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.

[1] https://collegecommons.hud.edu/bully_pulpit/charlottesville_huc/

[2] Pirkei Avot 1:14.

[3] https://collegecommons.hud.edu/bully_pulpit/charlottesville_huc/

[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.

Not walls, fences.

Parashat Shmini

This week’s Torah portion contains one of the largest collections of dietary laws and regulations for keeping kosher in all of Torah. Read through the 47 verses of chapter 11 in Leviticus and you’ll learn that we aren’t supposed to eat bacon, ham or pork. The only sea creatures we are supposed to eat are those with fins and scales – rendering catfish, shark, and all shellfish treif. Bugs of all varieties are off limits – not a hardship, to say the least.

But the laws of kashrut don’t stop with what we find in the Torah. The commandment not to eat pork leads to a prohibition against anything baked with, or in, lard. The regulation of fish leads some authorities to say sturgeon and swordfish shouldn’t be eaten either. The instruction regarding insects is expanded to require a careful washing of all fruits and vegetables, especially leafy lettuce greens and intricately bristled broccoli, to make sure no creatures are surreptitiously hiding in our food – the very idea of which is guaranteed to keep me up tonight.

And none of these rules and regulations even begin to touch upon the elaborate system of protecting another commandment of kashrut found elsewhere in the Torah: “Do not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.” This obscure instruction leads to the separation of milk and meat, then the separation of milk and meat dishes, then a temporal separation of how long must pass after one has eaten meat before one can eat milk, and so on.

We often shake our heads or roll our eyes at the expansive series of “fences” rabbis throughout the centuries have created to protect the core practices of kashrut. I would venture that many, if not most, of us in the Reform community don’t keep kosher – and many, if not most, of us make that choice because we find the elaborate system to be burdensome and overly zealous.

And yet there’s something to be said for fences.

Like many of us, while I don’t keep kosher, I do follow the dietary practices of Passover – or at least the practices as they have evolved and become ritual in my family’s observance. And last Passover, like this Passover, I had faithfully refrained from eating chametz for six and a half days. We hadn’t removed all of the chametz from our home (much less burned it), but we had relocated much of it to designated not-kosher-for-Passover shelves in our pantries, and what wouldn’t fit there had been secured away either in the freezer or garage. In its place were enough boxes of matzah and macaroons to last our family through, not just that Passover, but perhaps all Passovers until the end of time. We ate matzah brie and matzah kugel, matzah pizza and matzah brittle… and we anxiously, eagerly awaited the end of what felt like an interminable seven days.

On the seventh day – when we could all but taste that first bite of bread with which we would end the holiday at dinner that night – our son had a special party at his school, a party at which cookies and cupcakes would assuredly be served. Stoically, he went off for his day with a few extra macaroons in his lunch bag – hardly the special treat his classmates would enjoy that afternoon, but he was committed to enduring the burden that occasionally is Jewish observance nonetheless. And, I’ll be honest, I was proud of him (as I often am).

Partly to recognize his commitment, partly to make the first post-Passover meal the celebratory occasion it felt it would be, I decided to go pick up a special dessert for the evening – a bundt cake, with that amazing icing, available in Mt. Pleasant. Having never been in the store before, I was a little overwhelmed about what to pick… Can’t go wrong with chocolate; lemon sounded sweet and amazing. But then there was white chocolate raspberry. I couldn’t imagine what that flavor would taste like as a cake, but how bad could it be, right? Then I saw there were samples, so I took a one… and took a bite… and then stood in the middle of the bakery realizing what I had done.

I had eaten cake.

On Passover.

While my son, at that very moment, resisted the temptations of cupcakes and cookies all around him.

I. Felt. Awful.

Was it an innocent mistake? Of course. Was I concerned about excommunication or eternal damnation? Not for a moment. I don’t even think I listed it among the sins for which I asked forgiveness on Yom Kippur the next fall. Did I worry about the wrath of my son? Yes – but he was incredibly, though not surprisingly, forgiving.

The thing is – yes, it was an innocent mistake, but it mattered to me. I broke a rule that I had determined was important to keep. And it was avoidable. A common sense “fence” to protect my Passover observance – not going into a bakery until the holiday is over – and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to make the mistake.

As Reform Jews, it is often the elaborate system of fences that leads us to dismiss certain Jewish practices – whether it’s kashrut or Shabbat or some other highly regulated ritual. We dismiss it out of hand. But perhaps the most important take away as Reform Jews is precisely that elaborate structure – we just need to build it around that which we determine it is essential to protect. Reform Judaism grants each of us individual autonomy to decide which practices and purposes are at the heart of a meaningful life. Those may be different than the core principles of halakhic observance protected by Orthodox practice. But once we’ve determined what is important to us, we would do well to protect our choices with a similar structure of “fences” and safety mechanisms, as well. Just because we know it is important to do something, or avoid doing it – essential even – doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to follow through.

Consider the desire to power down from the ever-present devices that increasingly consume our waking attention and energy. Yes, they help us, perhaps, to connect with loved ones and issues around the globe; but they also inhibit us – and ever more so – from engaging with the people and community right in front of us. All of our phones come with power buttons, but how often do we use them? We let the screen go black, put them away in our pockets, but the first buzz, the first lull in conversation, and we bring them right back to life. I’m as guilty as anyone. Enter the Sabbath Manifesto organization and its National Day of Unplugging – and that day doesn’t even have to be Shabbat. Precisely because the temptation to turn to our technology is so great, or the unconscious reflex so strong, there’s something to be said for building a “fence” and removing the opportunity to do so, for however long and in whatever capacity you determine. Their “fence” comes in the form of a “Cell Phone Sleeping Bag,” but of course it could take many forms – turning our devices to the “off” instead of “sleep” positions; leaving them in a different room entirely; letting the power run all the way down, so we couldn’t turn them on again if we wanted to. We can be creative, but the important thing is if we determine a practice is important, sometimes we have to take an extra step or two to make sure we abide by it.

One of the clearest examples of this principle is in the giving of tzedakah. Jewish custom sets a range for charitable giving – generally from 3 to 20 percent of one’s income. It’s a pretty wide range, and we each have to determine what’s right for us… but how often do we do that? How often do we sit down and calculate, at the beginning of the year, how much of our resources we want to give to worthy causes? How many of us instead sit down, at the end of the year, and after a year of necessary and discretionary spending, then determine how much of the remainder we think we can comfortably give? Many of us set up automatic withdrawals from our paychecks so that money we know we want to set aside for retirement automatically goes to that purpose without ever entering our checking accounts. That’s a “fence” we put in place to protect what we know is an important principle and practice. Yet how important is it to support the needy? How essential to share our resources with those less fortunate than ourselves? Might we use the same approach for tzedakah – setting aside a portion of our wages before we even see them? It’s human nature to want and desire more – to look at our bank account and dream about one more thing, one more trip, one more experience we might have. It’s a difficult thing to make those decisions. Sometimes “fences” can actually simplify our lives.

But “fences” aren’t just important for protecting personal practices; they’re absolutely essential for societies as a whole. I wrote the following reflection a few months ago as I accompanied our Confirmation students on our annual pilgrimage to Washington D.C. and visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:

One enters the exhibits … on the fourth floor. A brief film viewed in the elevator sets the stage for the utter destruction to come – the unfathomable devastation that necessitates the presence of this museum to record, document, and tell the story of the Holocaust so we can fathom it. So that we never forget. So that it never happens again.

One enters the fourth floor full of questions, but the biggest of all is this: How on earth did this ever happen?

The fourth floor offers the first hints, the first suggestions. The conditions: A polarized society… economic advancement that left many behind… cultural progress that left many disenfranchised. A charismatic leader: Angry… scapegoating… reliant on propaganda. A sharp turn in government: Banishment of the opposition… curtailment of the press… institutionalization of discrimination and hate.

Is this where we are today? No. Is the “alt-right” (in BIG quotation marks) the Nazi Party? Is Steve Bannon Josef Goebbels? Is Donald Trump a fascist? No.

But they’re way too close for comfort.

There’s been much talk of building walls – both during the campaign and after the election. We would do well to remember the Jewish tradition of building fences.

When it’s important to uphold a prohibition – to make sure we don’t get close to accidentally transgressing a command of the Torah – we’ve built halakhic (legal) fences. It’s how the biblical dietary commandment “don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk” leads to not mixing milk and meat, separate dishes, a waiting period between eating the two – even refraining from eating chicken, which doesn’t produce milk, with cheese. Because when something is important, we must make sure to protect it.

What can be more important than safeguarding our civil liberties? What can be more essential than ensuring “Never Again”?

Why am I so concerned, so outspoken, willing to risk erring on the side of alarm? Because we’re not on the fourth floor – not yet. And thank God. Because once you begin on the museum’s fourth floor, the only way to exit is to continue through to the devastating end.

The annual day of Holocaust Remembrance, Yom Hashoah, falls this coming Monday, and Charleston will hold its community commemoration on Sunday afternoon (details are in your announcement sheets). As two Jewish calendars intersect – those of Torah and history – this Shabbat provides a poignant moment to pause and reflect: Can we state what is most important for us to protect and uphold in our personal lives and in our society as a whole? Have we put enough safeguards into place to protect against transgressing those values and practices, not only intentionally but unintentionally, as well? Knowing how important those safeguards are, might we commit to stretching our “fences” even further?

That which is worth having, is worth protecting; and that which we commit to sustain, will sustain us, as well. May God who has taught us, “Guard yourselves well,” ever be with us, giving us strength and fortitude for the journey. Amen.

What’s love got to do with it?

Parashat Mishpatim.

We’re often taught: It’s what’s on the inside that counts. And, sure, beauty is only skin deep, and we should never judge a book by its cover. But what about when there’s a disconnect between what we’re told is on the inside and what we see on the outside – when one’s actions leave something to be desired, though supposedly one’s heart is in the right place? Is it still what’s on the inside that counts? This week’s Torah portion suggests otherwise.

“These are the rules (the mishpatim) that you shall set before [the Israelites],” the portion begins, and what follows is just that – an extensive list of specific rules governing everything from worship and dietary practice, to holiday observances, to ethics in business practice and the treatment of animals. There’s the call to release slaves in the seventh year, and the designation of murder and kidnapping as capital offenses – the same punishment incurred for insulting one’s father or mother, by the way. This Torah portion famously judges “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” and calls us to take care of the widow and orphan.

All in all, there are 53 separate mishpatim, 53 rules to be followed, in this week’s Torah Portion – comprising a little bit of everything.

But there is one that stands out, one that’s repeated twice in this particular Torah portion and – according to the Talmud (Baba Metzia 59b) – 36 times in the Torah overall. It’s the most often mentioned commandment in all of Torah: “Do not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Often when we cite this all-important commandment, we quote the text as it appears later in the Torah in Leviticus (19:34), where it’s written slightly differently. There we’re told: “You shall love [the stranger] as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Yet, of the 36 times this commandment appears, love is only mentioned this once. And it’s notably absent this week in Parashat Mishpatim from the book of Exodus where the rule is first introduced and repeated. “Love the stranger as yourself” is beautiful, it’s poetic, it’s a compelling ideal. But it’s subjective, it cannot be measured or proven, and ultimately it’s less important. Would it be wonderful if we all loved the stranger? Absolutely. But, as we know all too well, one can profess love and act contrary to it. And ultimately it’s not what’s on the inside that matters; it’s what we do, regardless of how we feel, that counts.

This inside/outside issue has figured prominently this past week in the wake of the President’s response to questions about heightened concerns in the Jewish community with an uptick in antisemitic incidents following his election. That there has been an uptick in such incidents is beyond dispute. We’ve heard about the bomb threats being called into JCCs. We see reports of swastikas and other antisemitic graffiti scrawled on property around the country. Antisemitic trolling and rhetoric online is at an all-time high. And just yesterday, 100 grave stones were overturned in a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis.

When first asked the question about what reassurances the President could give to the Jewish community, his answer eventually meandered to this: “I think a lot of good things are happening, and you’re going to see a lot of love. You’re going to see a lot of love. Okay?” But it wasn’t OK – his response neither acknowledged the very real anxiety and concern of the Jewish community, nor offered any tangible ways in which that love might be demonstrated, or its absence might be prosecuted.

The second time the President was asked the question, he cut the reporter off, declaring the question itself “very insulting” and proclaiming himself “the least antisemitic person you’ve ever seen in your entire life.” And perhaps this is true, perhaps – as many have been saying, as the reporter himself tried to say – the fact that he has Jewish family members, that he is a Zayde to his grandchildren, tells us that in his heart he loves Jews and is indeed positively disposed to Judaism.

But this week’s Torah portion shows us that this isn’t sufficient. The Torah doesn’t tell us, or even suggest, that love will conquer all. What does the Torah give us? Specific and extensive rules outlining how we are supposed to interact with others and look out for their wellbeing; an absence of any mention of, or concern for, love and emotion, which simply cannot be regulated; a willingness to underscore the importance of its commandments and the expectation they will be upheld by enumerating the punishments incurred when they are not followed – these are the ways the Torah conveys its concern and commitment to creating a just, equitable and safe society.

We’re going to see a lot of love, the President said. Well, as Cornell West teaches, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” And, as this week’s Torah portion reminds us, we don’t get to justice by professing what we feel inside; we build a just society by legislating and enforcing the behaviors that make love tangible on the outside.

Finally, today, the President said: “The antisemitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.”

It’s a start. Now let’s hope that that work is spelled out in mishpatim – in concrete rules and steps and actions that can truly create a just society. Amen.



Though Emanuel AME Church is only a few blocks from temple, I can go days, weeks, without passing it. Tonight, after hearing that a jury found Dylan Roof guilty of all 33 charges he faced, I felt called to its historic building like there was an oscillating beacon of light emanating from its stately steeple.

And maybe, on some level, there is.

So many have been drawn to the doors of Mother Emanuel in the past 18 months. Though far less frequently now, people still place flowers, leave cards, take photos. Visiting groups from all over the country specifically come to offer their support, participate in study sessions and worship, offer their love and hands on the road to healing.

But perhaps we’re not meant to follow the beacon to its source; perhaps we’re meant to follow the path it illuminates and journey out.

The beacon from the steeple of Emanuel is a light that shines on all of our communities, all of our institutions, all of the systems upon which this nation is built. It’s a light that shines to the North and West, not only in the South. It’s a light that illuminates policing and housing and education and voting. It’s a light meant to reach into the small nooks and crannies so easily, so often, hidden in shadow.

Today’s verdict in the trial of Dylan Roof consoles us that the most extreme act of hatred – an abhorrent and devastating massacre – can be called out for the racism that it is. But the absence of a verdict in the trial of Michael Slager a week and a half ago confirms our fears that anything less than a massacre, a confession, a supremacist manifesto can still masquerade as something else.

Today’s verdict is significant. None of us will ever forget what happened at Mother Emanuel on June 17, 2015, and justice has been served. But what about the more insidious acts and examples of racism that abound each and every day?

There, my friends, the jury is still out.


One enters the exhibits of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on the  fourth floor. A brief film viewed in the elevator sets the stage for the utter destruction to come – the unfathomable devastation that necessitates the presence of this museum to record, document, and tell the story of the Holocaust so we can fathom it. So that we never forget. So that it never happens again.

One enters the fourth floor full of questions, but the biggest of all is this: How on earth did this ever happen?

The fourth floor offers the first hints, the first suggestions. The conditions: A polarized society… economic advancement that left many behind… cultural progress that left many disenfranchised. A charismatic leader: Angry… scapegoating… reliant on propaganda. A sharp turn in government: Banishment of the opposition… curtailment of the press… institutionalization of discrimination and hate.

Is this where we are today? No. Is the “alt-right” (in BIG quotation marks) the Nazi Party? Is Steve Bannon Josef Goebbels? Is Donald Trump a fascist? No.

But they’re way too close for comfort.

There’s been much talk of building walls – both during the campaign and after the election. We would do well to remember the Jewish tradition of building fences.

When it’s important to uphold a prohibition – to make sure we don’t get close to accidentally transgressing a command of the Torah – we’ve built halakhic (legal) fences. It’s how the biblical dietary commandment “don’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk” leads to not mixing milk and meat, separate dishes, a waiting period between eating the two – even refraining from eating chicken, which doesn’t produce milk, with cheese. Because when something is important, we must make sure to protect it.

What can be more important than safeguarding our civil liberties? What can be more essential than ensuring “Never Again”?

Why am I so concerned, so outspoken, willing to risk erring on the side of alarm? Because we’re not on the fourth floor – not yet. And thank God. Because once you begin on the museum’s fourth floor, the only way to exit is to continue through to the devastating end.