Why I’m Going: As I Prepare to March

What bothered me most about last years cinematic representation of the march from Selma to Montgomery was the absence of the rabbis.

During the Civil Right’s movement, as you know, prominent Reform and Conservative rabbis became public civil rights activists, speaking out to their congregations, marching with Rev. Dr. King, and getting arrested at demonstrations (sometimes to the disapproval of their congregants and/or denominational leadership). Among the most famous was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose photo marching arm in arm with King in Selma in 1965 has become an iconic image of Jewish civil rights activism, and whose description of that march as “praying with my legs” is often quoted by Jewish activists.

In the movie however, as I’ve mentioned in the past, there is no Heschel standing next to Dr. King, although there was a quick flash of a kippah in the crowd. This bothers me for two reasons. To begin with, the way that Heschel and other rabbis put themselves literally on the line during the Civil Rights Movement has had a deep impact on my own Jewish identity and my understanding of Judaism’s call to fight for a just world, not only for ourselves but for everyone. I didn’t just feel like Heschel and the other rabbis were missing from the story, I felt that I was missing from the story.

The second reason their absence bothered me, is that it seemed like a wasted opportunity in terms of educating today’s youth about the role of Reform Jews in the Civil Right’s Movement. These days especially, as we find ourselves facing renewed fears of increased or visible Antisemitism in the world around us, it seems all the more important to take advantage of a little good PR when we can get it, and to find ways to teach others about the good we do in the world. It makes me sad to think that there may be young people today who don’t realize that a large part of what it means to be Jewish is to fight for the rights of others, and that indeed, Jews have done this in marked ways in the past, and in prominent moments in America’s history especially.

The Reform Movement has publicly supported civil rights since the beginning of the 20th century, first coming out against lynching in 1899 and passing resolutions throughout the 1950s and 1960s (and beyond), asserting their commitment to civil rights and racial justice. I was surprised to learn recently however, that Civil Rights activism was often more complicated for rabbis in the South than for their northern counterparts. Southern rabbis generally supported racial equality in principle, but were concerned about the practical implications of taking a public stand against segregation and for civil rights. A rabbi’s public support of civil rights, it was feared, might strengthen the segregationists’ claim that Jews threatened the southern way of life, and could put the Jewish community in economic and physical danger.

Jews in the South were facing discrimination of their own, with several communities experiencing the boycott of Jewish businesses and sadly, some synagogue bombings as well. Thus, the social position of Jews in the south was precarious –they were accepted as part of the social fabric of “White America”, but they were also seen as different. They had to work hard to fit in, and many Jews were reluctant to take action that would set them apart from the other white community leaders. They felt they needed to assure their own equality and security first. And some even went so far as to call segregation a “Christian problem”, punting the issue over to their Christian colleagues.

Although I cannot know what it is like to be a rabbi in such a time and place, I was saddened and disturbed to learn about this. Even though I can imagine someone making a similar claim today – that now is a time to lay low and not call extra attention to ourselves – I, personally,  would much rather stand up and demonstrate what Judaism is all about as a way to push back against Antisemitism, than bury my head in the sand and hope the storm passes. Racism or inequality of any kind is not a Christian problem. It is also not a political problem. It is an American problem, a human problem, and, I deeply believe, a Jewish problem.
Which is why, when the call came late last month, I was quick to answer.

The NAACP has organized America’s Journey for Justice, an historic 860-mile march from Selma to Washington D.C. In response, the Reform Movement, in keeping with our long history of involvement, partnership and collaboration with the NAACP, has quickly mobilized rabbis from around the country to participate so that our presence and support will not only be felt throughout the march, but will be visible on each day, as rabbis will take turns carrying a Torah scroll throughout the 40 day journey. Even though the call for action came at short notice, and even though the last days of the march lead right into Rosh Hashanah, 150 rabbis have already signed up to participate and more are joining every day. Each morning of the march, 2-3 rabbis will receive the Torah from the rabbis who marched the day before and will carry it forward, thus carrying the Jewish values that compel us to stand with our neighbors and fight for racial justice and equality.

I am incredibly proud to share that on August 12, this Wednesday, I will receive the Torah with two other rabbis and will carry it through an area of Georgia near Atlanta, participating with my own hands, feet and heart, in this historic event.

This 40 day march, this Journey for Justice, is focused on racial and structural inequality. Together we will be marching under the banner, “Our Lives, Our Votes, Our Jobs and Our Schools Matter”. The march is a peaceful protest advocating for economic and educational equity, voter rights, reform to the criminal justice system, and an end to racial profiling and police brutality. Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, a key piece of legislation designed to protect voting rights and prohibit discriminatory voting practices. And yet, despite this historic anniversary, there is still much work to be done as we continue to see racial disparities all across the nation, from the streets to the voting booths.

As we mourn the death of Michael Brown, just about a year ago today, we recognize that marching will not bring him back, but we hope it may be one step in ending the cycle of brutality in our country that has taken his and so many other lives. These steps we are taking – 40 days of steps; 860 miles of steps – are important steps toward acknowledging the humanity, dignity and equality of all Americans. Hopefully they will be just the first of many more steps to come.

Rabbis Organizing Rabbis, a joint partnership of URJ’s Religious Action Center and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, sent out this statement just last week:

Why do we march?

We march because we say enough. Enough of the tragedies. Enough of the subtle and overt racism. Enough of standing by. We march not only in the name of those whose deaths woke up our nation’s consciousness, but for the millions of others whose loss of life, loss of home, and loss of dignity never made a headline. Our hearts break for the world as it is–parched by oppression–constant, crushing, and unacceptable. We remember the slavery and oppression that bloodied our own past even as we recognize the privilege into which many of us were born. We, therefore, march arm-in-arm with other people of faith in our humble attempt to live up to our tradition’s demand to be rodfei tzedek, pursuers of justice, equality, and freedom. We feel called by our God, our tradition and our consciences to march. At the same time, we know that simply marching in this remarkable forty-day Journey to Justice is not enough. We march for the forty-first day, the one-hundred and twentieth (day), and the years and generations to come. We march, as our ancestors taught us, to get from Egypt—the world as it is, filled with injustice—to the Promised Land. We march toward a vision of this land’s promise: our world redeemed, overflowing with chesed, tzedek, umishpat—compassion, justice and righteousness. 

On Wednesday, I will be marching with this vision at the front of my mind and my heart. On that day, I will be marching in the name of those Southern rabbis who did take action even when it wasn’t the popular thing to do, like Rabbi Perry Nussbaum of Jackson, MS, who survived the bombing of his synagogue and home, as well as an attempted removal by some of his own congregants who did not agree with his public stances on civil rights issues; I will be marching in the name of Rabbi Heschel, along with Rabbis William G Braude, Saul Leeman, and Nathan Rosen, who came to Alabama to march with Dr. King; and I will be marching in the name of the 17 rabbis who were arrested in St. Augustine in 1964 (some of whom became my teachers at rabbinical school 40 years later).

In a joint letter entitled “Why We Went”, those 17 rabbis wrote, “Each of us has, in this experience, become a little more the person, a bit more the rabbi he always hoped to be (but has not yet been able to become. . .We came to stand with our brothers and in the process have learned more about ourselves and our God.”

I too, am looking forward to Wednesday as a day when I will become a little more the person and a bit more the rabbi I have always hoped to be but have not yet been able to become. I too hope to learn more about myself and my God through physically and personally acting for what I believe in.

I march for equality; I march to maintain the history of Jewish involvement in Civil Rights that I care so deeply about; I march for myself that I may practice what I preach; and I march for you, my community, in the hopes that you might join me on this march, or on some march in the future; that you might follow my example and take up the call for justice; and that you might see our contemporary issues of equality and justice not as political issues, but as Jewish issues, and engage with them for the sake of Torah and the betterment of our world.

May each of us march on proudly; May our world be healed one step at a time.
Kein Yehi Ratzon.

Solidarity Shabbat: Mourning Our Losses, Celebrating Our Wins

I am daunted by the task of speaking tonight. I feel a great weight on my shoulders.

I feel the weight of nine vibrant lives, snuffed-out. I feel the weight of expectation – the expectations that you, a diverse group with diverse opinions, have of me as your rabbi, the expectations that the Reform Movement – also diverse yet clear in its missions and values – has of me as one of their rabbinic representatives, and the expectations that I have for myself as a rabbi and as a human being.

I feel the weight of Tradition – the Reform Jewish tradition of social activism, of speaking out for justice, and the Jewish traditions that I deeply believe bring meaning and purpose to my life.

I feel the weight of the prophets standing at my back. Men and women of God who took to the streets and decried their understanding of God’s will, whether the people found it popular or repugnant. Who carries on their legacy, if not me?

And I feel the weight of Torah – the yoke of the Law, as it has been called – heavily weighing me down. How do I live with it’s values and its contradictions?  How do I reconcile its ideals with the reality of the world around me?

And finally, I feel the weight of the Priesthood, whose legacy I also carry forward – the legacy of men who enacted sacred rituals and rites in order to comfort their people.

I am daunted by the these tasks. I do not venture into this sermon easily tonight.

In the wake of tragedy, each of us struggles to respond. What are our obligations? What is our role? What are we capable of? What are we not capable of? How do we live in a world that one day is abhorrent to us and the next day inspires us?

Even when I don’t have all the answers, I seek to comfort and be comforted. But in the wake of last week’s inexcusable tragedy, I find myself floundering. Each one of us finds comfort in different ways. Some find comfort through action, while others find comfort in faith, in tradition, or simply in the loving arms of another. For me, each of these responses brings a measure of comfort, and thus, I feel torn as to which path to choose tonight.

I want to act. I am angry.

Religious intolerance, racial discrimination and hate-motivated violence have no place in our society, which aspires to be a haven for people of all faiths, races and ethnicities.

I want to do something – do whatever it takes to repair our world, to bring it one step closer to the dreams we have for it, and for ourselves. I know there are many possible actions and responses to choose from, and none of them is perfect. There are no easy answers. No action, no advocacy, will solve all our many problems. And yet, especially on this historic day of long awaited progress, how can I stand here and say that it is better not to act, even if acting is only one step, is only one problem solved at a time?

I want to preach.

I want to stand up, as my friend and colleague, Rabbi Jill Perlman did, this week, at a prayer vigil at an AME church. I want to teach, as she did, about Moses, who in last week’s parasha, called out to his brother, Aaron, get your fire pan and run – run into the midst of our people. “And Aron ran,” she wrote, “He rushed in and he stood among the people…he literally stood between the dead and the living – Vayamod bein hameitim uvein hahayyim – Aaron stood between the dead and the living in an attempt to stem the flow of blood, to prevent more people from perishing from the advancing plague.”

Rabbi Perlman goes on to teach the midrashic tradition that Aaron fought the Angel of Death on behalf of his people that day. “He stood his ground, he stood between life and death – and the plague was checked.

I want to stand my ground, like Aaron.

I want to stand next to my friend Jill – stand between life and death – and speak out against the plagues in our own society. The plagues of hate and ignorance, intolerance and complacency. I want to demand that we take more responsibility – not as as a society, not as a government, but as human beings, for providing care and help for those with mental illness, and for providing better education to counter ignorance, and I want to demand that we, as human beings, care more about the right to live than we do about the right to own.

I want to weep.

I want to wrap my arms around the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church community, around those nine bereaved families, around anyone who has ever had someone they love ripped from their arms because of hate, because of ignorance, and yes, because of guns. I want to share words of condolence, such as my friend and colleague, Rabbi Jen Gubitz, wrote this week, when she shared these words:

Dear Mother Emanual, we are so profoundly saddened for your loss. We are so profoundly saddened for your losses. For thousands of years, in Jewish tradition, upon hearing of a death, we recite these words – Baruch Da’ayan Ha’emet, Blessed is the True Judge. And we tear Kriyah – we tear, rip, rend our clothing to expose our hearts. We expose our hearts breaking for you and, dare I say, with you.

I want to write sympathy card after sympathy card. I want to tell them how sorry I am and how sad I am. I want to say that while I will never understand what it is like to be African American, or to be hated simply for the color of my skin, that I do know what it is like to be a minority and to carry the weight of a history of oppression and hatred. My people too, have been enslaved. We have been hunted and murdered. We have been hated for our identity and our beliefs and our bloodlines.

I know what it is to fear that I and my loved ones might be targeted for these things. I know how it feels to want to keep my synagogue doors open and welcoming to the stranger, but to choose to keep them locked instead for fear of another Dylan Roof wandering into our midst – armed and hateful.

I want to turn to Torah and to the Wise Traditions of my people.

I want to learn from this week’s Haftarah portion, where a man named Jephthah makes a terrible vow. Jephtah wanted victory over his enemy so badly – or maybe understandably, he wanted to defend his land and his people, his home – so badly, that he makes this terrible vow: If You, God, will deliver my enemy into my hands, than in return, whatever comes forth first from the doors of my house to meet me when I return, I shall offer it up to You as a burnt offering.

Jephtah’s enemy is delivered into his hands, and when he returns home, it is his beloved daughter who first comes forth from his house to meet him. His daughter, whom he must then sacrifice in accordance to his vow.

The Torah teaches us that we must protect ourselves from those who wish to kill us. But the Torah also teaches us, here, in this story of Jephthah’s daughter, that protecting ourselves, our homes, even perhaps our very lives, can come at a steep price.

It seems almost unfair sometimes, that Jewish tradition holds, above all, the value of pikuach nefesh, the value of life. Our Sages taught: “He who takes one life it is as though he has destroyed the universe”. And yet, it is unfair, because the very same value of pikuach nefesh justifies the decision to arm ourselves against our enemies. He who saves a life, it is as if he has saved the world. How are we supposed to live with this contradiction? How are we supposed to understand it?

I wonder, with deep humility, if the trick isn’t to figure out how to do both – protect life and save life – as safely and as considerately and as fairly as possible.

The right answers are never the easy answers and Judaism has much to say about the cost of one life for the sake of the many, and about when it’s okay to kill another and when it is not. I could write a sermon a week and it would take years to work through it all; to come to some clarity. Torah is not meant to give us quick or easy answers. Torah is meant to be wrestled with; To be studied over time. We must protect life and we must figure out a way to make the world a place where we can safely turn our swords into plowshares.

And finally, I want to find comfort in faith.

I want to remember where Mother Emanuel’s name comes from. Emanuel, in Hebrew is prounounced, im anu El, God is with us. I find comfort in that, even in the darkest of times. Perhaps God can not change this world, but God has given us the ability to change it. And while we struggle to do so, Im anu El, God is with us.

Though last week was terribly dark, today’s Supreme Court decision to make Marriage Equality a reality for all Americans, affirms my faith in our ability to fight for what we believe in and, by doing so, make the world a better place.

Maimonides said, Ani Ma’amin, I believe with a perfect faith. Faith is terribly hard to hold on to, especially in the wake of so many challenging issues, especially when humanity looks in the mirror and is ashamed of what we see. But today we looked better in the mirror – more equal, less hateful. More humane.

And so – yesh li Tikvah – I have hope. And so – Ani Ma’amin – I have faith.

And so, in the end, I will act on my conscience. I will stand up for what I believe to be true and just, but not without first consulting my sacred texts and tradition, and struggling with the complex and sometimes contradictory messaging therein. And in the meantime, I will seek to comfort and be comforted. To cling to my fellow man, and to God – both of whom I believe in, even when they let me down.

My colleague Rabbi David Widzer wrote today, “The work of equality, in all realms, is never done. We both mark its darkest moments and celebrate its triumphs with the faith that we are always called to the pursuit of justice.”

I want to do all these things. I want you to do them too.

Yir’defu Zedek – Let us pursue justice unabashedly.

Yir’defu Yichud – Let us pursue solidarity, remembering always that our commonalities are far greater than our diversities.

v’Yir’defu Shalom – And through both our pursuits of justice and solidarity, let us come to finally know peace.

Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s Will.

The Difference Between Knowing And Doing

There is a difference between knowing and doing.

We all know what is right, more or less. And by now we all, hopefully, have a general sense of what the Torah tells us to do. We know about Jewish values and mitzvot. We know we are supposed to feed the hungry, and care for those who have no one else to care for them. We know we are supposed to give tzedakah, take care of the environment, be kind to others, and watch out for our fellow man.

But there’s a difference between knowing and doing. And I’ll be the first to say that I don’t always do what I know I should.

As a child, I sometimes begrudged the surrender of my quarters to the family tzedakah box and the one at Religious School. When I learned that Jewish tradition teaches us that it is better to willingly give less than it is to give more but to do so grudgingly, I worked to overcome my selfish hold on my quarters. But it was hard.

And it was even harder in college and rabbinical school, when money was tight and I struggled to make ends meet. During those years,giving really was a sacrifice – one that even caused me to feel angry because if I gave to another, my own plate, quite literally, would be less full.

I tried to calculate the percentage that Jewish tradition sets – no less than 10% and no more than 20% of our income is required for tzedakah – and I tried to take to heart the teachings that even a person who is receiving tzedakah must set aside a portion of what little they have to give to others, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t still feel resentful about it sometimes, or that I gave as often as I should have, or that I didn’t wonder what difference it would make – my meager 10% in a world full of need.

The truth is that I don’t think I really felt good about giving tzedakah until the money I was turning over was money I had earned on my own – not through a token allowance, or through scholarships or generous parents – but through hard work and sacrifice. Only then could I truly feel a sense of gratitude for what I had and a responsibility to take care of those who had less.

Time is another thing that I have struggled with giving. None of us has enough time anymore. And I could sermonize about the society that makes us work ourselves to death; about the culture of over-committed parents and kids; about how much time we spend at our desks compared to how much time we spend with the people that we love, but I’m not here to reprimand you for what I suspect you already feel badly enough about. I’m here to say that I share your struggles; that I feel badly about it too; that I am also over-committed and over-extended; that I also don’t spend enough time with the people I love.

When I became a rabbi, with luxuries I didn’t have as a student, I again felt a sense of gratitude for my improved situation and I made a commitment to volunteer once a week in a local organization, something I never had time to do while in school, and had always felt guilty about. I volunteer on my day off even though it would be easy enough to volunteer during work hours and justify it by saying that rabbis are expected to volunteer in the community, but I felt that would lessen the selflessness of my deeds and rob me of the sense of sacrifice that I believe goes hand in hand with the sense of fulfillment we get when we truly and completely give of ourselves.

And there are definitely weeks where I need that time for other things: for laundry and errands, for catching up on much needed rest, for cleaning my apartment, for socializing with friends…But when I’m not giving of my time, I feel like I’m not being the best rabbi I can be or the best Jew I can be or, maybe most importantly, the best person I can be.

And still, I often feel I am not doing enough. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when we compare ourselves to others. I am sure that many of you, like me, have friends and colleagues who seem to find endless amounts of time to engage in tikkun olam – acts of repairing the world. They go to Washington DC and rally for important causes; they run marathons; they canvas on behalf of political candidates; they go to Africa with NGO’s and build bathrooms and dig wells. . .

Comparing ourselves to others in this way – feeling guilty about what we can’t do – eats away at our moral conscience; the weight of wanting to do everything we can to make the world a better place while at the same time, knowing that we only have so much time, so much money, so much energy to give.

How do we know if we are doing enough?
How do we know when we have done enough?

Jewish tradition teaches us, lo alecha hamlacha ligmor, v’lo ata ben chorin l’hivatel mimena – “You are not responsible for completing the work, but nor are you free to desist from it.” No one is fully responsible and no one is exempt.

This year, when I participated in the Shave for the Brave there were many different reactions to my commitment to shave my head, but I was surprised by how often people said to me, “I could never do that!”

Each time I would think, “Hmmm….well…maybe there’s something else you can do.”

After all, there are lots of different ways to do good.

Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr did not shave her head this past spring, but she did spend countless hours of her time to organize and encourage the rest of us. She was the brainchild of the 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave Campaign and she worked much harder than any of us to make a grieving mother’s dream a reality (or at least, the dream we had control over).

After The Shave, Rebecca blogged about people who “mitzvah-shamed” her for not shaving her own head. Mitzvah-shaming, she explained, “is the act of making someone feel inadequate, guilty, or inferior…for not observing the same mitzvah as the rest of the group.” When we Mitzvah-shame, we fail to recognize that even the smallest act makes a difference, and that different kinds of actions may have different degrees of meaning for different people.

There are so many different ways to be involved in helping others. There are different ways to save people; different ways to give to people; different ways to get involved and support other’s efforts to do good in the world.

We Jews often translate the word “Tzedakah” as charity, meaning donated money, but tzedakah is really any act of righteousness, not just donating funds.There is no end to the ways in which Jewish tradition encourages us to help one another and to take care of the world around us. We are commanded to give of our financial resources to be sure, but we are also commanded to give of our hearts.

But when I think back to the guilt I felt as a struggling student who’s 10% was so very meager; when I think back to the invective to give even if you are dependent on receiving from others, I can’t help but wonder if our own tradition doesn’t Mitzvah-Shame us just a little bit.

Then again, if Torah didn’t obligate us to give no matter the direness of our own circumstances, would we give even when we could afford to? Give, not because the value is instilled in us by generations of Jewish teachings and traditions passed down and held dear, but because we are inherently generous? I like to believe in the inherent good of people but history and sociology and sometimes even my own experiences tell me that complete faith in the good of humanity is naive. Torah strives, time and again, to curb our baser instincts; to redirect our human faults. When we are struggling to survive, our instinct is not to give generously, but to cling to what we have. That’s why it’s so moving when one person gives their last bite of bread to another; that’s when we find ourselves asking, would I do that in their place? Would I be able to be that selfless?

On the other hand, Albert Einstein once said, “We cannot despair of humanity, for we ourselves are human beings.”

Jewish tradition says it too, B’makom shein anashim hishtadel lihiyot ish, “In a place where no one is acting human, strive to be humane.”

Many of us might not think we are strong enough to give away our last bite of bread, and we feel ashamed of that, and our shame holds us back from contemplating what else we might be able to.

We don’t all have to be marathon runners and head shavers. The little sacrifices matter too. I have faith in humanity because I have heard so many wonderful stories of people helping one another, and because I have been ashamed of my own inaction, and I have turned that shame into action, and I believe that others can do the same.

I am so inspired by the people in this community who give of themselves in so many different ways. I recently asked the members of our TBD Facebook group to share stories with me of how they are making a difference in the world. There’s not enough time to share each story this morning, nor would it be fair to all of those whose stories I don’t know about, but I hope you will share your stories and achievements with one another over the days and months ahead, because when we hear about what other people are doing, we are often more motivated to do something ourselves. I almost talked myself out of doing the Shave for the Brave. I could never do that, I said to myself. But then my friend Marci signed up and I knew that if she could do it, I could do it too.

On Rosh Hashanah, we contemplate how we can be better people in the year to come. How we can be less begrudging with the dollars we donate or with the time we are asked to give to our communities. One of my classmates and colleagues, Rabbi Joel Simons, recently wrote the following words: “Through the High Holy Days we ask that God write us in the book of life. And as we conclude Yom Kippur we transition from asking God to write us in the book of life to asking God to seal us in the book of life…(But) what is a life worth writing? What is a life worth sealing?  We cannot simply ask God to write and seal us in the book of life; we must commit to God a life worth living…and a life worth sealing.”

What actions will we take immediately after exiting the sanctuary on these most sacred of days? Hopefully, we will not be shoving others out of the way to get to the Break-Fast table! “Will we guide ourselves and others to a life worth living?” Rabbi Simons asks, “or will we go through the motions of another year and find ourselves in the same place one year later? No better, no worse, just the status quo?”

This year, we’re giving you an easy and immediate opportunity to exit services on Yom Kippur and start the year off right with a simple act. On Yom Kippur, we will be holding a bone marrow drive with Gift of life, one of the nation’s public bone marrow registries helping children and adults find donors for bone marrow transplants.

Gift of Life has been able to match over 10,000 individuals and facilitated nearly 2500 transplants. And you could be one of those registered donors; one of those who saves a life.

Believe it or not, registering is quick and painless. On Yom Kippur, between morning and afternoon services, we will have a Gift of Life station here at TBD. There, you’ll find volunteers, led by Eileen Harvey, who will ask you to fill out some paperwork, and take a swab of your cheek with a large q-tip. No needles. No blood. Ten-minutes of your time for the opportunity to save a life.

The Talmud teaches: if you save a single life, it is as if you saved the entire world. Each life is a world of its own, and we have an obligation to protect and secure that life. I registered with Gift of Life earlier this year. I hope you will join me in helping to fulfill the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh, of saving lives.

Only those between the ages of 18-60 are eligible to register but there are other ways to participate – you can help volunteer, or simply spread the word. Your neighbors and friends who are age-eligible to register are welcome to come between services, so please invite them to participate. They do not need to be members of TBD or have High Holiday tickets. Jewish tradition suspends its regular rules for the purpose of saving a life, and so will we.

And of course, if you choose not to participate – if for some reason you feel that you just can’t – then not to worry, no one here will Mitzvah-Shame you. We only ask that you find something else that you CAN do. On Yom Kippur we are giving you the opportunity to start off right but the next 353 days of the Jewish year are up to you.

I know it’s not as easy as I make it sound,and that not all opportunities to give of yourselves are as easy and as a quick and painless cheek-swab, but I think that Jewish tradition isn’t trying to Mitzvah-shame us, even if that’s sometimes how it feels. I think Jewish tradition is trying to say to us that we have to overcome the challenges of giving – the financial challenges, the time-commitment challenges – and give anyway.

I know we are all stretched too far and too thin. But I also know that kol Yisrael aravim zeh l’zeh, each member of the Jewish people, and each member of the human race, is responsible for one another. And I know that if we don’t take care of our world no one else will.

I know that I am asking you to make your life a little harder so that someone else’s life can be a little easier; to give of yourself to someone else, even if it’s not easy or inexpensive or convenient.

There is a difference between knowing and doing.

Know that it is hard. And then do it anyway.

Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s Will.

Love Songs

This summer, in Provincetown, I rediscovered an old friend. Her name is Holly Near.

My parents are pretty typical examples of those who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, and since our family car trips when my brother and I were growing up predated ipods, ipads, hand-held video games and mini-vans with DVD players (we were still watching VHS back then), the hours were filled singing along to the folk music of my parents’ generation: James Taylor, Joni Mitchel, Carol King, Cat Stevens, Peter, Paul and Mary Crosby Stills Nash & Young and a somewhat lesser-known artist (at least to those of my generation) named Holly Near.

 A quick Google-search of Holly Near will tell you that a “significant arena of (her music & activism) is the LGBTQ community. Her interest (in this cause) was both personal and political. She was one of the first celebrities to discuss her sexual orientation during a pioneering 1976 interview with People magazine.”

The songs on the CD that my family owned, entitled “Imagine My Surprise”, are mostly songs about women: strong, empowered women; women facing oppression; and most of all, women loving women.

But as a young girl in the 80’s, belting out the lyrics, I didn’t have any real comprehension of the significance of Holly’s music or the barriers she had begun to break down with her music only a decade before.

While it’s true that her music was probably the first awareness I had of non-heterosexual relationships, I was lucky to have parents who lovingly explained to me that sometimes men love men, and sometimes women love women, and that, really, anyone can love anyone and that’s okay.

Just like my parents told me that being a woman and being a Jew no longer meant that I couldn’t pursue any dream I had. Just like they told me that a person’s skin color or ethnicity or religion doesn’t matter.

 I was raised on the rhetoric of equality and it was decades more before I began to realize that when my parents said that these kinds of things didn’t matter, what they really meant to say was that these things shouldn’t matter. Because of course, all too often, all too sadly, they still do.

But back then I was an awkward kid with a loud voice and a love for the folk music of my parent’s generation – even if I didn’t really understand it. So I happily belted along to Holly Near’s lyrics, unaware that they were any different than anyone else’s.

I identified strongly with the songs about women who were oppressed or bullied, and when I sang out: “I have dreamed on this mountain since first I was my mother’s daughter and you can’t just take my dreams away – not with me watching,” the words flowed from my heart –a heart that knew about bullying all too well – and with my mind that,looking back now, I suspect unconsciously connected these words to the words of my families other beloved musical genre – Jewish folk music.

Holly singing “you can’t take my dreams away” was just like Debbie Friedman’s musical rendition of Theodore Hertz’s famous line: Im tirtzu ain so agadah – if you will it, it is no dream – wasn’t it?

But somewhere along the line, we lost Holly Near’s CD. Countless times, I combed through the house, looking for it to upload to my itunes playlist. Countless times I searched itunes to download it directly. But alas – the CD was nowhere to be found and itunes didn’t carry that particular CD (or much of her music at all for that matter) and so Holly’s music slowly faded from my mind.

Flash forward to this summer, where I found myself driving down a Las Vegas suburban street with my three cousins. Sydney is a 17 year old gorgeous teen-aged girl who grew up in California’s OC; Asher is a 21 year old, Orthodox, yeshiva-kid-turned-Israeli-soldier, and Elli is a 26 year old, rambunctious, outspoken, tattoo-covered vegan who is studying to be a midwife. And I’m a rabbi. So we make a pretty interesting crowd.

Despite our vast differences, our love for one another is deep and being together during those difficult weeks was a tremendous blessing. We did have some difficulty agreeing on what radio station to listen to in the car however.

That is, until we discovered Macklemore’s song, Same Love, which seemed to be on the radio every 5 minutes this summer (in case you didn’t notice).

Macklemore is a straight, white rapper, and Same Love is his commentary on the fight for marriage equality and on the irony of the Hip Hop world using the word “gay” as a derivative since it is, in itself, a culture that, as he puts it is, “founded in oppression”.

What a Jewish song! I thought, (although likely, I was the only one in the car thinking that particular thought).

Jewish, because we too concern ourselves with oppression everywhere – not just Jewish oppression – because we too, are a people “founded in oppression”.

So when Macklemore raps about how even though he himself is not gay, the cause of marriage equality is a cause worth fighting for, and when he states: “It’s human rights for everybody, there is no difference!” I found that tears had come to my eyes.

How refreshing for a contemporary artist to promote love and not hate.

It seemed revolutionary, which, of course, it isn’t. Maybe it’s sadly all too unusual as of late, but wasn’t I raised on the socially conscious folk music of the 60’s & 70’s? It certainly wasn’t unusual then. But by then, on that Las Vegas street, I had forgotten all about Holly Near.

Until a few weeks later, in Provincetown, where my mother and I got some pretty strange looks as we crowed with joy, having stumbled on a copy of Holly Near’s greatest hits, including all the songs from our long-lost Imagine My Surprise CD. We could barely contain ourselves as we bounded over to the counter to pay for it, and it was all we could do not to rush back to the car and play it immediately!

When we finally, hours later, made it back to the car and began to listen – I discovered Holly Near anew. No longer a child, I was now fully aware of the meanings and significance of her music, and I found myself, for the second time that month, moved to tears by an artist singing about the struggle for a person’s right to love anyone they want to.

Only weeks before, Marriage Equality had become a Federal reality. How far we have come!

How far we have yet to go.

After all, if Macklemore’s message profoundly silences a car full of diverse young adults in 2013, some 40 years after Holly Near began sharing the same message, then the problem is most certainly not solved.

And that’s because the problem isn’t gay rights. The problem, as Macklemore so strongly emphasizes, is human rights  – for all. Winning one battle does not entitle us to declare the war at an end. “No freedom till we’re equal” Macklemore declares. And he’s right.

And so was Holly, who writes on the cover notes of the album we discovered, entitled “Simply Love”, that she and other women musicians of her era, “made music in the face of homophobia, racism, misogyny, poverty, war and patriarchy.” What I had sensed, but not been old enough to fully understand as a child was true. Holly’s music was not “Lesbian music” it was Civil Rights music; it was Equal Rights music. As is the music and so much of the liturgy of Judaism. Long before the 60’s and 70’s – before Civil Rights and Women’s Rights and Gay Rights – Jews were singing about freedom and praying about freedom and fighting, when they could, for freedom. Mi Chamocha Ba-eilim Adoni – what is this prayer, if not a daily liturgical reminder of the moment of our own freedom?

During the past week or so, I have shared with you how important it is to have a cause that you stand up for, and I talked about how Judaism is my cause, and should be the cause for all of us, because it’s values are at the root of all the things we care about and fight for.

But what I have so far neglected to say, and what I sometimes forget, is that just as we can’t exclude Judaism for the sake of our other causes, neither can we neglect other causes when we are mired in Jewish causes.

This year, I happily watched and cheered and supported many of my rabbinic peers as they fought the good fight. My friend, Rabbi Melissa Simon, who is a proud Lesbian and social activist, was on the front lines of the fight for marriage equality in Minnesota. All year I read about her achievements and “liked” her Facebook posts and told her I was proud of the work she was doing.

And I didn’t get involved because marriage equality was already a reality in New York and Massachusetts, the states where I’ve been a rabbi these past 3 years, and because I’m not a Lesbian, and because I think of Judaism as my cause and it takes up all of my time. . .

Which is exactly the reverse argument of what so many of you say, about being too busy to commit to Judaism because of all of your other important commitments.

I am guilty too. We all have some work to do I guess.

But Holly Near’s music – rediscovered and finally truly understood – sparked something in me. If she had only sung about women loving women – the cause of her own heart, her impact on the world would have been so much less profound. And if Macklemore had abstained from his important message because he’s white and straight and therefore shouldn’t reprimand the black community for being apathetic (or worse) to the gay community …Well, I think the loss would have been immeasurable.

We cannot stand up for only one cause and count ourselves among the righteous. We all have to figure out how to balance the causes of our hearts with other important causes – causes that we cannot responsibly abstain from supporting.

I will work harder at this. I hope you will too.

And I hope that this year we will all find times to belt out the words of justice – be they spoken or sung; be they poetic or liturgical; be they in Hebrew or English or any other language; be they Hip Hop or folk or another genre; Let us sing out these love songs – Macklemore’s Same Love, Holly’s Simply Love – Debbie’s Ahavat Olam – a song about God’s love! – because all songs for justice are love songs, if you really think about it.

So in the words of Holly Near:

“You bet I sing love songs / Songs that carry me along / Through fearful times and tender times / Songs of mother-love / Songs of my lover’s love / Singing the songs of loving myself”

This year may we love ourselves and others enough to carve out the time to perfect the broken world around us.

“No Freedom ‘till we’re equal.”

Kein Yehi Ratzon.