I am as speechless as a rabbi can be, and truly humbled by this honor, named for an outstanding leader who dedicated himself to the Jewish community, Warren B. Kohn. Many individuals who I consider social justice heroes have also received this honor, including Nommi Nadich, Alan Ronkin, Nancy Kaufman, and Barbara Gaffin. It’s also an honor to share this night with a man I consider a champion of social justice, a man I admire for his unflagging commitment to the Jewish community and the values of justice and truth, Stuart Rossman.
This night is called “with gratitude,” and certainly, the first order of business is to acknowledge the source of all that is good
Hodu l’adonai ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo
We give thanks for the Source of all that is good, for the love that comes from God is enduring.
Receiving this honor is an opportunity for me to declare how grateful I am that the divine hand placed me here in Boston nearly thirty years ago, for giving me whatever I have, a purpose and the direction toward this holy work. If I’m being honored for serving the Jewish community, it’s thanks to the congregations who have called me their spiritual leader over the years—first Shir Hadash in Newton, then Tifereth Israel (now Beth Israel) in Andover, and for the past 21 remarkable years, at Hillel B’nai Torah. Without you, your support an dyour encouragement, I could not have devoted my time and attention to the Jewish community and to social justice issues without their support and encouragement.
As a rabbi, I turn to my best friends, words. The words that I carry with me every day come from the prophet Micah (6:8),
“It has been told you, o human, what is good and what God requires from you: Asot mishpat, ahavat chesed, v’hatzne’a lechet im elohecha, do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.” These are the three fundamental engines that drive me every day. I translate them as:
Do justice, act with love and walk humbly with.
That is, act and advocate for justice in the world, build caring relationships, and practice humility every day, to cultivate a spiritual connection to what is beyond ourselves.
There are so many parts of our world that are in need of justice, and this room is filled with people who do that work every day. No one of us can take care of all of them. We can beat ourselves up for not doing enough. In my arba amot, my small place in the world, I have carved out a place for concern for justice working people.
I’ve learned to notice hotel housekeepers, who I chat with in the halls, and worry about whether they are protected by a unions and worry about big a tip to leave in the room. I’ve learned from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) who represent tomato pickers in Florida, who taught me not only how they make themselves visible to consumers, to make us responsible to them not only to be paid a decent wage, but to be treated with dignity and protected from abuse in the fields. In my trip to Florida this past week, I learned the importance of including workers in partnership in conversation about their treatment, to provide accountability and enforcement for the principles of social responsibility. They emphasized the importance of working with people to find out what they need and get where they want to go.
I’ve learned a tremendous amount from all the working people I’ve gotten to know through the New England Jewish Labor Committee (NEJLC). I‘m particularly indebted to Marya Axner and my co-chair, Don Siegel (former president of JCRC). You have taught me a tremendous amount about how be allies and how to work together for a better world for all workers.
When we are working for justice, we something to bolster us whether we’re fighting losing battles, or standing up to powerful adversaries, or simply looking for hope, I find comfort, in Micah’s words, in “walking humbly with.” In my spiritual practices of prayer, meditation, reflection, Shabbat, that enable me to step back, to open up, and to open my heart to hope, courage, and compassion.
But at the heart of this verse from Micah, and at the heart of this work is one thing: relationships. When we connect with other human beings, our world benefits. The recent findings of the Harvard study on happiness are convincing. This 75-year ongoing study has demonstrated that the key to what makes people happy and healthy is relationships. It’s good for our brains, it’s good for our bodies, it’s good for our souls and it’s good for our world.
This is why many successful businesses who really want to be productive care about their workers get to know their workers, and work in collaboration with all of their employees at every level, from custodians to line workers, and work with them for a better workplace. Workers who are treated with dignity respond with respect and loyalty.
And that’s why receiving this award from the Jewish Community Relations Council is truly an honor. JCRC is committed to building and nurturing relationships. Within the council – setting up house meetings so we can get to know each other better or in the meetings themselves when we discuss issues, rather than simply listening to others; fostering consensus in a diverse and sometimes divided Jewish community; creating alliances with partners who are Jewish—not only Jewish organizations but with synagogues--and with those who are not, including the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) and labor unions, bringing labor leaders and political leaders to Israel; all of these testify to the power of relationships that JCRC is committed to in building a world of justice, compassion and peace.
I could thank many people, nearly everyone in this room, who have contributed to tbis web of relationships that has made it possible for me to stand up before you here today. Nobody does these things alone. I used to joke that I only go out on a limb if someone is holding my hand. For all the people I will not name, thank you for holding my hand.
I do want to acknowledge my parents, Jerry and Edith Penzner who were models of progressive values; my childhood rabbi in Kansas City, Rabbi Morris Margolies, who spoke out from the pulpit against the Vietnam War when it was highly controversial; my teachers at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and my rabbinic colleagues, Reconstructionist and beyond; the network of social justice activists in the SELAH program of Bend the Arc, and many other Jewish organizations, and of course JCRC, which I’ve been privileged to serve, first as a Community Representative and now as the JLC rep. And of course, I need to acknowledge the most important relationships in my life, the people who inspire me every day: my phenomenal, supportive, brilliant husband Brian Rosmsan, who sits on the Council, does so much in the world of social justice, and has taught me how to be politically pragmatic, and our remarkable children, who are busy elsewhere with their own social justice work, Aviva and Yonah. I am so grateful
Hodu l’adonai ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo.
Let us all give thanks for the goodness that continues to flow from divine love.
Rabbi Barbara Penzner
“With Gratitude,” honored with the JCRC’s Warren B. Kohn Award for Excellence in Jewish Communal Leadership
May 23, 2016
A video of Jeremy's introduction is here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ELmRJR0tfhM
The Rabbi's talk accepting the honor is here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=GsRNuW_6rpE