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Rabbi's Message December 17, 2015 Extremism Runs Rampant: No One Is Immune


I am afraid. I know that the chances of being killed in a terrorist attack are less than the chance of being struck by lightning. That’s not the source of my fear. I will not stop traveling or going to public events.

What frightens me is that violent extremism is leading to more violent extremism. I’m afraid that the inflammatory rhetoric of many who condemn such extremism only exacerbate it. In fact, all extreme rhetoric can lead to similar outcomes, no matter what its source.

What frightens me is the effectiveness of ramping up fear and extolling the glory of victory, at any price. I’ve become a fan of the podcast “Hidden Brain” with science writer, Shankar Vedantam. The most recent podcast describes how ISIS succeeds in recruiting young, marginalized individuals by connecting their personal story with a larger narrative of revolution.  

Revolutions, from the Russian Revolution to the Nazis to “freedom fighters” for any cause, attract young people with the promise of glorious victory. The podcast explained that, counter-intuitively, these young recruits may be acting out of idealism, rather than nihilism. They seek to defend their principles and to protect victims of what they perceive as dangerous enemies.

Seen this way, I can begin to understand extremists, freedom-fighters and revolutionaries. I can see them human beings, like me, though I disagree with and condemn their decision to embrace violence. But I also recognize that loyalty to a cause is vital to human beings and is at the heart every movement, including the non-violence of Gandhi and the Civil Rights movement. Group loyalty usually serves as a force for good, for mutual support, and for changing the world. But it has its dangerous side as well.

I know it is shocking to compare Gandhi to ISIS. The question is, how does one movement succeed in minimizing bloodshed while the other revels in brutality?

It is up to the leaders of these movements to think carefully about the potential outcome of their words and actions. All leaders have the power to connect with their followers in a personal way, tying the personal narrative to the group’s goals. They also have the power to inspire self-sacrifice and murder.

This week, two events made this truth abundantly clear to me. First, the Republican debate highlighted a breach between those who continue to embrace anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric and those who denounce it. Polls show that more people prefer to follow leaders who promise simple and glorious victory over any “enemy.” The polls favor the extremists, because these leaders feed on fear.

This week in Israel, a group of anti-democratic extremists, Im Tirtzu, released a video targeting four Israeli human rights leaders and labeling them as "foreign plants" who are at war with Israel. Several Jewish groups have denounced the video, including two progressive Zionist movements, ARZA and Ameinu, and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. We can follow their lead and take action.

The Torah names the power of violent destruction “Mashchit” (Destroyer). This is the force that God unleashed at the 10th plague (see Exodus 12:23). It had the power to murder every firstborn in the land. But because of the blood on the doorposts of the Israelites, our ancestors were spared. The Midrash comments that this force, once unleashed, cannot discern between the innocent and the guilty. This warning reminds us that the cycle of violence obeys no moral boundaries.

It is a precarious time for our nation and our world. Terrorism lies in wait in all quarters, whether among those who oppose abortion, Western values, Jews, or immigrants. The Destroyer knows no moral boundaries.

While I began with the words “I am afraid,” I am keenly aware that my fear is also capable of incitement. My intention is to change the conversation. We need to acknowledge our fears, but not allow them to rule over us.

The only way to close the door on the Destroyer is for us to stand together, not apart. It is up to us to create more human connections, not cut ourselves off. We must be ready to put the proverbial blood on our doorposts, to proclaim that we will not allow the Destroyer to invade our moral universe.

Posted on December 17, 2015 .

It Is Up To Us

It is up to us

“Today I am a Muslim. This country sent away my people, the Jews, and they were slaughtered in concentration camps. Stop the hate! Remember the SS St. Louis.

Unite children of Abraham!”

My brother posted this cry on his FB page early Tuesday morning. When my own clock radio roused me with the news of Donald Trump’s so-called proposal to ban all Muslims, I felt a similar outrage.

As I listened all day to denunciations of the candidate, analysis of the impact on the presidential campaign, and Gov. Baker’s characterization of the proposal “ridiculous,” I appreciated the swift condemnations. But my brother’s post brought home a reality that goes beyond any one candidate, beyond decrying hatred and beyond flimsy dismissals.

Trump is no longer a joke. He is not ridiculous. He inflames the basest tendencies of humanity: anger and hatred. His unreflective, unrepentant rhetoric validates evil. His words encourage white supremacy, extremism and violence.

Even if he is defeated in the polls, Trump has given voice to a dangerous element in American society. With his words, he has unleashed a destructive force that even he cannot stop.  Even if he never explicitly encourages violence, his words condone it. Innocent Muslims and immigrants have already been attacked. Who will be next?

More disturbing is that we cannot pin responsibility on one candidate alone. Trump’s ideas would have no impact without the fertile ground of divisiveness cultivated by others. Irresponsible pundits and candidates have polluted political discourse with toxic statements of their own. While they attempt to distance themselves from his inflammatory speech, their own docile espousal of similar sentiments have made Trump’s words acceptable.

Tonight is the fifth night of Hanukkah, and today is also International Human Rights Day. Today is the day for us to remember the best of what is means to be human and to work to overcome the worst evil in the human heart.

It is up to us to work to implement the ideals espoused in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When we light our candles, we must dedicate ourselves to bring more light into a world that seems darker every day. It is up to us—Aleinu—to stand up, to speak out, and to act with love in order to overcome the power of evil.

Today I am a Muslim. Today I am an immigrant. Today I am a refugee. Today I am also an advocate for truth, compassion, repentance, equity, and justice. 

I can’t do this alone. Join me. It is up to us.

I was proud of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston (JCRC) to issue this statement condemning incendiary language against Muslims.

Posted on December 10, 2015 .

If I Am Not For Myself.....



If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I’m only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?


We live in a time of terrifying events and outrageous political rhetoric. As the quantity of news sources expands, the perspectives on the news narrows. It is a confusing, maddening and frightening time, as we wonder what direction our country is taking, and where in the world people are safe.

Before we take a break for gratitude, gatherings and graciousness, it’s important that our temple acknowledge some of the pain that is in our midst.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

We extend our condolences to the grieving family of Ezra Schwartz z”l. Ezra’s death impacted many lives in the greater Boston Jewish community, including many members of our synagogue. Ezra was a well-known camper and beloved leader at Camp Yavne, where he became friends with Jews from across the religious spectrum.

Ezra’s death in a terrorist attack reminded me of the death, 13 years ago, of our own Janis Coulter.

Janis, who grew up as an Episcopalian in West Roxbury and had chosen to become Jewish, was killed by a bomb in the cafeteria of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem as she was leading a group of American students to study at the university. At her funeral, HBT became the beating heart of a grieving Jewish community, including people who had not even known her.

Though we may not all be familiar with Ezra Schwartz or his family, our hearts go out to his bereaved parents and family. There is no balm for the loss of a child. As a Jewish community, we extend our condolences to the family, as we would to anyone in our temple community.

Among the many expressions of sympathy from synagogues, Jewish schools and other Jewish organizations, the words offered in a note from Imam Abdul Rahman Ahmad, the imam of the Islamic Center of Sharon, were particularly poignant. The imam chose to use the customary Jewish expression of condolence (in Hebrew), repeated here with our love and compassion:

Hamakom yenachem etchem betoch shear avlei Tziyon v’Yerushalayim.

May you find comfort among all who mourn among the people of Zion and Jerusalem.


If I am only for myself, what am I?

Our fifth grade families gathered for a class Shabbat dinner on Friday night and the conversation turned to the Syrian refugees. The discussion was deep and wide, sharing fears and a strong desire to reach out to a Syrian refugee family.

As Jews, we are committed to the mitzvah of welcoming the stranger. We know the heart of the stranger.

We were strangers in the land of Egypt. And we know what it means to flee from terror and death and to find the borders closed.

We also know the fear of attacks that grips our hearts. Even in our synagogue building, which we believe is a safe haven, there are times when we feel uneasy and unsure. Knowing the dangers, not only of the Paris attacks but the Charleston murders as well, we wonder when someone with unclear intentions walks into the building. And yet, we desire to be welcoming to all.

As each of us struggles to balance caution and welcome, it is important to honestly acknowledge our fears and at the same time remain open-hearted.

In this past week, the growing calls to ban Syrian refugees have been appalling. We are horrified by the rampant anti-Muslim sentiment, so frighteningly reminiscent of Nazi targeting of Jews.  Many are asking, what can our temple community do to help the refugees?

While we as a temple are not able to respond to events 24/7, many Jewish organizations have published statements supporting the Syrian refugees. The Boston Globe published a letter to the editor from our own Susannah Sirkin chastising Governor Baker’s initial refusal to accept refugees in Massachusetts. (Today, Monday; Baker declared that he will not halt refugees from coming to Massachusetts.)

Locally, JCRC (I’m a representative to the JCRC governing Council) and JVS issued a statement on November 19, following Gov. Baker’s initial refusal, and following the vote in the U.S. House.

Several commentators have called on people to stop treating Donald Trump’s comments as humorous, and to speak out against his outrageous suggestions of registering Muslims or surveilling mosques. I urge you to read this column by Dove Kent, Executive Director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ).

You may want to sign a “registry” being sponsored by Bend the Arc, the progressive Jewish voice for social justice, as a way for American Jews to respond to Donald Trump’s call for a national database of Muslim-Americans. More information here.

If not now when?

What can we do? First, we can each take individual action.

When I learned that Stephen Lynch, my Congressional Representative whose district includes our temple, had voted in favor of restricting Syrian refugees, Brian and I each sent letters in protest. I urge you to do so as well, and send a message to Charles Keating if you are in his South Shore district.  In my letter, I told Rep. Lynch,

Your vote sends the wrong message to your constituents, to the country, to all refugees everywhere, to the extremists in ISIL, and to the extremists who want to drag our country down into a pit of fear and hatred.

I am the product of a country who welcomed my grandparents in when they fled war and oppression. I grew up believing that America stands for principles of freedom and justice for all. I still believe that we have the capacity to send a message of hope while protecting our own citizens.

This vote adds too many more layers to an already well-functioning system, leaving refugees vulnerable to further attack, to impoverishment and to homelessness for even longer than our system already demands.

Now, it’s time for us to send messages to our senators, urging them to oppose this bill. Several Jewish organizations offer petitions and urge us to contact our senators. One effort has been led by HIAS:

The pro-Israel, pro-peace group J Street also is collecting signatures on a message to senators:

The Shalom Center, headed by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, offers some suggestions for tying the plight of the refugees to Hanukkah observances that you might consider bringing into your home.

Donate to support refugees across Europe and around the world.

These Jewish organizations represent us and work on the ground to give aid to the refugees:


American Jewish World Service  

 Joint Distribution Committee

Combined Jewish Philanthropies 

As a synagogue community, our greatest strength is when we join together.

The Tikkun Olam Committee will be considering ways for our congregation to take action on these issues. Our upcoming Human Rights Shabbat (December 4-5) will be an occasion for us to consider our Jewish commitment to human rights. Lew Finfer, our speaker, will focus on economic justice, and we will make mention of the refugee issues as well.

As we sit down to Thanksgiving meals, wherever we are, let us be grateful for all the gifts that we have, and let us commit to sharing our bounty with others.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Posted on November 23, 2015 .

Rabbi's Message November 12, 2015 East West

I love the movies. I’ll go whenever I’ve got the time. Movies are a form of escape. They also afford a peek into the lives of others.


Wednesday evening’s showing of ”East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem” from the Boston Jewish Film Festival was no escape. But this documentary produced by one of my all-time favorite Israeli musicians, David Broza, did offer an enlightening peek into another world.

Posted on November 12, 2015 .

RABBI'S MESSAGE August 6, 2015

RABBI'S MESSAGE August 6, 2015


Just Do One Thing 

Last week's attacks by Jewish terrorists in Israel/Palestine have stopped our hearts. First the stabbing at the annual LGBT Pride March in Jerusalem, resulting in the death of a 16-year-old girl, and then the firebombing of a Palestinian family's home, resulting in the death of a toddler, leave us stunned and ashamed.

Posted on August 6, 2015 .