Shabbat Shelach-Lecha: Journeys

As many of us prepare to go on summer vacation or to welcome summer visitors, the Torah gives us an inspiring send-off in this week’s portion. En route from Mt. Sinai to the Promised Land, the Israelites send out twelve scouts, a leader from each tribe, to investigate the land and bring back a report. It was somewhere between a reconnaissance mission and a tropical vacation:

They reached the wadi Eshcol, and there they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes—it had to be borne on a carrying frame by two of them—and some pomegranates and figs. (Numbers 13:23)

When they return, the scouts eagerly tell Moses, “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.” (Num.13:27)

Just as God had promised, the land was flowing with milk (probably goat milk) and honey (many say it was date honey, not bee honey). If the scouts had ended their report there, the entire camp probably would have packed up and headed straight to their destination.


The very next word is “However.” No matter how enticing the description of the land, regardless of the tangible fruits of the journey, ten of the twelve add their own contrary editorial slant. They claim that the land would be too difficult to settle. The people, fearful of the inhabitants of the land, refuse to move on. Long story short, the Israelites end up wandering in the wilderness for another 38 years (they had already been traveling for two). And all ten scouts who frightened the people off are doomed to die in the wilderness. Only Caleb and Joshua are privileged to live to enter the Promised Land, with Joshua as Moses’ successor.

My prayer for all of us is that we take the time to appreciate the fruits of our travels. Before you get to “However,” before revealing the uncomfortable plane ride, the inadequate accommodations, the rude guests, the poor weather—or whatever interfered with the “perfect” vacation you had anticipated—stop! Remember what a gift the vacation, or the visitors, have been. Give thanks for the good and hold onto it.

In the coming month, while I’m away from you, I will be doing a little traveling myself. Thanks to the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), I’ll be on a trip to Israel with the Jewish Labor Committee and Boston-area labor leaders to learn about workers in Israel, visit Roots (a joint venture between Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank), and see Israel through the eyes of first-time visitors.

At the end of July, we will visit Brian’s parents in Tucson, Arizona, along with Aviva and Colin. This will be my in-laws’ first meeting with their great-grandson.

And after that, I’ll head down to Immokalee, Florida for my annual visit to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) as we strategize the coming year’s actions for allies in the faith community.

I don’t think I need point out that July is probably not the best time to visit Israel, Arizona, or south Florida. BUT, I am eager enjoy the fruits of all of these journeys and perhaps, bring back a frame of grapes to share with you.

Have a good summer! Kayitz na’im,

Rabbi Barbara

Posted on June 27, 2019 .

Senator Ed Markey with AJWS staff Tracey Gurd, Rabbi Penzner, AJWS President Robert Bank, and Boston- area Rabbis Michael Rothbaum and Jill Perlman.   Photo courtesy of Chuck Kennedy for AJWS

Senator Ed Markey with AJWS staff Tracey Gurd, Rabbi Penzner, AJWS President Robert Bank, and Boston- area Rabbis Michael Rothbaum and Jill Perlman.

Photo courtesy of Chuck Kennedy for AJWS

Earlier this week I exercised my civic and sacred duty as a citizen of the United States to speak to our representatives in Washington, D.C. about issues of global human rights. Telling stories from our recent trip to Guatemala, of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who are living in starvation, squalor and fear of returning to their home country, and of the chilling effect of the US Global Gag Rule (preventing any health care organization from providing, advocating for or even mentioning abortion) on the health of women and girls and LGBT folk across the world, we met with people who truly have the power to make a difference. With rabbis and staff of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), we made 63 visits to our Senators and Members of Congress, as well as staff at the State Department and USAID. It was an important lesson in the power and responsibility of individuals living in a democracy, a topic I hope you will discuss with your children, and consider getting involved in yourself.

For those who have not yet heard what brought me to Guatemala and what I learned there, below you can read an op-ed that I have written to explain the crisis in Guatemala. Very soon I will recommend ways to make your voice heard on this, and on the other two issues..

In awe and gratitude,

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

There definitely is a national emergency—in Guatemala.  

What would you do if your own government evicted you from your home, destroyed your town, then chased you into the woods where soldiers pursued you and your family?

This happened to a Holocaust survivor in my congregation, who barely survived while the rest of his family was murdered in his Polish town. This also is the story of many people in Guatemala, who are on the evening news as they flee their homeland to seek asylum in America.

I witnessed these Guatemalans’ struggle last month on a study trip led by American Jewish World Service (AJWS), the leading Jewish organization working to end poverty and support human rights in the developing world. As part of the Global Justice Fellowship of AJWS, I was one of fifteen rabbis from the U.S. who spent a week meeting local heroes in Guatemala. We heard heartbreaking tales from civil society leaders, lawyers, journalists, midwives, and advocates for women’s rights. They each risk their lives daily.

Most Guatemalans can’t earn enough to feed their families. Nearly half of children age 5 and under suffer from chronic malnutrition.  In all, 11 million people, nearly 60 percent of the population, earn less than two dollars a day, according to the World Bank. And 23% live in extreme poverty, earning less than a dollar a day.

I was struck by the courage and commitment of the people we met. Even now, back in Boston, I am inspired by a young woman named Anna. She traveled 27 hours in buses to tell her story to us, a group of Jewish foreigners. In her region, women are not expected to get an education. Though she stopped going to school after fourth grade, the organization that Anna now represents helped her graduate from high school and get a degree. Today she fights to end violence against women and girls, and she works to give women job training and leadership skills. Because of her achievements, her father overcame his opposition to allowing her nine younger siblings to pursue an education.

Anna admitted that she has been tempted to leave for the U.S. because she can barely eke out a living. But she has decided to stay in Guatemala—she feels a duty to fight for rural women.

When I asked her what her dream job would be, she responded, “I would defend women’s rights, as I do now…only, I would get paid for this work.”

Unbeknownst to most Americans, the democratic government of Guatemala is quickly becoming a dictatorship. As a result, more and more Guatemalans will make the painful choice to leave their homeland, taking their families on the dangerous journey through our southern border in hopes of finding a better life in the U.S.

Guatemala lives with the legacy of a 36-year-long internal armed conflict sparked by a U.S.-sponsored military coup in 1954.  During the conflict, close to a million people were displaced from their homes, and 200,000 people were murdered or “disappeared.” And since a peace agreement was reached in 1996, Guatemala has faced rampant corruption and impunity for elites, politicians and perpetrators of war crimes.  

In 2006, an anti-corruption commission called CICIG was created by the Guatemalan government and the United Nations. Over the last decade it succeeded in prosecuting 310 government officials, military officers, and business leaders—including a former president. But while the overwhelming majority of Guatemalans support these investigations, the current president of Guatemala, Jimmy Morales—who is himself under investigation—expelled CICIG from the country last month.

During our visit to Guatemala City, thousands of protestors blocked roads and converged on the presidential palace. Everywhere we went, people warned that the president is undertaking a “technical coup,” quietly using the military to eliminate political rivals.

The individuals we met are taking great risks, not knowing whether they will see any results in their lifetime. They are planting seeds for a better tomorrow for their children and grandchildren, but those seeds will only able to grow and flourish in Guatemala if democracy is upheld. We must therefore demand that Congress and the Trump Administration put pressure on President Morales, standing up for democracy and the rule of law in Guatemala. We must recognize the true national emergency—the one in Guatemala.

Posted on March 14, 2019 .

Standing at the Bottom of the Mountain

A kavvanah for the last day of the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship in Guatemala

Rabbi Penzner invites members and friends to come hear about her trip to Guatemala

with AJWS and learn how you can defend human rights on

Thursday evening, January 31 from 7:30 to 8:30.

Please contact the temple office if you plan to come.

If you miss this date, there will be another session on Sunday morning, March 3.

After a week in Guatemala with the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) Global Justice Fellows, our circle of rabbis and staff spent our final moments together reflecting on the many powerful experiences we had shared and discussed how to bring them home with us. All week, we had connected those stories to the stories of the Book of Exodus, as we encountered courageous midwives and celebrated inspiring leaders who were fighting for justice. As we entered into this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, I felt a magnetic connection between the image of standing at Sinai and our time in Guatemala. That image provided a context for carrying the experience back home that I shared with my colleagues.

It certainly helped that on the horizon from our balcony at a lovely coffee plantation, we had a clear view of an active volcano. Like our ancestors who stood at Sinai, we saw it smoke and it filled us with awe.

The Torah tells us that the Israelites stood b’tachtit hahar—usually translated “at the foot of the mountain.” However in the Talmud one rabbi interprets the phrase literally, “under the mountain.” He explains that the Holy One lifted up the mountain and flipped it over like a tub, holding it over the people, saying “If you accept Torah, good, and if not, this place will be your grave.” And they responded, Na’aseh v’nishma. We will do and we will obey.

I’ve never liked this threatening midrash. Fortunately, neither did other rabbis in the Talmud. A second rabbi argued that this version implies that the Israelites were coerced into accepting Torah, thereby making our commitment to accepting Torah involuntary, Finally, a third rabbi countered that eventually, the Jewish people accepted Torah of their own free will in the Book of Esther. I remained unconvinced.

The Hasidic commentary from Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritch, redeemed this midrash for me. The Maggid explained that the Israelites stood at Sinai in a state of expanded consciousness. They committed to Torah because, in that state, they were able to discern its deep meanings.

The problem is that the Israelites could not remain in that exalted state. (Mordecai Kaplan once said, “It is as possible to continuously believe in God as it is to stay continuously awake.”) After leaving Sinai, they were bound to fall to a lower rung of awareness. Thus the Holy One turned the mountain upside down and held it over them for a future time when they would need to be reminded of their commitment. With the mountain above them, they realized that when they are not at such an elevated state, they must recommit to Torah as if their lives depended on it.

The fifteen rabbis of the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship had a profound experience that enabled us to understand the deeper meanings of life in Guatemala. Looking beyond the obvious and simple explanations for historic injustices of poverty and violence, we absorbed the nuances and complexity of this land, its people, and its history.

As we return to our homes, when people need us and other pressing issues call to us, we must remember and recommit to sharing the stories and acting on behalf of the people of Guatemala, not because our lives depend on it, but because their lives do. 

We came to this country having prepared, as the Israelites did before receiving the Torah. We sprayed our clothes with insect repellent and took anti-malaria pills, we got our documents in order and read about Guatemala. We helped prepare those who stayed behind and who made our trip possible, by buying groceries and making lists, saying goodbye to children and partners and co-workers. We are grateful to them for continuing to do our work while we were away.

In Guatemala we witnessed the mountain smoking and heard the cries of the people, and were filled with awe and trembling. We also had intimate encounters with people, seeing their faces, entering their homes, and looking into their eyes. We have met them panim el panim, face to face as Moses spoke to God, and were filled with compassion.

We were not coerced to travel here. We came by choice. However, we met many people who have known coercion from their government and the military.

We left with deep gratitude to our leaders from AJWS, our Moses and Miriam and Aaron who guided and inspired us at every step.

We also expressed gratitude for the Torah we received from every person and organization whose heroic stories we heard in Guatemala. Their Torah is just as important as the Torah at Sinai. What is Torah, after all, if not the stories of people’s experiences passed down, not to think of them as ancient tales, but so that we can touch their experience? In the end, the values and teachings come from the same place.

And I am also grateful for the Torah of this remarkable group of rabbis. Rabbis who string words together like pearls. Rabbis who teach. Rabbis who tell stories. Rabbis who make us laugh. Rabbis who inspire. Rabbis who sing and rabbis who give us the gift of silence. And rabbis who pulled at our heartstrings and made us weep.

In a state of expanded consciousness in Guatemala, we came to discern the deeper meaning of human rights and of humanity. With that mountain above us, instead of na’aseh v’nishma, we committed to na’aseh venidaber: We will do and we will speak.

Posted on January 25, 2019 .

There is a Jewish tradition to say a blessing of thanksgiving when we embark on something new

I had the privilege on Wednesday of offering a benediction to close the opening session of the Massachusetts General Court (the House) on Beacon Hill. It was moving to be present for the swearing in of the members of the House, standing with the governor, our two U.S. senators, the mayor of Boston, and all of the House members, their families and invited guests. I was among four clergy who offered prayers for our Commonwealth  and its leadership from the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish traditions. The room was filled with a sense of new possibilities, and respect for the weighty responsibility of representing and serving the people of Massachusetts.

it was also a pleasure to be at the State House for my husband Brian Rosman's first day as legislative director for incoming Senator Jo Comerford, who was sworn in at the Senate opening. We stood in the newly-renovated Senate Chamber after the conclusion of the House ceremonies.

You can read my remarks below and see a video with an excerpt of the blessing. 

With hope and prayers for new beginnings for our Commonwealth and our country in this new legislative session.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

There is a Jewish tradition to say a blessing of thanksgiving when we embark on something new. The blessing thanks God for giving us life, for keeping us alive, and for enabling us to be present at this moment. The moment that I know you are all grateful to reach is about to arrive: adjournment.

I thank you for remaining here, for being alive and awake right now.

We awakened today to a new year, a year full of promise, bursting with new vision for our Commonwealth, yet seething with trepidation for events beyond our control. With this new legislative year, one might harken back to Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times and it was the worst of times.”

For many who are prospering, this is the best of times. Yet there are so many problems that this legislative body needs to confront and address in this worst of times.

As a person of faith, at times like these I reach back into the bookshelves to find ancient words of prophecy for inspiration. In the words of the prophet Micah: Humanity, God has instructed you how to live: do justice, love compassion, and walk humbly with your God.

That’s all we need in this world. And as representatives of the people of this Commonwealth, these words should be as sacred as the oath of office you have taken.

As members of the General Court you are called to do justice.

Today you have sworn to bear true faith and allegiance to this commonwealth and to support the constitution. I urge you to use your days to bring justice, and to end injustice. Craft just laws, and enact them in a just manner.

You are called to love compassion.

Your constituents have placed their faith in you—including those who voted for you and those who did not. When they come to you to advocate for just causes, hear their stories with compassion and respond by tempering strict justice with mercy.

And you are called to walk humbly.

This may appear to be the most challenging instruction of all. Remember, you are servants of a higher calling. Whether you walk  humbly with your God, or with the people of Massachusetts, whether you walk humbly with what your parents and grandparents taught you or with the purpose and the principles that propelled you to seek higher office, remember to walk humbly with them. Seek out wise counsel, pay attention to colleagues and staff and constituents.  None of us can carry this burden of bringing justice and compassion to our world alone.

Do justice, love compassion, and walk humbly with.

I call on the Infinite Power of Justice and Compassion to bless these officers of the Commonwealth, their families, the staff, and all those who work in this building and all who work on behalf of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Imbue them all with your gifts of vision, justice and love, so that at the end of this legislative session, our people and our communities, our neighborhoods and homes, will rejoice and say wholeheartedly, yes, these are the best of times. Ken yehi ratzon. May it be so.



Opening Session of the Massachusetts General Court

January 2, 2019

Posted on January 3, 2019 .

To be Embraced Fully in Body and Spirit

A man went to see his physician because he wasn't feeling well. "Doctor," he said, "I am suffering from a dark and unshakable depression. Nothing I do gives me any relief. I am overwhelmed with pain and most days, I can't even make it out of bed. Doctor, what should I do?" The doctor thought for a moment then offered the following treatment plan. "This is what you need to do. Tonight, go to the theatre where the Great Carlini is performing. He is the funniest man in the world. He is guaranteed to make you laugh and drive away your depression." Upon hearing these words, the man burst into tears and sobbed uncontrollably. "But doctor," he said, "I am Carlini."

This story sounds eerily familiar, reminding us of entertainers, like the late Robin Williams, who harbored such deep depression that they took their own lives. I share it to illustrate the way that mental illness can be invisible to outsiders. It also demonstrates that the ways that we choose to help others, even with the best of intentions, may have nothing to do with what a person truly needs.

I won’t ask people to raise hands, but I suspect that many, if not most of us, have encountered mental illness in our families. You understand better than most the stigma surrounding mental illness as well as the destructive impact of discrimination and of silence. Still, rarely do we feel safe enough to talk about the distress of people we know and love, or especially, our own struggles.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav suffered bouts of depression in the midst of his inspired leadership. He taught his followers, “Sometimes, people are terribly distressed but have no one to whom they can unburden themselves. If you come along with a listening heart, you uplift them and help them find new life.”

At our congregational retreat in June, a dozen adults gathered with a listening heart. We shared stories of our own experience with mental illness in our families. Parents who attempted suicide. Children who could not find a bed in a mental health facility. Siblings who required life-long attention and support. The open-hearted discussion reminded me of the heart-stopping Personal Offering that a mother gave several years ago about her son’s ongoing bouts of depression. She revealed that he had spoken of wanting to end his own life from the time he was four years old. Listening to these stories, our community can began to recognize how many of us know the frustration, pain, and helplessness of mental illness. Through these openings we begin to speak honestly and listen patiently. In these conversations we can bring light and comfort to the darkest corners of people’s lives.

This year Ed Levy invited Dr. Tanisha Pinckney to speak about the impact of the criminal justice system on people who have mental illness. She described how police can respond more effectively to someone who is acting strangely if they are made aware that the suspect has a history of mental illness. The difference can be a matter of life and death. Dr. Pinckney opened our eyes to look at mental illness in new ways.

In these perilous times, I sense a higher level of anxiety, depression, anger, and isolation among us all. Many of us are blessed to have support systems, spiritual practices, and the inner resilience to live our lives in tension with the never-ending cycle of breaking news and broken hearts.

For those of us without a diagnosis of a chronic mental illness, such emotional swings are often temporary. Grief, illness, and trauma can touch anyone, and yet we find ways to overcome them, or at least live with them.

Imagine how much harder it is for someone who is already living with social anxiety or chronic depression to “bounce back” after a day’s bad news? Imagine how much worse it is for those who live with the existential fear of being deported, or experience harassment and abuse for being gay or trans, and people of color who encounter racial profiling every day and live in fear of being shot, whether on the street or in their own home.

More than any time in my life, I believe we all need to be aware of the prevalence of mental illness in our midst. More than any other place, our synagogue, this holy community, should be vigilant in creating a safe space for people living with mental illness.

Because they are among us, whether we know it or not. One in five Americans experiences a form of mental illness in a given year. Severe mental disorders among youth between the ages of 13 and 18, is shockingly also one in five. Mental illness is the leading cause of disability in America today.

The Centers for Disease Control reported this summer that suicide rates are on the rise. More people die by suicide than in automobile accidents. Someone is twice as likely to die from suicide as homicide. Twice as likely. Children, veterans, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable. Worldwide, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for those aged 15-24 years. Among LGBT youth, three times as many contemplate suicide as their straight friends.

Experts tell us that 90% of those who take their own lives have suffered from mental illness, though many have not been diagnosed. We also know that proper treatment can prevent most suicides. Fully 80-90% find relief from their symptoms and pain through treatment, continuing to live full lives.

Unlike broken limbs, the flu, or a debilitating physical condition, mental disorders are often hidden from view. And we treat them differently. As a congregant of another local synagogue wisely noted, “When someone is in the hospital, we send them a brisket. We visit them. We check in on them after they get home. But when someone is at McLean (which specializes in psychiatric care) we do nothing.”

Mental illness is not a new phenomenon, but it has not always been hidden in the shadows. In our own tradition, we read of King Saul’s ruach ra’ah, the “bad spirit” that manifested in uncontrollable anger that led to violent eruptions against young David and against Saul’s own son, Jonathan. In the Torah, Moses himself declares to God,

"I can no longer bear the burden of this people is too heavy for me...Please kill me, let me no longer see my wretchedness."

Rabbi Elliot Kukla of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center explains that, "What the biblical stories teach us is that mental distress is a natural part of human life and a part of every society. Surviving our own moments of emotional suffering and finding the strength to walk with others through incredible pain are ancient and sacred obligations."

Many of us who do not live with chronic depression or experience serious mental disorders are troubled, anxious, or depressed these days. Still, our own emotional turmoil can open our hearts in compassion to walk with those whose suffering and pain often take control of their lives.

It is not our community’s privilege to diagnose others. Just as we can’t set a broken limb or diagnose cancer, we are not equipped to provide therapeutic services. What then is our synagogue’s responsibility? What can we do?

One of my favorite verses in the evening service of Yom Kippur reads: Haneshama lach vehaguf p’olach, chusa al amalach

Our soul comes from you. Our body is your work. God of mercy, have compassion on us, the fruit of your labor.

Within our tradition we find confirmation that our physical and emotional selves are intertwined, equally in need of compassion.

Each time we offer the prayer for healing, the mi shebeirach, we acknowledge equally those who need healing of body and spirit—refu’at hanefesh v’refu’at haguf. We easily share that a certain individual is recovering from an accident, someone else had surgery, or another person has a terminal illness. And yet, when someone has been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons, how do we share that?

First of all, it is not up to us to decide. If we ask, those with a mental disorder will tell us how they see themselves and want to be seen.

For some, mental illness is a fact of life, something one wishes that others would simply accept. We want others to treat us with respect, without trying to change us or even expecting us to change. Others would rather not live with the illness and would love to be different.

In either case, we can’t presume to know what they need. Each individual may be doing everything he or she possibly can to attend to their mental health. Sadly, our health care system does not provide enough doctors, beds or affordable care for people with mental disorders. For example, only half of Americans who experience a serious episode of depression receive proper treatment.

Despite the wisdom I’ve received from congregants, teachers, and colleagues, I’m left with many questions.

How do we, as individuals, respond to people whose minds work differently from our own? Are they shunned? Ignored? Tolerated? Pitied? Embraced?

How do we respond when someone’s behavior frightens us?

Do we seek safety? Do we consider whether that person is in danger?

Do we ask appropriate questions? Inappropriate questions?

How do we respond when we hear of a diagnosis? Is it a relief, a comfort, knowing the source of someone’s words or behavior? Does it spur us to want to help, to fix, to direct? How can we be respectful of the different ways that individuals experience their diagnosis?

Can we learn to notice and hold back our own need to diagnose others, without having real expertise or direct understanding of the individual?

How can we be supportive without projecting our own needs on others?

When is it appropriate to help someone who is not asking for help?

And what are respectful ways to find out what people want?

Today I have more questions than answers. Fortunately, in the coming year our congregation has two opportunities to delve into these questions further and perhaps arrive at some answers. Thank you to Ed Levy for arranging for Dr. Tanisha Pinckney to return this year. Those who missed her last year will not want to miss her again.

I am also pleased to announce that Hillel B’nai Torah has been invited to participate in the Ruderman Synagogue Inclusion Project, in partnership with Combined Jewish Philanthropies. With the help of the Ruderman Foundation, we will consider what we need to expand our congregational resources to be more welcoming to people with all kinds of disabilities, mental illness included. We will begin by forming an Inclusion Task Force, a group of congregants and staff to do a thorough inventory of our synagogue’s strengths and weaknesses. Following the slogan from the disability community, “Nothing about us without us,” we invite anyone with an interest, especially those who are living with a disability of any kind, to volunteer for this task force. You will be hearing more about this soon.

Over the years, our congregation has laid the groundwork for considering how we welcome marginalized individuals. Members of Hillel B’nai Torah have engaged in multiple conversations about race, sexual orientation, and gender. Our school spent a year in a reflective process to better serve students with different abilities. These conversations have led to concrete and visible changes in how our synagogue looks, how our teachers teach, and how we talk about ourselves with honesty and ongoing self-assessment. These past experiences can help us enter into this new discussion with compassion, openness, and our accumulated wisdom to guide us.

Tonight I invite you to enter into this conversation. Quietly, in prayer, we can each begin a private internal dialogue with the Source who endows each one of us with a pure soul.

May the prayers this Kol Nidre night, cause our hearts to break open with compassion for the fragility of every human being. May we find the patience to listen, the attention to truly hear, and the genuine capacity to care. May we never lose hope of repair, reconciliation, and redemption.

Together on this holy night, pouring our hearts out to God each in our own unique voice, may we plant the seeds to cultivate a holy place where every one of us is embraced, body and soul.

Ken yehi ratzon.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner/Kol Nidre 5779

Posted on September 21, 2018 .

Mining our Tradition for Guidance in Tough Times

Mining our Tradition for Guidance in Tough Times

There was once a man by the name of Reb Isaac ben Yekel who lived in Cracow. He lived in poverty for many years, not knowing where his next crust of bread would come from.

One night, someone came to Reb Isaac in a dream, telling him to go look for a treasure under the bridge to the royal palace in Prague. Like most of us, when he awoke he forgot about the dream. After all, who doesn’t dream of riches? But when the dream repeated itself night after night after night, he decided to set off for Prague.

When he arrived there he saw that the bridge was heavily guarded day and night. Yet every day he returned to the bridge. Finally the captain of the guards asked him, “Why do you come to the bridge every day? Are you looking for something? Are you waiting for someone?”

Reb Isaac told them about the dream that had brought him from his village far away. The captain began to laugh. “You came all this way because of a silly dream? If I had such faith in dreams, I would have picked up and gone to Cracow because someone in a dream told me to go there to dig for treasure under the stove in the home of a certain Jew. What was his name? Isaac ben Yekel, yes that was it! I can just imagine knocking on the door of every house, where half the Jews are named Isaac and the other half are named Yekel.”

Reb Isaac thanked the guard, and hurried off to return home to Cracow. Sure enough, when he shoved the iron stove out of the way and began digging at the hard dirt floor he uncovered the treasure. With the money he took care of his family’s needs and then, out of gratitude, he built a synagogue there.

I offer this tale as a reminder of why we gather together in this synagogue, on this holy day in the Jewish year.

We come together on this first day of a New Year with a lot of hope. Hope to be embraced by community. Hope to be inspired by meaningful stories and teachings. Hope to quell the anger and to dispel the despair.

And we return to dig under our own Jewish stove, to find answers in our texts and in our past. Today we will take a look under our stove, to dig into one of the most quoted and least understood of all biblical texts: the Ten Commandments.

Do you ever think about them? Are they important to you?

Can you name them?

Or are they so obvious or so unchallenging or so antiquated that they are meaningless to you?

Let me share two things you may not already know about the Ten Commandments. We don’t know that there are ten. And they are not commandments.

The Torah itself does not count them. It never evens acknowledges that there are ten of them. That accounts for the variant traditions between Jews and Christians of how to divide them.

In Hebrew we call them Aseret hadibrot, meaning, Ten Utterances. They are not mitzvot, not commandments. Dibrot comes from the same root as dvar, as in dvar Torah. Davar is a word, and a dvar Torah is a word of Torah. And these Aseret hadibrot are essential words.

I have drawn on the help of two 21st century teachers, Dr. Jeremy Benstein, Associate Director of the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning in Tel Aviv, and Ana Levy-Lyons, author of No Other Gods: The Politics of the Ten Commandments. Digging into the meaning of Aseret Hadibrot, both of these scholars interpret this fundamental Jewish text, not simply as a list of do’s and don’ts, but as the very foundation of a sustainable life and a sustainable world.

So imagine today that you are standing at Mt. Sinai. The ground is shaking, the lightning is flashing, the shofar is sounding. Hear these words again, as if you have never heard them before.

(If you’re worried that ten is a lot to cover this morning, be grateful that, as Mel Brooks pointed out, Moses started off with a third tablet, telling the people, OH HEAR ME! The lord Jehovah has given unto you these fifteen... (drops stone tablet) Oy. Ten! Ten commandments.)

1. I am the Lord Your God, the One who took you out of Egypt

Who knows One? Most of us don’t. What kind of instruction can we find in this statement? It doesn’t tell us to do—or not to do—anything. Among the ten utterances, this one stands alone. It is the preamble, the foundation, the essential teaching that underscores all the rest.

The most important aspect of this verse is not the beginning, but the ending: I am the One who took you out of Egypt. Not, I am God the all-powerful and all-knowing. Not, I am the Creator of the Universe. But I am the Power of justice and liberation, who took you out of Egypt.

With this first statement we draw a direct line between Egypt and Sinai. Jews cannot have one without the other. When Moses approaches Pharaoh, he asks him to “let my people go to worship in the wilderness.” Moses wants the people to have much more than physical liberation. He has a spiritual revolution in mind.

While Moses did tell the people of a Land of Milk and Honey, the first and most important stop on the journey was at Sinai, where all the people—former slaves, men and women, outsiders who were travelling along with them, elders and children, heard these very words. They learned the purpose of the Exodus. They learned the meaning of freedom. And they learned that freedom is not free of responsibility.

In the Biblical context, freedom does not mean freedom of the individual to do whatever we want. Freedom functions within community, and freedom must be shared equitably. Because God took us out of Egypt, we are not to turn around and become oppressors ourselves. Because God took us out of Egypt, we are called to be vigilant in protecting others’ freedoms.

Egypt in Hebrew, Mitzrayim, means a narrow place, As we read in Psalms, God takes us from our narrow place and brings us to a broad, open place. God gives us the possibility to expand: expand our understanding, expand our perspective, expand our compassion.

In contrast with Mitzrayim, God is an ever-expanding force for life. Because God is expansive, God cannot be contained in an idol or a word or a philosophy. And because God took us out of the narrow place of Egypt, we thrive by living our lives with awareness, with respect, and with gratitude.

In the words of Mordecai Kaplan, founding thinker of Reconstructionist Judaism: “You shall love your God intellectually, emotionally and with all your deeds. Whatever you love most in these ways is your god. For the Jewish people, the deepest love should be for freedom, justice and peace.”

2. You shall have no other gods beside me

Idolatry in itself is a kind of slavery. Idolatry is by definition limited, narrow, contained. In the children’s book, Abraham’s Search for God, Abraham is a boy who asks a lot of questions and senses that there is something more powerful than the idols his father makes. He stays out in the field so long one day that darkness falls and he sees the moon rise. He decides that the moon is more powerful than the idols and prays to the moon. Then the sun rises and seems to push the moon away, so he decides that the sun is the ruler. But then clouds cover the sun, so they must be even more powerful. The clouds are blown away by the wind. You get the picture. At the end of the story, the moon rises once again, and Abraham has a flash of insight: there is something bigger that made all of this happen.

We may not know what God is exactly, but the second utterance instructs us not to fall for the false gods.

Just as slavery reduces the human being to an object, idolatry elevates objects to gods. We begin to confuse ends and means. We might not think that we worship money, but who hasn’t made incessant work into a god? We might not think that we worship fame, but every time we post photos on Snapchat or FB, aren’t we chasing that god too?

These may seem harmless, but idols also limit the scope of our perspective, justifying our actions without regard to their impact. I didn’t abandon my child by working so much; I did it so they would have a better life. I didn’t intend to hurt my friend by sharing a funny photo of her on Instagram; I just wanted to make other people laugh. I wasn’t thinking about global warming when I cranked up the ac and kept it on even when we left the house; all I wanted was comfort. These small everyday acts do have an impact, and the choices we make reflect the gods we worship.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote,

“Truly, the gods we worship write their names on our faces. A person will worship something—have no doubt about that.... That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives and character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship for what we are worshiping, we are becoming.”

If you hear nothing else this Rosh Hashanah day, contemplate this for these next ten days. Be careful what you worship for what you are worshipping we are becoming.

3. Do not take God’s name in vain

To take God’s name in vain, is to use God in an empty, useless way. It is to try to control God into doing what you want. That is the way that the ancients prayed: they bribed their gods with gifts. They used their god’s name in magical ways to bless or to curse. But the God of Moses, the God described by these ten utterances, is beyond our control. As the prophets explained, God does not need food or drink. God doesn’t even need our praises! So why try to bribe God? There is no way that humans can control God. God is most often found in those moments when we have very little control: at the birth of a child, in the kindness of a stranger, or in a sudden breakthrough to a new way of understanding.

Not only that, how can we claim to know God’s mind? Those who make political arguments by claiming that it’s God’s will are actually trying to control God too. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points out that this third utterance was routinely violated by Americans who claimed that slavery was God’s will. Likewise, attacks on the LGBTQ community are justified today by the claim that God abhors all forms of sexuality outside of straight marriages. Those who cite the Bible as their proof of God’s will casually forget other statements in the Bible: fundamental assertions that every human being is created in God’s image, love your neighbor as yourself and do not oppress the stranger.

No individual or group, no matter how holy, can lay exclusive claim to God. I once heard the late Bishop Tom Shaw, Episcopal Bishop of the Boston diocese, teach at an interfaith clergy gathering that we should not make our religions into idols. In other words, none of us can claim that we alone know God’s will.

And if you don’t consider yourself religious, you’re not off the hook either. We shouldn’t worship political movements or philosophies, None of us has the full truth, not our parents and not our children. Not even our sports teams. And by the way, God does not take sides in the Super Bowl. (The World Series, perhaps.)

By extension, we take God’s name in vain when we shut down possibilities for change, by saying “this is what I was brought up with,” or “this is how it’s always been” or “people will never change.” To claim to understand humanity based on our limited experience of reality is to cling to another idol. To refuse to change is to be enslaved to false gods. “Boys will be boys” is no excuse. It is irresponsible to pretend that things cannot change. It is another way we try to control God. And it just doesn’t work.

While it’s important to notice what is truly wrong with our world, injustice, inequality, corruption, and lies (we will get to these later), we bring harm by believing these evils are immutable. Despair kills hope, and it robs us of our faith in the inherent goodness of our world. If the first utterance is about liberation, then the third utterance is a reminder that God’s name should always be linked with goodness and hope.

4. Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy

Shabbat is the ultimate reminder that liberation is possible. Once a week, we pause to reignite our passion for freedom and renew our capacity for goodness. On the Sabbath we declare a moratorium on destruction as well as creation. We suspend work, not only for ourselves but for those who work for us, who enable us to rest.

Shabbat is not just day of rest for us but the world’s day of rest from us. Shabbat is a cease-fire between people and the environment. It is a day to do and to be and to think differently. It is a day devoted to non-material ends. It is a day dedicated to spirit and to community.

The best way to defy the idols of money and power is to pretend they don’t even exist for one day a week. The best way to disentangle ourselves from the lies and desecrations is, for one day a week, to simply ignore them. The best way to gain perspective on the idols we worship is to refuse to worship them for one day a week.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel already in the middle of the twentieth century called attention to the oppression of work and the demands of capitalist society that plague us today. In his short poetic treatise entitled The Sabbath, which I recommend to everyone, Heschel asked:

“Is our civilization a way to disaster, as many of us are prone to believe? Is civilization essentially evil, to be rejected and condemned? The faith of the Jew is not a way out of this world, but a way of being within and above this world; not to reject but to surpass civilization. The Sabbath is the day on which we learn the art of surpassing civilization.”

Once a week, at least, we need a reminder that the world is essentially good, that liberation is always possible, and that we need to slow down and simply be part of the human community if we want to get there.

5. Honor your parents that your days may be prolonged

Several years ago, I began to look at this differently when I was teaching the Aseret hadibrot to the sixth graders. As I repeated “honor your father and your mother,” one girl looked puzzled, if not a bit annoyed. As I read her expression, I realized that she, like others in our school, had two mothers, and no father.

So we need to understand “father and mother” in a broader way that represents the experience of every child: children brought up by two moms or two dads, or by a single father or by an aunt and uncle. Our parents, then are those to whom we owe our lives, who made choices for us (for better or for worse), and who provided for us (for better and for worse).

To honor our parents is to acknowledge that we did not create ourselves. And whether we are following in our parents’ ways or whether we have abandoned them decisively, we are still the products of those who came before us. We are here because of them.

Utterance Number Five is the only one that states a reward: “that your days may be prolonged on this land that God gives you.” Honoring those who came before us not only connects us to our past; it connects us to our future, “that your days may be prolonged on this land that God gives you.” Our responsibility to our parents is a responsibility to preserve this planet for the next generation as well.

In the Talmud, the mystic known as Honi the Circle-maker came upon an old man planting a carob tree. He asked, "How long does it take for this tree to bear fruit?" The man replied: "Seventy years." Honi looked at the man and laughed, "Are you certain that you will live another seventy years?" The man replied, "I found carob trees in the world; as my forefathers planted those for me, so I too plant these for my children."

To honor those who came before is also to honor those who will come after us, to remember that all generations are interconnected. To honor our parents is to honor our responsibility to the earth, knowing full well that others handed the world off to us in the best way they knew how.

So far we have looked at the first five utterances, each of them pointing us toward a more sustainable way of life, a life devoted to liberating our bodies, minds and souls, to hearing different ways of thinking, to nurturing hope and faith, to creating connections to the past and to the future, and to dedicating one day a week to cherishing these foundational ideas.

Next comes the easy list, the ones we all know, and yet we could dig deeper into each of the next five as well. I will briefly remind you of the last five. Your homework for your Rosh Hashanah gatherings, is to consider how to think about each of these more broadly as well.

6. Do not Murder.

Do not take someone’s life—unless they are coming to take yours.

In our complex world, “Do not murder” is not only a call for a personal morality but a demand that we take responsibility for the systemic violence that plagues our planet.

7. Do not commit adultery

What are the roots of adultery? What drives someone to find a new partner, even casually, thereby breaking a life-long commitment?

The desires that lead to adultery can teach us a lot about the way our society encourages us to follow any and all desires, and to dispose of what no longer serves us. We need to learn to be true and faithful, to cherish what we have, and to find pleasure in knowing that what we have is enough.

8. Do not steal

This should also be pretty straightforward. But the Rabbis specify that stealing does not apply only to property. According to some, we are stealing whenever we benefit by paying someone else unfair wages, whenever we put someone else’s life in danger for our own comfort or enjoyment. Whenever we make our relationships transactional, we have turned a human into an object. Stealing is akin to slavery, and all the aseret hadibrot are rooted in the idea that we should never enslave another human being, or treat them as a means to an end.

9. Do not testify against your fellow as a false witness

It would have been easy for the ninth utterance to be formulated like the last three: do not lie. But that’s not what it says. ”Do not testify against your fellow as a false witness” involves something greater than telling a lie. It involves fraud. This commandment demands honesty and transparency in all our dealings, from the personal to the public.

10. Do not covet anything that is your neighbor’s

You can’t legislate feelings. But coveting means more than to desire. To covet means to want something that someone else has. If I’m hungry and I want a sandwich, that is a natural appetite. If I’m not hungry and I want your sandwich, that is coveting.

This last instruction reminds us that our sins are most often committed unwittingly. Our unchecked desires actually take away our freedom to choose. Desire itself is not necessarily harmful. But blindly following desire, without forethought or restraint, turns us into slaves once again.

Today, we begin a New Year. In the hours that we spend together in prayer and contemplation, around your holiday table, and in the quiet moments of these 10 days leading up to Yom Kippur, we set aside time for our souls to be watered by the flowing streams of ancient texts and the tributaries of the generations who taught them before us.

These ten utterances, these words, are meant to be spoken. They are a spiritual gift from the Jewish people to the world. Discuss how they impact you today. Speak about them with your children. Teach them to notice the idols that occupy their minds and drive their actions. Instruct them how to be liberated from slavish desire.

And may these ancient ideas help you start this New Year with renewed purpose, restored hope, and revived faith. Ken yehi ratzon.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner/Rosh Hashanah 5779

Posted on September 20, 2018 .




Change is Gonna Come

It’s time for a change of direction. Time for a change of heart. Time to look back at the past year and make plans for the year to come.

It starts with a sliver of light that will grow into a beacon illuminating the night sky. This weekend, look for the appearance of the New Moon. It’s the harbinger of our Season of Change, the Jewish season of repentance and renewal. This new moon marks the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul, just four weeks and change (!) before Rosh Hashanah.

I know it’s still summer, and believe me, I’m feeling it. I still have a few weekend getaways planned: time with our kids, time for concerts, and time for celebrations, including a 35th wedding anniversary for Brian and me. Yet during the workweek, I’m leafing through the machzor (High Holy Day prayerbook), meeting with service leaders, searching for inspiring readings and inspirational texts to teach.

Change, as we all know, takes time. It takes intention. It takes practice. This past month I focused on learning Spanish in an intensive summer session at Boston University. Though I had little space for thinking about the Holy Days, I became keenly aware of the importance of preparation. Without spending time on homework every day, I would have missed out on learning during class.

The same is true for the preparation for coming to the synagogue on the High Holy Days. While we may think of the 10 Days of Repentance from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur as our spiritual booster shot, the month of Elul is our Jewish time for reflection, becoming healthy enough to benefit from the annual shot in the arm. Whether learning a new language or learning to be kinder; to think before we speak/email/post/tweet; to have the courage to act on our principles and the humility to admit our mistakes, that reflection gives us the foundation for the work of Tishri, the first month of the Jewish year.

Let the moon in the sky be your reminder to take a few minutes each day to do your Rosh Hashanah homework. Consider the inner changes you need to practice, and acknowledge the strengths and successes that you want to celebrate and perpetuate.

I look forward to seeing the small changes in each of us and in our community that will lead to a great change in our country and our world. I firmly believe that a change is gonna come.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Posted on August 8, 2018 .

Thank you for making the dew fall

"Thank you for making the dew fall"

This simple prayer is added every summer to our daily prayers. In the rainy winter months (in Israel’s climate) Jews freely pray for wind and rain. But it’s audacious to ask for such abundance in a season of natural scarcity. And yet, the prayer for dew expresses our gratitude for continued sustenance, insufficient as it may seem, during the dry summer season.

This summer, while many of us will be enjoying vacations walking along a beach or hiking in the mountains, others getting away to new destinations or sharing extended family time, we feel another kind of scarcity. That is the scarcity of relief and respite from these troubled times. You don’t need to be an activist to feel an overwhelming sense of unease these days.

In our current drought of compassion, we can all appreciate a few drops of dew. The rallies this coming Shabbat can nurture our sense of purpose, the power of community, hope for the future, and gratitude for all the gifts that we have. We need this dew to drive despair from our souls. I applaud each of you for acts of kindness, generosity, and sharing, small and large. I admire each act of courage, to speak out and to stand up for others, especially if this is your first time. You bring the dewdrops that water our souls.

I want to give you an update on some work that I’ll be doing this summer and in the coming year to nurture my own soul. I’ve just been selected for the Global Justice Fellows program of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS). With the stellar staff of AJWS, including Ruth Messinger, our group of rabbis will be trained to become better advocates for human rights. This learning will be highlighted by spending a week in Guatemala in January and a trip to lobby our representatives in Washington, DC in March.

In anticipation of that trip, I’ve chosen to spend my summer learning Spanish at BU through the Evergreen Program. Spanish will also come in handy when I visit Immokalee, Florida in a few weeks and talk to workers of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). I enjoy learning languages, so this should be fun.

In the increasing moral turmoil of this moment, it is important to enjoy the pleasures of relaxation and renewal even as we continue to work for justice and compassion. As each of us finds some space for the joys of summertime, I hope that you will join me in finding time to give thanks for the dew that sustains us each day.

Posted on June 28, 2018 .

Thoughts on the Story Slam

Everyone has a story.

And from the Jewish people’s earliest communal memories, story has been a central vehicle for teaching, as well as for humor, entertainment, and for sharing our common human experience. Torah is at heart, an unending collection of stories.

From Adam and Eve in the Garden to Moses at the burning bush, from Miriam to Deborah to Esther to Ruth, from Joshua blowing the walls of Jericho down with a shofar to King David dancing in the procession as the Holy Ark was carried into Jerusalem, from tales of Rabbis in the Land of Israel to tales of ordinary Jews living in Poland or Yemen or Morocco or America, stories have established the foundation of Jewish life and illuminated our heritage.

Master storyteller Elie Wiesel taught us, “God made humans because God loves stories.”

This past week our friends and acquaintances provided a window into their lives that most of us have never seen. Listening to their stories, not only did we get to know one another better, we began to deepen our connections as a community. Their stories become part of our collective story. Everyone here, whether speaking or listening, is privileged to be part of writing the Torah of Temple Hillel B’nai Torah.

Thank you to our storytellers, to our master teacher Judith Black, and to all who worked tirelessly to make our Story Slam possible.

May we be blessed to tell and hear stories that amuse, inspire, awaken compassion, and teach us all our days.

May the Holy One love our stories!

Posted on May 9, 2018 .

Israel At 70

 Is today a day of joy or a day of sorrow?

 Today Israelis and Jews across the world celebrate Yom Ha’atzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day. It’s a very special anniversary: 70 years since Israel was welcomed into the family of nations as an independent Jewish and democratic state.

Looking back to 1948, we have much to celebrate. The ingathering of Jews from displaced persons camps in Europe, from anti-semitism in the lands of North Africa and the Middle East, from starvation in Ethiopia and from oppression in the former Soviet Union, are a modern miracle for the Jewish people.

Israel catalyzed the revival of the Hebrew language, the foundation of contemporary literature, music, and art that draw on the two-thousand-year-old heritage of Jewish text and thought expressed in our ancient tongue.

Israel is the only place on earth where Jews welcome Shabbat and holidays in the spirit of a myriad of Jewish ethnicities that characterize our people’s global sojourns and refracted through multiple lenses of Jewish religious observance.

I’ve traveled to Israel over 20 times, including 2 extended stays: one with my husband, and one with our children (our son Yonah was born in Jerusalem). For me, Israel is home and family, a source of joy and pride. I am fully an American Jew, but for me, there’s just something different about being in the land of our ancestors and in a society where Jewish creativity is part of the landscape.

We also have reason for sorrow. Our gratitude for a homeland stands in sharp contrast to the displacement of people who call our shared land by a different name, Palestine, and who have been denied full rights, whether as citizens of Israel or as an occupied people. To the Palestinian people, today commemorates the Nakba, the catastrophe, which followed when the British ended their mandate and Israel arose as an independent state.

And yet….

And yet, this year I have found reason to hope.

Returning from our visit to Israel in February, I felt hopeful because of the unsung remarkable, passionate, and effective Palestinian and Jewish leaders who are working together on the ground to create a better homeland for all.

Returning from the JStreet 10th Anniversary Conference this week, I feel hopeful because of the open-hearted dialogue between Israeli Jews, American Jews, and Palestinians who spoke. I feel hopeful because of the 1200 JStreet U college students at the conference who are vigorously protesting the demolitions of Palestinian homes in the South Hebron Hills. I feel hopeful because of our meetings with Congressional representatives and Senators who hear and respect the voices of thousands of JStreet supporters who seek to maintain Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, committed to a two-state solution that brings peace and security to the region.

In this world of pain and possibility, it is our obligation to hold on to both realities, the celebration and the sorrow. It is up to us to remain engaged with our Jewish homeland, to continue to support those in Israel and Palestine who are working for human rights, economic sustainability, and peace and security, and to stand against those who continue to deny the rights of Palestinians, who reject moderate Palestinian leaders, and who attack the forces for civil society and equality.

On this 70th anniversary of Israel’s birth as a modern nation, I recommit myself to do all that I can to work for the kind of Jewish and democratic state envisioned by its founders.

I turn to Psalm 30 to remind me of the long view:

Redeemer, you have raised my spirit from the land of no return,

You revived me from among those fallen in a pit;

For God is angry for a moment, but shows favor for a lifetime,

Though one goes to bed in weeping, one awakes in song;

You changed my mourning to an ecstatic dance

You loosed my sackcloth, and girded me with joy.

May the next 70 years bring more song than weeping, more joy than mourning, for our people and for those with whom we share our sacred land.

Posted on April 19, 2018 .

Where Were The Jews?

April 4, 2018
Where Were the Jews?

The American Jewish community harbors nostalgia for a storied time of cooperation between Jews and blacks. While those memories loom large in our consciousness, it is nearly absent from the narrative of non-Jewish African Americans. We Jews celebrate Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a close friend of Dr. King. We applaud all the clergy who answered the call to march in Selma. (The rabbi I grew up with in Kansas City, Morris B. Margolies, was there. Was yours?) In Memphis, Rabbi James Wax of Temple Israel led an interfaith service following Dr. King’s assassination, and marched to City Hall to urge the mayor to end the ongoing sanitation workers’ strike that brought Dr. King to the city. They confronted Mayor Henry Loeb, who had previously been a member of Temple Israel. But Rabbi Wax’s long-standing advocacy for civil rights had little support among the rest of the Jewish community at the time. Like many of the bold Jewish leaders who advocated and marched for civil rights, he understood how vulnerable the Jews felt in their southern and Midwestern towns. No wonder many non-Jewish African Americans remain unaware of the role that we Jews consider as significant.

Walking through the National Civil Rights Museum, I found one photo of Rabbi Heschel with Dr. King, with no caption, no explanation. In the exhibit recounting the founding of the NAACP the term “philanthropists” whispered to me the names of many Jewish founders and leaders of the NAACP. Among them, many of us recall Kivie Kaplan, who served on the board beginning in 1932 and as president from 1966 to 1975. Yes, there were many Jews involved in founding and funding civil rights organizations (SCLC, SNCC). The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted in the conference room of Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, DC. Their names and accomplishments do not enter the museum’s narrative. And why should they? After all, the leadership of most Jewish groups were not actively engaged with this movement.

Likewise today, when we seek an historic reconciliation between Jewish groups and African-American groups, we rely on the presence of individual leaders and the activism of powerful small progressive groups. In the current call for racial justice, major national Jewish organizations have yet to step up. In Memphis during the commemorations of 50 years since the sanitation workers’ strike and Dr. King’s assassination, I witnessed a powerful wave of leaders rededicating themselves to his legacy. Not only the legacy of racial justice and civil rights, but the less popular legacy of his final three years (1965-1968) when King organized and spoke out for the Poor People’s Campaign, protested to end the war in Vietnam and militarism, stood with union workers, and frequently called for economic justice as a way to bind all peoples together. It was Dr. King who asked the question, “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can't afford to buy a hamburger?” Those challenges remain with us fifty years later.

While sitting in the historic Mason Temple, with 3000 invited guests, I felt moved and uplifted, despite the sadness of the occasion, not to let Dr. King die a second death. As his friend and fellow civil rights leader Andrew Young said, quoting an African proverb, “you’re not dead until the people stop calling your name.”Dr. King’s daughter, Dr. Bernice King told us that her father had called his mother the night before he died. He wanted to give her the title of his sermon for the next Sunday just in case something happened to him. It was “America May Go to Hell.” Without missing a beat, she echoed her father’s call fifty years later: America may still go to hell. The crowd murmured in agreement. Rather than use this occasion to mourn, Bernice King called the congregation to take up her father’s challenge. She declared “it’s time for America to repent.”  She noted with urgency that in the past fifty years our country has failed to respond to the three evils of racism, poverty, and militarism. Bernice King quoted her father: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than programs of social uplift is rapidly approaching a spiritual death” and reiterated her father’s challenge “to shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society, from sectional to ecumenical loyalties.”

As her voice rose, the congregation rose with her, cheering every word as she proclaimed “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny and what affects one directly affects all indirectly. I cannot be all that I ought be until you are all you ought be, and you cannot be all you ought be until I am all that I ought be.”In that spirit, the next day ten thousand marched in the streets of Memphis: union representatives, people of all races and classes, from Memphis and across the country, led by great civil rights leaders including Rev. James Lawson who invited Dr. King to come to Memphis in 1968. As I marched along with our small contingent of the Jewish Labor Committee, I wondered, “Where are the Jews?” In the crowd I met a few Jews who had come to Memphis for the occasion. I’m sure there were others. Many Jewish labor leaders and activists were there. But aside from the JLC, there was no representation of the Jewish community.I understand there were many reasons the Jewish community was not visible. This event took place in the midst of Pesach, a time when many of us had already traveled for the holiday and others thought the challenge of observing the holiday too daunting. I know that many Jewish leaders observed the event in their home communities. Perhaps the heavy union focus made some organizations uncomfortable. Perhaps no one reached out to Jewish organizations to take part.

I came to Memphis thanks to the JLC, and because of a vision that arose at the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable (57 organizations pursuing social justice from a Jewish perspective). This year’s conference studied issues of racism. From that discussion, Marya Axner and Jonathan Rosenbloom of the JLC and Rabbi Mordechai Liebling of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, shared a vision of increasing engagement between Jewish and African-American organizations. From that discussion came the idea of a Labor Seder in Memphis. I went to Memphis to lead that seder. On the night of April 4, 2018, in the sacred space of the Clayborn Temple (where sanitation workers gathered and organized 50 years ago during the strike), 100 union leaders, Jewish leaders, and political leaders read the Haggadah, told stories of liberation, and shared a meal with the purpose of bringing us closer into relationship. We reaffirmed the Jewish commitment to Dr. King’s legacy, to work toward economic justice, to end racism, and to share the wealth of this country with the goal of lifting us all up in that “inescapable network of mutuality and single garment of destiny.”

My purpose is to charge us, authentically and fully as Jews, to answer Dr. King’s resounding call. As in the past, we may not see official Jewish organizations answer that call. Our presence may still remain invisible to the African American community. In the long tradition of Kivie Kaplan and Julius Rosenwald, of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rabbi James Wax, of Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, we need to be there. Like those bold leaders of the past, it is time for us to join the fight and to stand up for justice, regardless of our numbers, regardless of the risks, regardless of whether we get credit, and to commit ourselves to create that beloved community and to transform our nation, fulfilling Dr. King’s dream.


Posted on April 12, 2018 .

Words into Actions

We Jews talk a lot. Our prayerbooks are full of words. Our libraries are filled with books: holy texts and philosophy and history and literature. We have no shortage of words.

The Passover seder is known for lots of words as well. The book we use is the Haggadah, which means “the telling.” We are all storytellers, retelling ancient tales from one generation to another.

But the seder is not a passive event. In addition to the words, our rituals help us to learn and to experience the story of the Exodus for ourselves. Ultimately, the words of the Haggadah should also move us to action. Though the story of the Exodus from Egypt is in the past, the experiences of slavery, poverty, oppression, and redemption are always current. After the seder, there is still work to be done.

We have one week to prepare for the momentous holiday of Pesach. Whether you are hosting a seder or you’re a guest, whether you are cleaning or cooking or choosing your haggadah and readings, or getting ready for the holiday, there is work to be done now.

This coming Shabbat we have packed in a variety of ways to prepare for Pesach: physically (baking matza with our own hands), spiritually (hearing a renowned preacher speak on Shabbat about sanctuary for people fearing deportation), intellectually (studying the themes of Pesach) or emotionally (finding others to share a seder). See the rest of the newsletter to take part in these events.

I am busy preparing for my own seder at home, as well as two events that are as much about action as words.

I invite you to join me as I lead the annual Jewish Labor Seder this Sunday, March 25 at Temple Israel, Boston. In addition to honoring leaders who have contributed to major victories for workers (including a rabbi, a labor leader, and two organizations working for worker justice) this year’s seder will take note of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Our Labor Seder Haggadah will quote a variety of thinkers on issues of racial and economic justice.

In the middle of the Passover week, I will be leading another seder. On April 4 I will be in Memphis, Tennessee in the historic Clayton Temple, where MLK spoke to the Sanitation Workers fifty years ago, the night before he was assassinated. To commemorate those historic events, the Jewish Labor Committee is co-sponsoring a national interfaith Labor Seder with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) as part of a three-day commemoration in Memphis. (See this link for more information about the commemoration of the Sanitation Workers’ Strike and this link for a photo and description of the Clayborn Temple). I look forward to sharing more about that when I return, as we all work together to bring justice and liberation to our world today.

One more event later in April:

For the first time, I’ll be attending the JStreet National Conference in Washington D.C. April 15-17. I know others in the congregation who have gone, or may be planning to attend this year. JStreet is offering a discount for congregations sending 5 or more participants, so please let me know if you’re coming. I would love to see you there!

So many words, and so many ways to make a difference.

I wish you good preparations for a joyous Pesach holiday!

Posted on March 22, 2018 .

A Little bit of Heaven, Hardship, and Hope

A Little bit of Heaven, Hardship, and Hope:

Seeing Israel and Palestine with New Eyes

We are back from our ten-day congregational deep dive into the many narratives of Israel and Palestine. Our two guides, Gal (an Israeli Jew in his thirties from a kibbutz north of Tel Aviv) and Ramzi (a Palestinian Christian in his forties from Beth Sahour, a neighborhood of Bethlehem) were as much a part of our learning as the places they showed us. Their model of asking questions and sharing their different perspectives (sometimes very congruent and sometimes divergent) demonstrated complexity, curiosity, and civility. As we said goodbye, it was clear that each one of us had been transformed by the experience.

Below are a few of my personal impressions, highlighting how our tour lived up to its title. (Here is a detailed itinerary, though some aspects were changed at the last minute.)

A little bit of Heaven:

Picking beets in a muddy field for Project Leket, an organization that brings fresh produce to food pantries throughout Israel.

Enjoying Druze hospitality, eating a lavish meal while listening and dancing to the musicians playing the oud and drum.

Seeing signs of Purim fun throughout Tel Aviv and Jerusalem (costume shops, treats and decorative containers for making mishloach manot --   Purim gift baskets, posters for Purim dances and events, and hamantashen.

Joining progressive Jewish congregations for joyous and inspiring Friday night services in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

A little bit of Hardship:

Learning about the ongoing decades-long struggles of residents of Arab villages, Palestinian citizens of Israel, to have their villages recognized by the government and to receive basic services like electricity, running water, roads, and education.

Walking through the checkpoint from Jerusalem to Bethlehem with teeming multitudes of Palestinian men returning home from work at the end of the day.

Experiencing the anger and the pain of Palestinian refugees in Bethlehem whose main goal is to return to their homes in Israel’s cities and villages (whether those homes still exist or not).

Viewing the separation barrier up close, both from the Israeli side and the Palestinian side, and the stark difference between the two.

Visiting Jewish holy sites that have become either fortifications or fundamentalist shrines, and somehow do not convey a sense of holiness.

A little bit of Hope:

Meeting inspiring visionary young women like Sheereen and Genevieve who are leading efforts to empower others, including Arab farmers in the Galilee, Arab women, and at-risk youth in impoverished villages.

Seeing graffiti, banners and signs all over Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, protesting the government’s intention to deport asylum seekers.

Visiting places where people meet to learn about the other and to build bridges, like the Tent of Nations, Muslala Artists’ Collective and Women Wage Peace.

Witnessing steadfast resilience and courageous perseverance in the fact of heartbreak and hardship.

In coming weeks, we hope to share more stories and photos from the members of the group.

If you’re interested in participating in a facilitated conversation about Israel at HBT, mark Saturday, April 14 (6 to 9:30 pm) on your calendar for Resetting the Table. More information to come.

Posted on March 1, 2018 .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did I risk getting arrested?

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

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

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

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

I represented multitudes of Jews who support the Dreamers.

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

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

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

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

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

Read more:

Article in the Jewish Advocate:

Posted on February 4, 2018 .

A Hanukkah Miracle at HBT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Posted on December 20, 2017 .

Greeks, Maccabees, and Romans: Who owns Jerusalem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Posted on December 6, 2017 .

Turkey and Tomatoes

Turkey and Tomatoes—Counting our Blessings at our Thanksgiving Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Posted on November 15, 2017 .

Open your eyes.

Know yourself.

Take courage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on November 8, 2017 .

Sukkot and Storms

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

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

Our dwelling-places are no promise of security.

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

Natural disasters affect everyone equally


Hurricanes are a natural disaster while mass shootings are not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on October 9, 2017 .

To Be A Jew In The 21st Century

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

“To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century”              

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Praying together is an act of resistance.

Taking time for Shabbat is an act of resistance.

Becoming knowledgeable Jews is an act of resistance.

Teaching our children is an act of resistance.

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Yom Kippur 5778.

Posted on October 2, 2017 .