If I Am Not For Myself.....



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hamakom yenachem etchem betoch shear avlei Tziyon v’Yerushalayim.

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


If I am only for myself, what am I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If not now when?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


Donate to support refugees across Europe and around the world.

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


American Jewish World Service  

 Joint Distribution Committee

Combined Jewish Philanthropies 

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

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

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

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Posted on November 23, 2015 .