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Yom Chamishi, 29 Tishri 5778

Why I’m Not Hiding My Religion Any More

I grew up in a small rural town in upstate New York and I tried to hide my religion during my entire childhood. In my school, there were no other Jewish students, at least not any others that I knew.

My father grew up in Brooklyn, the son of immigrants from Russia and Poland. It was an Orthodox household and his father was president of the local synagogue. My mother was also Jewish, and although she did not receive any formal Jewish education, creating a household where religious observances and study occurred was a foundation in our family. A religious education was so important to my parents that my mother drove 30 miles three times a week to take me to Sunday and Hebrew school. All the other students attended school in a different district, so they all knew each other. It was cliquish and lonely. I enjoyed Jewish study, but felt like an outsider.

Each year, I argued with my father about staying out of school for two days for Rosh HaShanah because I thought it would reveal that I was Jewish. I had a bat mitzvah, but didn’t invite classmates. I thought I was doing a decent job of hiding my religion, but when I look back I think to myself, “Who was I kidding?” In fact, I later learned that there were other Jewish students and teachers at my school.

College did not include Judaism either. Even though the student body had a significant percentage of Jews, none of my roommates (who became my closest friends) were Jewish. I was not active in Hillel or other activities that specifically involved Jewish students. I usually went home for the High Holidays, but if I did stay on campus, I attended services by myself and sat alone. At that point, I was not hiding my Judaism, but I was not outwardly expressing it either.

The turning point occurred when I moved to Washington D.C. to go to law school in 1989. For the first time, I had Jewish friends. We gathered for Jewish celebrations and developed traditions. I became comfortable with my religion. I traded stories with friends about my upbringing, and reflected on my wish to have gone to Jewish sleep away camp and participate in Birthright. I spoke with friends in detail about their trips to Israel and our views on the Israeli-Palestinian debate. My Jewishness became a part of my identity both at home and at work. It was liberating.

As a quadriplegic, I never thought I would get married. But another turning point occurred in 2005 when I married Tony, my husband of almost 12 years. He is Catholic and his family embraces Catholicism and its traditions. Despite our different religions, our parents’ values related to religion and to life were similar – family, education, doing good for others, showing gratitude, honesty, hard work, and not embracing a material life – making us more alike than different. We were married by a priest and a rabbi (sort of like the Odd Couple), and it was a beautiful ceremony in which the traditions of both religions were observed. Throughout our marriage, until my parents passed away, our families celebrated holidays together, and we have developed our own special traditions for religious holidays. My husband goes to Christmas Eve services with his mother, and my friend Vicki and I celebrate with the traditional Chinese food and a movie. We have adopted the same tradition for Easter. Best of all, we each get to enjoy the meals and family gatherings associated with the major Jewish and Catholic holidays.

At 50, I am comfortable with my identity: lawyer, entrepreneur, woman with a disability, and Jewish. Especially in recent months, with so much hate being expressed toward Jews, I want to scream “I am a Jew!” I’m not hiding my religion any more.

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When the Student is the Teacher: Lessons From a Stack of Old Letters

On Simchat Torah, we read the concluding words in Deuteronomy and without skipping a beat, start all over again with the first chapter in Genesis. With one breath, we read about Moses’ death and with the next, about the creation of the world. It is how we order our year; it is how we order our lives.

Several years ago, a close family friend died. Throughout his long life, Jerry had served as a mentor to me. Recently, his grandson, to whom both my son Ari and I have grown close, shared a surprising discovery: a stack of correspondence between Jerry and me his family found when they searched through his library. His grandson scanned the letters and emailed them to me. They remained there, on my computer, unopened.

Until yesterday.

That’s when I began to read and reread the letters, bringing our discussions back to life and reminding me of our wonderful friendship.

I was surprised to rediscover that I had served as a teacher and guide to the man I deemed to be one of my greatest mentors. Although not a rabbi, he was most certainly my teacher as well. In the letters, I found ruminations about theology, the purpose of religion, and the import of Judaism.

Jerry’s questions always prompted more thought. They prodded me to reexamine my convictions and on a few occasions, to revise my thinking. In that way, they reminded me of this Jewish teaching: “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, but the most from my students.” (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 7a)

I happened upon one letter I had written in April 1993, the month before my daughter Shira was born. In it, I had wondered aloud if I would be a good parent. Jerry offered reassurance and guidance: “You and Susie are about to embark on the greatest adventure of your lives, being parents. It is a matter of miracle and wonder, not just biology, and it will test your abilities in every sphere, over and over again. But here is where Jewish questioning and the willingness to listen will stand you in the best stead.”

Who, indeed, is the teacher and who the student? Is the line ever clear?

In some letters, I wrote to Jerry about my parenting convictions. Rereading those pages now, I recalled my many pronouncements about how Susie and I would do things differently, and therefore better than our predecessors. About my own children, I quoted my grandmother’s retort about me: “Steven acts as if he is the first person in the world to have done this.”

I can hear her voice clearly; it is there on the pages.  

Just as every bride and groom should feel that their wedding day is the first day of creation, every parent should feel as if they are the first couple to give birth.

The cycle continues. Through those letters, my grandmother returned to life; my mentor was reborn. My children grow and mature. (For a true measure of my parenting, ask Shira or Ari – or those with whom my children interact. When I asked Ari myself, he responded with this: “Abba (Hebrew for “dad”), I give you five out of 10, Eema (Hebrew for “mom”) gets six. Shira, nine. Team average: seven out of 10.”)

This week, we begin the Torah reading once again.

We unroll the scroll. We open its pages. We meditate on its words.

Once again: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth…”

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How to Supercharge Your Torah Study this Year

The shofar sounds the start of the new year, and soon after, Simchat Torah (Rejoicing with Torah) signals our reading the Torah scroll from the very beginning of the Book of Genesis.

The timing is no accident. Just as we’ve examined our behavior and recommitted to becoming the best versions of ourselves in the new year, so, too, have many of us resolved to engage more deeply in study this year.

But we don’t have to do it in a vacuum.

Each Monday, ReformJudaism.org shares the gift of the guidance of eminent modern-day scholars and leading Jewish thinkers. Reform Voices of Torah, the Monday edition of ReformJudaism.org’s daily Ten Minutes of Torah emails, features these scholars’ in-depth takes on the weekly Torah portion – for our consideration, debate, discussion, and learning.

A new scholar writes for each book of Torah, and their weekly divrei Torah are delivered by email and available online on the Torah Study section of our website. The five distinguished writers who are leading the charge for this year’s Reform Voices of Torah are:

For those who prefer to learn by listening (or who spend a lot of time commuting), an audio recording of the commentary is available. A direct link is provided in each Monday’s email.

There’s one more highlight in the Monday edition of Ten Minutes of Torah to power up your Torah study: a weekly podcast called On the Other Hand, which offers weekly tidbits of Torah wisdom from Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Again, a direct link is provided in each Monday’s email, or you can subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcast fix.

You can also find the Torah translations used by Reform congregations on our website.

What could be more accessible? If Jewish study is one of your goals for the new year, take a moment to sign up to receive Ten Minutes of Torah – and, of course, let us know what you think.

One more thing: As we bid goodbye to year 5777, we thank all the esteemed writers from this past year, led by Dr. Ellen M. Umansky (Genesis), Rabbi Ana Bonnheim (Exodus), Rabbi Lance J. Sussman (Leviticus), Rabbi Vered L. Harris (Numbers), and Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein (Deuteronomy) for illuminating our way through the Torah. Yasher koach them all! Their commentaries for each weekly Torah portion can still be found on the landing pages for each individual parashah, found on our Torah Study page.

As we welcome 5778, we look forward to all the Torah wisdom the year’s new scholars are sure to bring.

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Seeing the Torah With Fresh Eyes

Last month, we spent considerable time evaluating and repenting for the actions of the past year. We prayed for a clean slate, a sense of renewal.

As Yom Kippur ended, I felt good. I felt refreshed. I felt ready to take on the new year with last year’s rust shaken off. However, as the calendar moves toward Simchat Torah, the holiday that marks the beginning of the yearly reading of the full Torah, my feeling of transcendence is slowly morphing into ambivalence. On one hand, a new year promises a fresh start. On the other hand, it means pressing reset on the same narrative the Jewish people have read for more than 5700 years.

In this week’s Torah portion, B’reishit, (the opening lines of the Book of Genesis), Adam and Eve are removed from the Garden of Eden, Cain kills Abel, and God looks at all of humanity to find favor only with Noah. Stories of banishment, fratricide, and mass destruction greet us from the moment we first set our eyes upon the page, and give us our first impression of Judaism. These stories can be extremely challenging to rationalize. For many years, trying to understand them has kept me at arm’s length from my tradition.

When I decided to re-embrace Judaism, it was in spite of, not because of, these stories. I naturally assumed that Jewish learning would be a positive force in my life: I would read Torah, apply it to my new experiences, and suddenly these stories would become personal and meaningful in a way they had not been before. However, pouring over text by myself, I found that the more I read, the less I understood.

There is a reason Jewish tradition places such a high value on reading and discussing text in public. Jewish learning is not based on text alone; it is based on dialogue. I have learned that to truly trust that my beliefs are solid, I need to discuss them with others and I need to hear them out loud (not from behind a screenname).

I feel the same way about politics.

Last year, I watched the 2016 election divide my friends in college. People who embraced the same culture I do were not embracing the same cultural values. We never discussed our disagreements any further than invectives about the candidates. This summer for the first time, I volunteered on a campaign supporting pro-voting rights candidates, and spent time knocking on doors in northern Virginia. Subconsciously, this work was a way to have the dialogue – not the diatribes – I hadn’t had before the election. Consciously, I just wanted to change the minds of voters and find an outlet to engage in tikkun olam (repair of the world).

On a day-to-day basis, arguing with strangers over basic principles was grueling. However, I realize now that this effort advanced my understanding of the importance of Simchat Torah. Was I arguing literally about the stories of B’reishit or other Torah portions? No, but every discussion was a chance to get a fresh perspective on old issues and elevate my arguments. We celebrate the beginning of the yearly reading of the Torah because it gives us another chance to get a new perspective. We have another chance to change.

I am lucky to have grown up in a loving community that gave me the tools to figure out what I wanted from Judaism, but never forced me to go down any one path. I have started attending weekly text study sessions with Jews who observe Judaism in myriad ways. At the same time, as an intern at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, I can pursue justice and equity in a way that reflects my values. Together, these experiences are showing me that Simchat Torah does not have to be about trudging through the same narrative year after year; instead it can be a chance to look at that narrative with fresh eyes.

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Chatting With Jesus in the Sukkah

During the Festival of Sukkot it is customary to invite famous people from the past to be our ushpizin (“guests” in Aramaic) in the sukkah, the temporary huts we build to celebrate the harvest festival.

This year, I would like to invite Jesus to be my guest in the sukkah – to chat about this verse from Genesis: “So God created the human beings in the Divine image, creating them in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27).

To begin the conversation, I would point to one of the most beautiful verses in Scripture from Psalm 8:6: “For you have made humanity little lower than the angels…” As much as I love the English translation, I think the German translation – “Du hast ihn wenig niedriger gemacht als Gott, mit Ehre und Herrlichkeit hast du ihn gekrönt.” – is closer to the original because it speaks of humanity as just a little less than God.

For our Rabbis, the idea that humans are a little less than God or a little lower than the angels was a commentary on the notion that God created humanity in God’s image. It does not mean that we look like God in a physical sense because, of course, God has no form or shape. Rather, it means we have awesome power that God wants us to use responsibly.

For example, we are the only creatures that can go to the side of a mountain, mine ore from the mountain, turn the ore into iron, the iron into steel, and from that steel forge the most delicate of instruments with which to operate on a human heart or brain. Likewise, we can fashion that same steel into bombs and bullets designed solely to maim and kill other humans.

With that idea in mind, I would pose this question to Jesus: In your famous Sermon on the Mount, you offer thoughts about how beings created in God’s image should act. Unfortunately, it appears some of your instructions have been misunderstood and misinterpreted over time, causing great harm to Jewish-Christian relations.

Then, I’d offer this discourse.

As the Gospel of Matthew recorded your words, you said, “You have heard, ‘an eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth.’” Of course, those words are found in Torah, but surely you know that there is not a single instance in the Hebrew Bible of mutilation being imposed as a punishment for a crime. Surely you know, too, that rabbis who were your contemporaries interpreted these verses to mean that fitting financial compensation should be set for criminals to pay victims.

You also said: “You have heard, ‘love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’” Had I been there to hear you speak, I would have liked to ask, “Where did people hear that expression? Surely not in our Torah.”

In fact, in Exodus 23:4-5, we read “When you encounter your enemy’s ox or ass wandering, you must take it back. When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless help raise it.” With all due respect, Jesus, that certainly doesn’t sound like “hate your enemy” to me.

A wonderful story illustrates the Jewish perspective on this idea, and it’s an outlook I’m sure you share.

One year on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest night of the year, the synagogue was packed with worshippers waiting for the service to begin. To everyone’s surprise, the rabbi was not yet there. “Where can he be?” people wondered.

The synagogue leaders sent people to look for him, and finally someone found him, leading a frightened calf back into its stall.

“What are you doing?” the leader asked. “Everyone is waiting for you in the synagogue!”

“I know,” the rabbi answered, “but when I saw the lost animal, I had to bring it back to its owner.”

“But that man doesn’t even like you,” the lay leader said. “He has always been your enemy.”

“That is true,” the rabbi replied, “but our Torah teaches that we must be kind to our enemies.”

Another version of the story has a different ending. In this one, the leaders find the rabbi in a nearby house, rocking a baby in his arms. When asked why, the rabbi answered, “The child was crying. Comforting a crying child must take precedence over even the most important worship of the year.”

Jesus, I know we can agree that if we want to live up to our mandate as beings created in the Divine image, we must love our neighbors – including our enemies – as ourselves. Doing so means we extend a helping hand even to those who hate us and we dry the tears of crying children, including those who are homeless, hungry, or live in fear of violence – in our community, in our nation, and in this world that God has entrusted to our care.

Chag Sukkot sameach! (Happy Sukkot!) I’m glad you could come visit in my sukkah.

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4 Ways to Spread Kindness this Sukkot

The messages of Sukkot are about welcoming and about recognizing our vulnerability in the face of the natural world.

This year, we’ve seen too many instances of people being displaced from their homes by hurricanes and earthquakes, and we’ve also seen many examples of individuals and communities welcoming those people after these disasters.

But these communities still need our help, and even beyond this year, we know there will always be people who do not have shelter, food, or other basic needs. In that spirit, here are a couple of ideas you can do with your kids using items you probably already have at home.

  1. Have a bake sale or other fundraiser to raise money for an organization that helps victims of hurricanes or other disasters.
  2. Make cards for synagogues, JCCs, and other Jewish organizations affected by these disasters. They appreciate the messages of hope and friendship. Use Google or this blog post from the Union for Reform Judaism to find lists of congregations in the affected areas.
  3. Go local. Homelessness and lack of food and shelter are, unfortunately, not just problems brought on by hurricanes. Sukkot is a great time to make food and deliver it to a shelter or to support an organization in your area that helps people get back on their feet.
  4. Invite someone over for dinner or even a snack. A little bit of welcome, even if you don’t have a sukkah, can go a long way toward building and strengthening bonds in your community and beyond.

For more ideas, check out our Sukkot and Simchat Torah Social Action Guide and 5 Sukkot Actitivties You Can Do with What You Have at Home. Then tell us: How will you help make the world a better place this Sukkot? 

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Sukkot in Jerusalem: A Precarious Balance

I grew up in a Reform Jewish community in eastern Long Island. Sukkot was the holiday after Rosh HaSshanah when we finally said “farewell” to summer. The weather turned cooler, heavy coats emerged from moth-ball encased slumber, and the screen doors were replaced with storm windows. There were two sukkot (plural of sukkah; a small outdoor hut used during Sukkot) in the neighborhood synagogue – one on the bimah of the synagogue and one in the synagogue’s parking lot. They were decorated with local flora – pine branches, maple leaves, and bull rushes from the shores of the Great South Bay. As a religious school student, I remember going into the sukkah, singing songs, and chanting the blessings, but we never ate in the sukkah or slept out there – it was just too cold.

When I moved to Los Angeles and began my tenure as the cantor at Temple Isaiah, my husband Rabbi Donald Goor and I embraced the yearly building and decorating of our sukkah. Our home sat on a hill overlooking the entire San Fernando Valley and the Santa Monica Mountains provided the perfect backdrop for our seasonal structure. We invited friends to help decorate and each year the sukkah had a theme: one year it was super heroes, another year it was famous Jewish women, and in 2001, just weeks after the attack on the World Trade Centers, we decorated the sukkah in red, white, and blue.

Five years ago, Don and I made aliyah to Jerusalem and in our shipping container of household goods that sailed from Los Angeles to Ashdod and then was trucked to Jerusalem were some of our favorite sukkah decorations: the sides of a sukkah lovingly painted by my friend Julie and some decorations from that 9/11 sukkah made by Andrea and Lara. When we looked to purchase an apartment in Jerusalem, we always hoped the “right one” might include an outdoor space suitable for a sukkah – perhaps a balcony large enough to hold a sukkah that would be open to the stars or maybe a ground floor apartment with a garden.

The apartment we purchased and subsequently renovated was neither on the ground floor nor had a balcony large enough for a sukkah, so the decorations remain boxed up in our machsan (storage room) in the building’s basement. But that doesn’t deter our Sukkot celebration. Instead, we are invited to the sukkot of friends. Although we don’t build a sukkah of our own now, many of my Jerusalem neighbors are extremely creative in managing small apartments and adhering to the traditional rules for sukkah construction.

It seems that Jerusalem is home to a particularly unique type of sukkah: precarious cantilevered sukkot hanging off the sides of buildings. These sukkot are engineering marvels: balcony sides are opened and lowered and a temporary floor extends, creating space for the sukkah to be constructed. I’ve never been invited to dine or dwell in one of these sukkot – and I’d be terrified to spend much time hanging off the side of the building while pretending to enjoy reciting b’rachot (blessings) and finishing a meal. But as much as I’m scared to be a guest inside one of these sukkot, I’m just as unnerved walking under them. They hang, seemingly effortlessly off the sides of buildings, and are neither part of the ground nor a part of the sky. As I pass by on the street below – keeping a good distance away – I can hear the voices of people celebrating inside, oblivious to the sukkot’s tenuous nature and the cables suspending them 40 feet off the ground.

What is exceptional about these sukkot that populate Jerusalem is they literally hang between the two Jerusalems of which the ancient rabbis speak: the Jerusalem above or the heavenly Jerusalem (shel malah) and the earthly Jerusalem or the Jerusalem below (shel matah). In Jerusalem, we live constantly and continually in these two places.

There is the Jerusalem of holy places and sacred people and there is the Jerusalem of searching for a parking spot and sitting in traffic. There is the Jerusalem of hopes, dreams, and spiritual yearning and there is the Jerusalem of political conflict, religious battles, border crossings, and walls. This is the message of Sukkot here in Jerusalem – trying to find our place, our sacred space, and attempting to hover like modern angels hanging off the sides of the buildings for just a few days while soaring between the sacred and the profane, the earthly and the heavenly, the real and the unreal.

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11 Incredible Sukkot You'll Love

Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, begins Wednesday, October 4, at sundown. Jews the world over are constructing their own sukkot (the plural of sukkah), which are temporary, walled, outdoors structures with a view of the sky - and we're rounding up a few especially impressive versions. Are there any really cool ones we've missed? Comment and let us know!  

1. This photo, which originally appeared on Boston.com in 2011, shows a woman from the ancient Samaritan community decorating a Sukkah made from fresh fruit in Mount Gerizim near the West Bank town of Nablus.

Woman hanging fruit on the ceiling of a sukkah

2. This twisted, abstract sukkah was the winner of the 2010 Sukkah City contest. Called “Gathering,” it was designed by Dale Suttle, So Sugita, and Ginna Nguyen – and despite its unusual shape and appearance, it meets halachic (Jewish law) standards for a sukkah. It was displayed in New York City’s Union Square.

Sukkah in a flame shape that seems to be made of wood

3. Can you build a sukkah on a boat? What about on the back of a camel? The staff of Neot Kedumim, described as the world’s only “Biblical Landscape Reserve,” displays life-size models of sukkot discussed by the ancient rabbis, alongside texts debating the validity of each.

Two women in a canoe with a sukkah built upon it

4. These sukkot themselves are pretty standard, but how cool is it to see so many of them all in a row? While Diaspora Jews may be used to seeing sukkot only at their synagogues and in the backyards of a few Jewish neighbors, scenes like this one are common in ultra-Orthodox areas of Israel.

Aerial view of sukkahs in backyards in Israel

5. I couldn’t find a good photo of this brightly colored Lego sukkah in Brooklyn’s Boro Park during Sukkot 2015, but this video gives a fun tour of it. Wonder how long this took to assemble!

Colorful sukkah made of Legos

6. Who says Christmas has a monopoly on twinkle lights? This gorgeously lit sukkah argues otherwise. (Psst: If anyone has a bigger or better photo of this sukkah, we’d love to see it. This was all I could find!)

Sukkah in the dark glowing with lights

7. Most at-home sukkot are temporary, makeshift structures that look, well, temporary and makeshift – but this ornate sukkah at the residence of Avram Davis and Sarah Sheindelman in Berkeley, CA, takes sukkot to the next level. I’ve lived in apartments smaller than this beauty!

Large orrnate sukkah with tapestries and lights

8. The Forward reports that in 2011, the Jewish Monkland Centre in Montreal created its unusual “World of Peace” sukkah using 290 cardboard boxes, 24,000 staples, and tons of recycled material. Nineteen languages are represented on the writing around the sukkah.  

World of Peace sukkah made of cardboard signs

9. Property is New York City doesn’t often have space for backyard sukkahs, but in 2014, Google made use of its balconies and constructed not one but two structures at the company’s headquarters in Chelsea.

Google sukkah.jpg

10. Congregation Beth Elohim, a Reform synagogue in Brooklyn, NY, is known for constructing creative sukkot each year. In 2012, architects created a structure made of shelving units and bamboo. The shelving units, Patch.com reports, were “filled with notes, stories and drawings from people who stop by and write or draw whatever they want on a piece of paper.”

Beth Elohim.JPG

11. Swiss Family Robinson with a Jewish twist? Blogger Laura Mernoff posted this photo in 2006 with the simple caption, “Sukkah in a tree” – but we’re dying to know more about this cool, up-in-the-air structure that taps into childhood nostalgia!

Sukkah in a tree.jpg

Share a link to or photo of your sukkah in the comment section below. We want to see what you've created! 

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Repairing the Fallen Walls: What Isaiah 58 Means on Yom Kippur 5778

On Saturday, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Jews will fast all day and read a passage from Isaiah 58. The passage seeks to inspire the Shavay Zion, those who had returned from Babylon to Israel, to rebuild the walls of the city of Jerusalem, walls which had been destroyed by the Babylonians.     

People from your midst shall rebuild ancient ruins,
You shall restore foundations laid long ago.
And you shall be called
“Repairer of fallen walls,
Restorer of lanes for habitation.”

Friends, the walls seem to be falling and they seem to be in need of repair. With every tweet, the walls that protect us from bigotry and hatred crumble. With every tweet, the walls that keep in civility are damaged.

As a rabbi, it’s important that I stress the task that lies ahead of us if we truly desire to become “repairers of fallen walls.”

Now more than ever, we need spiritual voices of all faiths teaching us messages of justice and compassion. 

From a Jewish religious perspective, repairing the fallen walls means assigning highest priority not to profits or personalities or popularity, but to people and principles and outstanding performance.

Repairing the fallen walls means opposing attempts to undo the progress toward civil rights made during the last 50+ years and opposing a political system that seems intent on rewarding those who are filled with bias, bigotry, and racism.

Repairing the fallen walls means opposing the racists and anti-Semites who marched in Charlottesville. The tragic events in Charlottesville have shown us that the ideologies of Nazism and radical hate groups are very much alive in the United States today. Here, I want to be absolutely clear: There is no form of moral equivalency that can downplay the severity of the history of Nazism and the spread of neo-Nazi ideology.

Repairing the fallen walls means fighting prejudice against people who are of a different religion, a different sexual orientation, or a different nationality.

Repairing the fallen walls means stopping the psychological threats against 800,000 recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and working toward comprehensive immigration reform and security.

Repairing the fallen walls means we cannot be indifferent as schools are resegregated, not necessarily according to race, but according to economic class.

Repairing the fallen walls means not being indifferent as income inequality continues to grow and the gap between the haves and the have-nots increases.

Repairing the fallen walls means opposing the loss of health care coverage to an estimated 32 million people because of political machinations and greed.

Repairing the fallen walls means caring as much about poverty as we do about prayer, as much about our need for better schools, better jobs, and better neighborhoods as we do about bigger prisons, tougher laws, and lower taxes.

Repairing the fallen walls means taking a stand for justice. 

Repairing the fallen walls means that government rules with real compassion, not some imagined theoretical constructs called like the so-called “trickledown economics” or the current efforts toward tax reform, which, in effect, hurt the poor and enrich the already wealthy.

Repairing the fallen walls means demanding a fix for the Voting Rights Act and demanding an end to gerrymandering through the establishment of nonpartisan commissions to redraw districts.

Repairing the fallen walls means that, once again, the United States will become a global standard-bearer for human rights. America must neither deploy a misguided understanding of history nor abdicate its responsibility to stand up to all forms of hatred and bigotry.

Repairing the fallen walls means exerting our influence through our values, rather than our military might. It means protecting our county with the use of force only when necessary rather than the prosecution of wars of choice.

From a Jewish religious perspective, repairing the fallen walls means taking climate change seriously. 

In essence, repairing the fallen walls means a willingness to stand by what is right and just, however risky it may be – and not by what is convenient and expedient, however safe it may be.

May 5778 be the year we repair the fallen walls.

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High Holiday Lessons from an Alaskan Glacier

A deafening roar assaulted our ears as a house-sized iceberg crashed into the water and another warehouse-sized chunk of blackened ice rose out of the water, high into the sky. As Alaska’s Columbia Glacier calved (broke off) yet another expansive section of its blue ice face, we were filled with radical amazement.

Standing on the deck of a boat floating amongst SUV-sized icebergs strewn all around Alaska’s Columbia Bay, we quickly understood that we are infinitesimally small actors on the stage of Creation. The world is growing and changing all around us, in awesome and frightening ways. As the wise rabbi known as the Baal Shem Tov aptly cautioned us to remember: M’lo chol haaretz k’vodo – the whole earth is filled with Majestic Holiness – but we humans take our little hands and cover our eyes. We miss it.

We who live in cities and suburbs can easily become separated from the rhythms of nature. We notice some things: A flower blossoms. A stream flows by. The California sun scorches our garden. We alter our haircut. We take a different route to work. We redecorate a few rooms in the house. But fundamentally, while the world around us changes significantly, it appears unchanging and static to us.

That human-centered perspective ignores the awesome magnificence that surrounds us on this little planet we call home. And that’s why, every year, Jews and Jewish families need to gather together on Rosh Hashana.

Hayom Harat Ha-olam (Today the World was Birthed)

Rosh HaShanah (literally, “the head of the year”) is about more than a delicious meal shared with family and friends or a day or two spent in the synagogue singing, praying, and counting upon our blessings. According to our tradition, Rosh HaShanah marks the day that God created the world (Hayom harat ha-olam).

The Hebrew word “harat” is related to birthing. The Source of Life, according to some commentators, birthed a new existence in those first moments of Creation. Like a woman lovingly birthing a baby, like an Alaskan glacier calving its icebergs, the Creator of All, according to the Kabbalistic mystics, separated out some of the Divine holy light to create our universe. Rosh HaShanah, therefore, might be described as “the birthday of the world.”

On birthdays, we celebrate another year of life. We count the blessings from the year gone by, and evaluate the ways our lives failed to live up to the dreams we had. We recognize that we are changing and fragile. On our birthdays, we sometimes commit to making the coming year a better and healthier one for ourselves and our loved ones.

On Rosh HaShanah, the birthday of our world, we similarly reflect upon the blessings we experienced from our planet over the past year: in nature, in our gardens, at the beach, and in relationship with others. On Rosh HaShanah, we take stock of our existence and admit an awesome truth: that our world too is both changing and fragile and it needs our attention to protect it from the ravages of time and humanity. On Rosh HaShanah, we bless the world and the Holy One who created it.

Lessons from the Glacier

We learn lessons, too, on Rosh HaShanah.

We learn that being ever-changing, we humans want to notice the beauty of each moment of life before it inevitably moves on.

We learn that being ever changing, we humans become imitation Dei, God’s imitators and partners, who strive to help make Creation blossom.

We learn that this is an amazing planet on which we live. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement…get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

So this Rosh HaShanah, enjoy dinner with family and friends, find a congregation in which to pray and give thanks, and take a moment to praise Creation, for it is amazing.

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