KKBE Women’s Seder, Story Slam: “Liberation”

The microphone might as well be a sword, as petrified as I stand trembling before it. In my mind’s eye, its bulbous mass looms so large I can see every black mesh dimple and dent — yet not so large that it obscures the 250 expectant faces looking up at me from beyond. 250 faces constituting the most terrifying audience for a terrified teen: My peers.

How on earth did I get here??

Here is MoVFTY Spring Conclave (as we called such events then) for my NFTY regional youth group. Our temple is hosting, and I — a high school sophomore — am a co-chair for the event. Everyone is gathered in the basement of our synagogue, the temple youth lounge that, over the past year, has become my home away from home. I’m incredibly excited for the event, have been planning for it for months. There’s just one problem: I’ve never been to a regional conclave and have absolutely no idea what to expect.

How did I come to be co-chair then you ask? Well, it went something like this… The president of my youth group takes me aside during a Super Bowl Party, seconds left in the game, the losing team about to attempt what would be a winning field goal, and asks: “Hey, Stephanie, what do you think about co-chairing Spring Conclave?” And I respond — not with fact-gathering inquiries about the nature of a conclave or the responsibilities of a co-chair — but instead ask the all-important question: “If I say yes, will you let me go back to watch the game??”

And so here I am. But now that I’m here, there’s apparently a second problem: My president has matter-of-factly handed me the microphone and said: “We need to make announcements about the plan and schedule for the evening.” A simple enough task, for most people perhaps —but not for me. I’m terrified of public speaking. I can still vividly remember lip-syncing through my junior high choir performance, absolutely petrified that if I tried to eek out any sound, I would throw up all over my shoes.

But now everyone is staring at me; I can’t hide in a chorus. So I squeeze the microphone… ask myself, “What’s the worst that can happen?”… take a deep breath… and start to talk.

And of course the worst things that I imagine happening, don’t happen… what does happen is even worse. When I squeak out the words, “I have some announcements to share,” everyone starts singing!… “Announcements, Announcements, Announcements! A, double-N, O, U, N, C, E, M, E, N, T S…”

I’m mortified. I’m humiliated. … But then I realize: “Hey — I’m not dead.” Even more importantly: “I didn’t throw up!” Yes, they’re singing — loudly, obnoxiously — and clearly I missed some important memo along the way — but they’re smiling and laughing… and the world didn’t end.

Eventually that interminable song does end. And, when it does, I hold the microphone a little more comfortably. And with a smile on my face, I start again. Liberated.


Stand Up Shabbat.

Parashat Bo

Passover may still be a ways off, but in this week’s Torah portion, we find a number of components from our Haggadah and the Passover story front and center. As we take the opportunity to reflect tonight — as dozens, if not hundreds, of congregations around Charleston and throughout the state of South Carolina are doing this weekend and next — on the prevalence of gun violence and our need to pass meaningful, commonsense legislation to curb it, these themes of Passover resonate deeply.

Locusts, darkness, death of the first born… This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, begins with the end of the ten plagues — the last three to be exact. The purpose of the plagues in the Exodus story was multifaceted — to demonstrate God’s power, to be sure, but toward what end? To amaze the Israelites, such that they would believe, they would have faith, they would put their trust in Adonai, come what may, having experienced all that God did to free them from Egypt. But, perhaps most importantly, the ten increasingly devastating signs of God’s power were designed to put fear into the hearts of Pharaoh and the Egyptians. For anyone in their right mind, we would imagine, would reach a point when, after so much senseless destruction, so much needless loss, they would say: Enough already! They would change, evolve, grow. And yet…

Eileen Soffer, National Coordinator of Rabbis Against Gun Violence, has written:

“With each plague, Pharaoh was frightened and promised to do the right thing – to free the Israelite slaves. But when [each] plague ended, he changed his mind, and with hardened heart, continued to enslave the people, to prolong their misery, and to profit from their suffering.

“With every mass shooting — in schools, military bases, movie theaters, city corners, even first grade classrooms and places of worship – Americans find themselves horrified, heartbroken and angry. They vow that something must be done to end the carnage and suffering. But with hardened hearts, the forces pushing back claim ‘it’s too soon;’ they fight against common sense measures that evidence shows can save lives and create safer communities while they continue to reap profits and maintain their power.

“And the plagues continue [remove a drop from the Kiddush cup for each one] …

1. Columbine
2. Virginia Tech
3. Fort Hood
4. Aurora
5. Tucson
6. Sandy Hook
7. Washington Navy Yard
8. UC Santa Barbara
9. Charleston
10. San Bernardino

“These mass shootings [just 10 of many] capture the headlines and rightly appall us, but account for less than 2 percent of annual gun deaths. It’s the shootings that don’t get much attention — the ones taking place in parking lots, bedrooms, and street corners across America — that are responsible for the vast majority of injuries and deaths from guns. With our eyes and hearts opened to the loss of life and the suffering caused by gun violence — whether it makes the headlines or not — may we be moved and motivated to raise our voices and act to help end this scourge plaguing our country.” [1]

It takes 10 plagues to convince Pharaoh, but the last one seals the deal — how could it not? The death of children, of Pharaoh’s own son. And yet… Are we, as a nation, really so stiff-necked and hard-hearted that even that which changed Pharaoh’s mind has had so little impact upon us? It has been 19 years since the shooting at Columbine High School. It has been 5 years since 20 students, six- and seven-year-olds, were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012. Since 2013, there have been 279 school shootings in America — and we have done nothing. Nothing but make our children practice drills for the possibility of a lockdown situation and an active shooter. Instead of stepping up to pass legislation that might protect our kids, we’ve only made the anxiety and burden they have to bear that much greater.

This week’s Torah portion also contains the origins of the Four Questions and the Four Children — the wise child, the challenging child, the simple child, and the one who does not know how to ask a question. “Now we have a Fifth Child,” Rabbi Joshua Hammerman writes. “Alongside the one who does not know how to ask, we must now include the one who can’t ask, not because she’s stuck in a Gulag or Gaza’s prison, but because he’s been killed, right here in America. This is the child whose inquisitive mind has been stilled forever by the magazines of a maniac’s assault rifle, or by the single bullet of a parent’s unlocked handgun, or at the hands of an abusive caregiver, or as result of incessant bullying and unremitting cruelty. If Egypt is a metaphor, then we are enslaved not to Pharaoh, but to our own prejudice and anger — and to our pervasive culture of violence.

“There are far too many Fifth Children out there — [nearly 1,300 in the United States every year] — and we’ve allowed that to happen. We have produced a society where child sacrifice is once again in vogue. …

“The children of Newtown need a voice. So do the four children of Shirley Chambers, the Chicago mother who lost all four of her children to gun violence.” [2] Perhaps one who was wise, one who was challenging, one who was simple, one who didn’t even know how to ask a question. They need our voice.

So let’s turn to the name of this week’s Torah portion: Parashat Bo Vayomer Adonai el-Moshe: Bo el-Par’oh. “God said to Moses: Go to Pharaoh.”

Torah portions typically derive their names from the first unique Hebrew word or words of their text. So the first parasha of the entire Torah is B’reishit — “In the beginning;” later in Genesis there’s Chayei Sarah — “The life of Sarah;” last week’s portion was Va’era — “I [God] appeared.”

By definition, the name of this week’s Torah portion is unique — no other Torah portion is called Bo. That’s the point in giving names to Torah portions — being able to distinguish one from another. But the word itself, the instruction to Moses to go to Pharaoh, is nothing new or unique at all. Instead Parashat Bo continues what has been happening in Torah for the past two weeks: Moses going and going and going again to Pharaoh until the latter relents to the Israelites’ demand, to God’s will. Parashat Bo begins with the eighth of ten plagues. So seven times before this, Moses was commanded by God to “Bo—Go to Pharaoh” and tell him to free the Israelites or suffer the consequences of blood, frogs, vermin, beasts, pestilence, boils, and hail. Several more times before that, Moses and his brother Aaron were commanded to “Go before Pharaoh,” to deliver the divine message with magical signs and warnings.

Yet it is precisely the repetition of the word Bo that makes it so powerful. Go, and go, and go again… There are times when giving up is simply not an option; when human dignity, safety and freedom demand we stay the course until those with the power to change prevailing circumstances relent to the people’s will. And sensible gun legislation that could have a meaningful impact on curbing gun violence is the people’s will. 84% of all South Carolinians want background checks on all gun sales — that’s 86% of Democrats and 82% of Republicans.

Two years ago this month, an organization founded to promote the passage of common sense laws to curb gun violence, created a concept they called Stand Up Sunday — or, for those of us whose day of worship is other than Sunday, Stand up Shabbat. The idea was powerful in its simplicity: Congregations from across the state of South Carolina would dedicate one weekend on their worship schedule to raise awareness about the dangers of gun violence; educate about common sense legislation that could positively impact the prevalence of violence — legislation that enjoys overwhelming support throughout the state of South Carolina; and ask their congregants to literally Stand Up and pledge their participation in a day of advocacy in Columbia later in the year.

We did this two years ago.
We did this last year.
And here we are again.

Our legislators’ minds have unfortunately not yet been changed; collectively they have failed to pass any piece of legislation that could have a positive impact on the public health crisis that is gun violence. So we must Bo — go, and go, and go again.

Bo — Go to the website of the Religious Action Center and send a letter to our U.S. Congressmen calling on them to reject the SHARE Act (H.R.3668) that would weaken an 80-year-old federal law that regulates the sale of gun silencers.

Bo — Contact our state legislators and urge them to stop the SC House bill (H.3240) that would provide concealed carry reciprocity and allow individuals to carry concealed firearms in our state without meeting the standards South Carolina has established for obtaining a permit.

Bo — Insist that our legislators stop the bills in both the SC House and Senate (S.449, H.3930) that would allow anyone to carry a gun with NO permit, NO training, NO vetting — open or concealed — in unprohibited areas like beaches, restaurants, parks, and stores. Read the bills online and see the strikes through lines and lines and lines of legislation — all the legislative work of decades ago that would be undone by these bills; far from a step forward, passing this legislation would be a giant leap back.

Bo — Join an organization like Arm in Arm: South Carolinians for Responsible Gun Ownership; Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America; Rabbis Against Gun Violence — you don’t even have to be a rabbi! Join one of these organizations, or others, and get legislative alerts and updates when your voice can make a difference and your involvement can be instrumental.

Bo — Make a pledge, as I have, to continue to make this issue a priority, and insist that our elected officials do the same. As I’ve previously written:

When I go into the voting booth, I have one responsibility above all others: To protect my child and others from threats to their safety and wellbeing — not perceived threats, imagined threats, fabricated or trumped up threats — but real threats; the ones that keep me (and him) up at night.

So join me in making a pledge: If you are an incumbent (in national or state office) who introduced or voted for legislation that would make it easier to access, use, or carry deadly weapons, you will not get my vote.

If you are an incumbent (in national or state office) who failed to work to introduce or vote for sensible gun legislation, you will not get my vote.

If you are a candidate (for national or state office) and your website or the flyers in my mailbox show backing by the NRA or make mention of the Second Amendment, you will not get my vote.

And if there’s no one left to vote for — shame on all of us.

I mentioned earlier that — in addition to the plagues, the Four Children, and Moses’ advocacy before Pharaoh — the Four Questions have their basis in this week’s Torah portion, as well. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” How many times have we stopped in the wake of a terrible shooting and said: Something has to change? How many times have we assumed after this shooting, after this tragedy, surely something must be done? How many times have we preached about this topic from this very bimah? (This is our third Stand Up Shabbat, so at least three, at least.)

Let this night be different because of us. Let us turn conversation into doing and awareness into commitment and action. Let us see that there are concrete steps we can take to save lives and create safer homes and communities. Let our resolve for change be so strong that the hardened hearts of our legislators will have no choice but to move. We can gradually walk ourselves back from the brink. Common sense gun regulations can and will make a difference. Universal background checks would be a small step, but an effective one, and a step in the right direction.

This is how redemption happens. One step at a time. One foot in front of the other. Never losing courage, never abandoning hope. [3] Asking ourselves always: If not now — then, by God, when?

And if you’re so inclined, I invite you to say: Amen.


[1] Rabbis Against Gun Violence: Passover Seder Supplement 2016, p. 7 (adapted).

[2] Interfaith Seder, Interfaith Council of SW Connecticut, 2013, p. 2.

[3] Based on Rabbis Against Gun Violence: Passover Seder Supplement 2016, pp. 4, 6.


Closing Charge and Prayer,
CAJM Team Assembly @ St. James Presbyterian Church

There is a rhythm to the annual CAJM calendar, marked by certain key events. And, for those of us who have been involved in this for a few years, we each have our favorites. Perhaps it’s the intimacy of house meetings, when we hear the deepest concerns of our friends and neighbors. Or the sense of focus at our Community Problems Assembly, when we determine the singular issue to which we will devote our attention and efforts over the coming year. Perhaps it’s the commitment of the Research Kick-off, when we realize how much there is to learn, but take heart in how many are willing to help shoulder the burden of doing so. Or the enthusiasm of the Rally, when we realize there is something concrete we can do as a community and that a roomful of people are excited and energetic to make it happen. Perhaps it’s the creative tension of the Nehemiah Action, when we realize that, uncomfortable though tension is, there is simply no other way to bring about meaningful change, so we sit with it, use it, bring it to the surface — so that the tension so many live with on a regular basis might, that night, become a productive tension for the betterment of our community. Or maybe it’s the sense of accomplishment of our Celebration, noting the milestones we have reached, the successes we have achieved, the power that, collectively, has become a tangible force in our community.

But for me — this, our gathering tonight, is my favorite night of the CAJM year. Yes, we have heard so many stories of disappointment in our community; the ways in which lack of leadership or policy or even just concern manifests itself in the lives of our brothers and sisters. It would be easy to become discouraged. And yet every year, when I leave this meeting, I always feel uplifted — because is there anything more hopeful that coming together in truth?

A patient goes to the doctor with an unknown ailment. He doesn’t know why he’s hurting, just that he is. And so he does his best to describe it to his doctor. He tells her his symptoms, catalogues his fears, does his best to be as thorough and precise as possible. The doctor take it all in and makes a diagnosis; gives a name to his symptoms, outlines a course of action. Is the patient cured when he leaves her office? Of course not. Is the doctor’s work done? Far from it. But in that place of mutual meeting, something profound happens. The patient feels relief simply from being heard and understood. And the doctor, too, I have to imagine feels a deep sense of meaning, as well — for why did she enter into this most difficult of professions if not to care for her fellow human being; and how can she do that unless he can first share his burdens and let her in?

Tonight we embrace the Power in the Universe we know as Hope —
It’s been a difficult year, and there are times when it’s felt that You, Hope, are distant, dimmed, diminished. But tonight, we are fortified by Your presence. You are present in those gathered here, and the commitment they have made to this year’s CAJM journey.
You are present in the papers that line the walls of the room, enumerating the most pressing issues revealed in our house meetings — an indication that we are really talking about what really matters. We feel You here tonight, and we carry You with us
into our congregations, our neighborhoods, next week’s voting booths.

As we leave here tonight, let Hope travel with us and may we use it to build the power
of our Community Problems Assembly. For, as we’re taught in my tradition: “It is not up to us to finish the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.” We’ve heard more tonight than we can possibly tackle in a single year. But we can do something. We can change something. And with truth, community, and hope — indeed, we can do a great deal.

So, with Hope in our hearts, let the journey to healing begin tonight! And let us say: Amen.


A word of Torah.

“Adonai said to Avram: ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you. Avram went forth as Adonai had commanded him, and Lot went with him.
Avram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons they had acquired in Haran. Avram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.” (Gen. 12:1-5, adapted)

Thus begins this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Lech-L’cha — an exploration of journey and change, calling and adventure. Indeed, Abraham (still Avram in this early Genesis portion) is often looked up to as a hero in this week’s Torah reading. How so? For his courage to venture out from his homeland, embark upon an unknown course, accept a bold and uncertain call. Yet if we exam the text a little more closely, is what Abraham does really so heroic?

Yes, leaving home is hard. Any of us who have had to do so — for college, or service, or even summer camp — know this to be true. For some more so than others. But Abraham is 75 years old when he’s asked to “go forth … from [his] father’s house.” I mean, it’s kind of time, right? And if our response is, well, that’s a lot of shlepping for a 75 year old… note he gets to take his nephew, Lot; two youthful hands to help him along the way. Not only that, he gets to take this journey with his wife. So it’s not like he’s leaving his family behind. His hometown? Yes. But Abraham’s father has died, his younger brother is no longer living, and his middle brother is married with a family of his own. Abraham even gets to take all of his wealth with him, including his many servants. Some might say: Married, without kids, in possession of a small (or perhaps not so small) fortune… it’s the perfect time for something new!

And not only that, but he’s not exactly doing this on a hunch either. This isn’t some random idea tossed out by one spouse to another over dinner and quickly hatched into a half-baked plan pursued on a whim. Abraham is doing this because God told him to. “Adonai spoke to Avram, saying: ‘Go forth.’” If anything, the courageous thing might have been not to go. I mean, can you imagine Abraham saying: “Yeah, God, I’m gonna have to turn that offer down — we’re good here. But so kind of you to think of us. Thanks!” Now that would have taken courage.

But perhaps I’m being too critical of our tradition’s treatment of Abraham. Because while he gets to take his family, has the reassurance of divine directive and protection, is encouraged by the promise of blessing, Abraham is missing one key piece of information — Where is he going?

“To the land that I will show you,” the text says.

God doesn’t send Abraham off with a GPS; there’s no blue line pointing him to a singular and specified destination. God doesn’t hand him a TripTik, with a highlighted path to get him from Point A to Point B. Abraham doesn’t even know what Point B is. All Abraham knows is this will be a journey, and only once he’s a ways in will God help to illuminate the path, give him perspective, paint the picture of where he’s been, how far he’s come, and where he might yet, with purpose and drive, still go.

Which is to say, that this week’s Torah portion isn’t so much about Abraham and his particular journey, as it is about life. For even when we know the place, do we really know where we’re going?

Seven and a half years ago, my family — Aaron, Eli, our adorable dog, and I — journeyed from the Midwest to Charleston, South Carolina. In many ways, it was as much a calling as Abraham’s — the term is even used in ministry. We were called to this amazing congregation, KKBE, with its rich history, vibrant present, and exciting future. We were called by the wonderful, warm people we met on each of our visits, and the opportunity to share our journeys together. We got a glimpse of what the move might hold for us, not much more, but much like Abraham we embarked upon the path anyway encouraged by the sense that it would be one of blessing.

It has been — beyond our greatest hopes and expectations. Who would have guessed that the move, preeminently driven by the job I was taking, would have opened so many doors in Aaron’s rabbinic career — more than he’s been able to enter. He’s now in his seventh year of service to Beth Israel Congregation in Florence, SC, and regularly teaches and officiates at funerals and weddings in and around the Charleston area. In just the past two weeks, he’s taught prophets to Jewish religious school students in Florence, and the basics of Judaism to adults in a church and sixth grade students in a school here in Charleston. He officiated at a wedding in town and a funeral in Georgetown. I don’t think we ever imagined that, in South Carolina, he’d keep so busy and be so fulfilled.

Who would have known that, coming to Charleston, our son would be so deeply influenced by the beauty and topography of the Lowcountry — a savant in all things marine biology, undoubtedly the future owner of a vehicle with a prominent bumper sticker declaring, “Gone fishin’.” What would his interests and passions be today if he didn’t drive over marshes, an eye out for dolphin, on his way to and from school each morning and afternoon? If the salt water at the beach, and the rarified air in our annual retreat to the mountains, weren’t a part of the rhythm of his year?

And even I, who had the most clues about what future life in Charleston might look like, could never have imagined the path it would take. Not particularly drawn, in previous communities, to interfaith study, much less community action, how could I have guessed that my involvement in the interfaith, and particularly the interracial Charleston community, would become as meaningful and important to me as my work within the congregation and larger Jewish community?

I think about the first time Aaron went to Florence, the first time we took Eli to the beach, the first time I sat down with a small group of interfaith clergy… Never would I have known — nor could I have — that each of those moments would begin new chapters in our lives, new chapters in the book that might ultimately reveal what this journey to Charleston was really all about. But that’s the thing about firsts: They aren’t firsts when they happen. In the very beginning of the Torah, after God creates heaven and earth, light and darkness, it doesn’t say: “There was evening and there was morning, a first day.” It says: “There was evening and there was morning, one day.” Only after there was a second day, a third day, a fourth day, would God be able to look back and realize where it had all begun — the first day. Until then, there was just a step. A decision. A journey.

“Adonai said to Avram: ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” Lech L’cha is often read as a call to make bold first steps. And maybe some of us are at a point in our lives when that’s what we need to do, or we face the possibility that we may yet still. But, for me, Lech L’cha is an acknowledgement that most of us probably already have taken first steps — the question is, have we taken the time to look back, to reflect, to realize how or when we did so? Have we asked God to show us — to illuminate the path, give us perspective, paint a picture of where we’ve been, how far we’ve come, and then where we might yet, with purpose and drive, still go?

I’m drawn to the story of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, who once saw a man running in the market place. “Why do you hurry so?” asked the Chasidic master. “I am pursuing my livelihood,” the man replied. “Well, how do you know that your livelihood lies before you?” asked Rabbi Levi Yitzhak. “Maybe it lies behind you and rather than running after it, you’re running away.”

By all means, if great courage and resolve are required of us, and we need to take first steps — to answer the call of L’cha L’cha and “Go forth” into the unknown — then may this Shabbat find us bold and resolute, fortified for the journey, excited for its prospects. But, on this Shabbat of Lech L’cha, may we each also be granted with vision and insight to see the great distance we’ve already traveled, and appreciate it. For life, from its first moments to its very end, is a journey. As we continue down its path, may we be granted the wisdom and awareness to make it journey of blessing. Amen.

Ya’aleh v’Yavo

Yom Kippur Evening, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Once upon a time, 1987 to be exact, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi had been invited to a New York seminary to teach a session on prayer and spirituality. But on the way up to the classroom on the second floor, Reb Zalman and the dean who had invited him to speak got stuck in the elevator. When they tried the Emergency Call button, they were told a maintenance person wouldn’t be able to come for hours. “I’m so sorry,” the dean said to Reb Zalman. “Perhaps you have an idea?” Reb Zalman looked up and, in his resonant voice, said: “Ya’aleh v’yavo!” – a reference to liturgy meaning may our prayers rise up and incur God’s favor. The echo of Reb Zalman’s booming voice had hardly finished reverberating when the elevator began to move! Moaning and groaning, it managed to make it to the second floor. Reb Zalman was able to teach his session, beginning with living proof of its lesson: the power of heartfelt prayer to bring help in any situation.[1]

Friends, Yom Kippur is the time for confession, and I have a confession to make. In the past year, chatati, I have sinned: I turned away from prayer. In fact, there were times in 5777 when I all but gave up on it. Not all kinds of prayer, mind you. Prayers of gratitude? No problem. Prayers of awe and amazement? I was moved to offer those, as well. But words of supplication – asking for things, praying for divine intervention and involvement – this is where I went astray. Which is to say, had it been this rabbi stuck in a rickety elevator – we may very well still be stuck there today.

I don’t know precisely when petitionary prayer and I began to separate. But I know when I first realized we had. It was right before a CAJM meeting, when members of our justice ministry were standing outside City Hall, about to meet with the mayor. I was still co-President at the time, and my fellow co-President and friend, Rev. Charles Heyward, was gathering a group together who would stand outside praying for the success of our meeting. And the whole thing suddenly struck me as absurd. Either the mayor would be moved by our conversation or he wouldn’t. What did prayer, much less prayer taking place outside the room where it happened, have to do with it? I was convinced we’d look ridiculous.

And so I pushed back – and that’s when it happened. I had this sort of out-of-body experience and heard a rabbi (who couldn’t possibly be me) tell a minister on the steps of City Hall: “There’s no point to praying and we shouldn’t be doing it.” A far cry from Reb Zalman in the elevator. As I said: Chatati, I have sinned. And I’ve been wrestling with why ever since.

It’s not that I haven’t seen prayer work. I’ve been blessed to be part of many awesome, holy, powerful prayer moments with several of you. I’ve felt the change in a hospital room as words of prayer brought, if not healing exactly, tangible relief to inscrutable pain. I’ve held hands with those who were dying and watched their features relax as we sang songs for peace. I’ve witnessed the fact that words of prayer truly can release someone who desperately seeks release, whether from anger, anxiety, or guilt.

Yet I can also identify specific moments that have pushed me away. Perhaps you’ve felt them, too. When politicians and leaders of all kinds asked us, time and time and time again, to pray for victims, pray for their families – and then did nothing else of consequence to help or protect against another tragedy in the future. When offering invocations at community events or prayers at meetings, and not a single item addressed on the ensuing agenda – nor, often, the way in which it was addressed – fulfilled the goals I had been asked to outline in prayer.

But there’s more to it than that. Sometimes I think I’m afraid of what we might look like to God when we pray. How chutzpadik to turn to God for a solution when we surely haven’t done everything we can to try and address the situation ourselves. In these moments, I still remember the disappointment of my first grade teacher when instead of trying to sound out the spelling of a word myself, as she had asked me to do, I snuck out to ask the school librarian how to spell it for me instead. I don’t want God to find me guilty of taking shortcuts, at best; of hypocrisy, if my actions don’t match my words, at worst.

Then there’s guilt. I like to think I’m a reasonably informed person. I have at least a small sense of the greater problems and suffering in the world – and I know that many are far more devastating than my own. Like the congregant who hesitated to put her name on the Mi Shebeirach list, saying: “Rabbi, there are so many people who need prayers far more than I do” (as if prayer were a finite resource), I too worry about seeming insensitive, naïve, self-absorbed in God’s expansive sight.

Still other times, I think I’m afraid of what God might look like to us – if our prayers are answered, or if they’re not. As we all braced for Hurricane Irma a few weeks ago, and the storm changed course a bit to the west, I read a post from someone who wrote that she had been “davening” for it to do so, to miss loved ones who had been in harm’s way – and was so relieved it had worked. As I read this, I found myself growing tense. So God controls hurricanes?, I thought. Had to be reminded that those for whom it was headed would suffer? What about the other communities where it’s new path took it? God didn’t care about them? Or they just didn’t pray? Or not hard enough?

All of these feelings intersect and I find myself concluding: Best not to pray at all. Let me do what I can do in more concrete action, and God will do God’s thing, as well. What does God need to hear from me anyway?

But then, as we approached the High Holy Days, I read this story.[2]

Rabbi Goldie Milgram was driving through a dicey neighborhood. She’d been on the road for five hours and hadn’t yet stopped to eat. So she pulled into the parking lot of a small Jamaican restaurant. Inside, the take-out line was short, but growing. Only one customer sat at the old diner-style tables; a large, powerful-looking man in a red T-shirt with tall white letters that read: “Did I give you permission to talk? Shut the ___ up!”

“Where the %@# is my refill?!” he bellowed, and the counterwoman brought him his bowl of soup. “Reggie, it’s so nice to see you again,” she said softly. “Let me know should you want anything more.” Reggie responded kindly, “Thanks, Alinda, thanks.” Alinda returned to the counter and everyone’s shoulders relaxed at Reggie’s polite response.

Orders were taken and the eat-in tables filled quickly. Alinda hustled as best she could. Twenty minutes later, Rabbi Milgram was debating leaving without her food when, “suddenly, from behind,” she writes, “I feel a light shove.”


It’s Reggie, pushing past all of us, holding up a ten-dollar bill. Instead of handing it over, he balls the bill up in his hand, lifts his thick, muscular arms on high, and then smashes both fists down on the counter. “I am so worn out, defeated, and lost,” he declares. “I would rather be dead.”

Everyone backs up about three paces. The fellow to my right fingers what might well be a gun tucked into his waistband. Big Reggie looks at me and, with head slightly lowered, eyes fixed on mine, says: “Sister, did you hear me?! I’d rather be dead, girl, dead.”

Considering the situation, the many church store-fronts in the neighborhood, and the fact that he’s addressing me directly, I respond softly: “Have you… asked God to help you?”

Reggie glares. “I’m so tired of that crap… (pause). I’ve been a Christian all my life, and it’s all completely useless.”

So much for my projections. I note the chef’s hands are now under the counter and wonder if he’s surreptitiously reaching for an alarm. I respond as I would to any congregant: “You’re suffering and lost, worn out and defeated. You feel betrayed by God.”

“All that prayin’ and believin’… and nothin’ comin’ of it,” he says.

We sit down at a table that just opened up. No one argues that it’s really their turn.

“Reggie, what happened that’s got you so low?” I ask, as kindly as I can.

Reggie places his warm, thick hand over my small fingers, and I consciously bid my hands not to tense up. “Thing is, lady,” he shares, in a quieter voice, “I’m a simple man, and I lost my job twice this year to companies downsizing. You tell me ‘pick that heavy thing up,’ I can do that. You tell me, ‘put it over there,’ I can do that. But you want me to figure a good or right place to put down what you told me to pick up? I can’t do that. I need a job, a simple job. I bartered my good old Pontiac car this week for money to live. If I miss my next rent payment, I live on the street. God don’t deliver. God don’t care.”

Just when we’re getting somewhere, the chef calls out my order: “Goldie, curried fish and plantains!”

I rise reflexively, but Reggie lifts his index finger in the language of “hang on a sec” to the man at the counter. I return to Reggie: “You’re a simple man, and you want a simple job, and God does not provide.”

He looks into my eyes the way you know you’ve got a friend for life and asks: “Are you some kind of Christian?”

“Actually,” I reply softly, “I’m a rabbi.”

“A rabbi?! No way.” He looks around as though expecting a surprise TV crew to pop out. Then Reggie takes both my hands in his and passionately pleads: “Rabbi, what am I gonna to do? I’m scared. It’s too tough now out there to make it. I know lotsa folk got no job. I’m two minutes from sleeping on the street. What am I going to do?”

Indeed, that is the 30 billion dollar question. So I do the only thing left inside. In a strong, firm voice everyone in the shop can hear, I pray: “Holy One of Blessing, this man needs a job. Right now.”

Folks turn and stare at me. I’m aware of their surprised, but not frightened, faces. I’m aware of feeling angry – at God, at government, of a glowering impotence that just isn’t acceptable. The prayer, my clear petition, pours out again, louder: “Holy One of Blessing, this man needs a job. Right now.” The restaurant is completely silent; even the two children in the place fold their hands in prayer.

The chef clears his throat. “Ma’am, your order’s getting cold. $11.50, please.” Reggie lets go of my hands in an incredibly tender way, his huge brown eyes brimming with tears that don’t fall.

As I shift to my purse, trying to focus on securing $11.50, the chef’s voice turns thoughtful: “One more thing. Reggie. You can work for me. I’ve got a bad back these days. You pick it up; I’ll tell you where to put it. Every morning be outside at 7 am for deliveries. You can also push a broom and bus tables; Alinda can’t cope since Orly quit yesterday. You can work a full day. Free meals, minimum wage. But – and it’s a big but – you have to keep it together, stay on your meds, and treat folk respectfully.” He tosses a sky blue shirt with the restaurant’s name and logo on it to Reggie. “Get rid of that darn T’shirt for starters,” he says.


It’s a beautiful story and, by all accounts, true. But, See!, my inner prayer critic responds. God doesn’t answer the prayer; the chef does! Yet even as I say it, I realize the gaping hole in my logic. Since when can’t God use instruments?

I imagine we’ve all heard the story of a man whose house is being flooded. As the waters rise, someone drives by in a truck and offers him a ride to escape. “God will provide,” he declares, and declines. As the waters rise higher, he stands on his porch. A man paddles down the street in a boat and offers him a ride. Once again he declines, declaring, “God will provide.” When the waters inundate his house, he climbs to his roof. A helicopter comes and lowers a basket for his rescue. “God will provide,” he still declares, and yet again declines. Eventually the water overwhelms his property and he dies. When he gets to the pearly gates and meets God, the man is incensed. “God, I’ve been a man of faith my whole life,” he says. “How could you not provide for me in my hour of need?” But God was angry, too. “Not provide? I sent a truck, a boat, and a helicopter. What more did you need?”

God might use any instrument as a response to prayer, not least of which are you and me – our hands, our hearts, our minds, our mouths. Perhaps our very act of prayer is God’s instrument itself.

So, as we make our way into this New Year, let’s not be afraid to open our lips and give voice to our strongest desires, our deepest anxieties, our greatest needs. On this holiest day of the year, let’s not be afraid to just put it out there. Maybe something like this…

Holy One of Blessing, these people need a break – a break from the roller coaster that was 5777. There’s just been so much.

God, enough with the super-storms. Perhaps You can’t alter the course of a hurricane any more than You could the path of the sun or stars, but enough is enough already. Help us find the determination to do what we can, not just to prepare for storms, but to live in such a way that we might reverse the global changes our careless living have brought, and keep the storms from happening in the first place.

And God, we need strength in the face of illness. Strokes, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer… We need cures. Help medical professionals and researchers build on the discoveries of the past year and unlock even more understanding and answers that can bring healing, life, and hope. And, by all means, where medicine and treatment do exist, help us ensure that everyone has easy and affordable access to the care they need.

God, this one is really important. We need our leaders – of all stripes and at all levels – to think before they speak. And not to tweet. Not. At. All. Give our leaders the courage and compassion to put our most important priorities – peace, health, equality, education – above the distractions of any given day. May they listen before they talk, consult before they threaten, and practice restraint in everything except the pursuit of justice.

Holy One of Blessing, there is so very much more. Each person in this sanctuary has their own personal needs and challenges. There are finances to be restored, relationships to be repaired, broken hearts and broken dreams to be mended. And the New Year will bring its own share of difficult decisions; who knows what new challenges await. So, perhaps, above all else we need this: We need You to help us keep talking, God. Don’t let us turn away from prayer. Help us to know You’re there, like the confidante and friend to whom we unburden ourselves without expectation or guilt; the simple act of opening up helping us feel both stronger and lighter.

And, if it’s not too much to ask, O God – where it feels fitting to do so – give us each the chance to be the answer to another’s prayer. That might be the greatest blessing of all.

Y’hiyu l’ratzon imrei fi, v’hegyon libi l’fanecha – May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable prayers. Ya’aleh v’yavo – May they rise up to You.


[1] Adapted from “The Elevator that Wouldn’t Go,” Shohama Harris Wiener, Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning.

[2] Adapted from “The God of Curried Fish,” Goldie Milgram, Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning.

The Mitzvot of Post-Charlottesville America

Rosh Hashanah Morning, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim

Someday, some year, I’m going to get to deliver a High Holy Day sermon I begin writing over the summer. It’s a modest dream. Not quite as lofty as that of another preacher who dreamt that one day his “four little children … [would] not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” But it’s my iteration. For I dream of a time when gunshots will no longer be fired in the hallowed sanctuaries of churches or schools; when ever-intensifying hurricanes will not bring loss and destruction; when hate will find no avenue to march openly through the streets, and past the synagogues, of America. I dream of a time when the world will not change in a day, and a preacher of any faith can sit and study sacred text; compose words in quiet reflection; and three months, two months, even one month later they’ll still feel relevant, important, and true.

But this is not such a time. For we now live in a post-Charlottesville America.

As we gather on this sacred day, we welcome the New Year with previously unthinkable images seared into our conscience. The flames of torches marching through what should have otherwise been a sleepy night in northeastern Virginia. The stern faces of clean-shaven young, white men chanting, among other things: “Jews will not replace us!” Yells of “Sieg Heil!” as they pass the local synagogue; arms raised in the Nazi salute. Groups of worshippers – it was Shabbat, after all – leaving, as inconspicuously as possible, out the back of the synagogue, as armed Nazis loitered undisturbed in front. Frantic scrambling to remove the Torah scrolls for safe-keeping. And then Heather Heyer killed, many others injured, in picturesque downtown. I have beautiful photos of that pedestrian mall on my phone. Aaron, Eli and I were there this summer. But that was in pre-Charlottesville America.

As Rabbi David Saperstein notes, this is believed to be the first time armed Nazis marched outside a synagogue in the United States of America. The sight left us shocked, deeply unsettled, frightened. And all of it was quickly compounded by disappointment in our leaders. Our President’s initial response was slow to come and failed to provide the unequivocal condemnation we expected; that such bald-faced hatred and violence on display in American streets deserved. Perhaps the only thing more disappointing was that Israel’s Prime Minister took even one day longer to respond, and then only with a terse text. And when, four days after his initial response, President Trump astonishingly doubled down on blaming “both sides;” insisting on the presence of “good people” on “all sides” – about this, Prime Minister Netanyahu remained silent.

We now live in a post-Charlottesville America, in a post-Charlottesville world. We can’t get over what we’ve seen, what we’ve heard, and what we haven’t heard – and we can’t be expected to. All we can do is learn from it.

Nearly two thousand years before the events of Charlottesville, sages all too familiar with their underlying hatred and antisemitism, taught in Pirkei Avot (2:3): “Be wary of the authorities, as they approach a person only when they’re needed. They seem like good friends in good times, but they don’t stand up for a person in their time of trouble.” We can’t count on others, Rabbi Richard Levy explains and our ancient rabbis have always taught. Even heads of a community cannot be trusted to ward off prejudice, to root out injustice. WE must do it. We must be vigilant all the time.[1] Of course, we should never cease to hold our leaders accountable. But we can do two things at once; we’re accustomed to it. “Pray as if everything depends upon God,” we’re instructed; “act as if everything depends upon you.” So even as we continue to call upon our leaders to denounce injustice and prejudice in no uncertain terms, we can’t stop there. WE need to do this work; we need to heed the teaching of Rabbi Hillel: Im ein ani li, mi li? If I am not for myself, who will be for me? Uch-sh’ani l’atzmi, mah ani? And if I am only for myself, what am I? V’im lo achshav, emaitai? And if not now, when?”[2]

Hillel’s first question, Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi explains, is an ancient call to affirm our identities. How can we expect others to stand up and assert our right to be, to risk their lives at times to do so, if we are not willing to do it ourselves? Hillel’s second question highlights the ethics of being for the other, of having a responsibility to assert and defend and protect the dignity and value of every human life. But the last question, “the question of enormous urgency,” calls to us particularly loudly in these times. If not now, when? If we are not ready to stand up and [advocate] both for ourselves and for others now, then … when will we ever be?”[3]

The challenge we face these High Holy Days in post-Charlottesville America is what are WE going to do to declare unequivocally, as proud Jews and proud Americans: Every Jew, every Muslim, every gay, transgender, disabled, black, brown, white, man, woman, and child is inherently beloved and precious in the sight of the Holy One?

Let’s begin with what we might do as individuals, recognizing that our responses are going to differ.

This past summer, my family and I visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. – a remarkable experience; the highlight of which was, for me, a lunch counter, like those that featured so prominently during the sit-ins of the civil rights movement. But when you take your seat at this long counter, there’s a touchscreen in front of you, designed to look like a big diner menu. A “Menu of Movements,” it’s called, and the options from which you can “order” include: Sit-Ins, Freedom Rides, Bus Boycotts, School Desegregation, Marches, Black Power, and Grassroots Leadership. So you click to make your choice and the screen tells you how many visitors made the same selection you did.

My first selection was “Freedom Rides,” which prompted a screen that described the potential dangers we would face should I choose to continue. There could be beatings, arrests – it was entirely possible some could be killed. Once again, the percentage of people (now smaller) who nonetheless elected to participate was revealed, and the exercise continued. Another message came up on the screen: “Police have boarded the bus; everyone has been arrested. White protestors will be given the option to post bail this evening; black protestors will remain in jail for at least the next three days and nights. What will you do?” What would I have done then? I still wonder. What am I willing to do – and, in doing, to inherently risk – now? These are questions with which each of us must wrestle. They’re far from straightforward, even when our values are clear.

But, as Rabbi David Stern writes, now that white supremacy has demonstrably linked itself to antisemitism, there is at least one response to intimidation and hate within reach for all of us: Choosing to lead a proud and vibrant Jewish life.

On February 27 of this year, a Monday morning, the Posnack Jewish Day School in Broward County had received a bomb threat. It came while the upper students were in their Monday morning prayer service. So they did what they were supposed to do – they evacuated to the parking lot. But on the way out, one kid grabbed the Torah scroll and took it outside with him. And once in the parking lot, another kid took his tallis and spread it on the hood of a car. And then the kid with the Torah unrolled the scroll on the tallis, and the students of the Posnack Jewish Day School continued with their service – with a Torah, on a tallis, on the hood of a car, in a parking lot, to which they had been evacuated because of an antisemitic bomb threat.

If you consider that the goal of the antisemites might not be an explosion, but the erosion of Jewish self-confidence and continuity, then that is the answer to antisemitism: Proud and vibrant Jewish life. No matter how else we might choose to step away from the sidelines and enter the fray, this we can all do. Living loudly and proudly and identifiably as Jews is a positive and essential mitzvah in post-Charlottesville America.

Even as we all do our part, the synagogue has a vital role to play, as well. Listen to this email, a true story, that came addressed to the KKBE community earlier this month:

“I live in Tacoma, Washington,” it said, “and I visited KKBE on September 1, 2016. I knew nothing about Judaism, but was visiting Charleston and heard that a visit to KKBE was a great tourist activity. The docent who conducted the tour was a very warm, kind woman who shared a wealth of information about the history of the congregation, and in the course of the tour I learned a lot about Reform Judaism. I flipped through the siddur in the sanctuary and was struck by the themes of hope and praise. I felt an unfamiliar sense of home and belonging at KKBE, a feeling that I had never really experienced at Christian churches.

“I left that tour eager to learn more about Judaism. There happened to be an Introduction class starting at my local temple a week after I returned home from the trip, so I registered right away. I read several books about Judaism, listened to podcasts, and started attending Shabbat services at temple. I realized very quickly that being part of a Jewish community and studying the Torah was enriching my life though I hadn’t realized that I was seeking spiritual fulfillment. I completed my classes and was blessed to have the support of my Rabbi for conversion.

“I converted to Judaism on August 31st, almost a year to the day after my tour at KKBE. When I emerged from the mikveh, I couldn’t help but think of the tour I took that day and how it changed my life. Thank you to the clergy, staff, docents, and congregation of KKBE for creating a welcoming environment for visitors like me.”

Incredible, right? Of course, not every tour will result in conversion (just imagine!). But, even as it might go against every genetic and historical instinct we have – when neo-Nazis march in Charlottesville, when the KKK threatens rallies here in Charleston, when protestors offered sanctuary in a Reform temple in St. Louis prompt a call to #gasthesynagogue – now especially it is incumbent upon us to remain as open, as inclusive, as engaged in the community as ever. Yes, we employ security. We take precautions and strive to be vigilant and smart. But we will not contract nor retreat; far from it. Thanks to the efforts of our incredibly dedicated docents, thousands of visitors each year are not only educated in the history of KKBE and Reform Judaism, but embraced by the value of inclusivity for which we stand. With two rabbis – and the time generously volunteered by my husband, Rabbi Aaron Sherman, as well – we strive to say yes to nearly every request to teach about Judaism in churches, at the college, and in schools throughout the area. And KKBE continues to be a visible presence in the community – in Charleston Pride events; interfaith and interracial dialogue, study, and action; and numerous other efforts to increase freedom, equality, and justice in the Lowcountry.

But there is still more we can do, and this year we must. KKBE is the first Reform congregation in America, and a proud member of the Reform Movement. Today our Reform Movement comprises nearly 900 Reform congregations. More than 1 million members are affiliated with these congregations, making Reform Judaism the largest Jewish denomination in North America. As we tell our Confirmation students each year when we take them to the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., Judaism bestows upon them the responsibility to speak up and use their voice to fight for change; their involvement in the Reform Movement amplifies their voice and extends its influence.

So, just as individuals and synagogues must harness our power to fight bigotry and hate, the Reform Movement continues to leverage its power, as well. Our central organizations have partnered with those of other faiths and denominations to call for, and march for, the protection of civil rights. We continue to coordinate lobbying of our public officials and issue statements that clearly enumerate the values we hold most dear – not only as Jews, but as Americans. And this Rosh Hashanah, at the very start of a New Year in post-Charlottesville America, a number of Reform rabbis are using the power of our movement in a way we don’t believe has ever been done before – sharing from the bimah a singular message; speaking collectively with One Voice.

Together we proclaim:[4]

Rosh Hashanah is Yom T’ruah, the Day of the Sounding of the Shofar. The piercing tones, as they have since ancient days, sound an alarm, give voice to our fears, compel us to respond with a resounding call for justice.


T’kiah – the sound of certainty. We stand upon the shoulders of those in every generation who fought for freedom. We invoke the memory of all who tragically and senselessly lost their lives at the hands of evil oppressors. And we call on every elected leader to declare: Acts of hatred, intimidation, and divisiveness will not be tolerated in these United States of America. In the words of Leviticus (25:10), let us “proclaim liberty throughout the land.”


Sh’varim – the sound of brokenness. Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, experienced unfathomable brokenness. But he would not succumb to numbness, and his memorable words strengthen our resolve not to become indifferent to brokenness today. “We must take sides,” he said. “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. [In the face of threats or discrimination of any kind] we must interfere.”


T’ruah – the sound of urgency. The events of these simmering weeks are a wake-up call to our Jewish community. Racism is wrong – when it seeps into explicit antisemitism, and when it does not. We must fight hatred in all its forms. The fiery torches of Charlottesville illuminated the fundamental truth that if one minority group’s rights are threatened, we are all threatened. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”

And so, in this New Year, we make a pledge – and I’d like to ask you all to PLEASE RISE

T’kiah G’dolah

T’kiah G’dolah – the endless, relentless pursuit of justice. Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, the Torah commands – “Justice, justice you shall pursue, so that you may live and inherit the land which I, God, give to you.” For a nation to truly inherit its place in the world, thoughtful leaders at every level must be dedicated to equality and justice. But we cannot rely upon our leaders alone. Every community depends upon passionate, engaged citizens; it relies on you and me to be relentless advocates for tolerance and freedom, equality and enduring kindness between all the diverse peoples of our nation. To pursue justice is to create a society that protects and enriches the life of every citizen.

In this time and this place – at the start of this New Year, 5778, in a post-Charlottesville America many of us never thought we’d live to see – may the Shofar waken us from numbness, strengthen us to move past anger and fear. May our Reform movement, may our cherished synagogue, may each and every one of us be relentless, tireless builders of the just and free society envisioned in both the Jewish and American Dream. And let us say: Amen.


[2] Pirkei Avot 1:14.


[4] Adapted from the work of Rabbis Elka Abramson, Judy Shanks, David Stern, and so many others.


Identify white supremacists as terrorists and the Confederate flag as a banner of hate.

Work tirelessly and legislatively to remove the forces that suppress, marginalize and victimize individuals of color.

Call out racism wherever you see it, in statutes and statues.

Actively strive to integrate every aspect of your life.

Put your money where your ideology is.

Do not give legislators any free passes.

“Your actions speak so loudly, I cannot hear what you are saying.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

We need not, and should never, condemn with violence; but still we can do more than speak with mere words.

Let our unequivocal deeds condemn hatred in a voice (the only voice) that’s sufficiently insistent and persistent, loud and clear.