A Reflection from Sabbatical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Posted on March 2, 2016 .



Did slaves pick your tomatoes?

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on February 25, 2016 .

Double your joy - be happy AND be generous

Double your joy—be happy AND be generous.

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

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

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

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

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

This gives us a double-dose of joy

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on February 25, 2016 .

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on December 17, 2015 .

Rabbi's Eulogy for Harvey Towers, Chayim ben Moshe v'Chaya Sheinah


Chayim ben Moshe v’Chaya Sheinah

Died December 11, 2015                   29 Kislev 5776

Funeral December 14, 2015    2 Tevet 5776

Marine Corps tribute, “Taps” and presentation of the flag

Dylan Thomas poem, “Do not Go Gentle into that Good Night”

There are many reasons that we can feel angry about Harvey’s passing. He died at 65, too young. No one wanted to see him go the way he did. But Harvey was unable to live the life he desired, confined to his bed and dependent on dialysis three times a week a condition that he endured for three years as his health worsened In addition, Harvey’s death brings up buried anger over the Vietnam War, anger over our country’s dismissive treatment of veterans, and anger over our society’s inadequate care for the mentally ill. We can all be angry today for Harvey’s sake.

But Harvey was not angry—at least most of the time. He lived with his disabilities. He found ways to make life meaningful despite so many setbacks. If he were here now, he would be laughing, telling us not to take things so seriously, doing his best to lift our spirits.

Posted on December 17, 2015 .

It Is Up To Us

It is up to us

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

Unite children of Abraham!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on December 10, 2015 .

If I Am Not For Myself.....



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hamakom yenachem etchem betoch shear avlei Tziyon v’Yerushalayim.

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


If I am only for myself, what am I?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If not now when?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


Donate to support refugees across Europe and around the world.

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


American Jewish World Service  

 Joint Distribution Committee

Combined Jewish Philanthropies 

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

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

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

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Posted on November 23, 2015 .

Rabbi's Message November 12, 2015 East West

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


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

Posted on November 12, 2015 .

Rabbi's Message October 15, 2015 Responding with Hope: Resources for Repairing the World and Supporting the Needy Among Us (that may mean YOU)

I would be remiss if I did not begin by acknowledging that many of us have our hearts turned to events in Israel and Palestine today. The violence grows closer to us as we hear from family members and friends who are living with the terror. Though members of our community many have different responses to the violence, its causes and solutions, we all share a heartfelt prayer for an end to the bloodshed and fear.

I pray for those who are working toward a resolution of this conflict, toward reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians, and toward peace and security for all who dwell there, Jews, Muslims and Christians, Israelis and Palestinians alike.

While events in Israel tear us apart with anguish for all the victims, it is essential that we not lose hope. As Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav implored, upon hearing of destruction of Jewish communities during the Russian pogroms, “Gevalt, Yidden! Jews, for heaven’s sake, do not despair. Gevalt, Yidden, do not despair.”

We still have hope as long as we don’t feel helpless. Each of us can do something. Each of us has a strength, resources, mind and heart that we bring to whatever cause moves us. Rather than focus on what we cannot do—and that is a list that we can add to without end—there are ways that each one of us can make a difference. And we should not give up trying.

This coming Sunday, October 18 from 4 to 5:30, members and friends are invited to take part in the HBT Tikkun Olam Networking Event. Come and learn how HBT invests our volunteer time and energy to make a difference in our neighborhoods, our city, our Commonwealth and our world. You will learn about meaningful opportunities for you to bring your unique energy and passion to the holy work of repairing the world.

I also want to share an important new anti-poverty initiative from Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), the Jewish federation that raises money from the Jewish community and allocates funds for community needs. Despite the recovery from the 2008 recession many Jews remain in dire economic straits. In the past three years, 3879 individuals desperately turned to CJP and its agencies for help, without any community outreach. Of those who asked for help 75% had Bachelor’s degrees, and 37% had graduate degrees. They were all ages and family configurations. While we might think of Jews as affluent and comfortable, the truth is that regardless of outward appearances, many Jewish individuals and families in greater Boston are struggling.

We know this in our own synagogue community. For many years, we have tried to send a message that no one should be left out of our congregation because of financial difficulty. This past year, our leadership has worked to craft a message of openness and welcome and is considering the meaning of “dues” and the expectations that come with dues. Sustaining our community is our primary goal. We are not interested in reviewing people’s financial statements or asking for justification for people’s support. We want to be a spiritual home, not a private club.

And yet, for some individuals and families this is not enough. CJP’s new initiative increases support for families who are struggling financially. These resources are available to help YOU, whether you are living in dire straits or seeking to avoid a looming financial crisis.

CJP has devoted significant resources, both to invest in caseworkers and to increase available funding. With a combined action plan and integrated approach, those in need only have to fill out one “common application” for all the agencies. Among them, Jewish Family & Children’s Services assigns a caring caseworker and can help with food assistance, housing issues and accessing public benefits, Jewish Vocational Service offers career counseling and training, and Yad Chessed provides emergency funds.

To bring your need to a compassionate provider, contact http://raiseyourhand.cjp.org/ or call the warmline at 1-800-CJP-9500.

In addition, I want you to know that I am available to offer confidential support and a modest amount of emergency funds from the Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund. We are blessed to have members and friends who contribute to this fund to ensure that people can access funds in a confidential and compassionate manner.

Our work to repair the world, Tikkun Olam, starts with healing ourselves. If you are in need, step up. If you can lend a hand, step up. If you can donate funds, step up. This is what makes a holy community, joining together through the give and take of life, keeping the flame of hope burning in our hearts.


Posted on October 15, 2015 .

Rabbi Penzner's Kol Nidre Sermont 5776: Do It Anyway: A Jewish Approach to Race and Racism Today

We began tonight’s service, even before the chanting of the Kol Nidre, with a disclaimer.

By the authority of the heavenly court

and by the authority of this earthly court

with the consent of the Everpresent

and with the consent of this congregation

we hereby declare it permissible

to pray with those who have transgressed.

This disclaimer speaks of our collective guilt in a spirit of all-encompassing love. Over and over, our liturgy proclaims

The Eternal, the Everpresent

Is a compassionate and gracious God,

Patient, abounding in devotion and truth,

Assuring steadfast chesed for a thousand generations

Forgiving transgression, iniquity and sin,

And granting pardon.

Posted on September 25, 2015 .

Rabbi Penzner's Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5776: Making Micah's Message Your Mantra

This past summer your rabbi entered a monastery.

I assure you that I have not decided to live the cloistered life or considered a new religious tradition. I chose to spend three days for personal reflection and writing as a guest of the Benedictine monks of Weston Priory in Vermont.  In return for living in the guest house for a few days, guests are asked to eat all meals with the brothers and to join them for daily prayer. For me, it was like having my own High Holy Days with the monastery as my synagogue, the monks as my rabbis, and the other visitors, priests and nuns and spiritual seekers, as my congregation.

Posted on September 21, 2015 .

RABBI'S MESSAGE August 6, 2015

RABBI'S MESSAGE August 6, 2015


Just Do One Thing 

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

Posted on August 6, 2015 .

Rabbi's Message -- July 24, 2015 Tisha B'Av

How the city sits alone, once full of people, now solitary as a widow. The city that was so esteemed among the nations is now like a laborer enslaved.

Driving through parts of central Massachusetts recently, I saw a contemporary version of the fall of a once-proud city. In once bustling industrial towns like Fitchburg or Lowell or North Adams, the shells of factories leave shadows of the past, amplifying the desolation of economic downfall.

Posted on July 24, 2015 .

Invocation at the Kennedy Institute 3/29/2015

It is a great honor to be with you today, not only because of presence of so many who are dedicated to serving our country, but the legacy of Senator Kennedy is so vast, including his life of service, his life as a father and as a mentor to many and  because his legacy encompasses the major legislation that has bettered the lives of all Americans over the past fifty years. Long after we are gone, this building will remain as a lasting tribute to his great vision, a vision of a world redeemed through the grandest ideals of democracy and the personal relationships that undergird a healthy democracy.

Posted on March 30, 2015 .

What Spring Brings

Though there is still plenty of snow on the ground, and perhaps a few more inches to come, we have survived the brunt of a brutal winter. For many, this was the most disheartening winter on record. While we might revel in breaking our own snow record, the breakdowns of transportation, loss of income to individuals and businesses and the multiple snow days still to be made up have been demoralizing. With crews working to repair roads and tracks, and freezing temps keeping snow piles in view, we will be recovering from this winter for some time to come.

With the first day of spring upon us, this is a good time to take stock. Milestones like the spring equinox do not necessarily promise a clear ending or beginning.

Posted on March 19, 2015 .

What Selma, Occupy and Moses Have to Teach about #BlackLivesMatter (MLK Shabbat Message)

As a white person, I acknowledge that my lived experience is different from the experience of people of color. I do not consider myself a racist, yet I know that because my understanding is limited and my personal concerns often lie elsewhere, I may well display racist tendencies. For this, I ask forgiveness.

I also acknowledge that I have the capacity to be an ally or a bystander. As a Jew, I know that I carry both a historic alliance with oppressed people, people on the margins. And I also know that as a Jew in America today, my life is far more privileged than that of my immigrant grandparents and my ancestors in other historic communities.  So I approach this topic both as an onlooker and ally and as a person of conscience born of my people’s story.

While some might approach the issue of racism in America by drawing on the story of the Jew as immigrant to America, striving to fit in, we must root our story not in history, but in Torah. Specifically, in Moses and the Exodus from Egypt.

Posted on January 19, 2015 .

Rabbi's message about the murders in the Jerusalem synagogue

The horror of the killing in a Jerusalem synagogue on Tuesday continues to occupy my heart and mind, as I’m sure you may be feeling it as well. As I mull over the brutal attack I keep coming back to the message I shared on Rosh Hashanah:  it is important for us to hold the complexity of this situation in Israel and Palestine, and to feel compassion for its victims.

Many in Boston are in mourning for the loss of their teacher, colleague and friend, Rabbi Mordecai Twersky. I am in mourning for another of the victims, Rabbi Kalman Levine, who I knew as Cary Levine. He grew up in the same synagogue in Kansas City that I did, and I knew his sister and parents as well. It feels like a personal loss to me and my hometown community. But we do not need to know any of the victims personally to be mourners.

Posted on November 20, 2014 .

Building a Holy Community--Kol Nidre Sermon 5775

This will be my last sermon about Limestone. For the past nine years, I have found a way to weave stories into Yom Kippur about the Tikkun Olam Family Work Project and our annual week of repairing homes in Northern Maine. We have also been known as JWH “Jews with Hammers,” and by the slogan, “repairing the world one house at a time.” But no more. In August, a group of 18 (chai) made our final trip to Limestone, Maine. While we hope to attract new families who will help decide on a different location for our summer trip next year, we won’t be returning to Limestone.

For the past year we have known that this day was coming. Pastor Ellen called a few of us aside a year ago to tell us of her plans to retire in 2015. She explained that, for a variety of reasons, we would not be able to continue our mission work there after her retirement

Posted on October 5, 2014 .

What's the Connection between Yom Kippur, the Ba'al Shem Tov and the Hyatt Workers?

At the close of every Shabbat, we invite Elijah the Prophet to join us in the passage from holy day to weekday. This will also be true this coming Shabbat as we end our Yom Kippur observance—the Sabbath of all Sabbaths—and prepare to go back into the world. Ideally, we will leave that experience--ending our fast, walking out of the synagogue, going to our individuals home and lives—somewhat changed.

These past weeks many of us have been focusing on teshuva, on the work of repentance and return. This requires inner work: figuring out just when did I harm someone, what can I do to repair it and how can I learn from this so that I don’t repeat the offense?

Posted on September 30, 2014 .