Vigilance and Compassion

“Relax and breathe,” the nurse instructed me just before giving me my flu shot. “Boy that was easy!” I responded.

What good advice for all of us these days. Relax and breathe. Just as I needed that flu shot to help me face the threat of the flu virus, we need to be healthy in mind and body to face the challenges ahead.

On the one hand, we cannot remain in a constant state of fear or perpetually poised for action. We cannot afford to neglect the basic needs of our lives and our families. This is not indulgence. Basic self-care is essential to carry us through the coming days, weeks, and sad to say, possibly years of adversity. We do need to relax and breathe and feel gratitude and joy for what is still good.

And on the other hand, we dare not become so complacent, so comfortable, that we lose sight of the fear that has overtaken our Muslim neighbors, the immigrant community, people who depend on Obamacare, and so many others who are nervously waiting to find out how this new administration will affect us. We need to reach out to those who are isolated and alone in their pain, and respond appropriately. 

Several gatherings in the past few days opened my eyes to the wide range of emotions people are feeling in the aftermath of the election and the many coping mechanisms available. At the Moral Revival Service of Hope and Transformation, I heard a clear call from people of faith to hold onto a vision of a better world, held together by a love that unites, rather than divides.  It was a call for compassion.

At a gathering of political activists, I heard the heartfelt desire of many to take action in response to the violence we are already witnessing, and to be prepared for destructive policies yet to come. It was a call for vigilance.

Here at HBT, we want to provide the spiritual and communal resources to help us all be our best selves in the days to come. Here within our walls, we seek to create a holy space for safe sharing, for hearing one another’s pain, for grounding and rejuvenation, and for engaging in effective action.

Finally, a warning. We are all subject to fear and anger. These emotions reside in that part of the brain that functions independently of reason. Even in our own like-minded communities, our anxieties can overtake our better natures. With the world feeling so out of control, we might recklessly hold on to anything that restores a sense of control. Without attention, we might harm our closest family members, friends and allies. We must resist turning on one another, much less attack those with whom we disagree!

Just as we need to remain vigilant to safeguard fellow citizens, immigrants, and democracy itself, so we must be vigilant to resist our own worst instincts. Such vigilance need not be exhausting, if we take the time to relax, breathe, and pay heed to our own inner turmoil.  I offer this excerpt from Psalm 33, translated by Norman Fischer, for guidance from those who have faced, survived, and overcome adversity in the past.

Happy is the one who is forgiven

Whose wound is healed

Happy the one restored to your harmony

In whose spirit there is no more deceit


When I held my silence

My bones grew brittle with crying all day

For by day and night your hand lay heavy on me

And my life’s moisture dried up

Through the long droughts of summer


But then I turned toward my mistakes and shortcomings

Knew my unworthiness, did not cover it up

I said, “I will confess all this, since it is so”

And you forgave me for what I am


Therefore let all the faithful

When they find their confusion find you

And pray that the waters of self-delusion

Won’t crest to crush them in their time


You are my shelter

You help me withstand my suffering

I endure it warmed in the winds of your exultant songs


I will instruct and I will teach the way to go

I will counsel, my eye is on you….








Posted on November 17, 2016 .

What to do after the election

Shock. Disbelief. Fear. Anxiety.

We woke up this morning in what at best is an alternate reality and at worst is our greatest nightmare.

This presidential campaign came to a different end than most of us expected, and that many reading this desired.

To those who voted for President-elect Trump, I pray that our country does live up to your best hopes. I also ask that you pay attention to the grief and mourning that others feel today.

Had Hillary Clinton won, I would hope that her supporters would also respect the sense of loss on the other side.

This is a day for grieving. We grieve the loss of a dream. We grieve because we fear that the world will never be the same.

Posted on November 14, 2016 .

Rabbi Penzner's Kol Nidre 5777 Sermon


Walls are going up everywhere. Great Britain wants to create a virtual wall from Europe, and European nations want to erect walls to keep out immigrants. Not to mention the wall that Mexico is going to fund to keep immigrants out of the US.

There are other walls inside our country. We are walled off from people who are different from us. In detention centers, walls separate families. Those in prison are surrounded by walls. These walls divide prisoners and their loved ones. In solitary, walls divide one human being from the entire world of experience, human connection, human touch, life. These are walls that sap the strength and deaden the lives of human beings. Human beings who need to be tended and mended are buried alive behind walls.

We could take hammers to smash the walls that divide us. That might feel good in the moment. But violence doesn’t bring walls down. Violence only helps erect new ones. How we take down the walls is related to how we make peace.

Posted on October 14, 2016 .

Rabbi Penzner's Rosh Hashanah 5777 Sermon: A Moral Revolution for Change: Ten Things we can learn about teshuva from the election, and vice versa

A story from an earlier time. Imagine a Norman Rockwell painting:

A young boy walks into a drugstore to use the pay phone. He dials a number and asks to speak to Dr. Bergson.

“Hello, Dr. Bergson, would you like to hire someone to cut the grass and run errands for you? Oh you already have someone? Are you satisfied with him? You are? Ok. Thank you. Good bye.”

As he is about to leave, the proprietor of the drug store stops him and says, “Listen, if you’re looking for a job, you can work for me.”
“Thank you,” the boy replies, “but I already have a job.”
The proprietor, confused, asks, “but didn’t I hear you ask Dr. Bergson if he needed someone to work for him?”
“Well, not exactly,” answersthe boy, “you see, I’m the one who works for Dr. Bergson and I was just checking up on myself.”

Posted on October 4, 2016 .

Creating A Culture of Equity and Inclusion

As we are coming to a New Year, we are reading the final portions of the Torah. The 40 years of wandering in the wilderness are coming to an end. And yet, the Children of Israel do not actually enter the Promised Land in the Torah. (Read the Book of Joshua for what happens next.) On Simchat Torah, we will roll back to the beginning, the very beginning, B’reishit, Creation.
40 years is a powerful image for how long change can take. It took forty years for a band of slaves to turn into an independent people. Think back to 1976, and consider the changes you have seen (if you’ve been alive that long!). We have come so far in so many ways. And in many ways, there’s no apparent progress. Notice how this makes you feel: grateful? frustrated? despairing? hopeful?

Posted on September 22, 2016 .

Responding to the Platform of the Movement for Black Lives

Since the publication of the Platform of the Movement for Black Lives, the Jewish social justice world has been roiled with conflict. In the 40+ page platform, dedicated to the liberation and restructuring of American life in pursuit of equity in all realms, the Invest/Divest section of the platform identified the racism here in America with the suffering of Palestinians. That alone might not have caused such controversy, but, the word “genocide” was used to describe Israeli oppression of Palestinians.

For many of us who consider ourselves allies with this movement, that word caused deep pain. Reacting to that pain, several Jewish individuals and organizations made public statements that, in turn, created pain for other Jewish activists. Quickly taking sides condemning and supporting the platform, Jews voiced the fear and anger that lurks beneath the surface of American Jewry (particularly regarding Israel and Palestine), threatening to rend us asunder.

Desiring to support the movement and simultaneously feeling pushed away, I’ve spent this week confused and anxious.

In troubled times, how many of us know the best action to take, the right direction to follow, the way of truth?

In this week’s top-ten Torah portion (believe me, it has everything:  the Shema, 10 Commandments, one of the 4 children of the seder, loads of verses that we quote in services), perhaps we can find some guidance:

It has been clearly demonstrated to you that the LORD alone is God; there is none beside God. (Deut. 4:35; the Rabbis chose this as the opening line of the Simchat Torah service)

In the Hasidic tradition, commentators read this text to mean “there is nothing beside God.” There is nothing but God. All is God.

From this idea, we can begin approach the divisions in our world, in the political realm, in our lives, even in our own minds, with more compassion. From this belief in ultimate interconnectedness, we can search beneath the surface to discover the truth that unites us. Even when we disagree.

Having spent a lot of time this summer in Israel and Palestine exploring what it means to live there, I witnessed ways that life under occupation resembles the problems of race in America. I also understand that they are very different situations, with Israel and Palestine entrenched in ongoing, mutual warfare. In addition, while I am not opposed to using the analogy to apartheid in regard to practices in the West Bank, within its borders, Israel is not “an apartheid state.”

More problematically, the word “genocide” is a trigger word for Jews. I disagree with all my heart that it describes what Israelis are doing to Palestinians.

However, the Movement for Black Lives has a noble and expansive purpose that is not targeting Jews or the Jewish state. The essence of the platform is a sound call to action. It is worth a full discussion of its points. Jewish disagreements with the language should lead us to share our pain, ask questions, and continue to talk and work honestly with leaders of that movement to advance equity and justice in America.

Searching beneath the surface takes a lot more work than issuing statements. I do not condemn the Jewish leaders who spoke their pain or the writers whose pain was expressed in the platform. Nevertheless, to find the truth that surely resides in every person requires deep listening by all parties.

I invited Miriam Messinger to add her thoughts about this week’s controversy. Though we have different stories and have come to these issues from different vantage points, I believe we arrive at similar conclusions. Statements build walls; relationships tear them down. At the heart of the eternal covenant of the Jewish people is the commandment to find Oneness: to reach out and to listen and to discern the truth that we hear from others, uncomfortable as they may make us feel. Difficult as that is, that is the only viable path to Tikkun, healing and repair.


My support for a black-led liberation movement that asks us to transform how we as a society see, think about, and treat Black people within and beyond the boundaries of the United States and, more important, enact policies that can transform a violent history against African Americans is strong. It is even stronger after the release of the platform of the Movement for Black Lives. It is an in-depth, thoughtful document that names problems without apology and lays out clear strategies at all levels to address inequity and anti-black violence. 


I see the focus by the media and some Jews/Jewish organizations on the small piece about Israel-Palestine as a distraction from the platform and the work we as a country, and particularly white Americans, need to do. The attention to "the" Jewish reaction is actually an example of how privilege (in this case of Jews) amplifies one’s voice. There has been more focus on the Jewish response to the platform than on the platform itself. And we, as a community, could be doing a better job of sh'ma, listening. 


I support people struggling with language and concepts that feel uncomfortable; leaning into discomfort is the only way to begin to dismantle racism. There is much in the platform besides the critique of Israeli government policies that probably make many white people uncomfortable. This is an opportunity to do the pausing and reflecting, with friends and in community, to examine our discomfort and to work through it so that we can be true and effective allies.

I am pained, however, that people are calling a critique of Israel anti-semitic. I am pained, however, that this has been used by some Jewish leaders and groups as a time to say who and how we stand or don’t stand with a movement for Black Lives. Even if one disagrees with one or two words (genocide and apartheid), it is only privilege that makes it legitimate to then distance from a collaborative and massive change movement.

I believe it is our obligation to get in the work and be in relationship with individuals –it is through those relationships that we will learn and transform and be in more equal relationship. In fact, at this moment, I believe that just remaining silent or focusing only on the Israel/Palestine component of this impressive call to action makes us complicit in the anti-Blackness the the Movement is lovingly calling on us to shed.  I don’t pretend that anti-semitism does not exist in the world but I prioritize right now the movement that is addressing daily and deadly outcomes of anti-Black violence and policy that affect me and us as a community, and affect my family directly. 

Miriam Messinger



Posted on August 18, 2016 .

Rabbi Penzner from Israel 2016

Rabbi Penzner participated in the Rosh Hodesh (new month) celebrations at the Kotel today with Women of the Wall in the Women's Section, and with the egalitarian minyan on the public plaza. Despite taunts, loud disruptive whistles, and pushing by some ultra-orthodox women, both services went along peacefully, including reading Torah for Rosh Hodesh. No one was arrested.

The egalitarian minyan was held in protest of the decision not to implement a government agreement to open up a portion of the wall to egalitarian and women's services.


kotel 2 2016.jpg
torah at kotel 2016.jpg
Posted on July 7, 2016 .

What are we to do after the Pulse Nightclub Massacre?

In 1969, there were very few places where gays and lesbians felt they could gather safely. “Coming out” brought pain to many relationships, and created unbridgeable chasms in families. Gays and lesbians were targets of unstoppable bullying. They also suffered harassment by those who we depend on for protection:  the police.

It’s been 47 years since the Stonewall Riots in New York City catalyzed the LGBTQ community to demand their human rights and civil rights in this country. On the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the first Gay Pride parades were established across the country in Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and New York.

Looking back forty years, this weekend’s Gay Pride festivities in Boston had a lot to celebrate. The Supreme Court upheld gay marriage across the nation while striking down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Anti-sodomy laws been stricken from the record. The President is ordering schools to protect transgender children’s right to choose their bathrooms. And unlike 1969, gays and lesbians, bisexuals, transgender, and queer folk are afforded the protection of law enforcement.

But it wasn’t enough to stop one hater in Orlando.

Today, we learned the identities of the 49 victims of the massacre at the Pulse Nightclub. They range from 19 to 50 years old. Each one had a full life ahead of them. Each had parents, friends, loved ones. And for each of them, we can imagine the name of a child, a student or coworker, a friend or neighbor, as the target of hatred.

First, we cry. Cry for this shameful loss of life.

Then, we pray. Pray for healing. Pray for the survivors. Pray for our country. Pray that love triumphs over hate.

Then we take the horror and anger. Feel it. Own it.

We should be angry that the assault weapon that took innocent lives in Newtown, Aurora, and San Bernardino, is still available (and promoted gleefully by the gun industry).

We should be angry that a man who was identified by the FBI was permitted to purchase such a weapon.

We should be angry that any person needing mental health care is stigmatized in this country, and that health care coverage does not provide adequate support for behavioral health.

We should be angry that the rhetoric of hate continues within our political discourse, as if leaders have no responsibility for the actions that their words inspire.

Then we use that anger to create hope.  Without hope, the cycle of violence will never end. Without hope, hate will always defeat us. Without hope, we should all be very afraid, because the haters do not stop with one vulnerable population. As the Midrash teaches, the “Mashchit” (Destroyer), once unleashed, cannot discern between the innocent and the guilty. Those who kill innocent people in schools, in movie theaters, in shopping malls, in churches, or in nightclubs endanger us all.

Cry. Pray. Get angry.

Then, create hope.  


When evil darkens the world, give me light.

When despair numbs my soul, give me hope.

When I stumble and fall, lift me up.

When doubt assails me, give me trust.

When nothing seems sure, give me faith.

When ideals fade, renew my vision.

When I lose my way, be my Guide,

That I may find peace in Your presence,

And purpose in doing Your will.

  (from Service of the Heart, British Liberal prayerbook, 1967)

Posted on June 14, 2016 .

Stop the Pipeline!

Last Wednesday, as I rose early to join an 8 am protest at the West Roxbury Lateral Pipeline site, I wondered what my purpose was for attending. While I believe in the importance of turning back climate change, I have not been a climate activist. Several questions remained unanswered: If we don’t build a pipeline, how will people heat their homes? Isn’t gas cleaner than oil? Is this a NIMBY issue? How effective would this protest be?

From the very first reading that morning, I realized that this protest was much bigger than our neighborhood. It was, no surprise, a poem by Mary Oliver. But it wasn’t the kind of nature poem I’m used to, and it grabbed me by the heart:

We will be known as a culture that feared death

and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity

for the few and cared little for the penury of the

many.  We will be known as a culture that taught

and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke

little if at all about the quality of life for

people (other people), for dogs, for rivers.  All

the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a

commodity.  And they will say that this structure

was held together politically, which it was, and

they will say also that our politics was no more

than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of

the heart, and that the heart, in those days ,

was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

Standing in a circle of clergy from the Jewish, Christian, Unitarian Universalist, Hindu and Buddhist traditions, surrounded by neighbors and activists who had come from all over Massachusetts, I opened my eyes to a much bigger vision than stopping one, admittedly dangerous, pipeline from passing through West Roxbury, under a soccer field, through densely inhabited neighborhoods, and in close proximity to the blasting of an active quarry. The fears of building this pipeline are not centered on our community alone. The symbolism of this action goes well beyond Boston or Massachusetts or the Northeast.

We began our morning vigil at the corner of Grove & Center Streets, right across from the West Roxbury Crushed Stone Quarry. Clergy wore garb of all types and colors, including tallitot. Roy Einhorn, cantor of Temple Israel Boston, carried a Torah scroll. Others carried signs. Passing cars, trucks and buses honked their horns in support. We stood at the entrance of the metering station construction site, a 4-acre plot quickly being leveled and fortified with rebar and concrete foundations. There, Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman, associate rabbi of Temple Sinai, Brookline, opened the Torah scroll and chanted the second passage from the Shema:

“If you truly listen to me, then I will give you rain upon your land in its appointed time, the early rain and later rain, so you may gather in your corn, your wine and oil. And I will give you grass upon your field to feed your animals, and you will eat and be content. Beware, then, lest your heart be led astray, and you go off and worship other gods and you submit to them (you think you are in control), so that the anger of the MIGHTY ONE should burn against you, and seal up the heavens so no rain would fall, so that the ground would not give forth her produce, and you be forced to leave the good land I am giving you.” (Deut. 11:13-21)

Fortified with faith, prayer, and song, about 75 people walked down Grove Street, clergy leading in front, to the pipeline trench bisecting the street. As we approached, the loud bulldozer shut down, and the workers in their hardhats and yellow vests stepped out of the trench. The work stopped. Sixteen clergy leaders stepped into the road, crossed the protective markers, and sat down, feet hanging over the trench. I stood among the protestors across the trench who were not risking arrest, in solidarity with those who were.  

As a group, we began with a Prayer for the Spectra Workers, and a prayer for the police, affirming that our protest was not directed against them. Soon a police officer came over to warn the 16 that they were trespassing. He informed them politely that if they did not leave, they would be arrested. We watched as about ten to fifteen minutes later, a paddy wagon pulled up. Then another other. We watched West Roxbury police in blue uniforms step out and head, respectfully, toward the protesters.

Just before the police intervened, each of the 16 stated why they were there. One man spoke about people in his homeland of India where temperatures are a ghastly 124 degrees. Others spoke of their grandchildren. They were there out of love, out of conviction, out of humility, out of hope.

Then the police asked each one to stand, and one by one, they were handcuffed and escorted to the police vans. It was chilling to watch religious leaders locked behind bars in the police vehicles, and then closed in with heavy doors as if in refrigerator trucks, headed toward the West Roxbury Police Station.

The pipeline through West Roxbury is not bringing gas to heat our homes. Spectra is building this high-pressure (750 psi) pipeline for Algonquin Gas Transmission to transport fracked gas through our city. National Grid claims the pipe will help make National Grid's system more reliable. The builders claim the pipeline is safe, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission agreed, arguably with minimal investigation.

Opponents claim that no one has demonstrated sufficient demand to justify a massive new gas pipeline into Boston. Residents don’t want a dangerous pipeline running yards away from their front doors. The City Council has voted unanimously to oppose it. The mayor is challenging the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, in court. Boston’s state and federal legislators are against the project. Senators Markey and Warren have requested further study before proceeding.

We are protesting, because none of these voices have been heeded by the federal authorities.

Researchers at Boston University have shown that current pipelines have over 3,000 documented leaks in the current distribution system. Though the industry claims they are not dangerous — not prone to explosions — they do emit dangerous levels of methane into the atmosphere, a major source of global warming, making LNG even more polluting than coal. As the protestors were taken away, we chanted “Stop the pipeline! Fix the leaks!”

What really moved me was the realization that this entire protest is a wake-up call for all of us who have quietly and helplessly stood by as the economic forces of the fossil fuel industry, urging us to use more and more energy, continue business as usual. It’s a wake-up call that we can make a difference. With the 16 very visible clergy being taken to the police station, that makes over 80 arrests along the construction route in Boston. This movement is growing, here and around the country, calling for change in the way we use energy and where our energy comes from.

See the letter I signed, “Interfaith Religious Leaders Call For Climate Justice” at whose mission is to “invite clergy from all faith traditions to engage in soulful leadership by exemplifying the ‘task of re-centering society imbued with the hope, joy and serenity which only flow from living in the truth.’”

There are many small ways we can bring that hope, joy and serenity to our commitment to climate action. Drive by the construction site, honk your horn, join a vigil. Stop using plastic and paper grocery bags and bring your own reusable bags. Cut back on your energy use, whether turning down the a/c, turning off lights, reducing the temperature on your hot water boiler.

It’s time to change the conversation from political feasibility to moral imagination. 

It’s time for us to get beyond our sense of helplessness and despair. It’s time for us to peacefully, joyfully, and persistently choose a different path, the moral path. For our future, for our grandchildren, for the life of all humanity, we can make a difference.

Posted on June 2, 2016 .

Rabbi Barbara Penzner is awarded the Warren B. Kohn Award for Excellence in Jewish Communal Leadership

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.

Thank you.

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:

The Rabbi's talk accepting the honor is here:


Posted on May 25, 2016 .

Our High Holy Day Machzor is Now a Living Monument to A Great Rabbi

Our High Holy Day Machzor is Now a Living Monument to a Great Rabbi

 I received the shocking news this past weekend that my friend and colleague, Rabbi Ron Aigen, had died of a massive stroke. Ron was the rabbi of Reconstructionist congregation Dorshei Emet in Montreal, Canada for the past forty years. You all know his work from our High Holy Day Machzor, Renew Our Days. Ron was a model of Reconstructionist spirituality, of open-heartedness and intellectual honesty, a beloved rabbi, teacher, mentor, and friend.

Ron was about to celebrate his coming retirement. His sudden death has brought deep personal loss to me and my colleagues, accompanied by a state of awe at the suddenness and randomness of his death.

We extend our deepest condolences to member Merle Wolofsky who was close to Rabbi Aigen. He introduced Merle to Reconstructionist Judaism, and it’s thanks to him that Merle found her way to HBT when she left Canada to be near her children. Merle will be returning to Montreal for the shiva.

Ron was a mensch, a tsaddik, a gutte neshama (a good person, a righteous person, and a good soul). In addition to the Renew Our Days High Holy Day prayerbook, Ron published a Shabbat prayerbook and a haggadah, Wellsprings of Freedom. We are blessed to have his insightful, spiritual, and poetic commentaries accompany us during the holiest days of the year.

I urge you to continue reading the blog post that Ron composed last month, after suffering a heart attack. He continues to teach us how to live each day with vitality.

Since my heart attack last week, which came suddenly out of nowhere with ferocious speed and near-lethal results, my favourite prayer is “asher yatzar”: “…who formed us with wisdom creating a myriad of ducts and vessels, and should but one of them rupture or become blocked it would be impossible to stand in Your presence. Praised are You who heals all flesh and does wondrously.”

We all take for granted the incredible intricacy of our bodies and the true wonder of human health-until we are shocked into acknowledging how fragile this thing called life really is. We are encouraged to be more mindful, more appreciative and grateful for what we have with daily blessings like asher yatzar and with Torah portions that we prefer to avoid, like this week’s Metzora in Leviticus 13, 14 that speaks about fearful diseases.

The priest’s job in biblical times was to help manage the disease on a spiritual level and ultimately bring the afflicted back into the sphere of the community and the full realm of life. “Put Israel on guard, warn them (ve-hizhartem) against their spiritual disconnection with the Life-Force.” Today, we are all priests; our job is to dedicate ourselves to promoting our own lives and the lives of others to their fullest capacity.

The Zohar, classic of Jewish mysticism, tells us that the warning of the priest (hizhartem) connotes zar, “stranger, strangeness. “Don’t make those things that you consider negative, fearful, disgusting a stranger.” Rather than reject what we dislike, in us or in others, making it a stranger to us, we should open ourselves to examine it with curiosity. Is this true? Is it really so? In this way, says the Zohar, we maintain a connection with the vitality of Godliness that dwells in us.

Can we actually play a role in controlling the inner workings of our bodies? Neuroscience today has reported on the many incredible health benefits of meditation. Specifically scientists claim that meditation can lower stress and the risk of cardio-vascular disease. Although I practice meditation regularly, teach it and lead a weekly meditation minyan, as I did that morning, it didn’t prevent my heart attack. Nor did the regular half hour jogs that I do several times a week, as I did effortlessly that morning.  As the rabbis say, ain havtahot le-tzadikim, “there are no guarantees in life, even for the righteous.”

In my case it was a fluke. In some people the plaque that builds up from normal amounts cholesterol that exist in all of us can sometimes get dislodged for some unexplained reason. When that happens those loose particles of plaque rush into the next available artery. In my case it was the LAD, the main artery to the heart, that was 100% blocked by the time I arrived in emergency. Fortunately, I was already in the ambulance with the defibrillator attached when the really critical condition occurred, and the stents were deployed before any major damage to the heart set in.

Meditation could not have stopped it from happening, but it did help me to remain totally focused and surprisingly calm. It perhaps helped me to be more aware the moment the discomfort in my chest began to arise and that I had broken out in a sweat while sitting at my desk sending an email. Perhaps it helped me to know it was time to call for help.

Now that I am breathing much easier, I am back to meditating, and eventually expect to get back to jogging—hopefully with a greater sense of connection and appreciation for the Life-Force.

Yehi zichron tsaddik livracha — may the memory of the righteous bring blessing to our world.

Posted on May 12, 2016 .


Every year, signs appear celebrating that year’s graduation class. Congratulations Class of 2016! Every year, graduation speakers exhort students to be confident, to be humble, to be resourceful, to be resilient, to care about others, to take care of themselves, to be of service, and to take life by the horns. Every year, graduates try to outdo each other in creative costumes, signs, pranks, and self-promotion. Every year, in many ways, is the same as any other year.

While the rest of us may not feel that this class is especially unique in the history of graduations, to every graduate and their parents, this is a special year. Graduation represents a turning point in the life of students. Each graduate recognizes that this day represents their hard work, their ingenuity, their perseverance. Many acknowledge that graduation was made possible by the support of those who paid the bills, those who stuck with them through hard times, the teachers, the friends, the employers, and everyone who believed in them.

Graduation is also a milestone for parents as we experience yet another manifestation of the process of letting go that began when the infant emerged from the womb as a separate, independent human being.

We celebrate the uniqueness of every baby born, every child who ascends to the bimah in honor of becoming bar or bat mitzvah, every couple who publicly concretizes their loving partnership in the marriage ceremony, and every individual who leaves this earth. These events are essential to marking our individual identity even as they stamp us as part of a larger community through traditional rituals.

As a synagogue community, we want to honor and congratulate the students and their families who have reached this milestone. This is not an inconsequential event and the efforts that lead up to graduation are not to be minimized.

Therefore, we encourage every family anticipating an upcoming graduation from high school, college, graduate school or any other kind of certification or completion to contact the rabbi with the information about what they have completed and where they will be going (if that’s known).

I’m particularly attuned to the emotions surrounding graduation as both of our children will be receiving diplomas in the coming weeks. This Shabbat I will be in Philadelphia, celebrating our son Yonah’s graduation from Temple University on Friday. In June, Brian and I will be in Chicago, celebrating our daughter Aviva’s graduation from the University of Chicago with a master’s degree in Public Policy. We feel so blessed by our children. We are proud to watch them move on to new endeavors and thrilled to see them living their passions.

Graduation is more than the completion of a set of class requirements. It represents new-found skills, honed for hours through study and practice. It demonstrates a new level of maturity and wisdom, shaped by facing a host of emotional, intellectual, financial, and physical demands. Even when our students rise among a sea of hundreds or thousands of other graduates, their unique experience deserves recognition.

Congratulations to our graduates and to their families. We send our admiration and best wishes as you prepare for the road ahead. Hazak hazak venit-chazek—be strong and be strengthened as you reach this milestone!*

*This is the phrase the congregation recites in the synagogue when we complete one of the Five Books of the Torah.

Posted on May 5, 2016 .

Hummus at the Seder? And other Matza Bytes

Finally. The option to eat rice and beans on Pesach has moved closer to worldwide acceptance. For those who have strictly avoided peanut oil or green beans or lentils on Pesach, believing them to be hametz (leavened food that is prohibited by Biblical restrictions), consider the latest rabbinic opinions by the Conservative movement permitting these foods. Referred to as kitniyot (legumes), these foods have always been part of Sephardi and Mizrahi Passover tables, even at the seder. It was only in medieval Europe that some over-zealous Ashkenazi authorities banned them.

Remember: there are 5 grains that are prohibited during the 7 (8 in the Diaspora) days of Pesach:  wheat, barley, oats, rye, and spelt. When these grains are turned into matza (by being baked in a 500 degree oven within 18 minutes, before the water and flour begin the natural rising process), we can use them. That’s how we get matza meal. Anything else that contains these grains (cereal, pasta, even white vinegar), is considered hametz.

If you follow that biblical restriction affirmed by Sephardi custom and now Conservative movement authorities, you’re free to eat rice, beans, and even peanuts. Strictly speaking, any processed food from these products (including hummus, peanut oil, or Nutella) should be marked Kosher for Passover, because the processing may otherwise bring them in contact with hametz. Enjoy!

What’s on your Seder Plate
An orange? A tomato? A sweet potato? A banana?

The seder plate, after all, is symbolic. Lamb shank represents the roasted paschal lamb. Egg represents the additional holiday offering. Bitter herbs represent the bitterness of slavery. Haroset represents mortar. Greens represent spring. Romaine Lettuce (hazeret) is also bitterness.

With the proliferation of new haggadot and new ritual objects (Miriam’s cup) came the idea of new symbols on the seder plate.

The near-ubiquitous orange has come to represent the woman’s place in Judaism (though its roots were in solidarity with marginalized people, including widows and gays and lesbians).

At the Freedom Seder that HBT hosted for several years with the Union United Methodist Church, we created an entire seder plate representing foods from the African-American tradition including chicken, collard greens and sweet potato.

A few years ago, we were moved by the success of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to put a tomato on our seder plate.

Other creative seder plate ideas have included an olive to reminds us of the plight of Palestinian farmers and the quest for peace in Israel and Palestine, an artichoke, a kiwi, and even a Food Desert seder plate with rotten vegetables and a potato chip.

This year, the Reform movement is adding a banana, to remind us of Syrian refugees.

All of the symbols on a seder plate have one purpose: to get us to ask questions and to convey the experience of leaving Egypt. What happens when those symbols get old and tired?

Often, we associate new meanings to the old symbol. The egg, which had its roots in the ancient temple sacrifices, came to represent spring and rebirth.

Other times we substitute a different item. The Talmud allows for a roasted beet instead of a roasted shankbone, to accommodate vegetarians.

Some symbols are so obscure, we just leave them out. Hazeret, romaine lettuce, is a holdover from a rabbinic dispute over the maror (bitter herbs). It was resolved by having two different kinds of bitter herb, one to fulfill the mitzvah of Maror, and the other to put in your Hillel Sandwich for Korech.

And today, we add new symbols that remind us of slavery and oppression in our own world. With these new symbols, someone is bound to ask a question, “Why is X on the seder plate?” And that’s all you need to get everyone around the table talking.

What is the message you want your seder plate to convey this year?

How do we make the rest of the days of Passover “count”?

With so much attention to the seder, the rest of the week may be a let-down. Especially if you don’t like matza. The seder is rich in symbol and offers room for meaningful discussion. What should we do to keep our souls nourished until Passover has passed over?

On the second night of Passover, we begin a simple ritual that connects the freedom of Pesach with the fulfillment at Shavuot. The Torah instructs us to count 49 days, seven times seven, as we journey, like the Israelites, from Egypt to Mount Sinai. This tradition is known as Counting the Omer.

Each night we stop what we’re doing, stand up, pronounce a blessing and proclaim, “Today is the X day of counting the Omer.”  That’s it. It’s one of the easiest mitzvot to practice. Counting the Omer forces us to ask ourselves, did I make this day count?

In our house, we don’t just count the Omer. We count the Homer. As in Homer Simpson. One of my husband Brian’s greatest contributions to Jewish life is the Homer Calendar. You have to see it to believe it — and to learn everything you ever wanted to know – not just about counting the Omer, but about Jews in The Simpsons.   The Homer Calendar, now 18 years and counting.

Wherever you will be for Pesach, I wish you much joy and renewal!  Chag same’ach!

Posted on April 20, 2016 .

Embracing Racial Diversity

I recently received an inspiring post from JOIN for Justice about expanding their applicant pool to create a more diverse Fellowship class, including more Jews of color, LGBTQ and Jews with disabilities. This powerful training ground for Jewish social justice activists is on the cutting edge of so many issues. Yet this post reminds us that even the most progressive organizations benefit from rigorous self-assessment, in Hebrew heshbon hanefesh. It’s great to live our values out in the world; it’s essential that we root those values in the actions within our own organization. Change has to begin at home.

In the wake of the Ferguson non-indictment at the end of 2014, Miriam Messinger put out a fervent plea to members of our congregation saying that HBT had an obligation to embrace diversity more fully, and to support the rising #BlackLivesMatter movement. She challenged many of us to look at ourselves critically, to see beyond a surface commitment to being welcoming community, and to truly listen to the experience of all our members, especially those in multi-racial households in a new way.

Like JOIN, we have been committed to being welcoming for a long time, longer than many in the Jewish community. And like JOIN, we are not willing to pat ourselves on the back and leave it at that. We are currently engaged in an ongoing self-assessment process, spearheaded by a very dedicated and thoughtful group of volunteers, including Miriam as well as other members in multi-racial families. You will be hearing more about what they’ve learned about what HBT is currently doing to foster racial diversity, and where we can improve.

I’m glad to say that our synagogue is not alone in this endeavor. Three weeks ago, a robust contingent from HBT attended a landmark event, the first Jewish community conversation on Embracing Racial Diversity. Sponsored by the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ) Outreach institute, the workshop brought together a stunning group of over 40 synagogues and Jewish organizations with over 90 individuals in attendance.  April Baskin, URJ Vice President of Audacious Hospitality, led the training on making the Jewish community more welcoming.

The HBT table included Judith Levine (temple officer), Paula Gaffin (a Chaverim School teacher), Hillary Pinsker, Benita Block, and myself, as well as Tali Smookler, who grew up at HBT and now works at JOIN for Justice (and was the first recipient of the Larry M. Diamond Tikkun Olam Youth Award).

What did we learn?

One teaching that I took away was a paradigm for inclusion:

from invisible to outcast to foreigner to guest to token to member.

That gives us a way of thinking how far we still need to go as a community.

Even more inspiring, the turnout demonstrated that the Jewish community is eager to learn more!

I am also proud to share that the HBT community was far ahead of any other group in the room. In fact, we’ve been asked to take part in a panel at the next gathering to take place on June 15. We’ve come a long way, and we still have work to do.

We are grateful to all those who have motivated our congregation over the past two decades to go deeper and think more strategically about welcoming a diverse Jewish community. Starting with Leslie Belay, who modeled and taught us when her oldest son Kassa enrolled at HBT and became the first Chaverim School student to become bar mitzvah, in 1999. Judith Levine, who went to the Jewish Multi-Racial Network retreats and raved to the families about her wonderful, welcoming congregation. Jean Weinberg and Mark Dinaburg who brought Sarah when she was two, and have been recruiting multi-racial families and strengthening our community ever since. And to the many families (about one-sixth of our congregation) who are contributing today to a rich, vibrant, and activist multi-racial community at HBT, where so many children of color, from different backgrounds, feel at home because they see other kids who look like them.

At our Passover seder, we affirm the value of welcome. The Exodus story reminds us not to oppress the stranger, for we were strangers in the Land of Egypt. And in the haggadah we open the door for all who want to sit around our table. Through this holiday of liberation, we learn how to turn a stranger into a member.

May we all merit the opportunity for doing the hard work that brings us closer, every day, to the Promised Land, a world of love, justice and peace for all people.

Posted on March 31, 2016 .


Rabbi Penzner offered these words on Shabbat Zachor, March 19. On Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath immediately preceding Purim, we are told to remember (Zachor) Amalek, the ruthless king whose army attacked the Israelites without provocation on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. This year, the topic of anti-semitism was very current, with the report of the taunts by students at Catholic Memorial to the Newton North basketball game. At the end of the discussion, Susannah Sirkin told a story that moved everyone in the room. Be sure to read to the end!

I awoke to the radio last Sunday morning as usual, and heard the shocking news: at a basketball playoff game in Newton on Friday night, students from Catholic Memorial High School in West Roxbury had taunted Newton North players and fans by chanting “You killed Jesus.”

By now you’ve heard the story, how the students at North had provoked the Catholic Memorial students with apparently homophobic chants of their own. You undoubtedly heard that the interim principal of Newton North, Mark Aronson, spoke with Catholic Memorial administrators, who put an end to the chants. The students were reprimanded. Aronson reported that after the game, several hundred students shook his hand and personally apologized to him.

In fact, most of the reporting we heard in the first 24 hours was all about antisemitism in Newton, how the schools and the mayor were responding to it. You probably also heard the denunciation by Cardinal O’Malley, and the statement released by theArchdiocese of Boston the next day calling the students’ behavior “unacceptable.”

What struck me about those reports, as it may have struck you, was the lack of interest in the source of the chants, the students at Catholic Memorial. Why was everyone talking about anti-semitism in Newton, when the chants came from students in West Roxbury? I wondered whether these students, our neighbors, believed that Jews only live in Newton? Did they have any idea that there is a synagogue less than a mile away from their school?

Ashley Adams shared his opinion yesterday that this incident is not only useful for educating the students, but it’s an important reminder to us that anti-Semitism has not disappeared from our midst. This is the lesson of this week’s special Torah reading for Shabbat Zachor. Do not forget! Remember what Amalek did to you! Remember the hatred and destruction of Jews fomented by anti-semites.

For some in our community, this chant unearthed long-buried fears and childhood incidents when they were the targets of epithets, taunts, and hate-filled accusations like “the Jews killed Jesus.” I myself heard those words when I was about 7 years old from a Catholic neighbor I thought was my friend. Should we be worried that our neighbors in West Roxbury are thinking these thoughts about us?

The more I wondered about what the students said and where it came from, the response became abundantly clear to me. Especially in our current climate of demonization, with political and religious disagreements devolving into punching innocent people and picking fistfights, we need to talk to each other. Justice cannot endure unless it is built on relationships of understanding.

I immediately reached out to the Jewish leaders of JCRC, AJC and ADL. I was aware that, to the credit of the administration of Catholic Memorial had reached out to the ADL immediately, apologizing and asking for help. When I spoke to Robert Trestan of the ADL on Tuesday, he described the curriculum that ADL has developed to increase awareness of antisemitism. He also emphasized that Newton has been dealing with anti-semitic vandalism lately, so that is where they plan to concentrate their efforts. He also emphasized how much he respects the leadership of Catholic Memorial and their sincere desire to use this as a learning opportunity. 

I offered something that no one else seems to have thought of. I respect the work of the ADL, but I don’t believe that a curriculum is enough. And I don’t think that the awareness campaign should only be targeted at students.

What I suggested, with the support of our co-presidents, is to invite students, parents and teachers to come on a field trip to see Jewish life right here in West Roxbury, and to meet the Jews who are their neighbors.

This will not take place soon. It may not happen until next fall. But I argued with the ADL director that the effort is worth taking time to plan for a future date when all the furor has died down. I described the work we did at Gann Academy several years ago during the Hyatt Hotel boycott. I learned that Gann was holding its prom at a boycotted Hyatt in Cambridge. Because I only discovered this on the day of the prom, I contacted the head of school on Monday. Over the course of six months, we planned an all-school event to discuss the boycott. I came with a Hyatt worker to speak to the students. Afterward, they broke up into small groups. The prom committee decided not to hold the upcoming formal there. (The boycott ended in 2014.)

I am hopeful that our congregation can unite behind this idea and commit to engaging with dialogue with our neighbors in the coming year. I am hopeful that we can extend a warm welcome to the Catholic Memorial community. As offended and frightened as this incident may make us feel—no matter where we live, I believe that we can open our doors to them in a sincere and honest effort to get to know each other, to learn about each other’s traditions and backgrounds, and to build bridges of understanding. We may be surprised and disappointed to learn that this effort is necessary. But that is the message of Shabbat Zachor—do not forget—do not fool yourself into thinking that others have forgotten. In each generation, it is up to us to reach out anew, to set aside suspicion and to remind one another of the underlying human bonds that unite us, whether in our neighborhood or across our country.

Post-script: At Shabbat services, Susannah closed our discussion with the following story, which illustrated the power of getting to know others, asking questions, and being in relationship.

A few weeks ago I spent a morning with a renowned international photographer at a police headquarters in a regional capital of an African country that has suffered war, pillage, rape and displacement for decades. Our goal was to portray a new generation of police officers, men and women trained and dedicated to protecting women and children from sexual assault. As the photo crew stood along a dusty sidewalk capturing on camera the weekly exercises complete with a marching band and a long line up of police standing proudly in formation in their new blue uniforms, someone noticed that the name sewn onto the chest of one officer read, “Adolf Hitler.”  My colleague approached me and asked me if I had seen it.  Glancing over toward the tall officer watching the parade before him, I was shocked to see this name, its resonance shaking me to the core. 

As soon as I regained my composure, I went over to our friend, the colonel we work with most closely in this province, and asked him if he was aware of the name emblazoned on his officer’s uniform.  Our friend was horrified and immediately went over to speak with the man.  Moments later he returned and informed me that the name had been immediately removed and that the officer was “trembling.” Assuredly, he had been severely reprimanded.

As the band played on and the exercises continued, I stood in thought, wondering what had transpired in these brief moments, imagining the next repercussions for this officer, like most of the police in this impoverished country-- under-educated, ill-paid, and possibly at immediate risk of being fired, or worse. I wondered what on earth would prompt an African policeman to wear this heinous name on his shirt. Was it his given name? Did he have any idea who Hitler was? Would punishment teach him anything? I asked the Colonel if we might speak to this man, and moments later we were standing in a courtyard, learning that the man’s name was not Adolf but Christopher, that he seemingly had no idea that Hitler had slaughtered millions (including members of my own family, I explained, holding back tears), and what’s more, considered Africans an inferior race. 

The man listened attentively as the colonel carefully delivered on the spot a perfectly crafted mini-lecture on the Holocaust, describing the concentration camps and crematoria, the clarion call of “Never Again,” the founding of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The colonel noted that Hitler was more despicable than the most notorious and despised war criminal in the region. He stressed that wearing such a name was exactly the opposite of what anyone in his police force would want to be associated with.  When officer “Christopher” asked me what he should do now, I replied, “Tell everyone in your unit why you removed that name.”  As Purim approaches, this lesson of what it takes to obliterate a hateful name is a bit more real and a bit more involved than grinding a noisemaker.

Posted on March 23, 2016 .


 Fun for kids and grownups: carnivals, masquerades and hamantashen. Also thinking of others too — mishloach manot (sharing gifts of food) and matanot l’evyonim (giving gifts of money) are central mitzvot, as well as hearing the story of Esther on Purim night.

The day before Purim is not a jolly day. While we may be getting our costumes ready and preparing plates of hamantashen to share, the day before Purim is a Jewish fast day, Ta’anit Esther (the fast of Esther). Most liberal Jews I know ignore this and other fast days that appear in the Jewish calendar (except Yom Kippur, and maybe Tisha B’Av).

These “minor fasts” usually recall tragic events in Jewish history. Ta’anit Esther is different. First of all — spoiler alert — the Book of Esther is not historical. It’s a fictional account of Diaspora life as imagined in ancient Persia. The fast of Esther does not commemorate a tragedy; it is lifted from the account of Esther preparing to meet the king.

The Book is not only fiction, it is a farce. Every aspect of it is meant to be laughable. The king who approaches every occasion as an opportunity to hold a feast and get drunk. The Jewish woman who masquerades as queen, and whose identity is revealed at the critical moment, to save her people. The comedy of the villain leading his nemesis around town on a horse, following the king’s orders to sing his praises as the villain himself had wished to be praised. The book is filled with ludicrous reversals of fortune, similar to those found in comic opera or Shakespeare.

Even the dreadful denouement in chapter 8, when the Jews go on the rampage, is a communal catharsis, a ridiculous fantasy. Since the King cannot change his own decree (how ironic!), he gives the Jews “permission” to defend themselves against those who come to destroy them. In the process they slaughter 75,000 people, and while many others immediately chose to convert.

The Book of Esther was written at a time when it was inconceivable that Jews might be given permission to kill others, even in self-defense. Through times of persecution, exile, pogroms, and massacres, for one day a year Jews enjoyed the Purim celebrations and retold the Purim story as a time for release and revelry.

It can be difficult to recognize comedy in literature. I remembered first time I read Pride and Prejudice. No one told me that it contained satire. I only discovered the humor years later while watching numerous film versions of Jane Austen’s masterpiece and howling with laughter.

Reading the 8th chapter of Esther in our own day, particularly in a political environment poisoned by vicious hatred, raises legitimate concerns. The violence is worthy of being noted and condemned. However, those who believe these passages provide a precedent for violence today are missing the point of the story. Not just for the Jews but among persecuted peoples everywhere, playfully imagining the destruction of one’s attackers is not akin to real violence. While we need to be careful about the link between violent speech and violent action, we also need to be able to see cartoon humor for what it is.

Nevertheless, some contemporary Jewish extremists have misread these sections and used them as a mandate for violence against any enemies of the Jewish people. These Jews are wrong and their actions bring shame on all Jews. For this reason, I choose to fast on Ta’anit Esther. This is the way that I respond to the fantasy violence in the Purim story — by grieving the deaths of those who have been the victims of Jewish hatred. I was living in Israel when Baruch Goldstein slaughtered innocent Muslims at prayer on Purim. Most Jews were shocked by this immoral act. Baruch Goldstein not only did violence to innocent Muslims, he violated Purim itself. Just as the Fast of Esther was the queen’s way of acknowledging the danger that awaited her when she went, unbidden, to see the king, this fast is my own “tikkun,” my personal act of repair, for the danger that has been unleashed from the Purim story.

I love Purim and I deplore violence. Yet I choose to celebrate the holiday with abandon, and I refuse to delete the offending passages. One essential lesson of Purim is to recognize that we can hold joy and humor at the same time we acknowledge grief and suffering. The world is filled with both. One of my very favorite rabbinic takes on Purim addresses this paradox directly.

Rabbah and Rabbi Zera joined together in a Purim feast. They became drunk and Rabbah arose and killed Rabbi Zera. On the next day, he prayed on Rabbi Zerra’s behalf and bought him back to life. Next year, Rabbah said: “Will your honor come and we will have the Purim feast together?” Rabbi Zera replied: “A miracle does not take place on every occasion.” (Talmud Megillah)

This is a Talmudic joke, built on a terrifying story. That’s the poignant truth of Purim, right there. Celebrate until your heart’s content, and be wary of the dangers.

As my colleague, Rabbi Rena Blumenthal, has written so beautifully:

“Purim is the most exhilaratingly honest of holidays. For one day a year we stop pretending that we understand the way of the world, that we know the purpose of our lives, that we can possibly comprehend God’s will.… We playfully hold up the idolatrous masks under which we have been hiding, laugh at our elaborately costumed selves, and, in opening our hearts to the terrifying truth of the human masquerade, experience deep liberation and joy.”

Wishing you joy, even amidst our fear and sorrow.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Posted on March 17, 2016 .



A Reflection from Sabbatical

“I am a member of a racial minority. Often, a person I do not know will take pains to bring a matter to my attention (a news article, movie or lecture) that features the subject of my race. I don’t pretend that people are color blind. But I am put off when a person I have just met tells me that I should read a book on my group’s experience with the American justice system. How should I respond?”

This question came to the NY Times advice columnist, Philip Galanes. In his February 25 column, Galanes suggested several thoughtful ways to respond, including asking them “Why, exactly, do you suppose that book will interest me?” Then the columnist added “(And if the book is “Just Mercy,” everyone should read it.)”

Everyone should read this book. I’m grateful to Alice Levine for recommending it to me a year ago. When I finally picked it up last month, I could not put it down.

Lawyer Bryan Stevenson is a marvel. He is obviously a skilled and talented attorney, who has freed hundreds from unjust prison sentences. He has argued to change incarceration laws for juveniles successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court. Twice. His organization, the Equal Justice Initiative continues to work successfully on behalf of those “who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.”

Stevenson is also an engaging writer as he unfurls the tale of Walter McMillian, a death row inmate who was arrested, imprisoned, tried, and committed to death row based on flimsy evidence (at best) and corruption and racial bias (at worst). In alternating chapters, he also describes how women, children, mentally handicapped, and poor people fall victim to our broken criminal justice system. Nearly every chapter broke my heart.

Surprisingly, this book also offers redemption and hope. Just as he depicts the system as unbearably out of whack, Stevenson’s honesty and personal commitment provide a stirring model for making real change.

The title of the book encapsulates Stevenson’s inspiring approach to his life and work. “Justice” and “mercy” are usually opposing goals. On Yom Kippur, we ask God to set aside justice and become merciful with us. Others in our culture embrace punitive justice without regard for mercy. (Angry reactions to the recent sentencing of Philip Chism are just one example.) “Just mercy” implies that these two truths can (and ought to) coexist.

The prophet Micah implores us to find a balance between justice and mercy in our everyday relationships. “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with…” (Micah 6:8) Micah lived through a time of upheaval, moral degradation, dislocation, and fear. He witnessed the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721 BCE and the exile of its leaders. He surely knew the suffering of the people of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, who endured the Assyrian siege of the fortified city protecting the capital, Jerusalem. Micah was one of the first to have foreseen the ultimate fall of Judah, which finally occurred more than a century after his death. Despite the terrors of war and destruction, Micah continued to preach a message of hope: “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with…”

In our own day, we are also witness to upheaval, moral degradation, dislocation and fear. We may be filled with despair. Like a prophet, Stevenson offers us a path out of our fear and anguish. At the end of the book, he tells us that he’s learned that “fear and anger are a threat to justice; they can infect a community, a state, or a nation and make us blind, irrational, and dangerous.” Then he turns around and instructs us that “mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given.” That is, through love we can find the way to overcome injustice and to embrace hope.

One of the many gifts of having sabbatical time is having time. Period. Time to read. Time to write. Time to think. Time to cook healthy meals and enjoy being with loved ones. Time to do one thing at a time.

Coming back from these nine weeks “away,” I felt reinvigorated. It feels good to do the work that I love. I’m delighted every time I see someone who has been out of my line of sight for two months. I’m particularly grateful to learn that, while people are happy to have me back, the temple and its programs ran very smoothly during my absence.

One teaching I hold onto from this sabbatical time is not to wait until the next one. My book project has a long way to go. You are a part of that project, as I continue to think about Micah’s teaching of justice, mercy, and humility. From time to time I will share these thoughts with you, to continue to learn how these prophetic words can make a difference in our lives.



Posted on March 2, 2016 .



Did slaves pick your tomatoes?

If you buy Florida tomatoes from Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, or Stop n Shop, the workers who picked your tomatoes are protected from slavery, exploitation, and sexual harassment by the Fair Food program. If you eat tomatoes at most fast-food restaurants, they were also picked by workers who are getting a living wage from the growers. But if you’ve eaten at Wendy’s, those pickers are not protected, because Wendy’s refuses to sign on to the Fair Food agreement.

Since 2011, HBT has supported the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to inform consumers about the plight of migrant tomato workers. Our visits to managers at Trader Joe’s contributed to the CIW’s successful effort to get Trader Joe’s to sign on.

This week, our partner, T'ruah (The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights) is taking part in the CIW's 2016 Workers' Voice Tour. Migrant workers and their supporters will march to Wendy’s headquarters in New York City on March 3 to deliver a message of justice.

Rabbi Penzner will be traveling to New York City to participate in the action at Wendy’s headquarters. YOU and your family can join the effort. All you need to do is download the tomato of justice, write a letter on it to Wendy's major shareholder, Jewish businessman Nelson Peltz, decorate it with messages of justice, and bring it to the temple office this week. We will send all the letters to Peltz in a special Purim package.

Click here to access everything you need to know about the CIW, Wendy’s and the tomato of justice.

Posted on February 25, 2016 .

Double your joy - be happy AND be generous

Double your joy—be happy AND be generous.

It’s Adar, the month of Purim. This is a holiday we take very (wink) seriously at HBT. We put a lot of effort into fulfilling the rabbinic statement “when Adar begins, joy increases.”

This year is extra special, because it’s a Leap Year. You know that we add an extra day in February this year. That day compensates for the fact that a solar year isn’t 365 days long. It takes the earth precisely 365¼ days to circle the sun. Every four years we add that extra day.

We also add an extra month to the Jewish calendar this year. That month compensates for the loss of time resulting from our lunar calendar, which is only 354 days long. The Jewish year doesn’t keep in sync with the secular year, but the rabbis created software centuries ago to ensure that our calendar is in tune with the seasons.

Pesach has to take place in the springtime (sometime between late March and late April). Sukkot has to arrive before Israel’s rainy season (late September to late October). To make that happen, the rabbinic calendar software inserts a leap month seven times within a 19-year cycle. The leap month is always Adar II (Hebrew: Adar sheni)

Our joy increased with Rosh Hodesh (the New Moon) Adar I, which happened on February 10. Adar II will begin on March 11, and Purim will arrive on the evening of March 23.

This gives us a double-dose of joy

What do we do when we have more than we need? We share! Two of the mitzvot of Purim are about giving. We give shalach manot, hamantashen & sweets, to our friends. We also give matanot l’evyonim, gifts to the poor. While we are having fun playing at the carnival (March 20), hearing the megillah (March 23) dressing up in costumes, raucously singing, stamping, and drowning out Haman’s name, we can also share our joy with others. Just as we break a glass at the most joyous moment of a wedding to remind us that our world is still broken, we give to others at this time of great celebration.

HBT makes it easy for you to do all of these things. This year, we’d like the entire congregation to Be Happy and Be Generous. From February 26 through March 23, every dollar that goes into the tsedaka boxes at the temple—whether in classrooms or the chapel or the office—will be designated for Yad Chessed. Yad Chessed, the “hand of loving-kindness,” supports Jewish individuals and families by alleviating economic distress and helping them reach financial stability.

On Purim, Yad Chessed collects from every synagogue and gives gifts to their clients, to ensure that they have a joyous Purim too.

Last year, HBT members raised $200 for Yad Chessed’s Purim Mitzvah Program. Our goal this year is $360. Adults and children are urged to bring a gift for Yad Chessed next time you’re in the building. (On Shabbat, you can leave an envelope marked “Yad Chessed” in the mailbox by the office.)

Be Happy and Be Generous! Share your double-dose of joy!

Posted on February 25, 2016 .