I’d like to begin my remarks today where I left off on Rosh Hashanah:
Because of our diverse, multi-racial nature, Jews must necessarily embrace anti-racism as a sacred value. The Jewish Diaspora is a microcosm of the world we seek to create. If the term Ahavat Yisrael means love of your fellow Jew, it must also affirm that love crosses all lines and borders and boundaries.
“Jews must embrace anti-racism as a sacred value” – it must be a mitzvah if you will. At Tzedek Chicago, we’ve actually articulated this as one of our congregation’s core values. If you go to our website, you will read: “We promote a Judaism rooted in anti-racist values and understand that anti-Semitism is not separate from the systems that perpetuate prejudice and discrimination.”
Like all of our other values this one has very practical implications. It will necessarily guide the choices we make as a community: the issues we work on, the groups we stand with, the public statements we make. And in general it will mean we must always foreground the question: “what does it mean, as a Jewish congregation observe anti-racism as a sacred value?”
I’m sure most liberal Jews wouldn’t find this question all that controversial. After all, American Jewry has a long and venerable history of standing up for racial equality, particularly when it comes to our participation in the civil rights movement. But I’d suggest this question presents an important challenge to the Jewish community of the 21st century. And it was actually put to the test this past summer, when a the Movement for Black Lives released their policy statement, “Vision for Black Lives.”
I’m sure many of you are very familiar with Movement for Black Lives. It’s a coalition of over 50 organizations from around that country that focus on issues of concern to the black community. One year ago, their Policy Table began an extensive process, convening national and local groups, and engaging with researchers and community members. This summer they published their Vision for Black Lives: a comprehensive policy platform that focuses on six main areas: Ending the War on Black People, Reparations, Invest/Divest, Economic Justice, Community Control and Political Power.
I will say unabashedly that I believe the Vision for Black Lives platform is one of the most important American policy statements of our time. It’s both an unflinching analysis of the institutional racism against black people in country as well as a smart policy statement about what can be done (and in some cases already being done) to dismantle it.
What makes Vision for Black Lives platform particularly unique is that it wasn’t produced by the usual method, namely by a think tank or special interest group. Rather, it was developed by a coalition of national and grassroots organizations that reflect the communities most directly affected by these particular issues. Moreover, it serves both as an ideological manifesto as well as a practical hard-nosed policy statement that lays out a path toward achieving very specific legislative goals. In so doing, as many have observed, it is moving Black Lives Matter from a structureless network of local organizations toward becoming a genuine political movement.
To quote from their introduction:
We want this platform to be both a visionary agenda for our people and a resource for us. We take as a departure-point the reality that by every metric – from the hue of its prison population to its investment choices – the U.S. is a country that does not support, protect or preserve Black life. And so we seek not reform but transformation…
Our hope is that this is both an articulation of our collective aspirations as well as a document that provides tangible resources for groups and individuals doing the work. We recognize that some of the demands in this document will not happen today. But we also recognize that they are necessary for our liberation.
This platform is also important because it doesn’t limit its concern to issues facing the black community alone. It understands that the systemic racism impacting people of color in this country is but a part of many interlocking systems of oppression that affect communities the world over. As the platform puts it: “We are a collective that centers and is rooted in Black communities, but we recognize we have a shared struggle with all oppressed people; collective liberation will be a product of all of our work.”
If you haven’t read Vision for Black Lives yet, I highly recommend it. I’ll warn you it’s not easy. It’s very long and heavily referenced, so really reading and integrating it will take commitment. I’ve read it three times now and every time I did, I discovered something new and challenging that I hadn’t considered before. But in the end, I found it profoundly inspiring – and that is not something you often say about policy platforms. I would go as far as to call it a prophetic document. As I quoted earlier, it seeks “not reform but transformation.”
Like me, I’m sure many of you have read innumerable books and articles that analyze the institutional racism inflicted on people of color in this country. Usually they leave us pent up with frustration or else just a sense of abject hopelessness. The problem is just so vast and pervasive – how on earth can we ever hope to dismantle it? But this is first time I’ve read such an analysis along with extensive prescriptions toward political solutions. It lays out the problems then it puts forth real solutions. But it has no illusions about the daunting task ahead. As the report says. “We recognize that some of the demands in this document will not happen today. But we also recognize that they are necessary for our liberation.” (When I read this, I can’t help but recall the famous ancient dictum by Rabbi Tarfon: “It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”)
Is Jewish community ready to observe anti-racism as a sacred value? I think one important test would be to judge by its response to the release of the Vision for Black Lives platform. And in this regard, I’m sorry to say that the American Jewish establishment failed the test miserably.
Almost immediately after its release, every mainstream Jewish organization responded with statements that ranged from critical to outright hostility. Why? Because in the Invest/Divest section there is one section that advocates diverting financial resources away from military expenditures and investing in “domestic infrastructure and community well being.” And in that section there were some brief references to Israel – one that referred to “the genocide taking place against the Palestinian people” and another that called Israel “an apartheid state.” And as you might expect from a section entitled Invest/Divest, there was a statement of solidarity with the nonviolent Palestinian call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
The first official Jewish response to Vision for Black Lives came from the Boston Jewish Community Relations Committee, just two days after it was released. The Boston JCRC said it was “deeply dismayed” by the report and denounced the use of the word genocide and its support for BDS. It had nothing more to say about this voluminous, wide-ranging platform. It spent seven paragraphs on this one issue – and most of that was devoted to this one word.
Over the next few weeks, one Jewish organization after another denounced the platform for its statements about Israel with only a glancing nod to its analysis, its conclusions and its policy recommendations. Jonathan Greenblatt, the National Director of the Anti-Defamation League called its reference to Israel “repellent” and added patronizingly, “let’s work to keep our eyes on the prize.” Even liberal Jewish organizations such as J St., the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and T’ruah, an American rabbinical organization devoted to human rights, responded with criticism and chastisement.
These responses tell us all we need to know about the Jewish communal establishment’s commitment to the value of anti-racism. But it really shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Jewish institutional community hasn’t been in real solidarity with black Americans and people of color for decades. Most of what we call solidarity is actually nostalgia. For far too long we’ve been championing the role of Jews in the American civil rights movement, invoking the memory of Jewish martyrs such as Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman and Jewish heroes such as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. But those days are over – and it is disingenuous of us to wield its memory as some kind of entitlement when it comes to issues of racism in the 21st century.
There was a time that being a Jew in America meant being part of a discriminated minority, but that has no longer been the case for generations. Today, white Jews are part of the white majority – and as I mentioned on Rosh Hashanah, since white Jews are racialized as part of the majority, we enjoy all of the privileges that come along with it.
I know for many American Jews, particularly young Jews, it might seem downright silly to ask whether or not white Jews are white. But it is actually a subject of debate – at least among white Jews. In fact it’s become a something of a cottage industry. (If you doubt me, just Google “are Jews white?” and see how many hits you get.)
There’s actually a very simple way to answer this question: ask a Jew of color. Let Lina Morales, a Mexican-American Jew, who recently wrote a powerful article on the subject explain it to you:
With all due respect to my white Jewish friends and colleagues, people of color in the United States don’t need to take a course on critical race theory to understand the nuances of race. Anti-Semitism exists, and I’ve received a fair amount of it from fellow people of color, but its impact and extent doesn’t compare to the systematic racism of American society. White Jews simply don’t face the criminalization that black and brown people in this country do. They are not locked up or deported in record numbers. Nor is their demographic growth or struggle to not be capriciously murdered by police considered a threat by a large and reactionary part of our population.
It should be mentioned that thankfully, there were some Jewish organizations that did in fact welcome and endorse the Visions for Black Lives. Not surprisingly, all of them came from outside the Jewish institutional establishment – organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, and Jews for Economic and Racial Justice. For me, the most trenchant and powerful response came from the Jews of Color Caucus, which works in partnership with JVP. Among the many important points made in their statement was this one that was sent directly to the Jewish communal establishment:
Recent statements by the Boston JCRC, Truah: the Rabbinic Council for Human Rights, and The Union for Reform Judaism condemning the BLM Platform also send the message that the lives of Black Jews (along with Black gentiles) directly affected by US police brutality are less important than protecting Israel from scrutiny. We reject this message and call on these groups to commit themselves to honor the leadership of Jews of Color, including those critical of Israel…
We are appalled at the actions of the white US institutional Jewish community in detracting and distracting from such a vital platform at a time when Black lives are on the line, simply because the organizers chose to align their struggle with the plight of Palestinians. US Black relationships to Palestine and Israel have never been monolithic, but there are deep historical ties between Black and Palestinian struggle that go back to the Black Power Era. Any attempt to co-opt Black struggle while demeaning these connections, is an act of anti-Black erasure.
Their reference to the Black Power movement of the late 1960s is critically important. This marks the time in which white Jews were leaving cities for the suburbs to become part of the white majority. It also marks the time, following the Six Day War, in which Israel began to become central to American Jewish identity. For many white American Jews, this new relationship between Black and Palestinian liberation movements was experienced as a betrayal of former allies. Many American Jews looked to Zionism as the “liberation movement of the Jewish people” and considered it downright anti-Semitic to claim that Israel was actually a settler colonial project that militarily expelled and displaced indigenous people.
Of course, many American Jews still identify deeply with Israel. And that is why the Jewish institutional responses to the Vision for Black Lives resonate with a strong sense of betrayal. That is why the ADL’s Jonathan Greenblatt wrote we must “keep our eyes on the prize.” There is this yearning for a coalition that no longer exists – and a refusal to accept, as the Movement for Black Lives does, that Israel is part of this system of oppression.
So many otherwise liberal American Jews will insist: Israel is different. Don’t compare Israel to the racist system that oppresses blacks and people of color in this country. Don’t compare Israel to apartheid South Africa or any other state where one ethnic group wields power over another. It’s not the same thing.
Of course every nation is different in many ways from one another – but it’s time to admit that when it comes to systems of oppression, Israel is not different. And this is precisely the place that so many in the Jewish community, even those who are otherwise progressive in every other way, are simply unwilling to go. To admit that in the end, Israel is by its very nature an oppressor state: a system that privileges one ethnic group over another. And that this system is fundamentally connected to a larger system of oppression.
In fact it plays a very integral role in that system. The very same tear gas canisters that are used daily against Palestinians are the ones that were used against protesters in Ferguson. The same security apparatus that is used on the West Bank separation wall is the one that is used on the border wall that the US is building on our southern border with Mexico. The same stun grenades that Israeli soldiers use against demonstrators in Bil’in or Nabi Saleh are the very same ones used by American SWAT teams in Cincinnati and Oakland and St. Paul.
Here in Chicago, as in so many cities around the country, there is a new recognition of how the militarization of police departments is being used in ways that target communities of color. Those who say that we can’t compare this systemic racism to Israel should know that Chicago’s Jewish Federation regularly sponsors “police exchange programs” – trips that take the CPD to go to Israel to learn the latest military techniques from the IDF.
Regarding these exchange programs, the JUF’s Executive VP Jay Tcath has said this:
Helping connect and thereby improve the work of both Israeli and Chicago police is a natural role for JUF, committed as we are to the safety of the entire Chicago community and the Jewish State. From advising us on ways to enhance the physical security of our Jewish community’s institutions to helping us ensure the safety of JUF events – everything from dinners to pro-Israel rallies – we are grateful for the extraordinary commitment of CPD, Cook County’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management and our other public law enforcement partners. These missions to Israel both reflect and help deepen these valued relationships.
So we can’t have it both ways. The Jewish establishment cannot simultaneously empower the systems that oppress people of color in this country and at the same time say we stand in solidarity with them. If we are going to be anti-racist, we can’t make an exception for Israeli militarism or rationalize away its critical place in these systems.
Some of us have already made it clear where we stand. But sooner than later all of us in Jewish community will have stop dancing around this issue and make a decision. When it comes to Israel, we cannot continue to cling to a two state solution that Israel has already made impossible. As I’ve said before, the real choice we will have to face is a choice between two one-state solutions: one apartheid state in which a Jewish minority rules the non-Jewish majority or a state where all have equal rights and citizenship, regardless of their ethnicity or religion.
But on still deeper level, we must also reckon with the separatist assumptions behind the “two state solution.” What are we really doing when we advocate for a Jewish state that must have a demographic majority of Jews in order to exist? The same liberal Jews who cling to the notion of a two state solution would recoil at the suggestion of solving Jim Crow by separating black Americans from white Americans. That the only way two peoples living in the same country can co-exist is to physically segregate them from one another.
So to return once again to my original question: how can we, as Jews, embrace anti-racism as a sacred Jewish value? I’d like to offer a few suggestions in conclusion:
1. It would mean that the white Jewish establishment must embrace the concept of solidarity. Specifically, that means we cannot make it about us. The objects of oppression are the ones who must dictate the terms of their struggle. If we have issues with how they articulate their vision, we must raise these issues with them face to face in genuine relationship – not through public chastisement.
2. It would mean letting go of our reverence of a civil rights era that is long past and take an honest look at our complicity in the current reality in which white Jews are part of the privileged white majority. Anti-Semitism does exist in the US today, but it is not institutionally imposed upon us the way it is upon communities of color.
3. It would mean letting go of the old paradigm of “Black-Jewish relations” – a term that utterly erases the presence of black Jews from our community. Any new anti-racist paradigm we formulate must reject Jewish white supremacy and center the experience of Jews of color.
4. It would mean subjecting Israel to the same analysis we use when it comes to our own country. Israel is not separate from the systems that oppress people of color at home and abroad. We must be willing to identify these connections and call them out as we would any other aspect of institutional racism.
Finally, and perhaps most difficult, it would mean to letting go of a Zionist dream that never really was. To recognize that the Zionist dream was realized on the backs of Palestinians – just as the American Dream was realized on the backs of indigenous peoples and blacks who were brought to this country in chains. Yes, it painful to give up on dreams, but it is even more painful to hold onto them until they turn into a nightmare for all concerned.
After all, on Yom Kippur we vow to let go of the dreams of what might have been, but have led us down the wrong path. But it is also the day in which we can dream new dreams. We can dream of a world in which systems of exploitation and oppression are no more. As Sarah Thompson reminded us in her guest sermon last night, we must begin the year by focusing on the end – even if we know that by the end of the year we will not have arrived at the ultimate end we seek. To paraphrase the Vision for Black Lives, we recognize that some of these dreams will not happen today – or even in our lifetime. But we also recognize that they are necessary for our liberation.
May we realize this dream bimheyra beyameynu – speedily in our day.
As I’m sure you know, Tzedek Chicago has received a great deal of attention – some might call it notoriety – for calling ourselves a “non-Zionist” congregation. But contrary to what our most cynical critics might say, we didn’t choose this label for the publicity. When we founded Tzedek Chicago last year, used this term deliberately. We did so because we wanted to create an intentional community, based on specific core values. Our non-Zionism is not just a label. It is comes from our larger conviction to celebrate “a Judaism beyond nationalism.”
This is how we explain this particular core value:
While we appreciate the important role of the land of Israel in Jewish tradition, liturgy and identity, we do not celebrate the fusing of Judaism with political nationalism. We are non-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its indigenous people – an injustice that continues to this day.
I think it’s important that we named this value out loud. We need Jewish congregations that refuse draw red lines over the issue of Zionism, or at best to simply “tolerate” non or anti-Zionists in their ranks as long as they stay quiet. We need congregations that openly state they don’t celebrate a Jewish nation built on the backs of another people. That call out – as Jews – a state system that privileges Jews over non-Jews.
However, I realize that this core value begs another question – and its one I get asked personally from time to time. It’s usually some variant of: “Saying you are non-Zionist only tells me what you’re not. But what is it that your Judaism does celebrate?”
It’s a fair question – and I’d like to address it in my words to you this morning.
One of the most celebrated lines in the traditional Rosh Hashanah liturgy is the verse “Hayom Harat Olam” – “Today is the birthday of the world.” As you might imagine, these words have an added resonance for me on this particular Rosh Hashanah. Hayom Harat Olam indeed. On this day the world was created – and recreated anew for us all.
As our new congregation celebrates its very first Rosh Hashanah, it is difficult to put into words just how profoundly humbling this moment is for me. At this very moment, we are creating a community out of whole cloth, a fabric of connection out of deeply shared communal values. I am so very grateful to be granted this opportunity and so inspired by the many people who have stepped forward so readily and so eagerly to make Tzedek Chicago a reality.
This Rosh Hashanah, I’m feeling, if you pardon the expression, as if we’re celebrating a New Year on steroids. This is truly a season of newness, of potential, a blank canvas upon which we can throw our deepest hopes and dreams and visions. More than any other Jewish holiday, Rosh Hashanah is the time in which we proclaim without hesitation that anything is possible in our lives and our world. And I am truly blessed to be sharing it with you.
I’ll be honest with you: I still can’t quite believe that we pulled this off. It was only a short time ago that we even began to think about creating this new congregation. The leadership of Tzedek Chicago began these conversations a few months ago, and we held our first orientation meeting just this last summer. Our start up period has been astonishingly short – but I think I can speak for the entire leadership of Tzedek when I say I’m not surprised by how far we’ve come in this relatively brief period of time. I’ve known in my heart that there is very real need in the world for a congregation such as ours.
We are at heart, a values-based congregation. As the name of our congregation makes clear, our community is deeply informed by the sacred values of social justice. In this regard, the establishment of Tzedek Chicago is a very mindful attempt to create a Jewish spiritual home for those in our community who cherish these values and are seeking a spiritual community in which to express them.
If you haven’t yet, I encourage you to go to our website and read our six core values carefully. While they are listed separately, I do believe they are part of a larger unified story: a narrative of liberation that runs through the heart of Judaism and Jewish history. It is a narrative rooted in the Exodus story that tells of a God who stands by the oppressed and demands that we do the same. It resonates through the words of Biblical prophets who spoke truth to corrupt power. And it can be found in the courageous example of ancient rabbis who responded to the trauma of exile from the land by creating a global religion with a universal message of healing and hope.
It is particularly relevant to invoke this liberatory narrative on Rosh Hashanah, of all days. Indeed, one of the central themes of this day is the concept of Malchuyot – God’s ultimate sovereignty over our lives and our world. Even if you don’t adhere to the literal belief in God as a supernatural King sitting on his throne on high, I believe we have much to learn from this concept. At its core, I would suggest affirming Malchuyot means affirming that there is a Force Yet Greater: greater than Pharoah in Egypt, greater than the mighty Roman empire, greater than the myriad of powerful empires that have oppressed the Jewish people and many so other peoples throughout the world.
I would argue that this sacred conviction has been one of the central driving forces of Jewish tradition throughout the centuries: that it is not by might and not by power – but by God’s spirit that l our world will ultimately be redeemed. I would further argue that this belief in a Power Yet Greater sustained Jewish life in a very real way during some very dark periods of our history. After all, the Jewish people are still here, even after far mightier empires have come and gone. It might well be said that this allegiance to a Power Yet Greater is the force that keeps alive the hopes of all peoples who have lived with the reality of dislocation and oppression.
I will submit to you, however, that we have tragically betrayed this Jewish narrative of liberation in our own day. With the onset of modernity, we have largely surrendered the ideal of “not by might and not by power” through a kind of Faustian bargain with might and power. We now embrace a new narrative – one that responds to trauma not with a message of healing and hope, but by placing our faith in humanly wielded power. Our new narrative teaches that the pain of our Jewish past will inevitably become our future unless we embrace the ways of power and privilege; nationalism and militarism.
Historically speaking, we know what can happen when religion has been used to justify the aims of empire. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as Constantinian religion, in reference to the Emperor Constantine, who in the fourth century began the process of making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. In that one critically historic moment, what had previously been a small and persecuted religious community in the first century after Jesus, became a religion of state power. We know the rest. The Jewish people in particular know all too well the sorrows that inevitably ensued from Christianity’s bargain with empire.
In our own day, however, the Jewish people have made a similar kind of tragic bargain. Jewish theologian and thinker Marc Ellis has coined a term for it: “Constantinian Judaism.” With the onset of Zionism and the establishment of the state of Israel, Judaism has now itself become wedded to empire. The unavoidable focal point of Jewish life is now a Jewish nation-state that venerates Jewish power, Jewish militarism and Jewish privilege. Although Israel was established through a mythology of Jewish liberation and a “return to the land,” it has done so on the backs of that land’s indigenous inhabitants. The unavoidable truth is that the Jewish nation state has come into existence – and is continuing to justify its existence – through the oppression of the Palestinian people.
It is difficult to underestimate the extent to which Jewish life now centers on the rationalization and perpetuation of this new Jewish narrative, this new deal with empire. As Marc Ellis points out, we American Jews are deeply implicated in this new Constatinian Judaism:
(The) Jewish establishments in America and Israel have made their own empire deal. Jews are blessed in America. America blesses Israel. What is good for one is good for the other. For the protection American foreign policy offers Israel, Jews offer their support to the American government. (“Future of the Prophetic,” p. 36)
This new narrative has also become an indelible part of American synagogue life. There are so many examples I could point to. Here in Chicago, almost every synagogue has a sign in front with American and Israeli flags that proclaim, “We Stand With Israel.” Congregational religious schools and Jewish camps routinely cite “cultivating a connection to Israel” as an essential part of their curriculum. Perhaps most symbolically telling: it has become standard in most American synagogues to place a US and Israeli flag on either side of the Aron Kodesh.
In other words, in our most sacred Jewish spaces, we are literally bowing down to physical symbols of national power. This is a powerful demonstration of how completely this new narrative has taken hold of post-Holocaust Jewish identity. To my mind, it is nothing short of idolatry – and our inability to recognize it as such shows just how deeply we have bought into a religious mindset that radically values physical power over spiritual power.
So yes, Tzedek Chicago makes a point of stating the following in one of our six congregational core values:
While we appreciate the important role of the land of Israel in Jewish tradition, liturgy and identity, we do not celebrate the fusing of Judaism with political nationalism. We are non-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its indigenous people – an injustice that continues to this day.
We reject any ideology that insists upon exclusive Jewish entitlement to the land, recognizing that it has historically been considered sacred by many faiths and home to a variety of peoples, ethnicities and cultures. In our advocacy and activism, we oppose Israel’s ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people and seek a future that includes full civil and human rights for all who live in the land – Jews and non-Jews alike.
With these words, we are intentionally standing down the new Jewish narrative. I know full well what it means to do this. I certainly have no illusions how a Jewish congregation describing itself as “non-Zionist” and openly protests “Israel’s ongoing oppression of the Palestinian people” will be received by the Jewish establishment. Given centrality of Zionism and Israel advocacy in Jewish communal life, Tzedek Chicago is clearly a dissident congregation in the Jewish world.
I do believe, however, that we must make room in our community for Jews whose values dissent from what the communal establishment deems “mainstream.” It bears noting that dissent has historically occupied a venerable and even sacred place in Jewish life. (It also bears noting that Zionism itself was once a dissident movement in Jewish life.) Our congregation consciously and proudly seeks to lift up this dissident legacy – one that has long been central to Jewish tradition itself in so many critical ways.
After all, we are not promoting dissent for its own sake. We are seeking to reclaim a sacred legacy – a liberatory narrative that has long been indigenous to Jewish life. But I want to underscore – this is not simply a nostalgic exercise in venerating the past. Jewish life in the 21st century is radically different than any in which we have lived before. We live in a global world in which we are connected to individuals, nations and cultures, in unprecedented ways. Having just come out of the ghetto, we have no desire to build new ghettos of our own making. To quote our core values once more:
We celebrate with a Judaism that builds more bridges, not higher walls. Our religious services and educational programs promote a universalist Jewish identity – one that seeks a greater engagement in the world around us. Within our congregation, we view our diversity as our strength. In our activism, we advocate for a world beyond borders and reject the view that any one people, ethnic group or nation is entitled to any part of our world more than any other.
Through our activism and organizing efforts, we pursue partnerships with local and national organizations and coalitions that combat institutional racism and pursue justice and equity for all. We promote a Judaism rooted in anti-racist values and understand that anti-Semitism is not separate from the systems that perpetuate prejudice and discrimination. As members of a Jewish community, we stand together with all peoples throughout the world who are targeted as “other.”
As I said at the outset, I do believe there are many out there who are thirsting for a Jewish community that espouses values such as these. At the same time, however, I am all too mindful that Tzedek Chicago is not for everyone. But that’s OK. In fact, I think, that’s how it should be.
I daresay if you go to the websites of most liberal American congregations and read their core values, you’ll read words like “welcoming,” “inclusive” “warm” and “open.” When you stop to think of it, most of these terms are actually pretty value-free. They aren’t really values per se so much as virtues. They don’t really represent anything anyone would object to and they don’t tell you anything about what the community ultimately stands for.
The reason for this, I believe, is that the overwhelming number of American liberal synagogues simply don’t view political action as part of their mission. Many will articulate a commitment to Tikkun Olam, or “repair of the world,” but whenever this term is invoked, it invariably refers to direct service projects such as soup kitchens or coat drives for the homeless. Now there is of course, a dire need to support service work – particularly in a day and age when our social safety net is under constant and unceasing attack. As you know, here at Tzedek Chicago we are coordinating a High Holiday food drive in conjunction with the Greater Chicago Food Depository – and we thank you for your support of this sacred effort.
But while every religious community should and must engage in service work, we must also ask: what does it mean to ignore the wider context of this reality? What does it mean to do direct service to people in need without directly addressing the political conditions that creates these needs in the first place?
In truth, most liberal congregations are not designed to make waves. They might connect their Jewish identities to political action – they might invoke Jewish community support of the civil rights movement for instance – but when pushed to take a stand on the real political issues of our day, they ultimately fall back on “being inclusive” of the diversity of opinions in the congregation. They won’t mix religion with politics – the notable exception being, naturally, support and advocacy for the state of Israel.
So yes, you might say Tzedek Chicago isn’t really an inclusive congregation. We’re a intentional community driven by very specific values. We’re a community bound by the conviction that a Jewish congregation should be more than simply a fee for service institution for the Jewish middle and upper middle class. We hold that a synagogue should not merely comfort the afflicted, but also afflict the comfortable. We understand that a congregation should not only be about personal transformation, but socio-political transformation as well.
There has been a fair amount of press about our new congregation of late – and one of my favorite lines came from one of our detractors who was quoted as saying about us, “Statistically speaking, they don’t exist.” Now that may actually be true. There aren’t really congregations such as ours in the Jewish world. But I can’t help but be deeply gratified at how far we’ve come in such an astonishingly amount short time. By the growing numbers of people who have formally joined us as members; including many who are joining a Jewish congregation for the very first time in their lives. And by those who have stepped forward to volunteer considerable time and energy on our behalf.
And I will say moreover, that ever since our announcement, I’ve been hearing consistently from people all over the country who have told me they wish that something like Tzedek existed in their community. So while we might not statistically exist in the institutional sense, I believe we are very much alive out there in the borderlands of Jewish life. I just know in my heart that there is a place for a Jewish congregation such as ours. And while we are starting off modestly, mindful of our capacity, of what we are able and not able to do during this first year of our existence, I do believe the response we’ve received thus far indicates that the time has truly arrived for a congregation such as Tzedek Chicago.
And finally, on a personal note, I want to express once more how blessed I feel that I have been granted such an opportunity at this point in my life and my career. I am so very grateful and excited to be embarking on a journey such as this with all of you and many more who will be joining us as we make our way. I know it will be a complex and challenging journey in many ways. We’ve set our sights high and it goes without saying that we will be learning together as we go.
To be sure, it is not easy to do this kind of work. It is challenging, it is painful, it can often mean being alienated or isolated from family and friends, from the larger community. But for so many of us, we don’t have a choice but to do this work – and we know that we will ultimately find the strength to continue this work through the sacred relationships we cultivate along the way. In the end, this is a journey we have no choice but to take – and I can’t think of anyone I’d rather take it with than all of you. Speaking for myself and the leadership of Tzedek Chicago, thank you for putting your faith in us and in one another. Wherever our steps may lead us, I know we will be going from strength to strength.
And finally, please join me in expressing gratitude at having been sustained long enough to reach this incredible new season together:
Holy One of Blessing, your presence fills creation, you have given us life, sustained us and brought us all to this very sacred time together.
One of the most celebrated rabbinical debates in Jewish tradition comes from the Midrash, as a commentary on the book of Leviticus. Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ben Azzai, two 2nd century rabbinical sages are going at it, each challenging each other to pick the one verse that sums up the essence of the Torah. Rabbi Akiba opens by quoting Leviticus 19:18: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” For his part, Rabbi Ben Azzai chooses the verse from Genesis 5:1: “When God created humankind, God created humankind in God’s image.”
There are many interpretations of this Midrash: one of the more common ones views Akiba’s approach as the more particularistic philosophy: Judaism is rooted in the idea that we should love those around us – our family, friends and community – as we would love ourselves. Ben Azzai’s, one the other hand is more universal: Torah teaches that we should respect and honor all people whether we are in direct relationship with them or not.
Even beyond the content of this debate, however, I find its very premise to be extremely interesting. These two rabbis are doing more than just playing a pedagogical game here: they are challenging each other to offer their own personal take on their spiritual tradition. They are urging each other to take a stand – to go out on a limb and say out loud once and for all what they believe Judaism ultimately stands for.
I believe their challenge is our challenge as well. Jewish tradition is a rich and vast sacred repository – and one that can mean many things to many people. In a sense, I think we all remake Judaism in our own image, depending on our own particular predilections. Another sage, in a famous verse from Pirke Avot says this about Torah: “Turn it over, turn it over, because everything is in it.” In truth, you can find pretty much anything in Jewish tradition to support your worldview. Like Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ben Azzai, each of us must make hard, conscious choices about those aspects of Judaism we will choose to celebrate and carry forward. For those of us who identify as Jews and with Jewish tradition, the question before us is not so much “what is Judaism?” but rather “what is the Judaism we will affirm?”
For this, my final sermon as your rabbi, I’d like to try and answer this question personally; to leave you with a few final thoughts about the kind of Judaism that I choose to affirm. By my count, this will be my 68th sermon as rabbi of JRC – and whether they’ve inspired, enraged or bored you over the years, I will say the High Holidays have given me the amazing, often humbling opportunity to express myself publicly to my community. Of course, like all of us, my Jewish sensibilities have always been a work in progress. I know I wouldn’t have given the sermon I’m giving now before I entered rabbinical school, nor would I have given it precisely this way when I came to Evanston to be your rabbi seventeen years ago.
But this is, I believe, as it should be. After all, as Reconstructionists, we hold that Jewish civilization is an ever-evolving organism from generation to generation. So too, it seems to me, that each of us is developing a sense of Judaism informed by our own growth, our own ongoing experience and changing sense of the world around us.
At the same time, however, it’s fascinating to me to chart the common denominators that remain firm over time, the parts of our vision that remain sacred and unshakable – the essence that Rabbis Akiba and Ben Azzai were so keen on uncovering together.
So with this in mind, I’d like to start by reading to you an excerpt from a sermon I gave during my first High Holidays at JRC, back in 1998. I’ll confess that I’m not in the habit of re-reading my sermons – and having just done it, I think I now know why. There were more than a few times in which I rolled my eyes at my own wisdom. Thankfully, however, there were also some parts that truly felt as if I had written them yesterday.
Here’s the excerpt:
I would also claim that the power for renewal and rebirth is woven into the fabric of our lives. There are times for all of us where pain is all we know – times when it its impossible to envision the darkness ever truly lifting.
Those who have lost loved ones know this experience well. The first year of bereavement is considered to be a time of intense and sometimes crippling emotional pain. There is a gamut of uncontrollable feelings, from shock to rage; guilt to sadness and despair. It is also a time of isolation, when the mourner feels as if he or she dwells in a different emotional kingdom than the rest of the world.
Still, when we grieve in a healthy way, we eventually discover an eternal, almost miraculous truth: the heart heals. Like a deep physical wound, there is pain and there is trauma, but there is also healing if we manage to recuperate properly. In the case of grieving, this means finding a way or a place to express our emotions honestly. It means finding outlets through ritual. It means attaching ourselves to a community or support system. Most of all, it means allowing ourselves to be mourners, and giving ourselves the time and the permission to heal.
In any kind of healing however – whether it be physical, emotional or spiritual – we need to let go of the expectation that we’ll will end up the exactly the way we were. Pain is transformative in ways that we often don’t fully understand. Though there is healing, the physical and emotional scars will still remain. We have found our way back, but our lives have been transformed. We are not the same people any more.
Still, this transformation is not a wholly negative one. I am often told by people that they never really felt they had a spiritual life until they experienced some kind of pain or loss. To be sure, pain and loss are not certainly not pleasant experiences, and they are not they kind of things we would wish on ourselves. Nevertheless, through our trials we often manage to get in touch with parts of ourselves, parts of our souls that we never knew existed. Pain can offer us a spiritual opening. As we read in the Psalms, “Karov adonai l’mishbarei lev” – “God is close to the broken hearted.”
Judaism, at its core, is a tradition that affirms meaning in the face of disorder. It affirms our ability to overcome the chaos that often enters our lives. We may not always have faith in our tradition, but our tradition does have faith in us. As surely and inevitably as the cycle of the seasons, we have the power to start anew, to emerge whole from our hurt and our losses and our pain.
As I re-read these words, I believe I can honestly say they reflect a critical aspect of Judaism that I’ve been carrying forward for most of my adult life. I believe Judaism at its core is a tradition that affirms order in the face of chaos; a tradition that affirms, despite all indications to the contrary, we can heal what is broken. I’d like to think that if I was playing the debate game with Akiba and Ben Azzai, I may well have chosen that gorgeous line from the Psalms as my verse: “Karov adonai l’mishbarei lev” – “God is close to the broken hearted.”
I do believe that this verse has been weaving its way through Jewish tradition and Jewish history, in a sense, for time immemorial. We might date it back to the paradigmatic moment in which Judaism itself was forged, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, a mythic moment of brokenness that resonates in so many ways in our collective psyche as Jews and as human beings.
We might well look at the moment known as the Churban as one of those paradigmatic “push/pull” moments I spoke of on Rosh Hashanah. The destruction of the Temple represents a timeless moment of pain and blood and turmoil that sent us out of the land and birthed us into the world as we know it.
It certainly represented the beginnings of Judaism as we now know it. After the destruction of the Temple, Judaism became, in a sense, a kind of spiritual road map for charting the reality of exile. But Jewish tradition didn’t only respond to the physical reality of exile – it viewed exile (or “galut”) as a spiritual and existential reality. This, I believe, represents the intrinsic beauty and genius of the Jewish conception of peoplehood: we took our own unique experience and universalized it into a spiritual statement about the human condition. Because one way or another, we are all wanderers. One way or another, we all know the experience of being strangers in a strange land.
And so, from this moment of tragedy and pain, we grew up. We transformed an ancient cultic civilization into a worldwide spiritual peoplehood. We spiritualized the concepts of Temple and homeland and became a globally based, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural nation that viewed the entire world as its “home” and sought to perfect it. Our experience of exile became, as it were, a spiritual prism through which we viewed the world and our place in it. It might well be claimed that centuries of Jewish religious creativity resulted from this profound existential mindset.
In one of my very favorite midrashim, Rabbi Akiba teaches, “Wherever the people of Israel were exiled, the Divine Presence was exiled with them.” I find this notion – the concept of “God in exile” to be such a powerful and radical theological image. Again, “Karov adonai l’mishberei lev” – “God is close to the broken hearted.” Judaism as we know it arose to assert that no matter what happens, God is with us wherever we go. Despite the experience of exile, the Jewish people would always be “home.” God was no longer geographically specific to one building or place. God was the place – HaMakom. Spiritual meaning and fulfillment could now be found throughout the world, wherever the Jewish people might travel and create community.
I also believe that the destruction of the Temple birthed another central Jewish ideal, the idea best summed up by the famous line from Zechariah: “Lo b’chayil v’lo b’koach” – “Not by might and not by power but by My spirit says the Lord of Hosts.” In a way, when the Jewish people finally fell victim to the mighty Roman empire, this ironically marked a victory for a central rabbinic precept: there is a Power even greater than the mightiest empire. That in the long run, those who put their faith in the physical might of powerful empires are, if you will, betting on the wrong horse.
This, in fact, is one classical rabbinic interpretation of the story of Jacob’s dream. According to a well-known midrash, the various ascending and descending angels on Jacob’s ladder represent the rising and falling fortunes of the various empires to which the Jewish people would be exiled. First the angel representing Babylonia ascends 70 rungs, (for seventy years of exile) then descends. Next the angel representing the Persian Empire ascends and falls, as does the angel representing the Greek empire. Only the fourth angel, representing the Roman Empire keeps climbing higher and higher into the clouds. Since Rome was represented in the Rabbinic imagination by Jacob’s twin brother Esau, Jacob fears that his children would never be free of Esau’s domination. But God assures Israel that in the end, even the mighty Roman Empire will fall as well. And so it has been – throughout the centuries, many powerful empires have come and gone but the Jewish people still survive. Why? Because we put our faith in a Power yet greater. Greater than Pharoah, greater than Rome, greater than the myriad of empires we’ve seen enter and exit over the centuries.
The rabbis also knew all too well that prior to the destruction of the Temple, the last Jewish dance with empire was a fairly ignoble story in the annals of Jewish history. I’m talking about the Hasmonean kingdom that was established in the wake of the Maccabees victory. The Hasmonean dynasty, a priestly family who had fought against the Hellenized Jews of its day, eventually became fairly Hellenized itself. And when they weren’t persecuting the rabbinic Pharisees (our spiritual ancestors) they were busy killing one another and waging ill-advised wars of conquest against surrounding nations.
In the end, it didn’t take long for the Romans to move in and mop up. All in all, the Hasmonean period of Jewish independence lasted less than one hundred years. It’s not a coincidence that the rabbis chose Zechariah – and the verse “not by might and not by power” to be read as the Haftarah portion for the Shabbat of Hanukah.
And what is at the core of this Power we speak of? I’ll return to my earlier verse: “Karov Adonai l’mishbarei lev” – “God is close to the brokenhearted.” I believe this this theological statement, so resonant on a personal and pastoral level, is equally powerful on a political and prophetic level as well. In other words: in every generation, God stands with the oppressed and calls out their oppressor. God is the Power that gives the gives strength to the marginalized and the vulnerable; the Power that causes even the mightiest of persecutors to eventually fall.
I think there is a profound message here for all religious communities. When it comes to the political use of religion, I believe the fusing of religion and empire has historically represented religion at its very worst. Jews historically know this all too well. But when religion is wedded to movements that speak truth to power and make demands upon it – whether it be the civil rights movement in this country, the struggles against the juntas of Latin America, or the White Rose movement in Nazi Germany – this is when we’ve witnessed religion at its very best.
My own thinking in this regard has been influenced significantly in recent years by reading the works of liberation theologians – Christian religious thinkers who promote this theology on behalf of liberation movements throughout the world. Liberation theology has its roots in Latin American Catholic figures of the 1950s and 60s, but it has since expanded to include African-American, feminist and Palestinian Christian theologies as well.
Lately I’ve begun to do some thinking and writing about what a Jewish theology of liberation might somehow look like – and as I’ve considered it, it seems to me that so many of these themes are deeply embedded in Judaism already: the Biblical imperatives to protect the stranger and the poor, the prophetic denunciation of the hypocrisy of the privileged, the rabbinic rejection of the corrupt power of empire, not to mention our historical experience of marginalization – an experience that has influenced our collective Jewish identity in so many profound ways.
This, I would submit, is one of the most central challenges of Judaism in the 21st century – particularly American Judaism. In an era in which we enjoy the benefits of power and privilege in unprecedented ways, will we affirm a Judaism that unabashedly proclaims God is close to the broken hearted and the down-trodden, or will we venerate the God of physical might and power over others?
I know I’ve asked versions of this question in a myriad of ways during the High Holidays – they have certainly been central to my work as a rabbi, both inside and outside the congregation. But in the end, if I was to identify one central sacred value in my work, it has been this: Judaism teaches that there is nothing so broken in our lives or our world that cannot be made whole once again.
Whether you agree with what I’ve said, in whole in part, or not at all, I’m grateful as always for the opportunity to share these words with you. Please accept them with the encouragement, as I said at the outset, to think more consciously about what Judaism you affirm, what Jewish values you consider to be the most sacred and unshakable – and how you will bear witness to them in the world. What is your Torah – and how will you advocate for it in the year and years to come?
I’d to conclude on a note of thanks – for the honor of letting me into your lives and for being allowed to guide this very special community. I’ve spoken many words to you from this podium over the years, but words cannot do justice to the myriad of emotions I’m feeling on this final High Holidays with you all.
I’ll end now with a short poem, my recent reworking of Psalm 66 – which probably says what I’ve been trying to say here today better (and much more briefly):
shout aloud for the one that is mightier
than any human power, soaring farther
than any eye can see, than any mind
can possibly fathom.
close your eyes just for a moment and see
if you are able this plenitude that
never ceases, this grace-filled universe
that gives and gives again but
is never depleted.
give glory to the one that cannot be contained
by any ideology, dogma or creed, greater than
religion, greater than god, do you think
you possibly can?
now empty your mind of judgment and
send up praises for this pain,
for this soul that can be trampled but
never broken, this spirit that endures
through white-hot fire and raging torrents
only to be reborn anew.
Thank you all.
This past year marked an important milestone for our congregation – our 50th anniversary, JRC’s Jubilee Year. During the course of the year, we celebrated in a variety of different ways at events organized by our inspired Jubilee Year Committee. Among the most memorable for me were a series of Friday night services held throughout the year to honor the various generations of our congregation. At each service, we highlighted a different group of members, from longtime to the most recent. And at each service, I invited them to share their memories of JRC with one another: an anecdote, a story, an event that still remained significant to them.
I found these remembrances to be enormously, often unexpectedly powerful. In particular, it was humbling to consider how far our congregation had come since its founding. The cumulative effect of these services drove home for me just how far JRC has traveled in its first 50 years.
Congregants shared about the early days, in which JRC first met, originally as a Reconstructionist study group founded by Anshe Emet members. We heard about the so-called “Shlep-a-Shul” days, when JRC met in members’ homes and later in churches and Chute Middle School. We heard about the hiring of JRC’s first full time rabbi, Arnie Rachlis, and the purchase of our first permanent home at 303 Dodge. Members shared their memories of our fateful decision to start our first Capital Campaign, the construction of our new synagogue facility and the day we learned it had been awarded LEED Platinum status, making it the greenest house of worship in the country.
As I listened to these memories, it occurred to me that one secret to JRC’s success has always been its fearlessness – its culture of openness to change. Not simply change for change’s sake, but rather the kind of change that exemplified the philosophy of Reconstructionist Judaism. Change that stems from the understanding that Jewish civilization has always been a dynamic and evolving organism – and that successful congregations are the ones that are willing to make the changes necessary to remain relevant to ever new generations of Jews.
I remember first learning about JRC when I was in rabbinical school in the late 1980s. I actually visited here as a student intern in 1991 to lead programs at JRC’s annual Memorial Day retreat, or Kallah. It was Rabbi Rachlis’ last Kallah as rabbi, and the beginning of a new chapter at JRC. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was the beginning of a new one in my own life as well.
I know I’ve shared with some of you that when I was in rabbinical school I consistently swore up and down that I had no intention of being a congregational rabbi. I was pretty cynical about congregations and believed them to be more akin to middle class membership organizations than spiritual communities. But in my final year as a rabbinical student, I had some wonderful experiences with congregations that knocked me right off my cynical high horse – and my weekend at the JRC Kallah was certainly one of them. I was so deeply impressed by the seriousness of its members, its experimental spirit, its openness to embrace new ideas and ways of experiencing Jewish tradition.
As it turned out, I became a congregational rabbi immediately upon graduation from rabbinical school – and to date it’s the only kind of rabbi I’ve ever been. I’ve been a congregational rabbi for over 20 years – most of them here at JRC. And while I’m still critical of congregational Judaism in many ways, I also know from first-hand experience that congregations do have the potential be places of spiritual inspiration, of transformation and change.
First and foremost, until I started to serve at congregations, I never fully understood the power of Jewish community and Jewish tradition to change lives. As congregational rabbis, we are let into people’s lives in a way that I can only describe as “spiritually intimate.” We’re invited into our families’ joys and sorrows and everything in between – and in so doing we bear witness to the ways Jewish tradition represents a spiritual roadmap for the most profoundly charged moments in our lives.
Words cannot do justice to the honor I have felt to have shared such moments with you in so many ways over the years. To put it simply, we have been through so much together. When I think back on my years at JRC, I know that my first memories will invariably be these myriad of life moments: B’nai Mitzvah, funerals and shiva calls, weddings and baby namings and the countless simple moments when I was able, in some measure, to be part of your lives on behalf of your spiritual community. It has enriched my life immeasurably and for it all I will be forever grateful.
And when I think of these past seventeen years in the collective sense, I am struck by the numerous ways JRC has shown me how congregations can become Jewish laboratories for the work of Tikkun Olam – for social justice at home and around the world. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times rabbinical colleagues have approached me over the years to tell me how much they admire our congregation in this regard. I’ve been asked by countless rabbis and lay people about the secret of our success, and how they might plant the same kind of passion for Tikkun Olam in their own synagogues.
And while I’d love to claim the credit, the real truth is that this passion has always been an indelible part of JRC’s culture. Here’s a little bit of history from the early days of my tenure here. I do believe it’s a piece of congregational history that deserves to be honored and remembered:
Shortly after I arrived, I heard in no uncertain terms from a number of members that JRC’s social action programming had been languishing in recent years. Other than our participation in the monthly soup kitchen, there was really no ongoing Tikkun Olam activity in our congregation to speak of. From the very beginning of my tenure here, I sensed a deep and palpable desire to revitalize JRC’s involvement in the arena of social justice.
So with the help of some inspired JRC members led by Gail Brodsky and Reggi Marder, of blessed memory, we decided to rebuild JRC’s social action program from scratch. We started by dissolving the social action committee. We did away with the common congregational system that delegates social action priorities to one relatively small group of congregants – and in its place we created a more grassroots approach – one that was grounded in the ideals of community organizing rather than organizational programming.
We designated members as Tikkun Olam coordinators, who then put out a call to the congregation, announcing that JRC would now support any social action initiatives that congregants saw fit to organize. We reached out to members who had passion, experience, or skills in any particular field of social justice work and gave them the wherewithal to do it Jewishly, under the auspices of their congregation. Our members responded to this call almost immediately. And it’s not an exaggeration to say our new system had a transformative effect on our congregation.
Here are two examples: One of JRC’s very first initiatives was our Environmental Task Force. When it began, it concentrated largely on internal policy issues, congregational education, consciousness-raising about JRC’s use of recyclables, etc. However, when JRC started to explore the prospect of building a new facility for our congregation, the Environmental Task Force broadened its vision. It met with our Board and proposed that we build our new home as a green building.
Now this was back around the year 2002 or so, when environmental consciousness was not yet so firmly planted on our national radar screen. Many of us had only the vaguest notion of what a green building even was. But to their credit, our leaders educated themselves and our community about and sustainable construction and energy efficiency – and about the very complicated LEED certification process. Then we took the leap and committed to building a new building at the highest LEED status feasible. At that time, none of us had any notion what that might mean. We certainly didn’t dream we would eventually achieve a Platinum rating – the highest rating possible.
While today JRC has a well-deserved reputation as a green congregation, it’s important to keep in mind that our congregation didn’t have a long history of environmental activism. Our accomplishments were a direct product of our new culture of Tikkun Olam – an approach that invited our members themselves to take ownership of our congregation’s social justice values and priorities.
Here’s another example. Another one of our earliest task forces was our Global AIDS Task Force. When it began, it was also largely educational in orientation – it sponsored an annual World AIDS Day program and helped raise funds and awareness about the efforts to fight the HIV/AIDS pandemic at home and abroad. But after a few years of this work within our congregation, the leaders of this task force decided it was time to take things to the next level – and organized a service trip to Africa.
Again, up until this point, JRC did not have a history of organizing international service trips. I certainly never dreamed that as a rabbi, I would some day accompany my congregants to work with NGOs in rural Africa to serve communities ravaged by AIDS. To date, JRC has now visited Uganda and Rwanda three times and has created lasting relationships with courageous important NGOs such as Rwanda’s We-Act and CHABHA. But again, we were only able to accomplish all of this when we made the decision to give Tikkun Olam back to our members themselves.
When I look back over the most recent chapter of JRC’s life, I personally believe this will be its most important legacy: the creation of this new congregational culture for the work of Tikkun Olam. And as JRC enters its next chapter, I encourage you to continue to nurture it – and build upon it. Despite what JRC has already accomplished, I can’t help but think we’ve only just scratched the surface. Learn more about these initiatives and support them. If any of you who may have passions or experience or skills in a particular aspect of Tikkun Olam, please know that this congregation can be your laboratory for doing this sacred work. I can tell you from first-hand experience these initiatives have the potential to make a very real difference in the life of our congregation – and more importantly, in the world around us.
I’d like to address another aspect of JRC’s Tikkun Olam work that I believe has been crucial in its most recent chapter – and it is one I believe will only become even more critical in the years ahead. And that is, namely, the issue of Israel/Palestine. This is, of course, not just any other Tikkun Olam issue; in so many ways it is the issue for the Jewish community. Last night I spoke about the ways I have evolved on this issue – and how my evolution has impacted on our congregation. And while I know it has been painful – and that this issue was eventually instrumental in my decision to leave JRC, I do believe it has also led our congregation to respond and grow in courageous ways.
Another bit of history: several years ago, in response to the growing tensions caused by my Palestinian solidarity activism, the JRC Board reached out to consultants to help us to create a process for civil discourse on this issue; to build a culture of openness to all views and the development of safe spaces for conversation and programming on Israel/Palestine that truly reflected the range of our members’ views and concerns. This work resulted in what we eventually called the “Sicha Project,” in which we trained JRC members to become group facilitators to be used whenever we addressed difficult or potentially controversial aspects of the Israel/Palestine issue together as a community. At the same time, we created an Israel Program Committee charged with the creation of a wide variety of programs on this issue.
The Sicha Project was, I believe, a truly courageous approach to a deeply difficult issue that most congregations generally deal with in one of two ways: monolithically or through abject avoidance. And for a time, at least, I do believe JRC’s approach provided an important model for a new kind of congregational engagement on Israel/Palestine.
I’m sorry to say that this initiative broke down over the last few years. There are many reasons for this. I believe we failed to remain as vigilant as we should have been in bringing new leadership aboard and I believe the work of our first Israel Program Committee became paralyzed and left to languish. But whatever the specific causes of this breakdown, I don’t believe for a second that it was due to anything inherent to the model itself. Now more than ever, our congregation needs to come together to discuss this issue openly and I do have faith that we have the wherewithal to make it succeed.
Over the past year, a new Israel Program Task Force has been hard at work revitalizing and rebooting this process. It has created a new policy for inclusive Israel programming that has been presented to and approved by the Board. And we are now poised to restart the Sicha Project once more. Despite the immense challenges of such an initiative, I believe this is still the model of how congregations can respond to this difficult issue with sensitivity and courage.
I would also suggest that if JRC wants to remain on the leading edge of trends in American Jewish life, it would do well to face this issue head on. There is every indication that attitudes about Israel in the Jewish community are widening. Studies show us over and over that the younger Jewish generation is questioning the role of Israel in their Jewish identity in fundamental ways. We can ignore or fight against this phenomenon – or we can face it head on. This is our Jewish future – and unless congregations create communities in which all views can be included and respected, I believe they will soon find themselves on the road to irrelevancy.
One of the most important bellwethers of this phenomenon is the Open Hillel movement – a grassroots initiative of university students who have organized in response to Hillel International’s very narrow guidelines for what they consider to be appropriate Israel student programming on campus. Over the last few years, this movement has exploded in Jewish student communities across the country. Individual Hillels have been declaring themselves to be “Open Hillels” that allow a wide tent of points of view on Israel – next month it will be holding its first national conference at Harvard.
In its mission statement, Open Hillel says the following (listen to the young people now):
Open discussion and debate is a Jewish value, and we are proud of our culture’s long tradition of encouraging the expression of multiple, even contradictory, views and arguments. However, Hillel International’s current guidelines encourage Jewish students to avoid seriously engaging with Palestinian students or other students on campus with differing views on Israel-Palestine. This is detrimental to the goal of encouraging mutual understanding, cooperation, and peace. Thus, we believe it is essential that Hillel-affiliated groups be able to partner with other campus groups in order to share perspectives, cooperate in those areas where we agree, and respectfully debate in those areas where we disagree.
Our congregations would do well to develop this kind of manifesto. Perhaps it could provide us with the nucleus of a nascent Open Congregations movement, in which Jewish congregations openly declare their willingness to create a safe and wide tent for all points of view on this issue within their congregations.
Although I’ve personally made the decision to leave congregational life professionally, I still do believe in congregations. And I’ll admit, I say this selfishly: quite frankly, Hallie and I would love to find a congregation in which we ourselves can make a comfortable Jewish home. But even more than this, I do know from over 20 years of first-hand experience, that congregations can be exciting, relevant places that don’t just hold on to a Jewish past but mold the Jewish future. I know it can be done.
But we if we do decide to throw our weight behind congregational Judaism, we should have no illusions about the challenges this will entail. To put it bluntly, liberal Jewish congregations are not a growth industry in America. Every Jewish community-sponsored study tells us the same thing over and over: the overwhelming majority of American Jews do not affiliate with congregations. Synagogue membership is shrinking considerably, and increasing numbers of congregations are closing their doors. And while I know that there are many complex reasons for this, I am convinced that the only way we can respond is to take a good hard look at the reality of the Jewish community – and to create congregations of relevance and meaning that will lead us into our Jewish future.
I know for a fact that JRC can be one of those congregations. It’s been doing it for the past 50 years and I’ve seen it with my own eyes for the past 17. I thank you for providing me and my family with such an exciting and vibrant Jewish home. I have no doubt you will go from strength to strength and I look forward to watching it happen.
Shanah Tovah to you all.
Like most Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah goes by many names. We refer to the Jewish New Year as Yom HaDin, “The Day of Judgment;” we call it Yom Teruah “The Day of the Sounding of the Shofar;” or Yom Hazikaron “The Day of Remembrance.” I’d like to suggest another possible name to this list: Yom Yetziat Beiteinu – “The Day of our Leaving Home.”
Just think about it. In its way, Rosh Hashanah is a kind of spiritual farewell. On Rosh Hashanah, we take our leave. We say goodbye to the familiarity of a year that’s past, a year still resonant with memories, and prepare ourselves to head out into the unknown – a year yet to unfold. Indeed, the predominant emotions of this season are consonant with spiritual leave taking. It is a season of hope, of anticipation, of trepidation, of remembrance, of introspection.
You probably know where I’m going with this. This Rosh Hashanah, our JRC family is experiencing these emotions in a very real and immediate way. Tonight I am acutely aware that this is my final Rosh Hashanah with JRC – and that Hallie and I will soon be leaving the community that has been our spiritual home for the past 17 years. I’m also mindful that a new chapter will soon be beginning for JRC.
I’ll have more to say about the latter tomorrow – for tonight, I’d like to try and express a little bit about what this moment means for me – to share some of the spiritual lessons I’ve learned through this process of leave-taking. I offer these remarks with the hope that they might be of some help to us during this transitional season – one that is doubly transitional for our JRC family.
It actually occurs to me that Jewish tradition has a great deal to say about the spiritual practice of “leaving home.” If you stop to think of it, just about every classic story in the Torah involves individuals leaving home. And as a result, they are transformed in important and fundamental ways.
The first example, of course, occurs when Adam and Eve depart from the Garden of Eden. As I read this story, I’m struck that Adam and Eve experience their exit from Eden as the result of both a push and a pull. Yes, they are sent out of the Garden by God as a consequence of their actions, but the story makes it clear that they were compelled to eat from the Tree of Knowledge because they saw the fruit as beautiful and desirable, and they knew that once they ate of it, their eyes would be opened to the world.
So although it is traditional to view their departure in terms of punishment, I prefer to view their exit from the Garden as a moment of transformation. Their leave-taking is borne, yes, out of turmoil and struggle, but these are inevitable and perhaps necessary aspects of their transformation.
In a sense, we might read the Adam and Eve story as a spiritual allegory about leaving childhood behind. In Eden, they lived in the comfort of a naive and childlike existence, a Garden in which they wanted for nothing. Yes, when they ate of the fruit, they experienced pain in leaving the only home they had ever known – but at the same time they also became more fully human. They left Eden, a place where each day was essentially like the one before, for a more dynamic world: a place of potential; where transformation, growth and change are always around the corner.
Another paradigmatic “leaving-home story” occurs when God comes to Abraham and Sarah and tells them to leave their native land and head out to a place that God will show them. And in this instance as well, they experience both a push as well as a pull. According to a collection of well-known midrashim, when Abraham leaves his native home of Ur Kasdin, he is fleeing from an angry father and a murderous king who, shall we say, don’t exactly appreciate his way of viewing the world.
At the same time, we read in the Torah how Abraham and Sarah receive an invitation from God, how they were compelled to leave the comforts of their home for a land they do not yet know. And in truth, their final destination isn’t really all that important. It’s the act of leave-taking itself, the painful moment they leave behind the known for nothing more than a promise – this is the moment that defines their spiritual transformation.
The most dramatic and epic leave-taking moment in the Torah of course, occurs when the Israelites leave Egypt. Yet again, they experience both a push and a pull, both the oppression of their enslavement as well as the promise of their liberation. Just like Adam and Eve and Abraham and Sarah before them, the Israelites leave-taking involves great struggle and turmoil. It is, as we know, story with many casualties. Indeed, we recall them in great detail around the seder table every year: the terror of the 12 Plagues, the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the waters of the Red Sea. Once again, we learn, leaving home is not an easy or painless experience.
And yet again, the Israelites leave behind the known for the unknown. They escape into the wilderness, where most of the action of the Torah takes place. Yes, the wilderness is wild and uncharted, but, notably, it is also the place where God is encountered. Interestingly, the word for “wilderness,” “midbar” and the Hebrew verb “to speak,” “l’daber” share a common root. The Torah may be suggesting here an important connection between the wilderness and speech – more precisely divine speech.
In other words, when we leave the comfort and familiarity of home and head into the elemental terrain of the wilderness, the voice of God is that much more accessible to us. In this regard, I think the wilderness represents an existential place far from the surface noise of artifice and self. The journey into the wilderness is not only geographic, but experiential: it leads both to the outermost reaches of terrain and the innermost reaches of the human soul. This is the place, in short, where the Divine Presence dwells.
In a very real way, I believe our tradition is teaching us that we must continually leave home if we are to truly live. While we may well yearn for the comforts of home and hearth, home can too often become a place where comfort turns to complacency – a place we use to escape reality rather than truly experience it.
So in a sense, our lives are filled with moments of “home-leavings.” Sooner or later, we all reach a point in which we find we really have no choice. Yes, it’s usually not a particularly pleasurable experience; it generally involves some measure of push and pull, of struggle and turmoil. But when we find the strength and the courage to take a step beyond our front door, when we embrace the unknown terrain outside, when we truly encounter the world – these are the moments in which we come face to face with our most authentic selves.
Whether we prefer to call this “spiritual experience,” “inner growth,” or “personal transformation,” we leave home whenever we listen to a voice from deep within that tells us to depart from our comfort zones, to leave the familiar and the known behind, to head out with no guarantees. To struggle into our future with nothing but a promise beckoning to us from far away. And often, it seems to me, we’re so busy with the struggle we don’t even recognize that we’ve been involved in the process of leaving home for quite some time.
I’m sure you have all had these moments. I’d like to share one of my own with you now.
As many of you know, several years ago my relationship to Israel changed in a very profound and public way. As look back, I realize now that it was not a one-time event, but rather the culmination of a process that I had been experiencing consciously and unconsciously for many years. But when it finally occurred, it was a moment of leave-taking for me. To put it more specifically, I was taking a step out of a comfortable home that had been my Jewish identity for so many years of my life. And while this step came with no small measure of personal struggle and anguish, I knew – and I still know – that it was a step that I had to take.
The politics of all this are really not all that important to my point right now. Whether or not you happen agree with my politics, I think we can all recall those times we experienced a significant transition, usually involving some element of turmoil and struggle, a push and a pull, a process by which we eventually took a step out of the comforts of the known into the wilderness of the unknown.
At the time, it did indeed feel like I was entering a wilderness. And as liberating as it was to be able to speak my truth out loud, I was also terrified. I wasn’t sure I remain a rabbi and say these things. In some very deep place I wondered if I could even be a Jew and say such things. However, I soon found that the waters parted, if you will. I discovered that I could indeed find my way through this radically new terrain – due in no small part to this remarkable congregation.
I have no doubt whatsoever that if I had done and said these things in any other synagogue, I would have been given my walking papers immediately. JRC, however, is not any other synagogue. Our congregation has a long history of heading courageously into areas not typically embraced by the Jewish communal mainstream and together, finding its way through. And in this case, that meant that our leadership continually supported their rabbi’s right to follow his conscience on this most volatile of issues, even when it elicited strong criticism from inside and outside our congregation.
I will be forever grateful that JRC has been willing to accompany me through this difficult and often treacherous wilderness for the past several years. I’ve never underestimated the stress it put on us all, but as we’ve made our way, I’ve consistently heartened by the knowledge that I could continue to do this work as a congregational rabbi – and in particular, as JRC’s rabbi.
Indeed, for the duration of my entire rabbinical career, I’ve fervently believed that the mission of a congregational rabbi is “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” In other words, I’ve always viewed both the “pastoral” and the “prophetic” as two essential poles of a rabbi’s job description. That’s not to say that these two poles do not cause tension at times, but I’ve always believed that a good rabbi was one who could combine them to create a creative tension and not a destructive one.
When I started down this new road, I think it was clear to most at JRC that I was not the rabbi they had hired ten years earlier. But it was profoundly heartening for me to know that JRC was able to adjust to the reality of their “new rabbi.” I was immensely proud that the response of our congregation was not to panic or to order me to “cease and desist or else” – but rather to create a method for true congregational conversation; our “Sicha Process” – a framework of civil discourse that would allow our congregation to create a safe space where all points of view could be heard and respected.
I regret deeply that in more recent years, our Sicha Process broke down. There is more to say about what happened, particularly the painful upheaval that has occurred at our congregation over the past year over my ongoing activism. Our board has already provided some opportunities for members to share their thoughts with one another over what has occurred and I know there will be more such opportunities in the future.
For now, I will only say this: I know my activism caused great pain to some of our members. The resulting turmoil was immensely painful and at times, ugly. The resulting upheaval has caused me great anguish as well. And as I’ve written to our members, my decision to leave JRC was in large part a decision I made for my own personal well-being.
However, if I’m going to be fully honest, I must also be ready to admit that my decision to leave JRC is being motivated by both a push and a pull. I must also be ready to admit that for some years now I’ve been going down a path that has slowly been pulling me away from the congregational rabbinate and toward a rabbinate more directly defined by social justice activism.
Now that I’ve made this decision, I can more clearly see how powerful this pull has been for me – and how the tensions it has caused at JRC were inevitable in so many ways. I’ve also come to understand how our recent congregational turmoil, painful though it has been, may well represent the birth pangs of a necessary new chapter for me and for our congregational family.
I’ve been a congregational rabbi for over 20 years – most of them here at JRC – and this has unquestionably been a deeply fulfilling period of my life. In recent years, it has been enormously challenging and even frightening for me to acknowledge that my activism might somehow pull me away from work that I love and the congregation that I have cherished for so many years.
But I’m ready to admit now that my journey has been leading me in a new direction. I’m ready to leave home. With hope, and admittedly with no small measure of trepidation, I am looking to this moment as an opportunity for new beginnings and possibilities I might never have imagined for myself. I genuinely wish the same for our JRC family – and know in my heart that this will invariably be the case.
As I said earlier, I will have more to say tomorrow about my hopes and dreams for our congregation as it begins this new chapter, but for now, I’d like to take my cue from the sacred season we’ve just begun. For tonight, I want to address you as individuals and present you with this challenge: How will you leave the familiarity of your home in the coming year? What pushes and pulls are you experiencing in this particular moment in your life? In what ways will you challenge your sense of comfort and complacency and find the strength to venture into unknown territory? To a place that holds out a promise, but no guarantees?
For some of you, this coming year might be a time of a significant life transition. How might you mark this experience so that it offers you real potential for transformation and growth? For others, this year might be not all that different from the last. How will you challenge that comfortable sameness? What might you do to, in a sense, build the doorway that leads you outward?
Now I am well aware – perhaps now more than ever – that going forth is no easy matter. I’d never dare say to someone who has to leave all she’s ever known, “Don’t worry, you’re actually gaining an opportunity for a deeper spiritual life.” I’m also aware that it’s all well and good for me to rhapsodize about the spiritual importance of leaving home when the homelessness is such a very real issue for us around the world and in our own country. Believe me, I know it’s all too easy for those of us who actually have actual homes to wax romantic about the experience of leaving home.
It’s not a simple matter at all to leave that which we know for that which we don’t. Living as we do in a middle class culture that venerates comfort and security, it might seem like a radical suggestion that we should leave it all behind. But what is our alternative? Think about it. At the end of the day, we all have to leave home. Sooner or later, we all will have to leave what it is that we’ve come to know, cross over that threshold and greet the unknown.
After all, the most two basic aspects of life itself – namely, birth and death – are both essentially forms of leave taking. In both cases – when we’re born and when we die – we leave the familiar comfort of the present for the uncomfortable unknown of the future. In both cases, we resist leaving the comfort of our current “home” with everything in our being. But in both cases, staying home is simply not an option.
Our liturgy and rituals over the next ten days will offer us an incredibly precious spiritual gift: the opportunity to wrestle with the deepest, most element truths of our lives and our world. In the coming year we will face a myriad of transitions, large and small. For me and for JRC, this will be a year of significant transition and change, some of it known, most of it unknown. How can we enter a new year with such radical uncertainty?
For now, at least, we will come together. We will offer up prayers that express our most honest confessions and deepest longings. We will pray for a year of blessing. We will look to the future with optimism and hope. Ready and willing to embrace whatever blessings may come.
Baruch atah b’voecha, Baruch atah b’tzeitecha – in our coming home, in our leaving home, may we always travel in God’s presence, and in that presence may we find abundant health, wholeness, peace and Shalom.
While I’m sure that Syria has been on the lips of many a rabbi this High Holiday season, I’ll be honest with you: I’ve struggled with whether or not to give that sermon this year. Not because I don’t consider it to be an issue of critical importance, quite the contrary – no one can deny that the situation in Syria is a tragic and critically important one in our world at the moment. If I’ve been hesitant, it’s only because I’m not really sure I have much to add to the myriad of political analyses we’ve heard in the media these past few weeks.
So while my words to you today are not directly related to Syria, I would like to begin with one small but powerful story out of this crisis. It comes from an article written by my friend Aziz Abu Sarah, a young Palestinian peace activist and educator. At the moment Aziz is the Co-Executive Director at the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University – and he was recently made a National Geographic Emerging Explorer where he serves as a cultural educator. Several JRC members know Aziz well as he was one of our tour guides of a JRC trip to East Jerusalem and the West Bank two years ago.
As the news out of Syria became more and more dire, particularly the news of the growing refugee crisis, Aziz and a colleague put their heads together to explore some kind of action they might possibly take. There are currently more than 2,000,000 Syrian refugees in camps throughout the Middle East – mostly in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. Women and children make up three quarters of the refugee population. There are over 1,000,000 children refugees as a result of this crisis.
In the end, Aziz and his colleague decided to establish an educational summer camp for refugee children on Syrian-Turkish border. In a blog post about his experiences in the camp, he wrote, “Whether the US bombs Assad or not is not in my control, but being active to help those in need is.”
In his post, Aziz wrote movingly about the children he had met and the stories they told him – stories that were at once horrific and at the same time the ordinary everyday stories of children everywhere. At the conclusion of his post, he wrote:
These are the stories that we need to remember when we argue about Syria. These are the people paying the heavy price. When we pass by a news item about Syria, we must remember the millions of children that could become another lost generation without our willingness to engage and help…
Opening our hearts and finding compassion must come before any discussion on military intervention.
When I read Aziz’s post, it reminded me how easily we debate these crises even while knowing so very little about the people who are actually living through them. How we tend to view these kinds of global tragedies in the abstract. It’s understandable, of course – when we read the staggering statistics coming out of these crises zones, it literally staggers our comprehension. How on earth do we grasp numbers such as these, let alone the reality of the suffering behind the statistics?
But while it’s understandable, I do find something profoundly troubling about this phenomenon. Because when we reduce people in crisis zones to abstractions, it invariably creates a kind of emotional callousness in the ways we think and form our opinions about the crises themselves. When we don’t make an effort to understand the human reality behind the headlines, it seems to me, our political ideas emerge in something of a moral and emotional vacuum.
I do believe that Aziz is absolutely right: before we start holding forth on whether or not to bomb, we must first open our hearts and find compassion for the people of Syria. We must make an effort to learn who they are, to learn about their unique experiences, to listen to them. Whatever we believe must be done, the process by which we form our opinions must begin with an effort to get to know the human beings behind the abstractions.
Now I realize that most of us don’t have the wherewithal to pack up and move to Turkey to work with Syrian refugees – but this doesn’t let us off the hook. Because quite frankly, we don’t have to literally go to the Middle East to discover populations at risk. While Syria has been at the center of the headlines of late, in truth there are all too many of communities in crisis in our midst. We don’t have to go all that far to find them.
Indeed, this is another way that our abstractions affect our perception of the world. Crises are things that happen “over there.” To be honest, sometimes it seems to me that we relate to the at-risk populations in our own backyard as if they are as far away as the Middle East. But of course, they’re not. They are right here, right outside our very door. They may not be of the same magnitude of those in places like Syria, but they are all too real nonetheless.
Here’s but one example, from right here in Chicago. Many of you, I know, are familiar with the initiative known as “Safe Passage” a program formed in 2009 as a response to gang and street violence in at risk Chicago neighborhoods. The program places community workers wearing bright fluorescent vests near public schools as a presence that will help create “safe passage” for High Schoolers who were walking to and from school.
The program was expanded significantly this past May, after the Chicago School Board closed almost 50 public elementary and middle schools in predominantly African-American and Hispanic communities on the South and West sides. Among the many devastating impacts of this decision was that it forced many children to walk longer routes to their new schools, through additional dangerous neighborhoods and across multiple gang boundaries. Whereas these children had previously walked an average of a few blocks to their neighborhood schools, many of them now have to walk half a mile or more through areas that are, quite literally, battle zones.
To deal with this reality, the school board expanded Safe Passage, hiring an additional 600 workers at $10 an hour to serve 12,000 schoolchildren in at-risk communities on their way to their new schools. While it is still early in the new school year, the preliminary reports are not promising. There have already been reports of violence along Safe Passage routes – not including the myriad of areas where children are not served by the program. We are now hearing reports that overwhelmed workers are quitting or just not showing up for work. One alderman has suggested the use of drones to protect children along Safe Passage routes.
No, we don’t need to look far away to find stories of children in battle zones. They are, in a very real way, right outside our door.
How do we respond to news such as this? Though it pains me to say so, I would suggest most of us who live the relatively safe and secure neighborhoods of greater Chicago respond to this news the same way we respond to the tragic news coming out of Syria, or Somalia or the Congo. Most of us, I think, thank goodness it’s not our reality. We quantify it in the abstract. We respond as if it’s happening “over there.”
Except it’s not. It’s happening right here in our very own community and in communities just like it across our country. These populations may not be terrorized by tyrannical dictators or civil war, but their lives and their families’ lives are at risk in a very real way. As a parent, I cannot fathom how it must feel to raise my children in neighborhoods wracked with violence, to send them off to walk miles to school through gangland battle zones. I cannot begin to fathom it. And maybe that is part of the problem.
This Yom Kippur, the season when our community honestly takes account of itself and how we might collectively atone, I think it is eminently appropriate to ask ourselves: what has been our response to communities in crisis? And are we truly able to see them? Have we truly opened our eyes and our hearts to their realities – particularly those who live right here in our own nation, our own city?
I can’t help but wonder what our communities would look like if our public policy was guided by such an approach. Let’s return to the example of Safe Passage that I gave earlier. There is no doubt that Chicago Public Schools, like all major urban school districts, faces daunting challenges. But unfortunately in my opinion, the Chicago School Board, like so many other urban school boards, now seeks to address these challenges from a corporate, efficiency-focused mindset rather than a community-based one.
I believe this approach to public education is problematic on many levels – but perhaps the most troubling is the way it has utterly blinded us to the critical role neighborhood schools play as the bedrock of our communities – particularly our at-risk communities. In areas that have already been profoundly destabilized by massive cuts to public services, neighborhood schools have served as the only real glue that holds these communities together. By closing these schools, CPS was in many cases literally cutting the final piece of government investment in these communities – and the last remaining institution in which residents can invest in one another.
It is impossible to understate the devastation these kinds of decisions inflict on low-income communities that have long been seriously at-risk. For decades, in fact, urban renewal policies have been decimating neighborhoods, uprooting residents who are largely poor and people of color. Neighborhood assets, like churches, stores, and parks that have been important community centers for generations, have become abandoned or have disappeared. And so residents have been forced out – they have become refugees, in as sense, of a different sort.
The neighborhood school is often the one institution still surviving in low-income neighborhoods and it has historically served as points of pride and community for families. If you had any doubt that these schools are important to their neighborhoods, you had only to listen to the thousands of parents who attended community meetings on school closings over the past few months. Despite their pleas, however, our new “education reformers” have chosen to close schools rather improve them, using the argument that we are in a time of public sector austerity and that we need to orient them to market forces.
This is what happens when leaders view schools using a corporate model rather than a community-based one. When CPS closed 50 neighborhood schools and slashed the budgets of those that remained, Chicago’s non-elected board addressed this issue with a top-down mindset that was ultimately divorced from the real-life reality on the ground. And so now we have it: thousands of students are now leaving their already devastated neighborhoods every day are forced to walk through battle zones in order to get to their schools.
Of course this phenomenon is not only restricted to our schools. In too many ways, our public policy is guided by the corporate goals of efficiency and profit over community and the greater good. While it is certainly true that many of our public institutions are bloated and inefficient and in need of reform, when we destroy them wholesale in this manner, we fail to reckon with the very real human cost of these actions. Even worse, when we privatize our public works, whether it is public housing, our health care system, or our prisons, we do more than simply turn lives into abstractions. We increasingly view human lives – and in some cases, human misery – as commodities to be profited from.
Whether we call this privatization or neo-liberalism whatever we choose to call it, I do believe it represents a very real form of institutional oppression. It may not be as obvious or as brutal as the oppression meted out by the Bashar Al-Assads of the world, but I submit it is a form of oppression nonetheless. Both stem from a view of our neighbors as somehow “other.” Both benefit from a more privileged people’s willingness to turn a blind eye. And most important, both forms of oppression affect the real lives of real people.
So what is there to be done? On an individual level, I think, one answer is very simple: we need to connect. We need to venture out of the hermetically sealed worlds we too often construct for ourselves and learn more about the people with whom we live – particularly those whose day-to-day reality is fundamentally different from our own.
Earlier this month, I read an article by a German journalist who was in Chicago to write about urban gun violence through a grant from the Pulitzer Center. It was fascinating to read the impressions of this European visitor from a Berlin, a city larger than Chicago but with a fraction of the homicides.
Here is how the journalist, Rieke Havertz, ended the article:
It is human nature to ignore Chicago’s gun violence as long as the shooting stays in the “bad” neighborhoods. Don’t take the “L” down south — that was the advice I always heard when I spoke about visiting less-fortunate neighborhoods.
I ignored the advice and nothing happened to me except that I got to know the city. I discovered that it’s not just money that needs to be thrown at these neighborhoods. They need economic opportunity, education, health care. They need a Chicago that is not a segregated city.
They need people who care. Take a different path, reach over the walls.
I know many JRC members who work and volunteer with in at-risk communities in Chicago and right here in Evanston – and I have learned a great deal from them over the years. I think it would behoove us all to not just to learn about these communities, but to create real connections, nurture real relationships. To meet and listen to those who live there. To relate to them as real people, not as charity cases to be helped or problems to be solved. To learn about their reality, their struggles, their needs, from them, not news reports or politicians or pundits.
We need to learn and act on an advocacy level as well. Here in Chicago, there is a remarkable grass-roots coalition that is shaping up and organizing on behalf of the at-risk communities in our city. In fact, polls show that 60% of Chicago’s citizens oppose the school closings and they are starting to make their voices and their presence heard in a major way. After the CPS’s announcement, many of us took to the streets for three straight days of marches in protest – and although the school closings and budget cuts are now a reality, they have galvanized a movement that is attracting a remarkable coalition – including growing numbers of young people.
But this movement has not grown up overnight – and it is not simply focused on the issue of public schools. It has in fact been building steadily over the years; it is the product of many community-based organizations mobilizing and organizing on behalf of the most vulnerable members of the greater Chicago community.
I’m proud to say here at JRC we are becoming increasingly active in this movement. I encourage you to find out more about our efforts and seriously consider lending us your support. Specifically speaking, I encourage to consider getting involved in our Labor Justice Task Force, our Immigrant Justice Task Force and to speak with JRC members who are currently exploring ways we can become active with Northside P.O.W.E.R., an institution-based people’s power organization with members on the Chicago’s North side and in North Shore Communities.
I have also personally been active with the wonderful organization Arise Chicago, an interfaith community organization that does important, critical local work on behalf of worker justice. (And of course, I would be derelict if I did not mention that we have many other active and vital Tikkun Olam Task Forces at JRC – I hope you will speak to JRC’s VP for Tikkun Olam and learn how you can get involved in our ongoing social justice efforts.)
I also want to encourage us all to educate ourselves and find ways to act on a national level as well. Indeed, it is not an understatement to say that the at-risk populations in our country are currently vulnerable in ways we haven’t seen in decades. According to new data from the US Department of Agriculture, more than one in five American children face hunger, this at a time in which our Congress is considering cutting the SNAP program (aka food stamps) for more than 800,000 Americans who currently receive them but still do not get enough to eat or maintain only a barely adequate diet.
The crisis facing our food stamp program is a particularly critical issue at this very moment – and I would be extremely derelict if I devoted a sermon to our at-risk populations without mentioning this. According to a new report released just a few days ago by the Agriculture Department, food insecurity in our nation remains at a stubbornly high 14.5 percent. According to these statistics, one in five American children are currently facing hunger.
Thanks to the stimulus package, we’ve been able to address this issue through the SNAP program, which last year served 47 million Americans to meet their basic nutrition requirements. However next week, House Republicans, in an effort led by Representative Eric Cantor, will vote to cut $40 billion out of the food stamp program – an act that would literally force hundreds of thousands of Americans into food insecurity.
In regard to this bill, Rep. Jim McGovern made this very astute comment:
There are 50 million people in the United States of America who are hungry, 17 million are kids. It is something we all should be ashamed of, and the United States House of Representatives is about to make that worse. This is a big deal and my hope is that we’ll treat it as such and not just let it go by without a lot of discussion and debate because we’re all focused on Syria.
Now these cuts are unlikely to become law since the Senate would never pass them and President Obama would certainly never sign them. But the very fact that such a bill could even be voted on in the House is a clear sign that those advocating for the poor and the hungry in our country must remain incredibly vigilant. We simply cannot let our foreign policy discussions, however important, to eclipse these critical issues facing at-risk citizens here at home.
Every Yom Kippur, we recite our prayers in the first person plural. When we seek atonement, hope and healing for the New Year, we don’t do so for our own individual selves – we ask for these things on behalf of our entire community. I would claim that in this day and age it is getting harder and harder for us to connect with this aspect of our Yom Kippur prayers. Increasingly, it feels to me that we liturgical lip service to the concept of community. Too often it seems like we’re all living our parallel lives, without the sense that at the end of the day we’re all somehow in this together.
But in fact, we are. I do believe this sense of living separately from one another is itself the illusion. At the end of the day, our fates are intertwined. We’re very much mistaken if we believe that we’re somehow immune from risk. As we all know too well, the middle class is being squeezed and endangered in ways we haven’t witnessed in decades. Over the years and even now, there have been JRC members living on the verge of hunger and homelessness. These problems are not somewhere “over there” and in truth, they never really were. Perhaps it’s only our individualistic 21st century perspective that has changed.
So this Yom Kippur, I’m suggesting a recalibration of our spiritual perspective. To view the risk to the well-being of some members of our community as a risk to our own well-being. In a very real way, to own the danger and let go of our illusions of invulnerability. Otherwise, what do all of these prayers really mean? What do our lives really amount to if we cannot somehow see them as integrally connected to the lives of others, whether they live in Syria or the Southwest side of Chicago or in Evanston?
May this be the new year we let go of our illusions. May this be the year we decide to share the risks as well as the rewards.
May it be a rewarding year for us all.
(Click here to sign a petition that tells the House and Senate to put low-income families ahead of corporate welfare and to oppose all cuts to food stamps.)