Moreover, our children are watching. Whether we are parents or grandparents or we have no children of our own, the children in our midst are noticing. They are taking the world in and from what they see, they are fashioning their own idea of what is normal. It is our job to correct for the imbalances, to teach them what we consider normal. Compassion. Honesty. Humility. Respect for others. Welcoming strangers.

Likewise, they are watching us to see how we respond in difficult times. If they see us escaping, they will learn to run away from their problems. If we are despondent, they will believe they are powerless. If we are overwhelmed, they will believe the world is impossibly chaotic.

The shofar calls us to wake up and crawl out from under this blanket and envision the world we wish to create. From the sounds of the shofar, we can learn how to hold onto the challenges of our current reality and wrap them in a powerful vision of how we want the world to be.

This shofar sandwich, broken notes lovingly placed between sustained notes, offers a metaphor: we were whole, we became broken, and we will be whole once again.

The shofar begins with the tekiah, the long loud note of wholeness.

In these Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, when we hear that sustained, pure tone, let it return you to a child’s view of the wonders of the world, with all their power and might.

A thirteen-year old boy scrambles up to the peak of a mountain in the Rockies, and with a grin from ear to ear, utters a single word, “majestic.”

A three-year-old child, pushed to make it to the top of a mountain in New Hampshire, looks around and enthusiastically announces, “what a beautiful view! I love it!”

A high school senior stepping up to the rim of the Grand Canyon for the first time, stands silent for many minutes, turns to his parents and solemnly reports, “It’s breathtaking.”

We call this experience awe. The capacity to slow down long enough to notice the raw power that is beyond our control.

Millions felt it watching the eclipse.

When the darkness shrouded the earth, a woman I know in her fifties sobbed uncontrollably. She later described sunsets radiating all around her, crickets chirping, birds hushed. People whooping and screaming. Totality. And two minutes and forty seconds later, it was over.

We have witnessed the power of the hurricanes and their aftermath with awe and reverence, with the helpless feeling as we watch water and wind inundate cars and crush the roofs of houses.

Similarly, the mystery of the creative process can lead to rapture.

The feeling of joy and wonder at a master musician drawing out Beethoven’s music with his bow, as if for the first time. The audience, surrounded by the grandeur of the music, sits transfixed, then rises as one in thunderous applause.

Standing for what seems like an hour before a work of art that envelops the heart and mind with color and movement and drama and tranquility.

Let’s imagine today that we are standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, as it smokes and thunders, hearing the shofar blasts for the very first time, awaiting the divine words and then, having heard but a single letter, the silent alef, falling on our faces, crying, “Enough, Moses. We’ve heard enough. You go up and tell us what God desires of us.”

In the careless and raw cynicism of our age, where is the awe? Where is the reverence we once knew as children? Confronting us with our small part in the vast cosmos, awe inspires us to gratitude and humility. In the presence of such timeless splendor, we understand that all humans are equally insignificant. The unbroken tekiah sound engulfs us, awakening our sense of the power of the universe, its tones reverberating in our souls.

We were whole. Then we became broken. We hope to become whole again.

The middle calls of the shofar are the broken notes: shevarim, 3 short blasts, and teruah, nine breathy blasts. The plaintive tones of the shofar call forth the images of injustice and suffering in our world. They call us to notice the places that are needy. They urge us to repair the breech.

The Rabbis of the Talmud, attempting to determine the exact meaning of the shofar sound that the Torah calls teruah, could not agree on whether the broken notes of the teruah are long moaning sounds or short whimpering sounds. As in most rabbinic disputes, they decided to make two different calls: shevarim and teruah. To the rabbis, these are not simply musical notes. Moans or whimpers, they arise from the pain of human suffering and loss, from the heartbreak of seeing one’s dreams dashed, and from the contradictions that afflict our very souls.

The Rabbis of the Talmud note that teruah was translated into Aramaic as yevava, which is also a Hebrew word that appears only once in the entire Bible, in the book of Judges (5:28). Yevava is not a normal cry. It is the soul-splitting moan sounded by a mother anxiously waiting for her son to return from war. She sits by the window and wails, “why is his chariot so long in coming?” But we, the readers, know, as she senses, that her son already lies dead.

There is no grief like that of a parent who has lost a child. In the shofar’s sobs we feel the mother’s pain pierce our hearts. But the story the rabbis chose to connect to the sound of the shofar is far more complex, because the son who has died in war is no simple soldier on the battlefield who followed orders. The son is none other than the enemy general Sisera, whose army was defeated by the Israelite judge Deborah. When his soldiers fall, Sisera escapes, seeking refuge with a woman named Yael, from another clan, neither from Sisera’s nor Deborah’s people. Recognizing the brutal general, Yael offers him milk, which puts him in a stupor, and then murders him by her own hand.

The Bible enshrines Yael and Deborah as heroes, women who saved others from the cruelty of war. Yet the Bible also records that Sisera had a mother, and she was worried for him as a mother worries for any child. Not seeing him, her world is shaken. And she wails a yevava. This is the sound the rabbis hear in the teruah call. Even though she is the enemy, they hear only the cry of a mother. A moan. A whimpering. A soul who has been shaken to her core.

In that cry, the rabbis are telling us, we too must be shaken. We must let go of the walls that divide us and pay attention to human suffering. And not only the suffering of those on our own side. Hearing the cry of our enemy’s mother ought to move us beyond what we have always believed to be true. Even our enemies are someone’s children. They are God’s children. The teruah breaks into our consciousness to face the contradictions in our own lives, the suffering that we have come to accept, the justifications that undergird our most cherished principles, and the complacency of knowing we are right.

The teruah calls us to hear the brokenness and in response, to break down our own well-defended egos and to respond to suffering with compassion. We were whole, we have become broken, we hope to be whole again.

But our shofar ritual does not end there. Every teruah, every shevarim, every broken note is followed by a second tekiah. Having our deepest truths shattered, we return, whole once again, but different. The tekiah comes to mend our own broken hearts. But how?

You all know the often-repeated line attributed to Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” But as we’ve learned, nothing is so simple, so neat, and Gandhi actually said something that does not fit on a bumper sticker.

Gandhi said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.... We need not wait to see what others do.”

Gandhi is describing the work of teshuva, repentance. It is the only way we know to repair the brokenness in our lives.

Gandhi challenges us: Work on ourselves first. Through our own choice and our own resolve.  And do not stop there. The task of teshuvah begins by mending my own broken heart. That changes everyone around me. We were whole, we were broken, we will become whole again.

I want to share one last story, a story of a change that’s taken place in my life.  It’s a story of a return to wholeness, about holding onto joy until joy grabs hold of you.

You may recall that last year I described my inner turmoil about visiting my younger sister for her daughter’s bat mitzvah at their home in the West Bank.

This summer, my sister celebrated the marriage of another daughter, one of her five children. Brian and I wanted to be there. I had met my niece’s boyfriend last summer. It was clear they were in love and everyone loved them. Brian and I were the only close family members on the bride’s side able to make the trip from America. We wanted to be with them to celebrate.

The wedding was unlike any wedding I’ve ever been to.  And at heart, it had all the essential elements of every wedding I’ve known. We traveled to the outdoor wedding site on the outskirts of Jerusalem at Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, across the Green Line. Before the ceremony, the groom, dressed all in white, was surrounded by an eclectic horde of young men, friends from his yeshiva, some with long peyos and large kippot, some clean-shaven, some with hats, his father, his future brothers-in-law and father-in-law, teachers and male guests. The bride, my niece, was sequestered at the opposite side of the outdoor gardens. She sat on a cushioned bench in a lovely arbor, with her sisters, girlfriends, mother, and a crowd of women milling around in eager anticipation.

Had I focused on the outer trappings, and on my own political and religious stance, I might have missed out on one of the greatest moments of joy I’ve ever seen.

I waited next to my sister as the two fathers escorted the groom to his bride. The yeshiva boys were singing and dancing ecstatically behind him. His smile was dazzling. The fathers were solemn. The bride broke out into sobs. As my sister explained, the bride and groom had not seen one another, not even texted for an entire week. But it wasn’t only seeing her beloved’s face that moved her. For this bride and groom,

their marriage was a deeply spiritual event, with the potential to catalyze a cosmic union between God and God’s own exiled presence, between the Kudsha Berich Hu and the Shechina. They were about the rock the entire world.

Soon we were all singing, caught up in a joyous procession, escorting these two to the huppah, surrounding them on all sides with love and prayer. The rabbi blessed the two of them to have a home filled with the gifts of gratitude and welcoming guests, of children and joy, a litany of blessings before even beginning the words of the ceremony. And after more singing and rejoicing, calling different family members and rabbis to take part, the groom placed the ring on his bride's finger. At that moment, you could see the electricity pass through their fingers and light them up. These two young people, who had been a couple for over a year, had never touched. And for the rest of the ceremony, those hands were clenched in fervent emotion:  joy, hope, prayer, love.

Many thoughts came into my head at that point. I could have dwelled on the doubts I harbored. I could have felt uncomfortable, feeling that I didn’t belong. I could have chosen to be offended. Instead I chose joy.

After the ceremony, we danced. For hours. I danced with the bride as she pulled me into her inner circle. I danced with my sister. We danced with abandon. And we sang as we danced. And we sang to the bride and groom as the young men surrounded them inside a circle of love of joy.

My sister and I were once whole. We became broken. We are again whole. We may hold dramatically different political perspectives, such that we might never meet if we weren’t sisters. And now we have each gained more understanding, and have shared more joy than we have ever felt before.

Tekiyah-shevarim-truah-tekiyah. We were whole, we were broken, we become whole again. When you hear the shofar, hear it all. The awe, the suffering, the joy. You might ask, “How is it possible to feel joy when there is so much suffering?” Why not ask, “How is it possible to hold onto anger when there is so much joy?”

The best known custom at any Jewish wedding comes at the end, when the couple steps on a glass, and everyone shouts “mazal tov”! The glass, we are told, is meant to remind us of our broken world, whether because of our grief that the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and is no longer, or whether because our world is still unredeemed. We break the glass, not to diminish our joy, but to hold onto it, to cherish it because we are aware of how broken the world still is, how much work we still need to do. Joy is even more necessary as an antidote to suffering.

Our task is to focus on redemption. How do we heal this broken world? The sound of the shofar also echoes the ancient ritual that the Torah says took place on Yom Kippur once every fifty years. At that moment, the shofar sounds to proclaim the beginning of the Jubilee Year, when we forgive all debts, release all slaves, refrain from tilling the earth. The shofar ushers in a year of total economic equality, where no one owns more than anyone else, where the land is revered. The Jubilee may be more myth than reality. There is no evidence that this economic transformation ever took place. But our Torah dreamed that human beings could create this redeemed world without divine intervention.

This is the kind of myth that Parker Palmer speaks of, when he describes the gap between our aspirations and our reality.

“Myths do more than name truths that lie deeper than mere facts, truths that will never show up in data that historians would find credible. They also name aspirations that might be achieved in the facts of our lives but remain as yet unfulfilled….When we openly acknowledge this gap between aspiration and reality and are willing to live in it honestly, a myth can encourage us to bring what we are a bit closer to what we seek to be.

We were whole, we were broken, we become whole again.

In the face of our current reality, we are called today to renew our aspirations.

In an age of falsehoods, may we teach honesty.

In an age of selfishness, may we step up in service.

In an age of arrogance, may we be gracious.

In an age of isolation, may we make connections.

In an age of cynicism, may we practice gratitude.

In an age of despair, may we bring hope.

In an age of distress, may we find joy.

Ken yehi ratzon.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Rosh Hashanah 5777

Posted on September 24, 2017 .

In a recent text exchange, my sister in Israel wrote to me how worried she was about “the fire and water onslaught of the US.”

I answered, “The fire and water of our political life? Oh you mean hurricanes, floods and Divine retribution.”

I thought I was being funny, diverging from her concern about the natural disasters she was reading about from across the ocean. I was also poking a bit of fun at the notion (which I wasn’t sure she believed in) that God brings disasters as a form of punishment.

First she replied, “I didn’t say that. LOL.”

Then she added, “I was thinking of the wildfires out west. Really scary stuff.”

And the next answer was sobering. And long (for a text):

No, seriously, I really don’t like all this “G-d is punishing you” stuff. If human beings could truly understand G-d, the world would be very different. And I think G-d, by definition is too big for us to understand. Plus, G-d MADE the laws of nature, so that’s how things work. Geez, just get out there and help people! I have many friends in Houston and the stories were crazy, but the amazing unity was so beautiful.

Ouch. My orthodox sister was speaking the language of Kaplanian religious naturalism! Her description of how God works in the world is similar to that of the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, Mordecai Kaplan, who taught that we should all live as if there is a God.  Reconstructionism teaches that God does not intervene in our lives in supernatural ways — that is, outside of the laws of nature. Nature itself is a divine miracle, including its destructive forces as well as its majestic beauty. And human beings need to become partners with God, and bring our humanity to heal, save, comfort, inspire, cheer, and help one another. My traditional sister summed up Kaplan’s approach to God in a text.

This month of Elul, when we are examining our souls, is considered to be a time of deep searching. We may be searching our past actions for mistakes that need correction. We may be searching our guilty conscience for ways to make amends.

This is also a time to seek out the Divine, to come closer to God, to be reminded of all that is godly, to aspire to be better. The letters of Elul — in Hebrew Aleph-Lamed-Vav-Lamed — are an acronym for a well-known verse in Song of Songs, Ani Ledodi Vedodi Li, meaning “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” We yearn for a deep connection beyond ourselves and we seek assurance that we are loved. What we find will probably surprise us.

It’s no surprise that my sister and I were dancing around our individual approaches to God at this time of year. Since we are both spiritually attuned people, we were having fun sharing our inner thoughts. What was surprising to me is that I used language I would never express (God is punishing us) and she used the language that I often articulate (Don’t leave it up to God).

The miracle of teshuvah — the practice of repentance/return that is at the heart of the High Holy Days — lies in the ways its surprises us. Like the call of the shofar, at this time of year we ought to wake up, to be surprised, and to be shaken out of our habitual ways of doing things.

Consider the ways you can open yourself up to notice the surprises surrounding you. Consider the ways that you can reach out and surprise someone with an apology or change of heart. Consider how you might surprise yourself by changing an established behavior.

I hope you will consider joining us at Selichot Saturday night for a surprisingly fun night of cooking, eating, and preparing for Rosh Hashanah.

Wishing you and those you love Shanah tovah, a year that brings goodness to you, to us, and to our sweet, good and still unredeemed world.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Below you will find links to recommended organizations that are helping victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Remember that in addition to teshuva (and tefila, prayer), tzedaka (the obligation to give to others) is a key component that gives meaning to the Jewish New Year. Give generously!

Posted on September 12, 2017 .

The Red Sox ought to be punished

The Red Sox ought to be punished.

They broke the rules of baseball by using technology to steal the other team’s signs. Initially, they even admitted to it. Then, they backtracked and denied it, refusing to take responsibility. You might argue, “everybody does it.” If so, everyone should be punished. Or no one. But our beloved team did it and got caught. There should be consequences.

We live in a time when people feel emboldened to cross what used to be iron-clad boundaries of behavior. We live in a time when public figures feel no shame and offer no regrets when they lie, cheat, steal or vilify others. When public figures are perceived as “getting away” with unacceptable behavior, everyone takes it into account.

Those who hate Boston teams—and who can blame them?—take notice. Our victories are tarnished.

Those who support our teams—and who can blame them?—take notice. Our ardent defenses diminish our integrity.

Those who believe in fairness—and who can blame them?—take notice. When accepted norms are upended, the moral foundations of our lives are shaken.

I do not believe that punishment in itself prevents transgressions. Only true teshuva, recognition of our wrongdoing, honest apology, and fervent commitment to changing behavior can stop us from wrongdoing. In this season of repentance, that is our guiding light:  we are accountable for our behavior, past, present and future. If we truly take time to admit our mistakes and make an effort to change, we are capable of improving ourselves and improving the lives of everyone we touch.

The public pronouncements by Red Sox management and players, proclaiming that “everybody does it” or “I don’t know anything about it” don’t indicate a desire to change. What, then, is the value of punishment?

Punishment does send a message, if not to teams that cheat, then to the fans. Most important it tells the children who are fans that cheating is wrong.

Since the election, our world and its norms have been turned on their head. We can’t tell serious journalism from fake news. Appointed secretaries are working to dismantle departments rather than “mantle” them. After each outrage we imagine “this time a line has been crossed” and expect someone in power will voice our outrage. We live with moral uncertainty at best and moral corruption at worst.

Social scientists have learned that those who are not held to account for wrong behavior give others permission to copy them, and even to take more liberties. In his research on prejudice, Chris Crandall at the University of Kansas examined how the prevalence of hate speech affects others’ behavior. He concluded: "It's not so much what's in your head and heart, as it is you looking around and seeing what's acceptable, seeing what's okay, seeing what people will tolerate. And the election changed people's notion of what was tolerable," Crandall says.

None of us are saints, always acting from pure desires and altruistic motivations. We make poor judgments. We harbor thoughts we might be embarrassed to admit. Morality is not about purity of intention. Morality depends on knowing what we desire to say or do and choosing to restrain ourselves. But if someone else crosses that line without consequences, we learn that restraint is no longer necessary. We might even claim that the speaker should be praised for being “authentic.”

Our most sacred institutions, including our beloved Red Sox, need to stand for moral integrity. Our children need to see that such behavior is not tolerated in a society governed by laws.

The Talmud tells the story of the great leader, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. As he lay on his deathbed, his pupils visited him and asked him for a blessing. With his last breath, the Rabbi said, "I pray that you may fear God as you fear human beings." "What!" exclaimed his pupils, "should we not fear God more than a mortal?"

"If only that were true," answered the sage. “Consider, when you do wrong, first you make sure that no human eyes see you. Imagine if you were to show the same fear of God, who sees everywhere, and everything, at all times."

The point of the story is not whether one believes that God is watching us. The story asks the question, how can we be true to our best selves when outside forces are not calling us to account? That is the moral question, whether it’s the Red Sox trying to learn the other team’s signs, or in our myriad moral decisions every day. That is the task of this Season of Repentance, to examine our own souls and hold ourselves to account—no matter who is watching.

Posted on September 7, 2017 .

Message from Rabbi Penzner

It is with great humility that I have sought to find words for this weekend’s tragic events.
I must begin with a voice from our sacred texts:

Listen to me, you who pursue justice,
You who seek the LORD
Look to the rock you were hewn from,
To the quarry you were dug from.
Look back to Abraham your father
And to Sarah who brought you forth.
For he was only one when I called him,
But I blessed him and made him many.

The Prophet Isaiah (51:1 from the haftarah last Shabbat) spoke to people 2700 years ago who had suffered insult and abuse, who knew violent opponents, destruction and exile. Yet Isaiah comforts them by reminding them of their past, and of the unshakable foundations of their faith. These prophetic words remind our community at HBT (whether you are Jewish by birth or by choice or in sympathy with us) that we are not alone. We may be few in number, but we our past experience reminds us that our people has steadfastly endured many ages of fear, anger and sorrow.

After Charlottesville, we know fear, anger and sorrow. We are quaking in shock at images and words we thought were no longer acceptable in America. The question is how do we respond?

As I’ve said before, first we mourn. We mourn Heather Heyer. We pray for all those survivors who are hospitalized, many of them crowdfunding on line to cover medical expenses.

We remain vigilant. The Boston interfaith community is currently in conversation with the Mayor’s office regarding the possible “Free Speech Rally” that is scheduled for Saturday. Whether the rally occurs as planned, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders will be announcing a unified response later today. The Jewish community is ready to stand up against the racism of white supremacy and the alt-right (see the CJP/JCRC statement from this morning). AND we need to stand as Jews, because we are targeted as Jews. That is, we come to the vigils and protests proudly as Jews, defending our right to be different, to observe Shabbat, and to name the anti-semitism that animates the white supremacists even as we decry their racism and xenophobia.

“Look to the rock you were hewn from, to the quarry you were dug from.”

We remain true to our better selves. When we are faced with opponents like the alt-right, white supremacists, the KKK and neo-Nazis, we must thwart their efforts. But in the process, we must not become like them. Remember the quarry we were dug from; as Jews, we hold to the values of justice, truth, compassion, and peace.

I have no more words. At this point, I want to share the prophetic perspective of two individuals I am close to who were present in Charlottesville on Saturday.

First is a long-time activist, Reconstructionist Rabbi Mordecai Liebling, who stood with a group of 50 interfaith clergy leaders in the street in Charlottesville. I recommend his op-ed, “Fighting What the Nazis Fear.

The second is my niece, Jennifer, who moved to Charlottesville to attend the University of Virginia in August 2007 from Montgomery County, MD where she grew up.  I hope you will take the time to read this abridged version of her personal and very moving FB post. (I have chosen not to censor her language and I’ve added emphasis in bold.) Be sure to read her insights at the end.

“Charlottesville vexed me from the beginning. I was baffled by how liberal and forward thinking the town was within a radius of a few miles, but if you went five miles away in any direction, you were met with some polar opposite, extreme right views that were predominant in those areas. Charlottesville is a little blue dot in a great big sea of red.”

At UVa Jennifer met Jason Kessler, a fellow student who was her age, who is now known as the organizer of Saturday’s “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville.

“I was impressed with how well read he was and his very liberal views. I was surprised to discover how liberal he was because he grew up in Fluvanna County, a rural county to the east of Charlottesville.

“After he graduated, he was having trouble finding and holding jobs. He told me it was because of his social anxiety and he had trouble getting along with certain people. This was 2009, and the economy was in an awful state so I definitely sympathized with not being able to find a job, but was confused as to way he couldn't hold one once he was lucky enough to find one. They weren't great jobs for someone with a Bachelors degree. He worked for a food delivery service for a while. Nothing stuck. He said he was trying to get disability benefits from the government because his social anxiety was preventing him from working. But he was never under any consistent mental health care, despite having access to low cost health care through the UVa Health System. Still, he continued to champion his liberal causes, and I respected him for that.

Jennifer describes how she distanced herself as she watched Jason become more unstable. Meeting rejection in relationships in addition to failure at work, he left Charlottesville but eventually returned with a lot of anger.

Last year, he deleted his facebook again and rejoined as an entirely different person than the kid I met in 2007. Last summer, when a UVa professor was shamed for a tweet equating BLM to the KKK, Jason went to the restaurant that the professor owned, a restaurant that people were boycotting, and proceeded to eat their food in front of news cameras, saying ‘What? It's good food and it's free speech.’ He then attacked Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy, a POC, by claiming he started the boycott and needed to be ousted from office because he did not support free speech. I knew then that Jason was going to troll and go after Bellamy, and that is exactly what he did and continues to do. He tried to file a petition to get Mr. Bellamy fired from his office, after he had already been forced to resign from the Virginia Board of Education and his full time job as a high school teacher, because Jason has a personal vendetta against him.

“My theory is that Jason has shed his ties to the left and jumped onto the Alt-Right train because he has an audience with them. They allow him to write for their publications. He has a platform. At the end of the day, this kid was always looking for a platform that would boost his own voice and ego. And he has found that.

This is a roundabout, long way of trying to describe how insidious and dangerous this Alt-Right movement is. It takes the weak minded and makes them feel strong. I am not trying to defend Jason in any way, shape or form. He is an asshole and I hate the trash he has brought to my town from the outskirts and beyond. I wish I had recognized his weaknesses earlier on and intervened more, but I fear he was a lost cause. The amount of hate, ignorance, and violence he has brought to my home makes me physically sick. He is mentally ill and unmedicated, but is of sound enough mind to take responsibility for the shit he's caused.

“It just makes me sad that he was once a social justice warrior and now he's a monster. He and his ‘friends’ have turned my city into a war zone. I keep playing all of this over and over in my head and wonder how he got to this point. How does someone swing so far in the polar opposite direction so fast? How has society failed him to that degree?

“All of you who are watching the events that have unfolded today in Charlottesville, there is still hope. There are many of us who are not afraid to stand up to these racist assholes. Please consider joining and helping your local BLM or SURJ. I am extremely, extremely proud of all the work SURJ Charlottesville has done and continues to do on behalf of our residents and people of color. They have tried to thwart Jason and his cronies at every turn, mobilizing groups together when Jason and his people were spotted on the downtown mall and telling the racists to go home, organizing peaceful counter protests at his events, legally defending their group members who were arrested after confrontations with Jason, and so much more. But these groups need much more support if we are going to stop these alt-white idiots. Please come help us fight the good fight. Because it's going to be a fight and we need good people at our side. We will bolster your confidence and make you strong and give you the support you need to stand up for justice.

“And if you happen to know any white, insecure, socially anxious, wannabe activists that seem to be falling apart, do not abandon them. We need to take them into the fold, empower them, educate them, and teach them how to influence change the right way for the right reasons.”

Today, Jennifer posted the following statement, expressing her appreciation for the goodness that has poured out in response to the tragedy and to her account.

“I did not expect anyone to read my long rant about Jason Kessler yesterday, but y'all were troopers and not only read it but shared it. Thank you so much. I want everyone to know who he really is and what he really stands for, which is nothing. As I grieve for my community and my home, I have been so, so happy to see such an outpouring of love and support on my newsfeed from around the world. I would never have thought Charlottesville would be trending because of such a horrific event. Charlottesville is a beautiful and special place and we will not sit idly by while these monster descend on us time and time again. We will continue to defend our home with our lives. Keep in mind, Charlottesville may be south of the Mason/Dixon, but what happened here yesterday could literally happen ANYWHERE in the country if it's not happening there already. People of color have already known that they are never safe, and their defenders are never safe. But it's not a time to hide until things blow over because they're just getting started. Take a stand with us. #NotOnMyLawn

From Isaiah to Jennifer, may we hear the voices of the prophets, and may we each contribute, in our own steadfast way, to a better vision of our communities and our country.

Posted on August 14, 2017 .

Rabbi's Summer Activities

Tomato fields, bar mitzvah students, Shakin’ Shabbat, a prayer workshop, meeting congregants here, there and everywhere. These are the few of the ways that I am filling my summer days. Though I’m not present for Shabbat services until after Labor Day, I am at the temple most days. Here is a peek into my summer activities.

Improving the Lives of Agricultural Workers

I just returned from three days in South Florida. On my third trip to Immokalee, the heart of the Florida tomato fields, I met with other clergy, members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and their network of allies, the Alliance for Fair Food (AFF) to plan strategy for the coming year. You may be aware that the CIW’s current campaign is boycotting Wendy’s. What I learned from the workers on this trip is why this boycott is so important.

Wendy’s decision to abandon its longtime suppliers in Florida and move all tomato purchases to Mexico represented a deliberate rejection of the Fair Food Program. Buying from growers who have no accountability and who are free to exploit and abuse the human rights of their workers threatens the safety of farm workers everywhere. If other large companies choose to leave Florida, all the gains that have improved the lives of the migrant workers will be lost.

In our meetings, Lupe and Julia, two workers who visited HBT last October, told us that the women of Immokalee are ready to tell their stories of sexual harassment and abuse by growers and their crew bosses. The CIW women have trained scores of women from Florida to North Carolina to know their rights under the Fair Food Program. Sadly, many of the women ask, “if these are the rights I get working for this grower, why don’t I have the same rights on other farms?”

The vision of the CIW is much larger than stopping Wendy’s. They are change agents, ready to create a new economic reality for agricultural workers in all sectors. It’s inspiring work. You’ll be hearing more.

There’s nothing like a bar mitzvah at HBT

Back at home, I’m meeting with families whose sons will become bar mitzvah in the fall as they prepare their divrei Torah (Torah teachings). This is one of my favorite rabbinic duties. Each child brings a different kind of wisdom and creative spirit to the work.  Be sure to put their upcoming dates on your calendar. (September 16 is Vijay Fisch and October 28 is Seth Haycock-Poller.)

New babies, toddlers, and the growing Chaverim School community

My other favorite duty is to stop in at Shakin’ Shabbat, which Hillary Pinsker runs for our Families with Young Children in the summer. I simply can’t go all summer without a dose of hugs from our youngest HBT members. Our new families have already brought new energy and joy to our congregation. You will be seeing more of them in the coming year, including two new babies due this month. (Don’t miss our Community Shabbat cookout on September 8).

Sing to God a New Song—with new voices

A minyan of congregants (ten) is joining together to learn the holy task of leading our Shabbat morning services. At our first meeting, I was delighted that most of the participants have joined HBT in the past few years. The workshop not only helped people learn melodies and develop an understanding of the structure and meaning of the morning service—it is creating community! One of the goals of the Temple Board, the Avodah Committee, and school families for the coming year is to strengthen our Shabbat morning community. Look for more Family Services (the first one is November 4) and support our newest davening (prayer) leaders this fall.

Meet the Rabbi

Though we may not run into each other as often in the summer, I’m happy to meet with you to talk about your Jewish journey, personal issues, or planning for the coming year. Please email me at rabbi@templehbt.org and we’ll set up a time. I’m eager to hear about your summer activities as well. May your summer be filled with brachot—blessings!

Posted on July 20, 2017 .

Rabbi Barbara Penzner spoke at Wednesday's rally for the striking nurses at Tuft's Medical Center

Why are we out on the street today? Why are all of you nurses here, and not inside the hospital. You didn’t ask to be here. Your patients don’t want you to be here.

Tufts has asked you to stretch. And you’ve stretched. Stretching can be healthy. But if you stretch too much—something snaps. Today you’ve stretched beyond your limit you can’t stretch any more. You’ve stretched so far, you are willing to go on strike to protect your patients. And we don’t want you to snap.

In Jewish tradition, we say that angels of healing surround every hospital bed. You are those angels. Your purpose is to bring your whole self, minute by minute, hour by hour, day in and day out, to bring God’s healing presence, body and soul, to those in your care. You have surrounded your patients with healing care in ways that no one else in the entire system can.

You nurses are the backbone of the health care system.

You are also the hands, and the feet, the eyes and ears.

And the brain, and most important the heart.

But you can’t be the backbone and the hands and feet, eyes and ears, brain and heart for patients beyond your capacity.

When you are stretched beyond your limits, patients get snapped.

And you can’t give your backbone and hands and feet, eyes and ears, brain and heart with the worst compensation in the city.

When you are stretched, patients get snapped.

And you can’t give your backbone and hands and feet, eyes and ears, brain and heart when the staff you work with turn over so often that you are busy retraining them instead of attending to patients. When you are stretched, patients get snapped.

And charge nurses can’t give your backbone and hands and feet and brain and heart to assigning nurses at shift changes when you have your own patient assignments. 

When you are stretched, patients get snapped.

Today, we call on Tufts Medical Center to do what they’ve asked you to do. We call on them to stretch.

We call on them to stretch to give you adequate resources to do your job.

We call on them to stretch to change to safe staffing levels.

We call on them to stretch to assist charge nurses to pay attention to their work.

We call on them to stretch to give you a competitive wage so Tufts nurses want to stay at Tufts.

Jewish tradition says that, in addition to the angels surrounding the bed, the Divine Presence, God, or whatever name you give to what is holy, is always present at the head of the bed. We ask for that power that heals to help heal us today.

We ask the Source of Healing to give the Tufts management the courage to stretch!

We ask the Source of Healing to strengthen these nurses, who have stretched themselves for the sake of their patients. Support them and their families in this difficult time.

We ask the Source of Healing to be with this community as we pray for the health and well-being of the patients, the nurses and the city of Boston.

Heal us, O LORD, and let us be healed; Save us, and let us be saved. (Jeremiah 17:14) Amen.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner, July 12, 2017

Posted on July 13, 2017 .

Rabbi's Message

On Tuesday night, May 9, HBT hosted a GBIO Legislative Forum on Criminal Justice Reform. Thanks to the successful organizing by temple members Judith Levine, Elana Wolkoff, and Sherry Flashman, the event brought together an unexpectedly large turnout of 70-80 people from a dozen different faith communities, including a dozen HBT members. Three local state legislators took part in the forum: Senator Mike Rush, and Representatives Ed Coppinger Angelo Scaccia, and were urged to stand with GBIO on four important areas for reform

  • Repeal mandatory minimum sentences
  • Reform pretrial and bail requirements
  • Reduce/eliminate fees and fines
  • Shorten the length of time in solitary confinement

Temple Hillel B’nai Torah is honored to welcome Senator Mike Rush and Representatives Angelo Scaccia and Edward Coppinger to our congregation tonight. We welcome our GBIO community, friends, and neighbors, for an open discussion of the work our Commonwealth urgently needs to pursue to bring justice to the criminal justice system.

For far too long, the emphasis in our system has been on “criminal” —and the fear and anger that those words inspire in the hearts of the citizens. Tonight, we lift up “justice” as the goal that we all share, regardless of political ideology.

The most powerful testimony to the injustice of this system that I’ve read recently is Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy. In the introduction, he tells us that the book

“is about getting closer to mass incarceration and extreme punishment in America. It is about how easily we condemn people in this country and the injustice we create when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us….”

And he closes by saying,

“We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others.”

His words remind me of the words that Jews around the world read this past week, the powerful words from the Book of Leviticus. In chapter 19 we read sacred text that outlines what justice requires:

You shall not render an unfair decision, judge your kinfolk fairly. Do not stand idly by the blood of another. Do not hate your fellow in your heart. Do not take vengeance or bear a grudge. Love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.

These words are not simply noble aspirations. No matter what our religious affiliation, or lack of affiliation, these words speak to all of us as a manual for civil society. A community must be governed first and foremost by a moral outlook that treats each individual with fairness and compassion.

Why are we meeting in a religious space tonight? What does religion have to offer our elected representatives? This teaching from the Torah serves as the nexus between religious teachings and the practice of good governance. This is the basis for the values that our religious communities bring to bear on policy, because what affects one affects us all.

Modern-day prophet, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel asked a question that rings true today,

“How many disasters do we have to go through in order to realize that all of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person; whenever one person is offended, we are all hurt. What begins as inequality of some inevitably ends as inequality of all.”

May all of us hear the voices of morality tonight, from ancient sacred texts and from the families and neighbors of those deeply affected by the suffering and shame that mass incarceration inflicts on us all. May these voices bring our criminal justice system closer to a system of justice infused with compassion.


Posted on May 11, 2017 .

A Pesach Message: Speak up, Show up, Vote

“… I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”

Martin Luther King spoke these words 50 years ago, on April 4, 1967 and they sound as if he were commenting on America today.

One year from now, April 4, 2018, will mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. King's death. Thanks to the initiative of Rabbi Arthur Waskow and The Shalom Center, faith communities across the country will be marking the coming year as an American Jubilee Year of Truth and Transformation.

In his sermon at Riverside Church, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” Dr. King gave voice to a feeling we know today:

“We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”

Driven by that sense of urgency, I spoke this past Shabbat about Dr. King’s prophetic call 50 years ago, and how we must answer it today. You can read my message below. Excerpts from Dr. King’s speech can be found here.

Wishing you and yours Chag same’ach

A joyous holiday that brings us renewed courage and strength,

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

* * * * * * * *

This next year is critical for the survival of democracy, for the survival of our world. We have already seen the dramatic destructive tendencies of this administration and Congress. Executive orders. Congressional repeal of basic protections of women, of immigrants, of our environment. We are in for far worse. When that happens, we will be there for each other, a beloved community, a kehilla kedosha, to provide comfort, courage, and confidence in our cause. And together, we will continue to resist. Because we believe in moral bottom lines over corporate bottom lines. Because we believe in lives over profits. Because our Jewish tradition began with the Exodus, a moral revolution of values, a slave revolt against a self-aggrandizing tyrant. And because our Jewish tradition reminds us at this time of year, and year-round, of that moral revolution.

In the spirit of Martin Luther King, and in the spirit of Pesach, I offer three simple ways to bring that moral revolution into our present and shape a future that we can all share in equally.

Speak up. Show up. Vote. Speak up.

You don’t need to be MLK to speak up. The first to speak up in the Exodus story was not Moses. No one whose name we know. Not any one person. It was the cry of the Israelites. The liberation did not begin with Moses, but with the cry of the Hebrews themselves: “They were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God took notice of them.”

The Jewish tradition understands these verses to mean that until the people actually cry out, until they speak about their suffering, until they come together to say “we won’t take it anymore,” nothing changes. The midwives were ready to be leaders, Moses’ mother Yocheved and his sister Miriam were ready, Pharaoh’s daughter was ready, and Moses himself was ready. But no one could take the Israelites out of Egypt until the people were ready. Each of us has a role to play in the task of liberation; when we lift our voices together, we can crash through all obstacles to justice.

How do you speak up? Write letters. Call elected representatives. Urge family & friends in other states to write and call. Use your own words, don’t just repeat catch-phrases. Look people in the eye. Listen attentively and with curiosity. Connect.

Show up.

Jewish tradition may involve talking, discussing, asking questions. But in the end, it is through mitzvot, fulfilling our obligations, doing, that we live our Judaism.

"Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were once reclining in the upper story of Nitza’s house, in Lod, when this question was posed to them: Which is greater, study or action? Rabbi Tarfon answered, saying: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered, saying: Study is greater. All the rest agreed with Akiva that study is greater than action because it leads to action."  (Talmud)

The Rabbis all agreed that Jews are called to action.

How do we begin every seder?

“This is the bread of poverty, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need come and celebrate Passover.
Now we are here — next year in the land of Israel.
Now we are slaves. Next year we will be free.”

There are plenty of ways to show up, and they don’t always demand major sacrifices. Yes to rallies and protests. Yes to town meetings and organizing. And yes to taking care of others’ children so the adults can go to actions. Yes to feeding people who are hungry and inviting people to your seder. No to sitting in front of the tv or the computer all day by yourself! Do one act of resistance every day, no matter how small.


We proclaim the central message of Passover in the Haggadah: “In every generation, each individual must feel as if he or she personally had come out of Egypt.”

Every individual. Not men only. Not adults only. Everyone. It’s about participation in the story. Not just telling it, but being part of it.

If you believe in democracy, you need to participate. Voting is a combination of speaking up and showing up. Register voters. Help with Get Out The Vote. Insist that your kids, your friends, your colleagues votes. Not just every four years. Not just for president. Democracy is built on down-ballot offices.

Democracy can be dismantled when voters don’t pay attention to those elections.

According to The Hill, in the past eight years, Republicans have gained 1000 seats in state legislatures, leading to a growth from “just under 44 percent in 2009 to 56 percent” after the 2016 election. State legislatures have used that power to gerrymander congressional districts, entrenching incumbent House members with unbeatable majorities. If we care about divided politics, the place to start is making House districts less one-sided, and ensuring that members of Congress hear multiple opinions.

Vote in every election you can. Democracy depends on you.

Speak up. Show up. And vote.

Martin Luther King prophetically calls to us from 50 years ago:

“We must move past indecision to action. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

“Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle for a new world. The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”



Posted on April 5, 2017 .


“The people are bringing more than is needed for the tasks entailed in the work that the LORD has commanded to be done. Moses thereupon had this proclamation made throughout the camp: “Let each man and woman make no further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary!” So the people stopped bringing; their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done. (Ex. 36: 5-7)

This passage is a fundraiser’s dream! Does it ever really happen that way?

This past Sunday, our seventh grade “Leaving the Garden” group discussed the Jewish approach to tsedaka (the obligation to give). They learned that our priority is on the feelings of the recipient, rather than the feelings of the giver. Therefore, we should show compassion to someone in need, and do everything in our power to preserve the dignity of the receiver.

Our congregation is rich in our willingness to help others and to do it with dignity and compassion. Everyone is to be commended for this generosity, which is so fundamental to our Jewish values and to our world.  On Purim, we exceeded our goal of $250 for Yad Chessed, and raised over $400!

Sometimes, though, it can be easier to write a check to a food pantry than to our own synagogue. The verse quoted from Exodus reminds us of the holy work that goes on right here, and that the work depends on generous donors as well.

Saturday night is HBT’s annual Spring Fling, an opportunity to raise funds to support the holy activities of our temple as well as a time to enjoy each other’s company.

This Torah teaching reminds us that people brought many different kinds of gifts to create a holy space. Think about the different ways that our synagogue depends on the gifts of our members: those who teach, those who lead, those who speak up in the world, those who bring their children to learn, those who come to make up our minyan. These are all valuable gifts that, like gold, silver and bronze, threads of indigo, purple and crimson, precious stones, spices and oils, make it possible for us to live up to our highest aspirations.

This passage also demonstrates that our passion for giving is as important as what (or how much) we give. In Exodus, the Torah tells us that the gifts come from each whose heart is moved. That is, when we contribute to our community, whether in material goods, in volunteer effort or simply showing up, what matters most is that we give from the heart. Our greatest gift is to give ourselves fully to this task. This is what truly builds a holy community.

In a holy community, the business and the holy work are intertwined. When we give to the synagogue, we are doing more than disbursing funds. When we open our wallets, we support the daily workings of our synagogue. When we open our hearts, we create a space for the Divine Presence to dwell among us. This holy community then expands that open-hearted Presence, so that it can transform our broken world. What will you give?

Posted on March 23, 2017 .

Standing up to Anti-Semitism/Standing up to Hate

Standing up to Anti-Semitism/Standing up to Hate

I can’t recall ever being afraid because I’m a Jew. Until last year, Haman was a fictional anti-Semite. This year, he represents all those filled with vicious and unprovoked hatred.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has tracked domestic hate groups for decades, noted a dramatic increase in all hate crimes immediately following the November elections. In the first month, they verified over 1000 incidents of bias-related attacks. In just the first five days after the election, they documented over 400 attacks. Those attacks abated, but the threats have not disappeared.

Since Inauguration Day, over 100 JCCs and Jewish day schools have received phoned-in bomb threats. Three Jewish cemeteries, in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Rochester, NY, have been the targets of massive vandalism and grave desecrations. 

Locally, the Newton JCC has been threatened more than once. The Solomon Schechter Day School in Newton and the local ADL office received bomb threats this week. Across the country, young children from day care centers and schools have been evacuated swiftly in a manner that undoubtedly causes them mental distress.

Last Friday, a 31-year-old man was arrested in connection with threats made to 10 Jewish and one Muslim institution. That only provides a measure of relief, given the larger continuing threat.

We remain grateful that these cowardly acts have not resulted in the killing or harming of living Jews. We know that hatred in this country has led to severe attacks on immigrants, Muslims, blacks, and the LGBT community, including violence against individuals and the burning of mosques and black churches. Nevertheless, all acts of vandalism are intended to inspire fear.

Anyone who has seen a swastika spray-painted on a home or Jewish building, stepped into a Jewish cemetery where loved one’s stones have been toppled and desecrated, or seen bullet holes in a Jewish school, like the synagogue building in Evansville, Indiana last week, can’t help but feel threatened.

We know that, as Rabbi Mark Sokoll of the Newton JCC has written, “Hate against any one group is hate against all.” When we stand up as Jews against anti-semitism, we demonstrate our pride and conviction to those who wish to frighten us. We must also testify to all victims of hate that these acts will not divide us.

It is up to us to be vigilant in our own Jewish community.

It is up to us to bravely come together as never before.

Here in our temple, our leadership is taking steps to increase our attention to security. We want to make everyone feel safe without creating an atmosphere of dread.

This week of Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim when we recall both historic and mythical enemies of the Jewish people, let us contemplate how we can stand up to hatred for all people, and take pride in our community’s perpetual stamina, faith, and courage in response.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Rabbi Mark Sokoll offers these ways to show your support, and make your voice heard. Though he emphasizes the threats against JCCs, we can apply any and all of these to other Jewish institutions as well.


Support the JCC on social media by using the #IStandWithTheJCC hashtag with supportive posts across your channels.

Sample posts:

·         Threats against JCCs are threats against the entire community. #IStandWithTheJCC

·         We stand beside JCC Greater Boston. Antisemitism and hate have no place in our community. #IStandWithTheJCC

·         There is no room for hate in our community. #IStandWithTheJCC


Calling members of Congress is the most effective way to have your voice heard. Calls are tallied by staffers and the count is given to your representatives, informing them how strongly their constituents feel about a current issue. The sooner you reach out, the more likely it is that your voice will influence their position.

To find the phone number of your local congressman/congresswoman, please click here

Sample script for the call to your U.S. Representative.

Hi, my name is [NAME] and I'm a constituent from [CITY or TOWN in Massachusetts].

I’m calling to urge the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Attorney General, and the Director of the FBI to take swift action to address the bomb threats that have been telephoned in to Jewish Community Centers and schools across the nation, and the rise of anti-Semitic incidents in the last two months. We remind you that participants from all different backgrounds come to JCCs and synagogues and other Jewish institutions for activities, Jewish cultural and religious programming, and opportunities to come together as a community.

We stand together against anti-Semitism and against all hate crimes. Thank you for your hard work.
[IF LEAVING A VOICEMAIL: please leave your full street address to ensure your call is tallied]

Posted on March 9, 2017 .


I admit that Purim is one of my favorite holidays. (Check out the chapter that I wrote about Purim in the Reconstructionist Guide to Jewish Ritual, Volume 3.) I know plenty of rabbis who don’t share my preference. Getting dressed up and acting silly make some serious scholars uncomfortable.

 It’s not that I don’t consider myself serious, or a scholar. And it’s not just that Purim is the best example that “being Jewish is fun.” I take Purim seriously, because historically, its creativity, humor, and play-acting provided a welcome antidote to anti-semitism. As such, Purim can also be just what the doctor ordered to sustain us in this time of activism and resistance, not to mention the increasing number of unprecedented acts of anti-semitism across the country.

 The biblical story of Purim is a kind of Jewish communal fantasy blown out of proportion. For Jews who lived under oppression and fear, or who experienced brutality and exile, the Book of Esther and the Purim holiday provided comic relief. The tables are turned on our enemies several times during the story, with some reversals more humorous than others.

 Mordecai Kaplan saw in the story of Esther a Diaspora tale about the oppression by a majority group of a minority, and the Jewish battle for equal rights for minorities. Kaplan saw Jewish spiritual value as the key to the resistance to oppression and the capacity to flourish as a minority people.  He saw Purim as a time to emphasize those values and to inspire creativity and compassion in Jewish life.

 Jewish communities in Europe during the Middle Ages instituted their own “local Purims” to commemorate actual deliverance from an anti-semitic threats. Where extermination and exile were the common practice of local and national rulers, such a deliverance was worthy of joyful celebration. As one on-line source tells it, “Rabbi Yom-Tov Lipmann Heller (1579–1654 and an ancestor of member Susannah Sirkin) of KrakówPoland, asked that his family henceforth celebrate a private Purim, marking the end of his many troubles, including having faced trumped-up charges.” (I kid you not.)

 Hitler also knew about Purim and, perhaps aware of the power of its humor, banned Jewish from observing the holiday. In words tempting fate in 1944, he mentioned in a speech that if the Nazis were defeated, the Jews could celebrate “a second Purim.”

The Chabad Hasidim tell a story that a Purim teaching by their leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, mysteriously caused Joseph Stalin’s death on Purim 1953. That day, March 1,1953, was the day Stalin became paralyzed. When he died four days later, nationwide pogroms against the Jews were averted and the infamous doctors' plot was halted.

The celebration of Purim provides a rich variety of Jewish practices that encourage giving and sharing, dressing up and playing roles and, above all, approaching this one day with a sense of humor and self-awareness, so that we do not fall into the trap of taking ourselves too seriously.  It is for this reason, perhaps that we find in the midrash the idea that in a future messianic time, when all the other festivals are abolished, Purim will remain. Even in a perfect world, we will need to laugh, especially at ourselves.

 Given that our world is far from perfect, why not rekindle our imagination and revel in satire this year on Purim?

 ***Need a little humor to fuel your resistance? Come take part in HBT’s “Alternative Facts Megillah,” an adult-oriented telling of the Purim story for our times.

Saturday night, March 11, 7 to 9 pm. Come in costume and bring Pussy Hats!

Posted on March 2, 2017 .

Jacob, MLK and the Inauguration

One summer when I was in high school, I was concerned about the upcoming fall semester. In particular, I was worried about my driver’s ed class. Not wanting to be embarrassed, I wanted to know how to drive before I started taking the class. So I asked my father to teach me to drive. My father was a very pragmatic person, whose routine answer to “how do I do this?” was always “very carefully.” He refused to teach me. What I learned then is how uncomfortable it is to live in a time of transition.

This is a time of many transitions. Of course the inauguration is looming. Closer to home, in our synagogue this past Shabbat, we welcomed two dozen new member households. New members always contribute to our community in ways that change us. For these individuals and families, joining a new temple will also bring changes. And this past Shabbat, we read the end of one book, Breishit (Genesis); this coming Shabbat we will begin Shemot (Exodus). We ended with Jacob’s triumphant reunion with his son Joseph in Egypt; the next book opens with the enslavement of their descendants, generations later.

I have since learned something about the power of transitions, whether the beauty of sunrise, the mystery of twilight, or the growth that comes when children grow and move on.

Last week’s portion highlighted the transition from one generation to the next. Jacob knows he is about to die. He gives a special blessing to Joseph’s two sons, his grandsons Menashe and Efrayim. Jacob offers a last will and testament, naming each of his twelve sons. And late in the portion, Jacob dies and is embalmed, and Joseph fulfills his father’s fervent wish to be buried with his forebears back in Canaan. We also read of Joseph’s death, and his wish to be brought back to Canaan (fulfilled by Moses generations later).

The Hasidic teacher Rabbi Moshe Chayim Efrayim gives us a unique and surprising perspective on the value of this time of change.

“Joseph commanded his servants, the healers, to embalm his father. And they embalmed (vayachantu)” Jacob. (50:2-3).

Rabbi Moshe focuses on the word for embalming (vayachantu)—a sign of death—and connects it to a similar word in Song of Songs, “The fig tree has brought forth (chantah) its green figs” (2:13)—a sign of new life. That is, when we face a time when something dies, it is also an opportunity for something new to come about

Our teacher says “And this is what is hinted at by they embalmed (vayachantu), namely, the righteous heal us spiritually, and make us like new beings by causing our light to sprout anew.”

In this winter season, we understand that the death of last year’s flowers and plants makes room for new growth in the spring. What is true in nature, is true spiritually as well. When we face loss of any kind, by letting go we make room for something new to arise. When we perceive a light going out in one place, rather than straining to rekindle a dying ember, we should be working to bring new light into the world.

Dr. King wrote in March of 1958, “…It may be that our generation will have to repent not only for the diabolical actions and vitriolic words of the children of darkness, but also for the tragic apathy of the children of light. What we need is a restless determination to make the ideal of brotherhood a reality in this nation and all over the world.” (The Current Crisis in Race Relations)

This is a time of transition. We have had some time to mourn our losses. Now, with the new day dawning, it is our task to rekindle the light, to face the new day with our ideals intact, with our souls renewed, awakened to new possibilities, and with a newborn resolve that will make the light shine anew.

Posted on January 18, 2017 .

Wisdom. Power. Wealth. Honor. A Primer for our Elected Officials

When the Massachusetts General Court (House) opened its 190th biennial session on Beacon Hill on January 4 and the members of the House were sworn in, I had the privilege to give a blessing to the chamber.

As the session came to a close I shared a teaching from Pirke Avot, a 2000-year old Jewish text on ethical living. The passage that I chose is a classic Jewish upending of our usual assumptions, and speaks to the noble responsibility of those who hold elected office. Here is the teaching, and my blessing.

The ancient Rabbis ask four questions:

Who is wise? Who is powerful? Who is rich? Who is honored?

And they answer the questions in surprising ways.

Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.

Who is powerful? One who shows restraint over one’s impulses.

Who is rich? One who is content with one’s portion.

Who is honored? One who honors others.

We call on the Holy One, the Source of All, to bless these officers of the Commonwealth, their families, the staff, and all those who work in this building. Bless them all with your gifts of wisdom, power, wealth, and honor.

May these public servants gain wisdom by listening to others, to the thoughtful voices of experts and to the quiet voices of the poor and the needy, to advocates and plain citizens alike. May they gain wisdom from those with whom they disagree as well as those who share their views.

May these public servants use their power, first and foremost, to control their own worst impulses. May they be mindful to restrain the impulse to use power coercively and corruptly, and always to give their very best to the people of Massachusetts.

May these public servants enjoy the wealth that comes from knowing how blessed they are to serve. May they be satisfied with what they have and dissatisfied with what the people lack.

May these public servants be honored for their integrity, compassion, and commitment to justice and bring honor to their office, to this House, and to our Commonwealth.


Posted on January 12, 2017 .