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The blog of Congregation Rodeph Shalom, Philadelphia's Reform Jewish Synagogue
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We Are Crossing to the Other Side: Rabbi Maderer’s Message at the Philadelphia Women’s March 2018

Sat, 01/20/2018 - 10:41pm

Rodeph Shalom members at the Women’s March

Shabbat shalom!  Today, I am grateful to gather—we who call God many different names, and we who choose not to call to God at all—I am grateful to gather together with you!

This season, in our sacred text, the Jewish community reads the story of the Exodus from Egypt.

Our redemption story begins with women. Midwives birth our redemption.  Overworked, underpaid; but powerful      and brave.  How do we know redemption has begun?  We see the courage of women.

And our redemption story culminates with women.  When we cross the Sea of Reeds to freedom on the other side,    “Miriam the prophet takes her timbrel in her hand, and all the women go out with her in song.” How do we know redemption has come?  We hear the voice of women.

In our own time, brave women have birthed the next wave of the movement.

Women’s courage and women’s voice are leading; women and men are following in partnership.

We are marching to the other side, and there is no turning back.

We the People, of diverse neighborhoods, religions, races, sexual orientations, gender identities, socio-economic statuses, abilities and languages—so many of our groups, vulnerable targets of misogyny, hate, anti-semitism, racism, Islamophobia,  bigotry, homophobia, and fear—we are here to stand in solidarity!  To lift up women’s courage and women’s voice!

It is not the rape survivor’s responsibility, to bring us to redemption.

It is on us all, to dismantle gender power imbalance, in every corner of our society.

It is on us all, to bring our courage and our voice to our boardrooms, our classrooms and our kitchen tables.


And to anyone who would abuse his power like a Pharaoh, we are here to say: no!

Will we be silenced?  No!

Will we be pitted against each other?  No!

Will we be distracted?  No!

Will we be quieted by complaints that we are too shrill or bossy?  No!

Will we be satisfied with a handful of high-profile sexual harassment and assault reckonings? No!

At its root, sexual harassment and assault are about power!

So: will we be satisfied with anything less, than complete equal power?  No!


We will not turn around!

Our voices will not be drowned out!

We will not go back into the sea!

We are crossing to the other side.

That someday soon, we will lift our voices with Miriam, and we will know, that redemption has come.

Our Jewish Leadership Responding to #MeToo and Time’s Up​

Tue, 01/16/2018 - 8:53am

How has this sexual harassment and assault season of “Me Too” and “Time’s Up” had an impact on the way you think about our society, your social and professional circles, and your Jewish community?

It has been important to see high profile men held accountable for the abuse of power manifested in their sexual misconduct.  Yet, with so much reckoning occurring in celebrity circles, I believe we need to be cautious against allowing ourselves to respond as if it were their problem.  Sexual harassment and assault, and the imbalance of gender power which is at the root of it all — for these issues are not about sex, they are about power– is all of our problem.  The imbalance of gender power devalues women and robs men as well as women of choices in their work and in their lives.  It is all of our problem– it’s in our own neighborhood, our own school, our own workplace, our own office, our own desk chair.  We all have growth and learning we need to do in order to take steps to dismantle gender power imbalance.

In her recent article in The Jewish Forward, “The Inner Scream: Rabbinic Voices on Sexual Assault,” Rabbi Aviva Richman refers to an illuminating text which differentiates between an illicit sex act that occurs in a public or private setting (Deut 22:23-26). In a town, a betrothed woman is considered complicit because she should have screamed out to stop the advance. In a field, she is considered innocent because even if she screamed out, it would have been to no avail — no one would have come to her rescue.

The implication that the silent woman in the field should be blamed is tragically problematic.  The lack of a scream is not equivalent to consent.  Taken a step further, I would suggest it is not a woman’s obligation after sexual assault to call out the man.  And to extend to all genders: I do not believe it is a victim or survivors obligation to call out a perpetrator.  With great respect to the brave women who have spoken out, I do not believe women should carry the burden to repair the damage from sexual misconduct and abuses of power.  I believe we all carry that burden.

Here’s where the Deuteronomy text can be not only problematic, but also profoundly instructive.  As problematic as is the potential blaming of a woman in the town, consider what the text says about the townspeople.  Rabbi Richman teaches: “The rabbis interpret the scream as an indication of the critical role of a third party–the person who is supposed to hear the scream and intervene to prevent this act of violence.”  The burden is on the third party.

Who is the third party?  Who is the bystander?  The town.  All of us.  

Each of us has the power to turn inward to determine the behaviors we need to change, and the power we have, to bring change into our spheres of influence.  Our congregation is moving forward with three initial steps to prevent sexual harassment and assault and to dismantle gender power imbalance.

First, our staff will engage in a proactive, preventative sexual harassment prevention and gender power dismantling workshop.

Second, our Board of Trustees will engage in a similar workshop.  Each of the workshops will be co-led by an employment attorney and an organizational dynamics expert, as well as clergy who will offer a Jewish values lens.  From the very first moment I proposed the idea to our president Michael Hauptman, to our Officers and to our Board of Trustees, our leadership has shown tremendous support.  Men and women, older and younger, saw a need and expressed the desire to raise our consciousness.  I am grateful to have such thoughtful leadership partners.  I am grateful too, that the added expense brought by engaging our expert consultants will be generously funded by our congregant Lynne Gold-Bikin, who, when I shared with her my ideas, immediately responded “How can I help?”

Third, our RS Women, guided by the visionary leadership of Julia Engel, will this May offer a related Gender-Based Power Imbalance symposium for our community.

The burden is on the third party.  Who is the third party?  Who is the bystander?  The town.  All of us.  As we move through these important challenges, how blessed we are to do so together.


Take the Long Road

Tue, 01/09/2018 - 1:36pm

As many of you know, I just returned from leading 18 teens to Israel along with our youth engagement coordinator, Jenn Reiss. On our first full day, after an amazing Israeli breakfast, we headed off to the Tel Dan Nature Reserve. As we started our hike we saw a sign with two arrows – one arrow pointed to a trail on the left and said, “Maslool Aroch.” The second pointed right and said, “Maslool Katzar.”

Maslool Aroch, the long road, or Maslool Katzar, the short road – this was the choice laid out before us. This is a choice many of face ever day of our lives, take the easy path or the hard one.

We chose the Maslool Aroch, the long road. If we had taken the short road, we would have seen beautiful flowers and wildlife. However, by taking the long road we also saw a 3000 year old sacrificial sight, walls to an ancient city, and a tree affectionately called by locals, the Pooh Bear Tree.

I, personally, am always a fan of taking the long road, and I think our Jewish tradition agrees.

This week, begins the book of Shmot, Exodus. When we last left our heroes, the portion begins, Jacob, his sons, and their households, 70 souls in all, had moved from Israel to Egypt. They stayed there for many generations and grew numerous.

Anyone who has celebrated Passover or read even a little of the Torah knows what is going to happen next… spoiler alert: it’s not great for the Jews. A new Pharaoh will rise up and try to kill us, they’ll be some plagues, some “let my people go,” crossing a sea and 40 years of wandering in the desert until… we make it back to where we started – the Land of Israel. This begs the obvious question – why were we ever in Egypt in the first place? According to the narrative there was a famine that lead our people down there following after Joseph.

But God is almighty, all knowing, surely God could have done something about the famine and saw to it that the Israelites were safe in the Land of Israel – the land that they were promised and destined to live in according to Torah. And not only did God allow the Israelites to end up in Egypt but, according to our tradition, God actually ordained it.  

In Genesis 15:13, God tells Abraham, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years.” God’s plan included sending the Jews to Egypt for four hundred years. Why? God gave Abraham the Land of Israel and Abraham was happily settled there. Ultimately, the Jews end up back in Israel. Why the need for this 400 year sojourn in Egypt?

Here are a few theories put forward by our tradition.

One possibility is that God wanted to wait before giving the Promised Land to Israel because, as it says Genesis 15:14 “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” God promised to remove them from the land where Israel would one day live and apparently it takes some time to remove an entire nation from a land. According to the book of Joshua, once the Israelites did return to the land promised to them, the Amorites were destroyed just as God predicted.

Another reason put forth by our sages says that God did it for the glory. The 400-year sojourn in Egypt included many examples of God’s wisdom and might. Joseph’s preservation of the Israelites during a famine, Moses’ rise to leadership, and God’s great miracles such as the plagues and crossing of the Red Sea were all part of Israel’s time in Egypt. Without the sojourn in Egypt, the Israelites might never have known God’s greatness and thus lacked the faith to worship God.

One last possibility, again according to the text in Genesis, is that when the Israelites’ left Egypt, they would take with them many “great possessions.” God promised that their exit would mean great abundance and this was in fact fulfilled in Exodus, Chapter 12.

When the Israelites left Egypt following the tenth plague, they were told to ask the Egyptians for items of value for their journey. “The people of Israel . . . asked the Egyptians for silver and gold jewelry and for clothing. And God had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus they plundered the Egyptians.”

I like this last reason the most, but with a slight tweak. I think the reason the Israelites needed to be in Egypt for 400 years was to gain “great possessions” – however, not material possessions as the text states but spiritual gifts. Being a stranger in a strange land, being a slave teaches you a lot. The Israelites gained empathy, humility, grit, solidarity, community, and so much more during their time in Egypt. Rabbi Leo Baeck once wrote that, “the blessing of being a minority, is that a minority is compelled to think.” This is why we are commanded no less than 36 times in Torah to, “not oppress the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We gained gifts on our spiritual journey through exile that would later serve us and the world in difficult times throughout history.

The Israelites arrived back in The Promised land over 400 years later a changed people. They were in the same physical place that they started but a completely different place as a nation.

Two weeks ago, when we began our teen Israel trip, we could have taken the Maslool Katzar, the short road in Tel Dan, but going the Maslool Aroch, the long road, gave us a chance to deepen our relationship with each other and the sacred site we were exploring. The same can be said for our entire Israel trip. We took the long road on our Israel trip – and I’m not just referring to the many hours spent on the bus.

The long road included stepping out of our comfort zones and meeting with Palestinians teens who were part of a program called, “Kids for Peace.” While meeting with the teens, they asked us to participate in an exercise that they often do with new Israeli and Palestinian participants. We drew pictures of our journey on an average day, showing the places we go and the people we meet.

Then they asked us what places or people made us feel safe and which made us feel uncomfortable. Later, the Palestinian teens shared how the Israeli military makes them feel on edge while the Israeli teens shared how they are comforted by the site of an Israeli soldier.

The long road meant going on a graffiti tour of south Tel Aviv to learn about the issues that young Israelis face on a daily basis. We saw what some call ‘street art’ depicting economic struggles, and cultural clashes between east and west, and old and new.

Taking the long road meant going out of our way to stay at a small Bedouin village, K’far Nokdim, to learn about their traditional lifestyle and of course to ride some camels! We met a Bedouin women who was mistreated by her husband after he had taken another wife. She told us how she was one of the first women in her village to begin working for herself and how she made jewelry and worked in hospitality in the hopes of giving her children a better life than she had.

What can it mean for all of us to take the Maslool Aroch, the long road with our relationship to Israel. It means to engage – to not just comment on the sideline, or blindly choose a path based on what is easy. For some it means making Aliyah, like Michael Levin of Philadelphia who was killed during the second Lebanon war. Visiting his grave with the teens, we learned about how he always dreamed of moving to Israel and fighting in the IDF as his way of engaging with his birthright, with his promised land.

For some, taking the long road means to advocate both in Israel and the US to work towards justice. People like Anat Hoffman of the Israeli Religious Action Center, working for civil rights in Israel, who will be visiting Rodeph Shalom in April.

For some, taking the long road involves learning. We have an exciting opportunity starting in just over a week’s time to learn about engaging with Israel through a new 8 week class, sponsored by the URJ and the Shalom Hartman Institute called, “iEngage.” The class will be taught by our congregant, Rick Berkman, who has spent considerable time in Israel studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute. If you are interested, check our website for more info.

In Pirkei Avot 5:23, we read, “Ben Hey Hey said: According to the effort is the reward.” He is essentially saying the famous adage that we get out what we put in. That is what taking the Maslool Aroch, long road, is all about. We know this is true when it comes to studying for tests, working hard at a job, or acquiring a new skill. The same is true for our relationship with Israel. My hope is that all of you who desire to have a deep relationship with Israel will find your way to the long road, just as our ancestors did over their 400 year sojourn in Egypt and just as our teens did over their 10 day journey.

Kein Y’hi Ratzon. May this be God’s will.


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Yerushalayim Shel Barzel (Jerusalem of Iron)

Tue, 12/12/2017 - 2:11pm

Naomi Shemer, hailed as the “first lady of Israeli song and poetry” is perhaps most famous for her song “Yerushlayim Shel Zahav” (“Jerusalem of Gold”) written in 1967 and often called an unofficial second national anthem. Shemer wrote the song for the Israeli Song Festival held on 15 May 1967, the night after Israel’s nineteenth Independence Day.

At that time, the Old City was still controlled by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and under its sovereign rule. Jews had been banned from the Old City and the rest of Jerusalem east of it, losing their homes and possessions and becoming refugees. All Jews were barred from either returning or entering the areas under Jordanian control, and many holy sites were desecrated and damaged during that period. Only three weeks after the song was published, the Six-Day War broke out, and the song became a morale-boosting battle cry of the Israel Defense Forces. Shemer herself sang it for the troops during the war.

On 7 June, the IDF captured eastern Jerusalem and the Old City from the Jordanians. When Shemer heard the paratroopers singing “Jerusalem of Gold” at the Western Wall, along with the shofar blasts of victory, she added a verse based on the reality of a now unified city:

The wells are filled again with water,

The square with joyous crowd,

On the Temple Mount within the City,

The shofar rings out loud.

Yerushalayim shel zahav

Veshel nechoshet veshel or

Halo lechol shirayich Ani kinor.

Oh, Jerusalem of gold,

and of light and of bronze,

I am the lute for all your songs

One of those very soldiers that Shemer heard singing was a man by the name of Meir Ariel. He served in the Paratroopers Brigade of the IDF and participated in the Battle for Jerusalem at the beginning of the Six-Day War. As told by Yossi Klein HaLevi in his book, “Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation,” Ariel was inspired to write the song “Yerushalayim Shel Barzel” (“Jerusalem of Iron”) shortly after the war. The song was based on Naomi Shemer’s and borrowed its melody. It was his reaction to what he saw as the hyper-patriotism of the Israeli public and media of that time.

In your darkness, Jerusalem,

we found a loving heart,

when we came to widen your borders

and to overwhelm the enemy.

We became satiated of all his mortars,

then suddenly dawn broke,

it just arose, not yet even white,

and it was already red.

Yerushalayim shel barzel

veshel oferet veshel schor

halo lechomotayich kar anu dror.

Jerusalem of iron,

of lead, of darkness,

haven’t we set your wall free?

Naomi Shemer and Meir Ariel were writing about the same event. They experienced two very different realities during that historical moment in time. For Shemer and many Israelis, the reunification of Jerusalem was the greatest moment of joy for Israel since independence. A crowning achievement and age-old prophecy fulfilled. For Ariel it was also a moment of intense sadness and divisiveness; filled with bloodshed and darkness.

In his speech Wednesday announcing that the US would begin measures to move its embassy to Jerusalem, thereby recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, President Trump said he was acknowledging “the obvious.”

“This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality.” he said.

But whose reality? The same day, Malaysia’s foreign ministry said in a statement, “Recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, ignores the reality on the ground, endorses Israel repressive policies, violates Palestinian human rights and contravenes international law,”

Yes, there is one reality in which Jerusalem has, is, and always will be the undivided, eternal capital of Israel for the Jewish people. And there is another reality on the ground that East Jerusalem was, is, and will be the capital of a future Palestinian state. Both of these statements are true.

In a sermon a few months ago, I spoke about Jewish-American author, Nathan Englander and his new book, “Dinner At The Center Of The Earth.” Englander’s words are once again incredibly relevant. In an NPR interview with Scott Simon, he spoke about the unique title for his recent novel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Englander says:

So many people discuss Israel-Palestine as if its people [are] on a spectrum. But this notion where people say, oh, you know, Israel and Palestine, they disagree. It’s not a spectrum. It’s metaphysics.

They’re in a different reality, whereas, I lived in Jerusalem that had the Temple Mount and a Palestinian neighbor lived in al-Quds that had Haram al-Sharif. Like, literally, we’re inhabiting the same space and in a different city with a different extraordinary holy place on the same spot. And, to me, you know, that gets us to the title of this book. I was looking for a space for the no man’s land where a moment of understanding might take place.

By denying the Palestinian reality of East Jerusalem as their capital, Trump has destroyed that “no man’s land where a moment of understanding might take place.”

The United States, who have been the greatest source of hope for a peace deal in Israel. The US, who paved the way for the Camp David and Oslo Accords have now lost our seat at the table. Rabbi Robert Levine writes in an open letter to the president:

Announcing your intention to move the embassy now most likely will ensure that negotiations will not even begin, that passions will be incredibly inflamed, that our credibility in the region will be shot and that we may set in motion the type of instability that will strengthen Iranian and Russian influence in the Middle East.

Let me clear, I am saying all of this because I love Israel and I love Jerusalem. As Anat Hoffman, director of the Israeli Religious Action Center (who will be visiting RS in April) often says, “I show Israel I love her, by suing her!” I want Jerusalem to be the capital of Israel; but not like this.

Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people. As the Zionist Ahad Ha’am said – the heart that pumps Jewish life into the diaspora. Jerusalem is the place that we physically and spiritual turn in our prayers. Since its founding over 3000 years ago, Jerusalem has been the home to Jews and it has been the capital of Israel. As the psalmist say:

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!

Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you,

if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. (Psalm 137)

This is all religiously, spiritually, historically, and intellectually true.

But that doesn’t mean that it is diplomatically true. It does not mean that it is helpful for the United States to declare Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital.

Because some things might be more important than declaring Jerusalem’s status.

Like, for example, human life.

In his recent article, “Don’t mess around with Jerusalem,” Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin writes about the sometimes conflicting commandments of loving Israel and loving peace. Salkin writes about the medieval sage Nachmanides, who taught that it is a mitzvah to settle the land of Israel. However, Salkin writes, Nachmanides’ words might be trumped (pun intended) by those of the great Maimonides, who taught that you must not endanger your life by performing a mitzvah. Pikuach nefesh, saving a life, overrides even the observance of Shabbat. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Shabbat, 2:3)

Because the purpose of the mitzvot is to live by them — and not to die by them.

If there must be a choice between Jewish life and Jewish land, life takes precedence. Therefore, if life takes precedence over land, then certainly life takes precedence over the declared status of a city. And certainly over the geographical location of an embassy.

How does human life figure into this equation? Palestinians and many in the Arab and Muslim world view this diplomatic move as provocative. At the moment, there is surprisingly little violence, however, the Palestinian streets might explode into chaos. Israeli men, women and children could become the collateral damage of Trump’s pugilistic pronouncement.

I was recently speaking with Karen, one of our Buerger Early Learning Center parents. Her family is Israeli and I asked her what she has been hearing from them. She shared with me a recent conversation she had with her father. He said that the current situation reminded him a lot of the first Gulf War. Everyone is America was cheering and rooting on the the troops; jubilant when Saddam Hussein was defeated. But it was Israel that was dealing with the daily scud missile attacks. In America, we saw the war through the same rose colored glasses as Naomi Shemer’s Yerushaliyim Shel Zahav. In Israel they saw another reality, the reality of war, Meyer Ariel’s Yerushaliyim Shel Barzel.

At the end of his article, Rabbi Jeff Salkin writes:

American hard-liners, whether Jewish or Christian, treat Israel as their football team. They sit in the bleachers of America, cheering Israel on from a safe distance. “Hit ’em again — harder, harder!” But Israel isn’t a football team. There are real lives at stake, and those lives are more important than any posturing that might win political points.

President Trump’s declaration to move the embassy is a dangerous, politically motivated, unilateral decision. Unilateral decisions do not work. The unilateral decision of Israel to withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, cheered by much of the left, left a vacuum of power, quickly occupied by Hamas. The unilateral moves by Palestinians to punish Israel through the UN have only driven Israel further from the negotiating table and this unilateral move by the US to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, further endangers Israeli and Palestinian lives and weakens the US’ ability to be an impartial peace-broker.

When President Trump said, “This is nothing more or less than a recognition of reality,” he failed to recognize the many realities that exist in Jerusalem; the Palestinian reality of East Jerusalem as their capital, Meir Ariel’s reality of the blood shed for the sake of Jerusalem, and Karen’s father’s reality of feeling like a pawn in someone else’s game.

I don’t know if any one of these realities are any more true than any other. What I do know is that the only reality that matters to me is peace. Jerusalem –  ir shalom – city of peace, we pray for your peace.

In the words of Psalm 122:

1 I was glad when they said to me,

   “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”

2 Our feet are standing

   within your gates, O Jerusalem.

3 Jerusalem—built as a city

   that is bound firmly together.

4 To it the tribes go up,

   the tribes of the Lord,

as was decreed for Israel,

   to give thanks to the name of the Lord.

5 For there the thrones for judgment were set up,

   the thrones of the house of David.

6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:

   “May they prosper who love you.

7 Peace be within your walls,

   and security within your towers.”

8 For the sake of my relatives and friends

   I will say, “Peace be within you.”

9 For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,

   I will seek your good.


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Multi-faith in Morocco

Tue, 11/14/2017 - 9:54am

Yesterday and today marked the 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, when ordinary Germans demonized their Jewish neighbors and lashed out against them in violence and hate. Soon after, once Hitler had control over France, the Vichy government there sent a message to King Mohammed V of Morocco: help us deport your country’s 250,000 Jews to Nazi concentration camps. As the story goes, the king responded saying, “We have no Jews, we only have Moroccans.”

There are academic debates to the historic accuracy of this account, however, not one Moroccan Jew was ever sent to a concentration camp, and the Jews of Morocco lived out WWII in relative safety and peace compared to their French counterparts.

I learned of this story while visiting the Mausoleum of King Mohammed V in Rabat, Morocco just a few weeks ago. Some of you may remember, I had the opportunity to visit Abu Dhabi in May as part of a conference called An American Peace Caravan: Working from the Marrakech Declaration. Our American delegation was responding to a group of over 300 Muslim civil and religious leaders that gathered in 2016 in Marrakech. Led by Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah, the Marrakech Declaration signees promised to protect the rights of religious minorities in Muslim countries.

In this most recent conference, rabbis, imams, and evangelical pastors from 20 cities in the US gathered in Rabat to continue this conversation and think about how we can bring this message of tolerance to the US, especially in light of recent anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. This multi-faith conference was a unique opportunity to challenge each other on tough questions and engage in deep, meaningful dialogue in an effort to better understand one another, for as we know, so much hate and mistrust is based on fear and lack of knowledge.

In this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, the portion begins with the death of our matriarch, Sarah. Abraham purchases a burial plot for her in the cave of Machpelah.

At the end of the portion, Abraham dies as well and his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father in the same cave. This may seem fairly routine, brothers coming together to make funeral arrangements for their elderly father.

But it is a truly remarkable sentiment that Isaac, a Jewish patriarch, and Ishmael, an Islamic patriarch, came together at this moment. If you remember, the last time we heard from Ishmael, he was cast out of Abraham and Sarah’s tent along with his mother Hagar to presumably die in the wilderness at Sarah’s behest. God watched over the young boy and ensured that he too would eventually be the progenitor of the Muslim people. But this is not justification for being treated so horribly.

So why did Sarah throw the boy and his mother out of the household? According to the text it was simply because Sarah saw Isaac and Ishmael ‘playing’ together. This seems like a bit of an overreaction. However, according to one rabbinic commentary, Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer, written during the Islamic conquest of the Middle East, Ishmael’s crime is much more sinister. Using a fringe definition of the word mitzacheik, playing, Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer sees Ishmael’s actions as some type of sexual abuse of Isaac.

Nowhere in the text is there justification for this reading and most scholars point to this interpretation as a direct polemic against Islam. This type of vilification of Islam and ‘the other’ has sadly always been a part of Judaism and society, and still exists today.

We witnessed two mass killings in recent weeks. One in New York City at the hands of a Muslim, and one in a Texas church at the hands of a white American man. The New York attack was described as a terrorist attack. The attack at a church in Texas was described as the act of someone mentally ill. Both attacks were attacks of terrorism. Let us not forget that the majority of terrorist attacks in America are committed by white men.

It is not just politicians and the media that vilify Islam and ‘the other;’ many of us are guilty as well. I can say personally, that before my trips to Abu Dhabi and Morocco, I had many negative, preconceived notions about Muslims and Evangelical Christians. I thought all Muslims hated Israel. I thought all Evangelicals aligned themselves with a specific political party. I found both of these statements to be false when I got to know imams and pastors on a deeper level.

Now, I don’t want to sugar coat this and say that we agree on everything and all love each other. We have fundamental differences in our beliefs and irreconcilable points of view on certain issues. However, this does not mean we should be fearful or ignorant of the other. We may not ever agree on certain issues, but we can at least understand one another. And through understanding, we may not like one another or agree with one another, but we will hopefully stop creating evil caricatures of each other. Or as Brene Brown writes in her book, Braving the Wilderness, it is hard to hate close-up. So move in.

At the conferences in Rabat and Abu Dhabi, we were tasked with bringing this dialogue back to our communities so that we might all, in Brown’s words, ‘move in.’ In that spirit, Pastor Kevin Brown of the Perfecting Church, Imam Muhammad Abdul-Aleem of Masjidullah, and myself, with the support of some amazing lay leaders, have created our first series of dialogue events called, “Ambassadors of Peace.” Our hope is that our congregants will also have the chance to get to know one another and that, through meeting ‘the other,’ we can destigmatize, we can stop vilifying each other, we can see each person not as a stereotype of their religion, but as an individual.

The first dialogue took place last week at the American Bible Society, where we learned about Evangelical Christianity. The next dialogue will take place this coming Tuesday evening, November 14th at 6pm at the National Museum of American Jewish History. I hope many of you will join us as we teach others about Judaism.  

And the last part of the series will be held on December 7th at Masjidullah, a mosque on West Oak Lane, where we will learn about Islam. I’ll end with a story about that very mosque:

I was at Masjidullah with my mom, Laurel, and Josephine for a special multi-faith Iftar celebration a few months back. When we arrived at the mosque, my mother turned to me and said, “I’ve been here before.”

She couldn’t quite place it until the Imam, Mohammed Abdul-Aleem, invited us to come to a special room downstairs in the mosque. He was incredibly proud to show us some beautiful, old, stained-glass windows. The windows were clearly Jewish, and dated back to when the mosque was originally Temple Sinai. My mom then realized that the last time she had been there was 60 years ago for her cousin’s Bar Mitzvah.

What an amazing moment. To see a mosque that took extra precautions and extra steps to preserve sacred Jewish art. The next time someone tells you that all Muslims hate Jews, or that Islam is a religion of violence and is un-American, remember that this type of demonization and vilification needs to stop. Remember Masjidullah caring for our Jewish sacred art, remember the imams that showed up at Rodeph Shalom after the Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia was desecrated, remember King Mohammed V who saved the Jews of Morocco from the Nazis and remember to ‘move in’ and see the Divine in everyone.

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Installation: May We Enter in Thanks

Thu, 11/09/2017 - 3:28pm

In the words inscribed on my tallit, taken from Psalms: Pitchu li sha-arey tzedek, avovam odeh-ya/Open for me the gates of righteousness and I will enter in thanks.  As I have stepped through new gates, I enter with profound gratitude.


Thank you to Rabbi Kroloff and Rabbi Kuhn, for your faith in me, for your career-shaping mentorship, and for your generous words.  Rabbi Kroloff, you are my original teacher of what a rabbi can be—a justice-driven, Torah-driven leader of integrity and wisdom, discernment and compassion– you are my rabbi.  Rabbi Kuhn, your visionary leadership and care for every congregant, has taught me for 16 years; thank you for the exceptional generosity and inclusion of your mentorship.

I am grateful to enter these new gates with my partners: Cantor Frankel, Rabbi Freedman, executive director Jeff Katz, director of Congregational Advancement Catherine Fischer, director of Youth Learning Jennifer James, and director of the Buerger Early Learning Center Andi Miller, and for the trust, creativity, passion, and reflection our team shares.

I am grateful for the support of lay leaders and of all of you, our congregants.  The search committee, led by Michael Hauptman and Michael Furman, and shepherded by then-president Lloyd Brotman, engaged me in deep conversations.  What a joy it has been, to share a sacred partnership with our wise and compassionate president, Michael Hauptman, whose words on Yom Kippur encouraging us each to bring our lamp—our participation—inspired us all.   Thank you to our installation team and chairpeople, Susan Kline Klehr, Julia Engel, Ellen Simon, and Ivy Olesh, for lovingly turning this weekend into a reality.

Our tradition teaches that a parent’s 2 most enduring gifts to a child are: roots and wings. Everything I accomplish, grows from my parents’ love, support, perspective, humor, and generosity of spirit.

I am grateful for the close family they created, and for my sister Paige and brother-in-law Jason, who are always finding ways for the family to be together.

And to my extended family: Sue, Helene, Rick, Rich, Amy, Harriet, Elihu, Frank, Jeremy, Michelle, Jude and Simone, how special it is to welcome you here tonight.

A clergy’s work schedule can be a challenge.  For Len and me, what makes it possible to run a family, is the help and boundless devotion, of Len’s parents Susan and Phil, for whom we are both grateful.

Our children Moshe and Pria are loving and kind and funny; Daddy and I are so proud of the people you are becoming.

Len, thank you for making all of this possible, by being an incredible husband, best friend and co-parent.  I trust your wisdom and moral compass completely, and our love is the most important thing in my life.


Installation.  My role may be new, but this… There are few places in the world where I feel as at home as I do on this bimah, and with all of you.  How lucky I am to be with a community I already love, as I share of my vision for Rodeph Shalom.

Jewish time is not linear.  In Jewish time, taught the 20th century Rabbi Joseph Soleveichik, we move from future to past to present.  We envision the future, learn lessons from the past, and then take action in the present.

And so, we begin with the future.  Our vision for the future of Rodeph Shalom is to create profound connections and compelling Jewish life in our community, in our outreach, and in our moral leadership.

To guide our future, we turn to the past.  I recently opened the Rodeph Shalom Sisterhood cookbook published in 1927, the year this sanctuary was built.  Does anyone here remember that cookbook?   This was from a time long before women served as rabbis, or trustees on our Board.  And certainly long before they served as senior rabbi.  For it is my honor to serve as your first senior rabbi, who is a woman.

So, what do we learn from the 1927 cookbook?  First, there is a significant variety of marshmellow-related desserts… which will be honored with tonight’s meringue.  And there is a lot of mayonnaise…  including an appetizer called a mayonnaise ring; I don’t think that one will be making a comeback tonight.

Now, here’s what really struck me.  There is a Kosher for Passover section.  But then, there is a seafood section—shrimp, crab (again, not making a comeback tonight).  The point for Reform Jews in 1927, was not that they could eat crab and lots of mayo.  From them we learn the principle: to reflect the aesthetics and values of the time, and to shape a compelling Jewish life.  Further into our past, our founders were committed to welcoming any member, regardless of financial capacity.  From them we learn the principle: to reflect the values of the time and to shape an inclusive Jewish life.

The past principles of a compelling and inclusive Judaism, guide us still.  And so we move from future to past, and now to present.

In order to move toward the vision of community and outreach, we draw inspiration from the words of Isaiah, inscribed on our building’s façade: “Your house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” We are a Caring Community of connection groups, all ages, colors, abilities, vulnerabilities, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic realities. We are faithful and skeptics, Jewish and not, or maybe someday.  We value our diversity, but our large numbers make it difficult to know each other.  Hundreds of you have come to our intimate Engagement  Lunches, which have taught me the importance of small-group experiences.

Even as we nurture our closeness, it is upon us to further our outreach.

We often call ourselves the Center of Jewish life in Philadelphia.  But this is not an award; it is our responsibility.  Indeed, our work is nothing less than, to ensure the future of the Jewish people.

For Rodeph Shalom to become the Center of Jewish life in Philadelphia, we will need to take a giant leap outside of our walls (as magnificent as they are) to serve the Jewish people, and to connect to the seekers and the disaffected Jews in our city.

We will thrive in outreach when we hold out our hand in partnership to other institutions, and I feel honored we are joined tonight by the CEO of the Jewish Federation, Naomi Adler, and by the CEO of the National Museum of American Jewish History Ivy Barsky.

In order to move toward the vision of moral leadership, we draw inspiration from the words of Leviticus, inscribed on our building’s façade:  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

We are ready for more community- service experiences, that we may see more clearly the divine in every person, the suffering in our world, and the potential we have to repair, not only on the ground with direct service, but also in social change efforts.  I hope you will join us on November 9 for “Neighbor is a Moral Concept: A Conversation about the Unique Social Justice Role of RS.”

It is time for us, in partnership with as many organizations, Jewish or not, whose values overlap with our own, to raise our moral voice.  I feel honored we are joined tonight by members of the Muslim community and look forward to deepening our relationship.

This is your congregation, please– take part, join hands with the community and find your role, your mitzvah, in the life of Rodeph Shalom.

For to be the Center of Jewish life in Philadelphia is our responsibility.  Indeed, our work is nothing less than, to ensure the future of the Jewish people.

With love and deep respect for this community, I am grateful to partner with you all, to look ahead to the future, to learn from the past, and to pursue the vision at this moment in our present.  Open for us the gates of righteousness and may we enter in thanks.  Amen.




Filed under: Bulletin Article, Community, Jewish Philadelphia, New to Judaism, Outreach, Philadelphia Jewish History, Shabbat, Social Justice

The Tower of Babel, Anita Hill, Unchecked Power, and the #MeToo’s of Sexual Harassment

Sat, 10/21/2017 - 9:43pm

We have seen the words, “Me Too” on our computer screens all week long.  In the wake of the most recent sexual harassment reports, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.  If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

Hundreds of thousands of women (correction: now 1.5 million), and some men too, have added their voices, posting, “me too.”  Although it is no woman’s responsibility to post about being harassed or assaulted, the wave of “Me Too” responses has been important.  It reminds us that sexual harassment and assault are not products of Hollywood celebrity, some unreal world that has nothing to do with us.  It’s your neighbor posting, “Me Too.’  Actually, most of your female neighbors.  The “Me Too” campaign is giving people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.  And that is a tremendous step.

For, studies show that, most people do not speak up when they experience or witness sexual harassment.  Why such silence?  What are people afraid of?  Losing a job?  Perhaps.  And understandable.  But I believe that most of all, women are trying to protect their dignity– to avoid allowing their character to be put on trial.

Where is this fear rooted?  In reality.  In my formative years, my generation of professional women witnessed the Anita Hill hearings in Oct. 1991.  As now-Justice Clarence Thomas was being considered for the United States Supreme Court, Anita Hill shared her experience of his sexual harassment.  The all-male, all-white Senate committee, grilled Anita Hill.  Senator Arlen Spector (z”l) accused her of being “unfair” to bring such an accusation, and committee chairperson Senator Joe Biden neglected to bring a sexual harassment expert witness, leaving Anita Hill to explain what sexual harassment is!  So many of us women watched, praying that we would never find ourselves sitting in the seat she occupied.  Not in a Senate hearing, not in a courtroom, not in an HR office.  Senator Spector, a friend to women’s reproductive rights in many other seasons, misused his power then.  And Senator Biden, now an advocate for women, abdicated his power then.

What does Judaism say?  B’tzelem Elohim–we are all created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).  But more specifically, what does Judaism say?

The Talmud tells the story: A man once saw a certain woman, and his heart was so consumed by burning desire for her, that his life was in danger.  When the doctors were consulted, and said: ‘His only cure is that she shall submit,’ the sages said: ‘She should not yield; Let him die.’ Then when the doctors said: ‘Let her stand naked before him,’ the sages answered: ‘She should not yield; Let him die.’ When doctors said: ‘Let her converse with him from behind the fence,’ the sages said, ‘She should not yield; Let him die. (Sanhedrin 75a).

Relieved to see the text conclude that: we do not exploit women’s bodies to benefit men’s sexual desires; and to extend beyond the hetero-norms of the Talmud, we do not exploit people’s bodies, the text still reveals the tragic problem we have yet to overcome today: the problem of imbalanced power.  Notice: no one asked the woman for her point of view—she had no power.   Notice: the man and the doctors, felt they had the right to even propose exploitation—they did have power.   When it comes to sexual harassment and sexual assault, the essence is power.

And one of Judaism’s great messages about power, comes to us in this week’s Torah portion.

In the story of Babel, the people endeavor to build a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for themselves. God sees this and responds: “If…this is how they have begun to act, then nothing they may propose to do, will be out of their reach.” (Genesis 11:1-9).

Nothing out of their reach.  Unchecked power.

When God sees unchecked power, God dismantles it.

When we see unchecked power, we must dismantle it.

What can we do with the hundreds of thousands of #MeToo’s?  Although men also suffer from sexual harassment and assault and there are also female perpetrators, it is men’s actions and women’s “me too” experiences, that reflect today’s most common power imbalances, and that is where I would like to focus now, in particular, on sexual harassment.

I am grateful that so many people, especially men, have asked: what can we do to help?  This is about power, and so we begin by taking steps to balance power.  I invite you to join me in these everyday actions that men and women can take:

When a woman tells me she has been harassed, I will believe her.

When I start a conversation with a woman in my office, I will notice how easy it is to default to a comment about her looks.  And I will resist that temptation.

If I see one person touch another person who looks uncomfortable with it, I will say something.

If I hear a sexist joke, I will say: That’s not funny and you’re better than that.

If I hear my dentist refer to the hygenists as “the girls,” I will say: please speak about professional adult females in your office, as women.

I will lead with an understanding that no arena is as strong as it should be until different kinds of people are represented–not the boardroom, the Senate, the hospital, the home, the synagogue leadership — so I will pursue diversity in all hiring finalist pools and in professional mentoring pipelines in my field.

Many areas of change will be strengthened by men’s initiative, and I welcome their partnership.  So, ways to help, especially if you are a man:

Decline sitting on an all-male panel.

Negotiate for, and take, parental leave.

Identify the settings in which you have power–economic power, social capital… name the ways women might not thrive in those settings, and identify the ways you can include women.  (paraphrased from youth minister Lily Dodge’s blog)

Identify your power, use it and share it.

And, please recall with me, exactly 26 years ago, this month.  Recall two of the most powerful men in our nation.  Imagine if they had had the courage to believe Anita Hill.  Imagine if they had had the courage to educate the Senate committee and the nation about sexual harassment.  They might have been sacrificing their jobs, their money, their friends, their power, their status, their dignity.

What can we do about sexual harassment today?  Imagine the place in your life where you have the most power, the most status, the most to lose.  There, you witness sexual harassment.  You allow yourself to see it, to believe it.  And then you decide, what are you willing to sacrifice?  When you see a woman harassed or any vulnerable person harmed by someone in power, someone who can strip you of your power, your money, your friends, your status, your dignity… will you accommodate the predator, or will you allow yourself to notice?  Will you keep silent, or will you speak up?  Are you ready to make a sacrifice?

Sexism is so deeply embedded in our society that we often accommodate it, unchecked, without realizing. It’s time to realize.  And I believe we can.  This is a congregation that engages in transformative Torah study, lifting up Jewish values that guide us towards righteousness.  This is a congregation that digs deep spiritually, to improve ourselves.  This is a congregation that is not afraid of difficult conversations, and the challenging path—the sometimes slow path—to social justice.

Change takes time.  Not a single woman who was at Senecca Falls, the Women’s rights convention in 1848, voted in an election. In the Jewish Reform movement, to this day, every arm is led by a male rabbi.  But there was a wonderful announcement this week that I am excited to share: one of those arms, our Reform seminary Hebrew Union College, just appointed Rabbi Dr Andrea Weiss as its new provost.  Rabbi Weiss, who some of you remember from her teaching here at Rodeph Shalom, will hold the highest leadership position that any woman rabbi has ever held in our movement.  Mazel tov to Rabbi Weiss.

God sees the Tower of Babel and responds: “nothing they may propose to do, will be out of their reach.”  When God sees unchecked power, God dismantles it.

We will dismantle unchecked power, when we are willing to sacrifice.  We will dismantle unchecked power, when we have the courage to use our own power.  We will dismantle unchecked power, when we live every day guided by the notion of B’tzelem Elohim, that all humanity is created in the image of God.


Filed under: Community, God, Sermons, Social Justice, Spirituality

Tochecha: The Courage to Give Honest Criticism

Tue, 10/03/2017 - 1:32pm

Anyone notice that stunning tapestry in the lobby when they walked in this morning? How could you not?! The tapestry was hand stitched in 1972 by a group of 49 women at the congregation, led by Evelyn Keyser, and recently restored through the generous support of RS Women. When I first walked in and saw it, I noticed the beauty, the bright burst of color, the craftsmanship. But what really wowed me were the words. At the top, it says, “Ohev shalom v’rodeph shalom – Love peace and pursue peace.” These same words appear on our new addition, looking out on Broad Street. This quote, from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Ancestors) was written almost 2000 years ago and still remains at our core today.

At the bottom of the tapestry are the words of Leviticus 19, “K’doshim tih’yu ki kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheichem – You shall be holy for I, Adonai your God, am holy.” This verse is from the Torah portion, K’doshim, often called the Holiness Code, which we will read at the afternoon service. K’doshim is often called the physical and spiritual center of our Torah. Physical – because it is situated almost exactly in the middle of the Torah scroll. And spiritual – because this portion contains the core teachings from our tradition about ethical living.

We are holy, because God is holy. But what does it mean to be holy? To pray? To study Torah? All good things, but according to Leviticus 19, holiness is found in our honest dealings with our neighbors. We are holy when we leave the corners of our fields, when we refrain from cursing the deaf or putting a stumbling block before the blind. We are holy when we have honest weights and measures and just courts. We are holy when we respect our elders. And when strangers dwell with us in our land, we shall not wrong them. This is what it means to be holy.

Among the many moral commands in the Holiness Code, there is one that struck me as I looked at the tapestry, “Hochayach tochi’ach amitecha – You will surely reprove your friend…” Reprove, rebuke, or tochecha, as we call it in Hebrew, is unsolicited advice; a spoken frankness that reveals a fixable flaw.  The purpose of giving tochecha is to point out an important truth that someone just seems to keep missing. It is one of Judaism’s most spiritual practices, not to be dished out carelessly or in anger, but with genuine concern for another human being.

This command is the link between between the quote at the top of the tapestry and the quote at the bottom. How shall you be holy? By seeking peace. And how do we seek peace? Through tochecha. Contrary to conventional thinking, tochecha is the path to loving peace and pursuing it.

Fundamentally, tochecha is a mitzvah of connection — a cornerstone of healthy relationships and strong community. If we can trust our neighbors to tell us the truth lovingly, and if we can hear a reprimand with calm consideration, then our path to one of Judaism’s most sought after spiritual destinations, shalom, peace and wholeness, is well paved. As the Talmudic sage, Resh Lakish said, “Reproof leads to peace; a peace where there has been no reproof is no peace.” (Bereshit Rabbah 54:3)

Imagine your loved one has a character flaw that drives you crazy; probably not that hard to do! What do you do? You have a few options:

  1. Say nothing and just bottle up your concerns and feelings. You definitely can’t help your loved one by holding back and you may even find yourself getting upset with them because you are holding on to that resentment.
  2. Vent to other people about the issue. This might make you feel better but doesn’t actually help the situation and furthermore, it can lead to one of Judaism’s most reviled sins, lashon hara or gossip.
  3. Choose the difficult path of confrontation and talk to your loved one about his or her actions and why they are upsetting you.

Pirkei Avot tells us to, “Love peace and pursue peace.” Peace does not mean a lack of conflict – in fact, sometimes it requires it. Sometimes to truly rodeph shalom, to seek peace, we must confront our loved ones with hard truths.

Let me tell you a story…

This summer we served over 600 meals to children in need in our own backyard. With generous support from congregants, Robert Schwartz and Judith Creed, and through a partnerships with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the ‘Breaking Bread on Broad’ program provided meals, educational activities, and a safe space for neighborhood youth.

Breaking Bread on Broad was staffed by congregation volunteers and we were blessed with the lay and professional leadership of Eric Dickstein and Jeremy Schmidt. We also hired three neighborhood teens as interns. However, the interns that we hired had some shortcomings. But nobody is perfect – isn’t that what today is all about?

Specifically, how did these interns miss the mark? Well first, they were teens! Anyone who has parented or worked with teens knows some of the potential issues – they were immature, showed up late, constantly played on their phones, in general they were unprofessional… let me give you an example.

A congregational volunteer came in to teach yoga to the students. On her first visit, the interns didn’t want to participate along with the younger students. Not only did they refuse to participate but they actually sat around mocking the younger children who were bravely trying something new.

This was the first week of the summer. However, by the end of the summer when we had another yoga session, the interns were totally engaged. They volunteered to do the yoga without any prodding and they had fun doing it. One teen was even laughing, no longer at the younger kids, but because he was having so much fun.

So what happened in between those two yoga classes? Tochecha. Jeremy and Eric worked with the interns to help them develop into young leaders. Some would have given up; I’ll be blunt – there was a brief time, when Jeremy, Eric and I were ready to give up on these teens. We’d had it. They were disrespectful, unprofessional, and not only were they not helping the program, they were actually hindering it.

I think we can all relate to that feeling. A spouse, a child, a parent, a coworker, someone in our lives that we care about, is doing it all wrong. We want to help them but we are so frustrated we think it will just be easier to give up. And it will be – it would have been easier for Jeremy and Eric to just give up. But our tradition commands us not to stand idly by, “Hochayach tochi’ach amitecha – You will surely reprove your friend…”

Tochecha — the art of giving and receiving honest feedback or rebuke — is part of the biblical formula for sustaining friendships and relationships. According to the talmudic rabbis, it is an integral part of love; without tochecha, love cannot endure. (Bereshit Raba 54:3) I see evidence of this every day while counselling wedding couples. Those who are skilled at giving and receiving feedback are able to sustain healthy relationships over the long term, while those who lack such skills are ill-equipped to deal with relationship challenges when they arise.

Tochecha requires great integrity and impeccable communication skills. It also requires the use of an array of psychological capacities and virtues, including humility, empathy, mindfulness, courage, non-defensiveness, and integration. While some individuals welcome tochecha as an opportunity for self-improvement, most people defend against having their shortcomings pointed out to them, and they will employ a range of psychological defenses, including denial and projection, to protect themselves from the pain of reproof. According to Estelle Frankel, a psychotherapist and Jewish educator, we increase the likelihood that our words will be heard by paying attention to three things: our timing, tone, and intention.

Timing: The rabbis teach that just as it is a mitzvah to offer words of tochecha when our words are likely to be heard, it is a mitzvah to stay silent when our words will not be heard. (Yevamot 65) Before speaking, we need to be mindful of our own emotional state as well as that of the listener. If we are emotionally triggered or angry, or notice that the listener is in a state of agitation, it is better to wait for a more opportune time.

Tone: A voice that is angry, disdainful, blaming, or judgmental can undermine our message. It is better to communicate tochecha with humility and empathy. Remembering that we are all flawed and that we all possess the capacity for wrongdoing is key. When possible, offer feedback and insight as an equally imperfect individual — no better or worse than anyone else. As it says in Pirkei Avot (Chapter 2, Mishnah 5), “Do not judge your neighbors until you have stood in their place.”

Intention: Tochecha is not simply a matter of venting; rather, it involves a conscious effort to heal a breach in a relationship or to help others to awaken to their spiritual and moral deficits. Tochecha is most effective when we make use of our psychological capacity for integration — the ability to see ourselves and others as whole beings with strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices. With integration, we do not define people by their mistakes and flaws; rather, we point out specific criticisms at the same time that we remember the person’s essential goodness. When giving tochecha, it is helpful to express our loving concern, respect, and appreciation alongside any critique. Doing so reduces defensiveness and any sense that the criticism is an assault on the individual’s character.  

During the High Holy Days we end our service with a section called, “hakarat hatov – remembering the good.” After beating ourselves up all day, we need a reminder that we have merit, we are not defined by our faults. The same is true when offering tochecha to loved ones.

So how did Jeremy and Eric apply these principles? First, they thought about timing and pulled the interns aside, privately at the end of the day. And when issues came up during the day, they never spoke to the interns in front of the younger children, in an effort to never embarrass our interns. It is so hard to hear criticism – imagine how much harder it is to hear it if you are feeling embarrassed. Avoiding shame and embarrassment is crucial to practicing tochecha and core to our Jewish tradition, so much so that the Talmud states “He who publicly shames his neighbour is as though he shed blood.” (Bava Metzia 58b)

In those private meetings, Jeremy and Eric told the interns that their behavior was unacceptable – they were honest with them because they cared about these young men and their futures. The intention of this encounter was not one of anger or frustration but of love. I wonder how many teachers, parents, coaches, and other adults in their lives never said anything. Never reprimanded them because they didn’t care enough to do it or because they naively thought the path of peace is one without confrontation.

Next they coached the interns. Using the right tone, they didn’t just tell them what they were doing wrong but told them how to do it right. And of course, when the interns did get it right, Jeremy and Eric gave them positive reinforcement.

Lastly, Jeremy and Eric showed the interns a tremendous amount of respect and honor.  One Friday, towards the end of the summer, we were having a small internal issue and it appeared that the weekly paychecks for the interns were not going to be ready by the end of the day. Jeremy was relentless, and said, “This is not right, we have to get those interns their paychecks. This is part of the deal I made with them and if they are going to honor me, I need to honor them and agree to my end of the bargain.”  We did get the checks out in time, keeping with another law in the Holiness Code, “You shall not keep a worker’s wage with you until morning.” (Leviticus 19:13)

Hopefully this story has got you thinking about your own relationships. When you see a fault in someone how do you react? How do we actually get people to change? Does posting on Facebook work? Does yelling at people work? Shaming them? When we practice tochecha, who are we doing it for? It is not always so easy in the moment but we must constantly ask ourselves before giving criticism, who is this for? Is the timing and tone right? What are my intentions? Will this person actually listen? How can I give feedback in the most thoughtful, least humiliating way?

In this season of repentance, we spend so much of our time focused on how we can improve ourselves. We do this, not to be selfish, but because we want to be better people for our loved ones. Similarly, if we truly love our parent, sibling, spouse, child, friend, it is our obligation to help them improve.

Long before Jesus ever said it, the Holiness Code states, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In fact, this is the verse that immediately follows the commandment of tochecha. If we are to truly love our neighbors, it means helping them with the same sort of personal character development that we want for ourselves during this season and throughout our lives.  It means being holy, by loving peace and pursuing peace – peace that can only come from careful, loving confrontation.

This New Year, may we have the strength and courage to be holy like God, to love peace and pursue it, to reprove our loved ones, to tell them, in the most thoughtful of ways, the hard truths that they so desperately need to hear.

Ken y’hi ratzon. May this be God’s will.


Filed under: Uncategorized

Neighbor is a Moral Concept* (Kol Nidrei 2017)

Sun, 10/01/2017 - 10:28pm

Or zarua latzadik / Light is sown for the righteous**, words we just sang as the introduction to Kol Nidrei. This Yom Kippur, we search for the light of righteousness that it may illumine our path, and the path for generations to come.

Since our last Yom Kippur together, our world feels different.  We have born witness to anti-Semitism and bigotry, meant to keep us from the faith that we have the power to stand in the light.  More emboldened than recent memories of hate.  No longer hiding behind the white hood.  Not limited to the right or left fringes.  White supremacists, have desecrated cemeteries, painted swastikas in our city, threatened our Jewish Community Centers, and just last week created a new online presence #Gasthesynagogue.  And, in 2017 America, armed Nazis stalked a Reform Jewish synagogue in Charlottesville.   According to the Anti-Defamation League, in the first quarter of 2017 anti-semitic incidents in the U.S. surged more than 86%.

What do we do, in the face of heightened Anti-Semitism?  Certainly, we are vigilant about security protocols and are grateful for the people who keep us safe at Rodeph Shalom.  But in a deeper way, how do we respond to anti-Semitism?

When in Charlottesville, Congregation Beth Israel sees three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles standing across the street from the Temple, they keep praying and finish their Shabbat worship.

When in Florida, a Jewish Day School receives a bomb threat during their morning service, they evacuate to the parking lot as one student takes the Torah scroll outside. Once in the parking lot, another student takes his tallit/prayer shawl, and spreads it on the hood of a car. And then the kid with the Torah scroll, unrolls the Torah on the tallit, and the students continue with the Torah service – with a Torah on a tallit, on the hood of a car, in a parking lot, to which they have been evacuated, because of an anti-Semitic bomb threat.***

How do we respond to anti-Semitism? That is how we respond to anti-Semitism: Unafraid to stand in the light, we pray and we read Torah!  We– Jews of different colors, countries of origin and background, and non-Jewish family members too– we show up today in this sanctuary!  With resilience and courage, we show up, and we re-devote ourselves to Jewish life, to illumine our path and the path for generations to come!

But that rededication to a vital and meaningful Jewish life, is only our first response to hate.  

Our second response to hate, must be to heed the words of Elie Wiesel who taught: “Silence encourages the tormenter. We must take sides.”

In our response to hate we cannot only protect ourselves.  We see the other groups who are targeted by bigotry: African-Americans, LGBTQ Americans, immigrants, Muslims, women…  We must honor difference in our world and with moral leadership stand in solidarity with other vulnerable groupswhether or not we are targeted that day.

We have already begun.  Coalition-building raises hard questions; I realize that some of you hold different perspectives from my own, and I invite you to share them with me.

It is not easy.  Some fear that speaking out makes us vulnerable to hate.  At the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia, on whose Board I serve, I have the privilege of getting to know people from many backgrounds different from my own.  I recently shared a conversation with a man of another minority religion.  In his community, when they care about a social issue, they stay quiet, afraid they will be targeted if they speak out.  This “laying-low” may capture a sense of fear that some Jews share.  Will they leave us alone if only we keep our heads down?  …Probably not.  But even if Jews could find protection in our silence, at what cost? If we weren’t speaking to our Jewish values, wouldn’t we be giving up something even more precious than our security?

It is not easy.  Some fear that speaking out alongside groups with whom we disagree on other issues, threatens our integrity.

When it comes to coalitions, the question is: which groups, are enough aligned with our Reform Jewish values, that they are the appropriate partners for us, for specific causes?

After the Vigil in Support of Those Who Stood Against Hate in Charlottesville, I shared with one of the organizers how much I appreciated the opportunity to speak, but also my discomfort with some of the messages that were presented by other speakers.  This organizer explained to me, that when she was invited to help she knew she would not be comfortable with all that was said at the Vigil.  But this woman, a Jewish woman, also knew that without her enlisting rabbis to speak, the vigil would not have a Jewish voice. And the rally would remain more distant from issues that matter to the Jewish community.  So she stretched her boundaries. This woman’s story reflects much of my recent thinking…

I have been challenged by the question: Which groups are enough aligned with our Reform Jewish values that in the question of partnership, or just co-sponsoring the same statement, I can revisit some of my past boundaries.

For instance: I love Israel and believe Israel’s existence and security is critical to the Jewish people.  I also care deeply about a Two-State Solution that will offer opportunity and dignity to the Palestinians. And I oppose the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions, that is BDS, movements which I see as both anti-Israel and often anti-Jewish.  So, when a women’s or an anti-racism initiative includes organizers who are also BDS activists, do I participate, risking association with groups I oppose?  Or do I stay home, risking complacency, risking an absence of a Jewish voice… and knowing that when I stay home, I miss the opportunity, for other groups to get to know and understand Jews.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, recently taught, it may be time to experiment with our restrictions.  For sometimes, the big community-wide gathering that advocates some of our most cherished principles, is the one with co-sponsors who offend us.  Perhaps, there are rallies where I would say “We don’t all agree on every issue, but on this, we can stand together.”

I have engaged our leadership in conversation to explore these hard questions about how Rodeph Shalom takes moral leadership.  I invite you to join me in a conversation about the future of our congregation’s unique social justice role, on Thurs., Nov 9. I am inviting you to struggle with me and to share your point of view, as tonight, I’d like to share my own perspective, that I draw from our religious values.

Solidarity and coalitions challenge our boundaries. We are cautious because, the people with whom we stand, say something about who we are.   The question is: when does staying home, say more about who we are?

The ancient sages imagine our patriarch Abraham traveling when he sees a house aglow in flames. Abraham stops and says, “Who is looking after this house?”  Then what happens?  Abraham could continue to walk past.  He could say: the fire is not my problem until it’s in my backyard.  He could say: this is not really even my neighborhood.  But not Abraham.  Abraham realizes: this is God’s house.  This is all God’s house.  God’s house is on fire!  All of it.  Not just in the Jewish neighborhood.

In August of 1963, Rabbi Joachim Prinz spoke, just before the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. did, at the March on Washington.  Rabbi Prinz said: “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, the most important thing that I learned was that bigotry is not the most urgent problem. The most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence….Our ancestors taught us, that God created every human being as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic concept. It is a moral concept.* It means our collective responsibility, for the preservation of humanity’s dignity.”

When we stand in solidarity, that fire is our problem, because neighbor is a moral concept.

We know what can happen when we forget our collective responsibility for the preservation of humanity’s dignity. How do we move beyond the words of German pastor, Martin Niemoller, who, before his own imprisonment in the concentration camps, conformed to anti-Semitic norms, and after his release, wrote these now famous words:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Catholic. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Pastor Niemoller warns us how dangerous it is to be silent, to hide difference, to disconnect, or to allow ourselves to be pitted against each other.  But despite its powerful message, the poem reflects a failure to honor difference and to stand in solidarity.  Haunted by Pastor Niemoller’s remorse, my friend and colleague Rabbi Michael Latz responded with his own poem this year:

First they came for transpeople and I spoke up–

Because we are all God’s children!

They came for the African Americans and I spoke up—

Because I am my sisters’ and my brothers’ keeper.

And then they came for the women and I spoke up—

Because women hold up half the sky.

And then they came for the immigrants and I spoke up—

Because I remember the ideals of our democracy.

And then they came for the Muslims and I spoke up—

Because they are my cousins and we are one human family.

And then they came for the Native Americans and Mother Earth and I spoke up—

Because the blood-soaked land cries and the mountains weep.

They keep coming.

We keep rising up.

Because we Jews know the cost of silence.

We remember where we come from.

And we will link arms, because when you come for our neighbors, you come for us—

and THAT just won’t stand.

These Days of Awe, and this season in the life of our nation, demand we ask ourselves:  Will we see our neighbor, not as a geographic concept, but as a moral concept?  Will we see that the house on fire is our problem, because it is all God’s house.  I pray we will look back on this season and be able to say, again and again, when we witnessed words of hate, systems of racism, policies of fear: we spoke up!

As in these Days of Awe we dig into the deepest darkest places of our souls, in the words of the prophet Isaiah in tomorrow morning’s Haftarah: “may our light burst forth like the dawn.”  May we light the way to Jewish study, Jewish values, Jewish living, and the repair of our world, faithful and unafraid to stand in the light.

Or zarua latzadik, this Kol Nidrei, may we sow the light of righteousness, that it may illumine our path, and the path for generations to come.


**(Psalm 97:11)

***adapted from retelling by Rabbi David Stern, CCAR President


Filed under: Community, God, High Holy Days, Multi-faith dialogue, Social Justice