Rabbi Linda's Blog
This week has been a challenging one in Israel and Palestine. I first want to add my voice to the many voices that have condemned the bus bombing in Jerusalem and the unnecessary taking of life that occurred. My heart is with those who have been touched by the attack, those who have been injured, those whose loved ones have been hurt or killed. Their lives are precious. I also want to add my voice to those who condemn the killing of civilians, including children, in Gaza, by Israel in their attempt to attack militants who were planning to attack Israel. My heart is with the families of Palestinians who have lost children and other loved ones whose lives are precious.
The current situation in Israel/Palestine is clearly untenable. We all know that it has been so for a long time. And once again, not surprisingly, violence and killing are the result of the power disparity and the injustice that exists in these lands. Where there is no justice there can be no peace. Where the powerful control their neighbors, there can be no healing.
In our congregation, we have been talking about the ways that synagogues are challenged in our current economic climate. There are fewer members in synagogues throughout the country and there is less money to go around. That doesn’t mean that synagogues need to cease to exist; it does mean that we need to find completely new ways to structure our congregations, to find funding, and to reach people. This kind of change is never easy. Those of us who have been involved in synagogues for our entire lives cannot even imagine an entirely new way of structuring a congregation. We often resist taking apart what we have and taking the risks needed to build something completely new.
Those of us who have been born since 1948 have never known a time when Israel did not exist as an independent Jewish state. We grew up looking at Israel as an ideal – perhaps as one that did not always live up to its highest values, but as one that always made the attempt. We grew up knowing that the way that Israel is now is the way it always needs to be.
Now, we see another week of attacks, of violence, and of killing. We see another week of pain caused to all who live in Israel and Palestine. My hope is that now, in the light of this new wave of killing, those of us who have grown up loving Israel will say, “Enough!” How long can we look at the country we love living with the pain and shame caused by their own intransigence? How long can we watch Israelis hurting and killing Palestinians in the name of their own safety? How long can we watch suicide bombers claim the lives of Israelis because of the depth of their anger and hurt, because Israel has not let them claim power in any positive way? It’s time to say, “Enough!”
There are those who say that a two-state solution is the best way to move ahead. There are those who say that will never work, only a one-state solution, shared by Israelis and Palestinians will work. And there are those who say that neither is possible. I have no crystal ball, but one thing is perfectly clear to me. If Israel does not open up all possibilities for examination and discussion, nothing will work. If we stay where we are, there will be only more pain and killing.
It is true in our congregations and it is true in Israel. The visions that we grew up with were lovely, but they are not real. Opening up new possibilities and allowing everything to be examined and something new to be tried is the only way to move forward. I hope that Jews around the world can all push Israel to begin to look closely at what the current situation is doing to its humanity and to the Palestinians who are touched by its rule before even greater violence occurs.
It’s all about power. The people in Egypt are trying to claim their power, as are people in so many countries around the world. In my life, I find myself wanting to have the community that I am a part of claim our power to make a difference in our city. For me, as a progressive Jewish woman, claiming power effectively is a constant challenge. Many of us learned as children how to be nice girls, how the worst thing we could do is get someone angry with us. Yet, the very nature of asserting one’s power leaves one open to angering others. Whatever we do, someone will strongly disagree.
In Philadelphia, the progressive religious voice has often been silenced. We have given up without forming an effective voice for social justice. A new organization, POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Reconstruct) is hoping to change that. On Sunday, six of us represented Mishkan Shalom at a meeting of POWER. There were 27 congregations represented (churches and synagogues in Philadelphia). We all gave our input on what issues we would like a new organization that is committed to interfaith community organizing in the city to address. Mishkan representatives stood up and expressed our desire to focus on education, the environment, hunger, and immigration. Other congregations shared their interests. Ultimately, we began to look into next steps to making a difference in Philadelphia on the issues that most people were interested in beginning to address: education, public safety, housing, and others. And now, we can try to move ahead.
It’s time to claim our power in Philadelphia. It’s time to let our officials know that we won’t tolerate a substandard education system, dangerous streets, and inadequate housing. It’s time to join together with the other congregations in the city and to speak out, letting our public officials know that we are not afraid of angering them; we are not afraid to join together with others in the city show share our frustration and who are ready to demand change.
This is happening in the name of our spirituality. It is happening because people feel “called by God” to speak out. It is happening because if dozens of churches and mosques and synagogues exist in Philadelphia and do nothing about changing the living standards of the people in the city, it is a disgrace.
I left the POWER meeting on Sunday excited and ready. For me, God is the power that moves me to act toward building a world of greater justice. If we can join together with hundreds of others who share that belief, imagine what we can accomplish!
I hope to write more about POWER in the weeks and months ahead. Maybe we, progressive religious people in our city, can finally find our voice and make a difference.
Last week I had a wonderful opportunity. This was the third time that I have served as Santa Claus for the Christmas party of the Women’s Community Revitalization Project, www.wcrpphila.com, an organization that provides housing and other help for homeless women and children. When I learned of WCRP’s need for a Santa Claus a few years ago, I instantly felt moved to step up. I had no idea whether or not I would succeed as Santa and no idea what it would be like, but I needed to find out.
I’ve always been intrigued by the myth of Santa Claus. An all-knowing being who responds to the wishes of all children sounded a lot like the kind of God I have never believed in but have always found fascinating. Now, for a few hours, I could step into the role.
Every time I’ve been Santa, I have loved it. Children stand in line, waiting excitedly for their turn to sit on my lap and to talk to me for a few moments. Some of the children sing Christmas songs to me. Many ask me about my life: What is Mrs. Claus doing while I’m away? When am I returning to the elves? What will I do when I get back to the North Pole? Are the reindeer waiting for me on the roof?
One girl always asks me if I’m a “lady Santa”. Three times now, I’ve told children that I am indeed a “lady Santa”, and three times I’ve seen them nod, absorb the information, and continue to ask me about my reindeer o elves. The capacity to hold mutually exclusive truths is a wonderful one!
This year, I asked one little girl what she wanted for Christmas. She looked directly at me and said, “I want my family to be safe.” After being asked for countless baby dolls and games, this request was unexpected and painful. It is likely that someone will give the children who sat on my lap a baby doll or a game; their requests are simple and likely to be granted. But this request is so much more challenging. Living in North Philadelphia, having recently been homeless, this young child has known more than her share of fear and lack of safety.
As I held her on my lap and looked into her eyes, I responded, “That’s a very important wish. I hope that it will be granted.” And I pledged to keep working together with others in our city to try to make this child’s wish come true. Maybe, if we work hard enough and do not give up, next year, all of the children of our city will be able to take their family’s safety for granted and ask for the baby dolls and games that young children should be wishing for.
Go to www.heedinggodscall.org to learn about work we can do to help end gun violence.
The title of the article in this week’s Forward (www.forward.com ), “Banned Textbook Offers a Lesson in Mideast Politics” only begins to hint at the sadness that the article reveals. A new book, “Learning Each Other’s Historical Narrative” was produced by the Peace Research Institute in the Middle East to tell the history of the region through both Israeli and Palestinian perspectives. There are three columns on each page: one presents an Israeli narrative, one a Palestinian narrative, and one a blank column for students to share their own perspectives. The book is meant to respond to the frequent accusations by everyone that their story is never told. Now everyone’s story can be told; yet it seems that ministries of education for both Israel and Palestine have banned the book.
Why ban such a potentially helpful, heart opening text? When our community read The Lemon Tree together, we were moved by the stories of both Israelis and Palestinians being told side-by-side. Yet, there are certainly times that our members bristle at the possibility of having both narratives rub up against each other too closely – especially when it involves the teaching of children.
The children who are meant to be reached by this new curriculum are senior high school students living in Israel/Palestine. I would hope that by the age of 16 or 17, both groups of students would be ready to learn both narratives. I would also hope that those responsible for the education of a next generation in Israel/Palestine would recognize the importance of finding ways to open everyone to the others living near them. How can an Israeli official or a Palestinian official imagine that by banning each other’s stories that there will ever be peace – that there will ever be the understanding needed to build justice?
Fear is clearly at the heart of this book banning: fear that those who learn about each other will no longer be fully supportive of their own people. If support is dependent on hiding facts, it is not real support. Those who feel that they are lied to about their people’s history rarely feel more supportive when they learn the truth. If anything, full openness can lead to full understanding and to even greater support for one’s own people and land, while it can also lead to new and creative ways to honestly open to one’s neighbors.
The idea of banning books is a horrible one in almost every case. In this case, it is also seriously misguided. If the governments of Israel and Palestine are serious about finding a way to live together peacefully and justly, they have taken a clear step backward.
An English version of the textbook is in the planning stages for use in English speaking countries. My hope is that we can show our support for this venture by using the text in our adult and teen educational programs. Maybe our hearts and minds will be opened by this courageous text.
Last week, along with four other members of the Reconstructionist Chevra Kadisha of Philadelphia, I helped prepare a body for burial using traditional Jewish rituals. We first prayed “that we might see the face of God in the deceased as we see the face of God in those with whom we perform this sacred task.” We then gently washed the body, adding more prayers, this time focusing on the deceased, praying for a circle of angels to escort his/her soul in its journey, asking for forgiveness for anything the person had left undone in life, reading from Song of Songs, celebrating the beauty of the person.
We then poured a large amount of water over the deceased, saying “tahor hu/he’, “s/he is pure” while the long act of continuous pouring occurred. Finally we dressed the deceased in white shrouds, reciting the verses that were used to describe the dressing of the High Priest in the Temple. On our way out, we recited a final prayer, ending with “God has given and God has taken away; Blessed be God’s name.”
I have been a part of many of these rituals through the past twenty plus years. I was one of the founders of this Chevra Kadisha in the 1980’s, organizing the group in response to our fear that the only existing Chevra Kadisha in Philadelphia would not prepare people who died of AIDS for burial. Our group started there, but has been able to respond to much more since its start.
We have prepared people for burial who had not chosen traditional Jewish burial in other ways, who have wanted to be cremated or buried together with something that had meaning for them in the casket. We have prepared people whose partners or friends have joined us in the washing and purifying process. We have prepared people who have dressed in other than the traditional shrouds. Yet we have always based our decisions about what we are open to doing on a few basic values.
We do this ritual to honor the person who has died, to accept the fact of the person’s death and not to deny death, and to treat everyone as equal in death. This ritual, called tahara, is incredibly mundane – washing, dressing, pouring water. Yet it is also the most deeply moving, inherently sacred activity that I am a part of. The connection between those of us who do this work together is strong and powerful. I am always astounded at how deeply performing this act together with a group of caring people affects me.
Looking back at the tahara I took part in last week, I once again am deeply moved. Being there so shortly after death, working together with a group of people who are present and clear about the task we complete together, and being there so close to the nexus of life and death: I felt the deepest sense of awe, a sense that has remained with me for days. As we stood around the deceased, asking forgiveness for anything we might have done that was painful or embarrassing, we all had a sense that this being we’d never met before but now knew so intimately, was smiling at us. I took that smile with me as I left this person who could deeply touch me even after death.
This spring, I’m planning to lead a training that will open the possibility of joining our Chevra Kadisha to anyone interested. I’m always interested in hearing your thoughts about Jewish death rituals (a particular interest of mine), and I’d always love to introduce you to the possibilities of learning to do tahara.
The Day of the Dead (El Dia de Los Muertos) is not a Jewish holiday, but this year several of us from the Mishkan community joined with members of various Christian churches at a “Day of the Dead” ritual on Monday, November 1.
The traditional Mexican “Day of the Dead” is a holiday that can last two or more days and that, with song and dance and food and festivities, celebrates those who have died. There are rituals at cemeteries and huge parties in many towns. Hoping that the souls of the dead will hear their song and prayers moves people to pray and sing even more fervently.
The celebration that we joined on Monday was not aimed at reaching the souls of the dead but at reaching the heart of Philadelphia’s District Attorney, Seth Williams. Wearing “Day of the Dead” masks and carrying cardboard coffins painted with messages of “Bury Fear”, “End PARS” (Preliminary Arrest reporting System), and “End Secure Communities (a program linking the police to ICE)” that we placed at the door of the D.A.’s office, our group, organized by the New Sanctuary Movement,” made a clear statement.
Philadelphia is supposed to be a city that treats its new immigrants fairly and with respect. Having local police connect with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) is not reasonable treatment. Currently, if someone suspected of being an undocumented immigrant is stopped by the police for anything (a speeding ticket, a broken tail light on a car) or is put into contact with the police in any way (reporting a crime, helping a friend who has been hurt), his/her personal information will be entered into the ICE data bank. If it is found that the person has no legal documents, s/he may be detained or deported. Not surprisingly, anyone without adequate paperwork is terrified of the police and will rarely if ever report a crime. This is not only terrifying the entire community of new immigrants, but is making our community less safe. If people won’t report crimes out of fear, criminals are free to commit more crimes. Not only does this system make all of us less safe, it clearly leads to racial profiling. How could our community not join in this powerful ritual that embodied the protest against this unjust system?
It was an honor to be at this “Day of the Dead” event with members of our community. After leaving our coffins and black veils of mourning at the D.A.’s office, we declared our fear of the “police–ICE” collaboration buried, and we marched to City Hall to celebrate as a unified, strong community. Mishkan led the final song of the day, “Hineh Mah Tov”, “How good it is for brothers and sisters to form a community together.”
I believe fervently in the power of ritual to transform people and societies. When I take in the words of A.J. Heschel, I become clearer about my own expectations and hopes for what prayer can be. Heschel wrote, “Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and ruin pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.”
The “Day of the Dead” ritual reminded me of the political power inherent within strong ritual, deep prayer. Within all of our prayer is the possibility for transformation. Our prayer can move us toward justice by embodying justice itself. On the “Day of the Dead”, I felt so moved. I hope that we can share many more moments of powerful ritual and transformative prayer, and that they will inspire us to work for a more just world.
It goes without saying that everyone – whatever our political position – would love to see a just peace in the Middle East. And we would love Israelis and Palestinians to move in the direction of helping that peace come about. In reading the Forward www.Forward.com (see direct links below) during the past two weeks (the Jewish weekly newspaper that has been around since 1897 and originated as a Yiddish paper –it’s always engrossing and interesting), I’ve been dismayed by articles about the loyalty oath that has been brought to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and that may be adopted as law in Israel.
New citizens in any country are generally asked to swear an oath of allegiance to their new home, but if this law is passed in Israel, it will add something to the oath that is currently being used. The oath that new citizens in Israel have been taking states, “I will be a loyal national of the State of Israel.” The addition would be “as a Jewish and democratic state, and I promise to honor the laws of the state.” I find this troubling.
First, it is dishonest. Israel is not able to be both a Jewish state and a fully democratic state. No state can be fully democratic if there are some who are not equal members of the state. Many of us who have supported Israel in our lives are aware of this “inherent contradiction” (as the Forward describes it,) and are prepared to support a Jewish state, whether or not it can ever be fully democratic. Others of us would like to see the state be reconstructed as a true democracy, knowing that it would no longer be a Jewish state. Whatever we would like to see, we know that Israel cannot be both: fully Jewish and fully democratic.
Second, the question that is debated in the Forward is the definition of the term “Jewish”. What does it mean? Is Judaism a religion, a culture, a way of life, a set of shared values? Is it more than that? Depending on who one asks, one gets a different answer, which makes this oath confusing. What does it really mean to be a Jewish state? What is one swearing allegiance to? As a Reconstructionist, I see Judaism as Mordecai Kaplan did, as “an evolving religious civilization”, including religion, culture, language, history and values. Swearing allegiance to this in Israel would be complicated for me since in many ways, the Jewish law that is enacted in Israel violates my understanding of an evolving Jewish way of life. How much more confusing would this be for someone who is not Jewish to say this oath with any true understanding of what it means!
Those are reasons why I think the oath is not helpful or even coherent, but they are not the main reason that I find it upsetting. Asking an Arab who is moving to Israel now to take this oath would be akin to punching him/her in the stomach. We don’t know the future of Israel; we don’t know if there will ultimately be two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian. We don’t know whether there will be one democratic state that respects a range of citizenry. We know that right now, there is no equality for Palestinians in Israel. We know that in Gaza, people are having their rights stripped away and are denied their basic needs. Being forced to swear allegiance to a state that is “Jewish and democratic” when much of its behavior is neither, when one’s relatives could be seriously mistreated in the name of that state, would be an act of cruelty to any Arab who was becoming a citizen of Israel.
There has been opposition to this oath from all sides of the community in Israel, and I am not surprised. This is a serious mistake for Israel, and I sincerely hope that this new oath will not be passed into law. It is yet another impediment to moving toward peace by the current Israeli government.
At an afternoon Bat Mitzvah service last Shabbat, Lena Greenberg gave a probing, thoughtful talk about the importance of ‘place’ in the story of Abraham and Sarah. She asked challenging questions about the power of ’place’ in our lives. Lena’s questions about how we manage to live good lives if we are among the few people trying to do so have remained with me all week. How do we decide where we will live and how do we take responsibility as citizens of the place we are living? As I wrote my letter in the November Kol Shalom, I was immersed in thinking about these issues and I wrote about them. Yet I still feel the questions bubbling within me.
On Sunday afternoon, I took part in a program of Heeding God’s Call, the anti-gun violence organization. While there, I heard a frightening statistic: there are more people killed by guns in the United States every year than in the next twenty five largest western, developed countries combined. Laws in the United States have not adequately addressed this issue in any state, and Pennsylvania is no exception.
Pennsylvania has a strong National Rifle Association organization that cannot seem to understand that there is a difference between the right to own a hunting rifle and the right to buy a handgun in a city where straw purchasing is rampant. Philadelphia has a frightening underground culture of illegal gun sales on the streets, and there is not enough being done to combat it.
Three years ago, the Mishkan community looked at the issues that we wanted to work on and gun violence was not at the top. Yet, as I’ve gotten to know the pastors of churches around Philadelphia, I’ve learned that they need us to support them in this work that directly affects their communities. We cannot say that we’re working on improving education in our city unless we help make it safe for Philadelphia’s children to go to school. We cannot help support green initiatives like community gardens unless we make it safe for people to work in those gardens. And we cannot work for immigrants’ rights unless we help make the neighborhoods where those immigrants are living safe.
The issue of gun violence is a strange one; many of us don’t see or hear guns in our neighborhoods, but if we open our eyes, we see that guns are closer than we think. If we are claiming our place in this city, the only way to do it is by joining together with the citizens of the city who need partners in the work that they are doing. We need to stand up to the NRA and claim our place as a sacred community that stands for peace. This is one way to answer the important questions that Lena brought to us.
Throughout the month, there are many times that I read something, study a text, or have an experience that I want to communicate with the Mishkan community. Other than the monthly newsletter, there hasn’t been an opportunity to share a written communication with the community, one that could start a conversation and put us in closer contact.
With our new website, this opportunity presents itself. I am starting a blog that will be accessed through the website. Anyone who signs on is welcome to send questions or thoughts to continue the conversation.
I will write approximately weekly, whenever I have something that I really want to share. I’m looking forward to our communicating more fully and to our forming a deeper relationship.
This past week, I’ve been shaken by the tragic death of Tyler Clementi, the student at Rutgers who committed suicide after his roommate and another student shared a video of his sexual encounter with another man on the web. How awful is the bullying that persists in our world – from very young children into adulthood! How sad that we live in a world where lgbt people still feel such deep shame about who they are that such bullying can lead them to suicide! And Clementi’s suicide is not alone. During the past month, there have been five suicides by gay teens – five that we know about.
In our community, we live in a bubble. We start to believe that it’s fine for lgbt people to live openly. After all, so many of the leaders in our congregation are openly gay or lesbian; so much of our membership is lgbt. Children growing up at Mishkan Shalom don’t have one vision of what a family looks like; they have many. All of this is good, but it doesn’t exempt us from responsibility to reach out to lgbt youth whenever we can and to do whatever we can to change the world so it’s safe for them to live in.
Those of us who live in a safe community have the extra ability and responsibility to speak out on behalf of lgbt youth. We have the responsibility to speak out in our work places, to push to change curriculums and texts, and to make sure that we create work places that are supportive of lgbt people.
There are so many ways we can do this; if Tyler Clementi’s death is a reminder to us that it’s not time to stop fighting for our lgbt youth, it will at least have made a difference in the world. Over the coming year, I hope to find ways to make our congregation even more open, and to make it clear that in our community we will never tolerate bullying of any sorts. The pain of Tyler Clementi’s death is great; our response can and should be working to create a world where such deaths will stop occurring.
One thing to do now is to go to Keshet to their Do Not Stand Idly By campaign. You’ll find a pledge of support for lgbt youth that you can add your name to. Mishkan Shalom signed on as an organization, and they would like both individuals and groups.to join in support.