Yom Shlishi, 8 Sivan 5778
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26 January 2017

D'var Torah

Read thoughts from Jenny Tananbaum who spoke at our Social Justice Shabbat about our work with Syrian Refugees.

Early last year, one of America’s greatest writers, one of my favorite authors, Harper Lee, died.  She wrote To Kill A Mockingbird in 1960, and it was her only novel, until the sequel, Go Set A Watchman, was released just a few months before her death.

I’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird countless times, each time happily traveling back to the 1930s, to the small Alabama town of Maycomb. If I close my eyes, it’s as if I am walking down the street in Maycomb, the homes and the residents familiar and comforting. And I can hear Atticus Finch, the hero of the story, sitting on the porch with his children, Jem and Scout, speaking to them in his quiet and unassuming manner, always so gentle, always so innately good, saying such things I could only wish I was wise enough to say, things like, “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

Atticus Finch has always embodied an almost biblical aura to me: a graceful man, teaching me through his words and actions how to be even-handed, moral and righteous. Certainly these are the exact traits we expect in our biblical heroes. Indeed, although it has been years since I have read the Bible from cover to cover, but I am still sure that men like Abraham and Issac, Jacob and Joseph are no different than Atticus Finch, that they too are defined by an innate goodness, and a unrelenting need for justice.

Rabbi Sagal, unfortunately, ruined this whole theory for me. I joined the Tuesday morning Bible Class this past October, believing over the course of an hour or so, we’d read that week’s Torah portion together, then Rabbi Sagal would translate the stories into modern day jargon I could actually understand, then finally send us on our way with a condensed lesson that would guide us until we met again.

I don’t know what I was thinking, because this was Rabbi Sagal, after all. He wasn’t giving us the answers – he pushed us to think – to understand that the words and stories of the bible that I have always taken so literally, in fact had many different meanings and that leaders of our people who I always assumed were just like Atticus Finch and completely unblemished – it was far more complicated than I ever imagined. I know that I was supposed to read the stories and learn from these men and women – reflect upon their choices and their actions and understand that in these choices and actions we can learn how to be a better person, how to identify the traits we admire and wish to emulate.  Yet, I felt somewhat blindsided - we started at the very beginning, and we read about Abraham blindly offering up his son Issac for sacrifice, unwilling to stand up to God to save his child’s life; Jacob in cahoots with Rebecca, willfully duping his father in order to steal the birth right from his brother Esau; Joseph, upon seeing his brothers for the first time in years, gloating just a bit too much about his wealth and power.  Even in the poignant passage between Jacob and Joseph, when they are reunited for the first time in years, I am left with a lingering sadness that even in what should be a joyous occasion, these are two men who are incapable of showing each other their true feelings.

     I couldn’t find a single Atticus Finch in the lot – and I began to wonder if perhaps I had been wrong – this gentle, good man was, in fact, not an example of a biblical hero -- he was too good, and no one, even the heroes of the Bible could ever achieve anything close to this.

I wonder if such goodness is unattainable. I’ve a feeling many of us have been thinking about this lately. 2016 wasn’t exactly a stellar year of kindness and grace. I sincerely don’t mean to make any sort of political statement - even though it’d be easy, especially today with the inauguration of Donald Trump as our new president, but there does seem to be a lack of Atticus Finches in this world – too many people who seem unwilling to stand up against hatred, who are far more concerned about personal fame or wealth or power.  And when I read the Torah portions each week at class, I couldn’t help but feel a deflated sense that nothing has ever really changed.

But then along comes Moses and this week’s Torah portion, Shemot. I read it, peeling back the layers like Rabbi Sagal would want me to, looking – expecting - that within this beautiful story of the birth of Moses, we’d soon be reminded that the literal words hid something deeper, something far less genuine.

Except it’s not there. 

“Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, “Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live,” and still Moses’ mother selflessly protected her son by hiding him for 3 months.

And when she could no longer safely hide him and wrapped him in a wicker basket and placed him in the river, it is Pharaoh’s daughter who finds him.  “ When she opened the basket she saw that it was a child, a boy crying. She took pity on it and said, “This must be a Hebrew child”, and yet she saves Moses, despite her father’s orders, despite the fact he is a Hebrew.

And it is Moses himself, years later, after witnessing “an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsmen. He turned this way and that and, seeing no one about, he struck down the Egyptian,” ignoring his own safety, standing up against hatred.

Nowhere in this portion does anyone question if it is worth it.  Nowhere does it say anyone wondered what they would receive in return for their actions.  Nowhere does it say they feared repercussions.

These men and women, from different faiths, different backgrounds, different cultures, cared only about doing what was right.  It was less a choice than a simple understanding that this was what had to be done, just as Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird, ignored the majority and listened to his conscience, defending a black man in a racist, segregated world, because it was right.

What is right, of course, is not always easy, as I learned a few months after Harper Lee died, when my best friend Alissa Berger, offhandedly mentioned to me that she was going to be starting an outreach program for Syrian Refugees, and would I like to get involved.  I knew from the start there was no saying no to Alissa, because there never is, but although I said yes, I admit it wasn’t an easy decision. I am Jewish. They are Muslim. I won’t lie, I was afraid. Part of me bought the hype – I feared terrorists were slipping into our country disguised as refugees, so called “Trojan Horses”.  I understood the devastation of the Syrian Civil War, but was willing to turn a blind eye, willing to ignore the faces of the children lying motionless on a beach in Greece, the picture of a young boy, bloody and stunned in the back of an ambulance, because somehow I believed if I didn't, my child would soon be the victim of a terror attack. Besides, did it really matter?  Couldn’t someone else help?  What did it really have to do with me?

And then, Alissa and I were invited to visit a mosque in Elizabeth.  Here was a group of men, women and children celebrating the end of Ramadan.  One table was covered with traditional celebratory presents for the children; another was piled with sweet cookies, cakes and fruits desserts. We were greeted with smiles, hugs, and kisses.

Our temple adopted a refugee family, and Alissa and I met them that day.  We sat across from them and listened as they told us stories about their exodus from Syria.  We learned they were from a southern Syrian city, the epicenter of the four and a half year old Civil War.  They recounted how they would race down to the basement to escape the daily barrage of bombs.  Almost a half million people have already been killed, we were told – and, suddenly, those pictures of stunned and scared children were no longer just photos on my Facebook feed, but children right here.  Over the past year, they have become our family:  Wael, 10 years old with a dark face and an infectious smile, his unruly hair looping into deep brown eyes.  He is a young boy who calls us for help on his homework because he is desperate to learn. A young boy who can add and subtract like his 4th grade peers, but is frustrated he can only read at a 1st grade level. A young boy who jumps at loud noises, and is punched in his face by a classmate.

And his sisters, Hala and Haya, always smiling, always laughing, constantly reaching over for a hug.

And Kholood, the mom, who refuses to let us leave her house without something to eat and sends us almost daily pictures via text messages of roses and sunlite beaches, thanking us.  And Hassan, a proud husband and father, who works seasonal jobs, begs us to help him find a better apartment for his family, who has just started ESL and has never seemed more hopeful.

This is our family – and the best part of helping this family?  The dozens and dozens and dozen of community members of all faiths stepping up to help as well.   Teachers – who after a long day of working with their own students – driving to Elizabeth and spending another hour or two to help the kids complete their homework.  A Jewish family inviting a Muslim family on an outing to a farm, and welcoming them into their home for a meal.  The constant offer of donations of clothing and furniture – so much they are piled high in our attics and basements and garages waiting to be distributed

These men and women – all the men and women we honor tonight who spend their free time doing volunteering with the social action committee and delivering challahs and visiting the sick and homebound and helping the Syrians refugees and joining the new chavarah group – they embody the inner strength and compassion that I wondered truly existed any longer.  They don’t care about public gratitude. They don’t mind when their dinner is interrupted by a Facetime call for homework help.  They stand up against growing public fear and anger.  They truly serve as reminder that the story of Moses’ birth and his subsequent journey can still be a model for how we must live, and a reminder that indeed there are many people like Moses and like Atticus Finch who still believe “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

Indeed, as Jews, we have long learned in our own constant struggle for survival that we cannot turn a blind eye to those in need.  As leaders of social action and justice, we must ignore the majority rule, even when it is loud and over powering, and we must stand up for what is right in the face of fear and hatred. 

And we must continue to work for change, and make a difference.  We must always listen to our conscience.

09 November 2016

From Sea to Sea

Enjoy reading the latest news from our guest blogger Marissa Steiner.

Marissa was confirmed this past year and she has chosen to spend her first semester in Israel with the Reform Movement's EIE program.

MarissaSteiner hike

"In the past four days, we have traveled from sea to sea together. Not only that, we've made memories and bonded as a whole. We started off with a beautiful water hike on Tuesday. At first, most people were pretty hesitant to get in the water. After a few minutes everyone grabbed hands and marched through the water, eventually ending in a splash fight getting almost everyone drenched. Nevertheless, it was an amazing experience and I would love to do it again! We started out with a light and fun day, only to be followed with an extremely difficult one. Waking up at 5 in the morning isn't so pleasant, but we've all seen each other at our worst moments so nobody really held back. Leaving our campsite at 7, we started to hike up the tallest mountain in the Galilee. Listening to my friends around me saying, "hey, we climbed Masada in an hour, this will be a breeze!"; we started up the mountain. Through our 9 hour hike we navigated our way up and down the mountain, made our own breakfast and lunch, and saw beautiful sites. We were so high up and it was amazing to see how much we accomplished together.

Starting Thursday off with blisters and bruises, but big smiles, our groups started hiking around 7 and navigating our way around the bases of mountains. We made our own breakfast and lunches, once again, and took a nice nap and break by a beautiful view with a spring. Continuing on, we walked a total of 9 kilometers until we were met with our bus to take us to the next campsite, luckily with bathrooms (port-a-potties) and no wild boars!! We had a great night with apple cider, stargazing and cuddling. We started off Friday morning by hiking past a Medieval Fort to get to flat ground to make breakfast. Later on, we continued to hike to a biking site where everyone biked to the beach, where we were spending the night. After making lunch and setting up our camp ground, we went for a swim in the clear and shallow waters, before Friday night services. We had services down by the ocean, surrounded by stones, rushing water, and the beautiful sunset.

One part of services really stuck with me. We each found a rock from the ocean and tried to relate to it. I found a pebble, or a rock even smaller than a pebble. It stuck out to me, I'm not sure why, but it did. I realized that even small things stick out and last in our memories, just like this small group is impacting me."

17 October 2016

A Student's Yom Kippur in Jerusalem

Enjoy reading the latest news from our guest blogger Marissa Steiner. 

"Experiencing Yom Kippur in Jerusalem for the first time was amazing. The whole city shuts down-nobody drives. Children, and even adults, fill the streets on scooters and bikes, as that becomes their only way of getting around. Call me crazy, but laying down with all my friends in the middle of the biggest intersection in Jerusalem with no worries or second thoughts was amazing.

Of course, services in Hebrew were pretty difficult to understand, but being welcomed into a bigger community with people we don't know during services were so meaningful. The people surrounding us seemed happy to have us join their family for services, and were so nice and helpful when they noticed how confused everyone was during the Rabbi's sermon (since it was in Hebrew).

Fasting with my 29 new best friends actually wasn't as difficult as I imagined. We all got through it together. When we felt dizzy and thought we couldn't make it through the rest of the day, all our friends were there for us, telling us that we weren’t alone and they were there to embrace and comfort us, but most importantly there to break the fast with us. Yom Kippur seemed so surreal here, yet it was everything I expected. I feel so lucky that I was able to experience Yom Kippur in Israel with my new family.

I wish all of you a Happy and Sweet New Year from Israel!"

Marissa Steiner, NFTY EIE High School in Israel 11th grader,
Programming VP of TEWTY

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