Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Time of Our Freedom

As I look out the window, the pond is still snow-covered, so celebrating the advent of spring seems more appealing than it has been in previous years. Spring is a major theme in the celebration of Passover. Historians teach that the agricultural aspect of Passover predates its religious meaning (exodus from Egypt). The celebration of the rebirth of nature at the end of winter is not uniquely Jewish; other ancient peoples marked the cycles of nature with religious holidays. The Jewish people, however, re-signified the celebration of nature’s changes by teaching that the Jewish people was born in the “spring” out of the “winter,” which we call “slavery” in Egypt.
 In 1937, Rabbi Mordechai M. Kaplan wrote, “It is not often that an individual wants to be reminded of his humble beginnings; but that a nation in ancient times should glory in having been held in bondage by another nation is certainly an unrepeated phenomenon.”
We took the idea behind the nature-oriented holiday and gave it new, theological, meaning. Kaplan suggests that such unflattering origins contain a new and different conception about God, a unique Jewish conception that would guide us in our moral behavior. Unlike other Gods of antiquity, the God of Israel does not legitimize the power of kings and rulers, but rather imposes a code of behavior that all individuals must follow. This is the true etymology of the word yisrael, “God is our Ruler,” (implying, “not some godlike earthly king or pharaoh”). Kaplan wrote, “The first and the most solemn protest against human bondage is the declaration that the God of Israel is essentially the Redeemer of the oppressed. As believers in the God of Israel, we must hold to the conviction that slavery must be abolished not only in name, but also in fact.”
 At Passover, we are reminded of the bondages in our society as a way of stressing the central teaching of our tradition, that all oppression is morally unacceptable. In the words of Kaplan, “The new redemption to which Jews look forward involves the redemption of society in general from present ills. It implies the transformation of human nature and social institutions through the divine power of intelligence and good-will.”
 In this sense, the ideal of freedom we find in our festival of Passover is yet to be realized. As we celebrate Passover, let us think of the many ways we can all contribute to our congregation and our society so that we can come closer to making our ideal of freedom a reality. 
Please, take a moment to comment below and add your personal way to make freedom happen. 
Chag ha-pesach sameach, Happy Passover!

Friday, March 7, 2014

Standing on the Side of Love

            Six months ago, HJR-3 was considered a “done deal;” however, over 300 clergy from across the state thought otherwise. Last month, I travelled to Indianapolis where I was joined by other clergy in support of Freedom Indiana and their efforts to defeat HJR-3. House Joint Resolution 3 is the attempt to bring to the voters of Indiana a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. With the help of other groups, we succeeded in persuading the Indiana House of Representatives to remove the second sentence of HJR-3 (the second sentence would have also banned civil unions). Later on, the Indiana Senate voted to keep the second sentence out of HJR-3. As a result, HJR-3 is not going to be in the ballots in November.
               I have personally learned a lot during the experience. I have learned that we can have a civilized discussion with people with whom we disagree. For instance, my conversations with our local state representative Dan Leonard were friendly and with compassion. I learned that there is no use in having a “Bible War” over this issue.
               Let me be clear: I would have liked for HJR-3 to go away completely, but this was a victory which seemed unlikely just six months ago. It happened in part because the faith community was represented not only by those who supported HJR-3 and the ban on gay marriage and civil unions, but also by other religious groups (including the majority of the rabbis in the state of Indiana).
               HJR-3 is still alive and well and it may make it to the ballot in 2016, so we will have other opportunities to speak against it from a Jewish religious perspective. It might be obvious to many of you why Jewish teachings are incompatible with supporting discriminatory language in any state constitution, but from talking to legislators and the media, I have learned that articulating our position is sometimes not easy. I would like share with you a few ways in which you can speak to others about your Jewish values in this regard so you can be agents of change as well.
               During these past two months, I had the pleasure of meeting other like-minded clergy individuals who have taught me some new lesson about how to address discrimination. Here are two new lessons I suggest we add to our great Reform tradition of fighting discrimination:
               1. The Platinum Rule. We have all heard of the Golden Rule –and many people aspire to live by it. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." The Golden Rule implies the basic assumption that other people would like to be treated the way that you would like to be treated.
               The alternative to the Golden Rule is the Platinum Rule: "Treat others the way they want to be treated." The Platinum Rule accommodates the feelings of others. The focus of relationships shifts from "this is what I want, so I'll give everyone the same thing" to "let me first understand what they want and then I'll give it to them." In the case of marriage equality the platinum rule is a perfect fit. We are not asking people to want and be all the same; we live in a better society when we celebrate diversity and show compassion for all people.
               2. Our Unitarian Universalist friends have started a new campaign; the motto is “standing on the side of love.” Every major religion has compassion and love at its center and we need to stay true to these religious values. Too much of our public discourse is driven not by love, but by fear. This campaign is based on a few basic values:
  • We believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Everyone deserves respect and love for who they are.
  • Right now, both love and fear are rising up in our nation. We stand on the side of love. We harness love’s power to stop oppression, exclusion, and violence against people who are targeted because of their identity.
  • We are working to build a society where the color of our skin, the conditions of our birth, who we love, how we worship, and how we express our gender do not determine our worth, rights, and opportunities.
        The final point I need to make is that we Jews are guided by the very basic belief that all human beings are created b’tselem Elohim, in the Divine image. We read in the book of Genesis 1:27, “And God created humans in God’s own image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them.” If we believe in seeing the Divine image in each one of us that means that we are inherently good. Having the Divine image is a positive thing.
           This fundamental Jewish value has guided us in the past when we Jews played a pivotal role in the struggles for women’s equality as well as during the Civil Rights movement. Let me remind everyone here that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted in the conference room of Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, under the auspices of the Leadership Conference, which for decades was located in the RAC's building. We see marriage equality as THE civil rights issue of the time and as such a matter of religious conscious.
             I pray that we will come to believe that each of us, created in God’s image, has a unique talent, with which we can contribute to the high moral purpose of tikkun olam, the repair of our world. May we all come to understand that excluding anyone from our community lessens our chance of achieving this goal of a more perfect world. May we all be able to stand up against fear and unfairness as we all join hands together on the side of love and compassion.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Stand Up for Fairness

Some twenty years ago, I decided I wanted to be a rabbi and, at the same time, live my life the way I was born. In the early 90’s, the Conservative movement in my native Argentina would not ordain openly LGBT clergy, so the choice was made for me: I had to come to America in pursuit of my dream. Like countless Jews before me, I came to America with the hope to find fulfillment and a better life.

Two decades later, my husband Kris and I are denied legal recognition in Indiana – ironically same-sex marriage is now legal in Argentina! For more than 12 years now, Hoosiers have wrestled with the issue of granting equal legal rights to same-gender couples. HJR-6, the proposed Indiana constitutional amendment to ban same-sex unions of any kind, is hurtful to our family. Being LGBT does not disqualify me, however, to speak against HJR-6. Judaism demands from me that I speak against this unfair legislation.

Those who support it claim that the people should decide and thus it should be brought up for a vote in 2014. As a Jew, I am cognizant that we Jews have been the target of much unfair legal treatment through the centuries and that, when left to the majority to decide our fate, we never fared well. The Jewish people knows that discrimination should not be legislated and, least of all, enshrined in the state constitution.

As Reform Jews, we have a special relationship with movements that have promoted social change. Even though most of us were not African-American and were not targeted by Jim Crow laws, our movement played a vital role in championing Civil Rights. We knew then, as we know today, that laws designed to exclude a certain group of citizens go against Jewish values. These laws are contrary to our Torah that teaches love for our neighbor and for the stranger among us, as well as challenges us to treat others as THEY would like to be treated; that we are all created betzelem elohim, in the image of God, and therefore deserving fairness and compassion.

It is because of my Jewish faith and values that on November 18 I travelled to Indianapolis at the start of a new legislative session (joined by clergy from all over the state) to deliver a clear message to our lawmakers: Judaism will not stand idle while unfair and exclusionary treatment of a group of citizens is insinuated into our state constitution. It was a powerful event and we pray that it touched the hearts of our representatives.

Share your personal reason why you oppose it:

Friday, November 15, 2013


Together at our congregation we celebrate making transitions. Every week, we mark the transition from weekdays to Shabbat by the ritual of lighting candles. The transition from childhood to Jewish adulthood is signalized by the ritual of the Bar/Bat Mitzvah.

From time to time, we have the simcha of performing the public ceremony in which “new” Jews are welcomed into the fold of the Jewish people. It is a joyous occasion when they are called up the bimah to hold a Torah scroll, binding their destiny to that of the Jewish people. This ritual of welcoming is the culmination of a long journey-- in the case of some people it’s many years in the making. The formal process of their conversion begins with a meeting with the rabbi and their admission into the Introduction to Judaism class.

Our candidates have gone through a process that lasted almost two years. They studied together, attended services and Temple activities, and shared their path towards Judaism as a class. It is very rewarding to teach the Introduction to Judaism class, and I wish that all Jews could hear the commitment of these men and women. They are thrilled to learn about our rituals and traditions. They marvel at the depth and intelligence of our faith and the wisdom of our tradition. We could all learn from their passion and dedication.

After they completed the Introduction to Judaism class and passed the final examination, they were ready to be brought before the bet din, a three-member rabbinical tribunal. We travelled to Indianapolis where we constituted the bet din with Rabbis Pfeffer and Siritsky. Immediately after the bet din agreed that our candidates were suitable, all three candidates immersed in the mikvah at Congregation B’nai Torah, and they emerged as full-fledged Jews. It is now time for us as a congregation to welcome them.

Our tradition uses a beautiful idiom to express conversion to Judaism. When someone becomes Jewish, we say that s/he has been “welcomed under the wings of the Divine Presence.” As a congregation, we will provide a tangible representation of those “wings,” so it is very important for everyone to attend the service on Friday, November 22.

After the ceremony, however, we should not treat them differently. Judaism has always taught that people who convert to Judaism are just like those who were born Jewish and they should not be reminded that they chose Judaism as adults. In recent years, the distinction between “Jew” and “convert” has been replaced by “Jew-by-birth” and “Jew-by-choice” to teach that we are ALL Jews -- regardless of our unique life-path. Furthermore, one can say that we are all Jews-by-Choice because we are continuously choosing Judaism in our lives and the example of our “newest Jews” should inspire us all to want to make that choice tomorrow yet again.
Please, share how you have "chosen" Judaism in your life.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Indignation is Not Enough
Earlier this year, the Anti-Defamation League blasted Alice Walker over her new book, The Cushion in the Road. I was asked to write a book review explaining why the Jewish community finds Walker’s writings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict offensive. I explained that for most Jews there is no significant difference between Jews in America or Israel- as far as Jewish identity is concerned. Any attacks on Israelis or any misrepresentations of their freely elected leaders are felt by Jews all over the world as an attack on us (please follow the link below to my book review).
Despite our differences of opinion about Israeli politics and despite our various views of Zionism, the State of Israel is a place with which we, as Jews, have a personal relationship. We have family and friends who live there; our friends have family who live there. We all know someone in Israel or know someone who does. In sum, we all have a personal relationship with Israel.
It is natural and understandable to feel offended by Anti-Israel views but indignation is not enough. Indignation must lead to action: Each of us is responsible for educating our friends and neighbors about what the State of Israel means to Jews and how it has changed Jewish identity. So, what can you do?
1.    Be alert and don’t give in. Understand that when people speak against a specific Israeli policy, there is usually more to it. Remember: don’t just agree with the critics of Israel, many of them have other motivations, usually Anti-Semitic ones. But in order to be alert, we also need to do some homework, which brings us to the next thing you can do to strengthen your personal relationship with Israel.
2.    Be informed –Not just about current events but about whatever area you are interested in. If you like soccer, learn about Israeli soccer. If you are a physician? Take time to learn about medical advances in Israel and volunteer at Hadassah or other hospitals. IF you are in a book club? Don’t be afraid to suggest reading Israeli novels or non-fiction. You a news junkie? Subscribe to Israeli news feeds. The more you know about life in Israel, the better equipped you will be to speak up for Israel.
3.    Chavayah, great Hebrew words that means “experience of a life-time.” Get your own chavayah, your very own life experience of Israel! You like to travel? Next time, instead of China, Russia or Paris, make a trip to Israel, not with a tour, but go on your own; it is safe and everyone is kind of family! Your chavayah will stay with you forever! But more importantly, when you have that chavayah, you must share your chavayah with others, Jews and non-Jews alike. We must tell the story of our relationship with Israel with everyone –especially with those who, in good will, want to know why we find Anti-Israel ideas so offensive. They need to hear our personal stories, and they will understand and become our allies.
As the only free country in the Mideast, Israel is making progress toward a more just and equitable society for all its inhabitants. Many people in Israel are trying to live up to the high expectations and demands our tradition has set forth many millennia ago, “tzeddek, tzeddek tirdof,” “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord God is giving you.” (Deut. 16:20).


Monday, September 2, 2013

Tallit or Not Tallit?

Where does the tradition of wearing a tallit originate? The wearing of the tallit comes from the third paragraph of the Sh’ma. In Numbers 15:38-9 we read: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: They shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments…And this shall be tzitzit for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of God, and perform them.”
            The tallit is a ritual object that attempts to address this commandment. You may wonder, what is the “third paragraph” of the Sh’ma? In the traditional prayer books, the Sh’ma has three sections. Early on, the Reform movement eliminated all but the first –probably to shorten the prayer. The first paragraph, the Veahavta, is the basis for two ritual objects: the mezuzah, and the t’filin -both ritual objects discarded as “superstitious” by early Reform rabbis. The mezuzah and the tallit have seen a comeback in recent decades. Among Reform men and women, the wearing of the tallit became more common.
            For years, however, women were not allowed to wear a tallit while praying at the kotel, the Western Wall of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. In the past few months, the controversy about women praying at the Western Wall intensified. As a result of a recent Israeli court ruling, women praying at the kotel are allowed to wear whatever Jewish ritual objects they please as well as to read from a Torah scroll. Women can now freely wear a tallit. Beautifully decorated tallitot have been crafted of the finest fibers to adorn the shoulders of Jewish women here and in Israel. For “Women of the Wall” wearing their pomegranate-embroidered silk tallit has become a symbol of their defiance of the Ultra-Orthodox rabbinate.
             I know that many among us would sympathize with their struggle. Yet wearing a tallit at our congregation seems to be reserved only for b’nei mitzvah students on their special Shabbat. It seems odd that this wonderful symbol of religious freedom is absent at our worship services. It is time we make a change and join the rest of the Reform Jewish world. Fortunately, we will have a chance to wear a tallit on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, during the Kol Nidre service.
             The tallit is traditionally worn during all morning and afternoon services, and in recent Reform practice by those called for an aliyah, even during the Erev Shabbat service. Yom Kippur is the only time of the year when it’s customary for all Jews to wear a tallit at night –since the command of tzitzit applies during the day. Some believe that the custom began with Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (thirteen century) based on the fact that during Kol Nidre we say selichot, penitential prayers. There is a beautiful Midrash that links selichot with the wearing of a tallit. According to the Midrash, when Moses prayed to God to forgive the Jews after the sin of the golden calf, God “wrapped Himself in a tallit” and showed Moses how to pray. Despite the obvious fact that this is an anachronistic and anthropomorphic tale, it teaches that wearing a tallitreminds us of being kind and merciful towards each other, like God was towards the Jews then.
              Thus, wearing a tallit is not to be seen as giving in to some “superstitious” practice, but it can be tangible way of showing solidarity with Jews asserting their religious freedom in Israel. I invited you all, men and women alike, to bring a tallit (or wear one of our congregational prayer shawls available at the doors to our sanctuary) and wear it during Kol Nidre. Show your care and support for Women of the Wall!
              Learn more about Women of the Wall and our support for their cause. 


Please, take the time to share your comment on wearing a tallit below!


Thursday, August 8, 2013

On the Road to Renewal

As you might have noticed, all Jewish holidays are “early” this year – our High Holidays will be a late-Summer holiday! In the few weeks left until our holy days arrive, our tradition calls us to enter our synagogues ready to accept our shortcomings and to welcome repentance and forgiveness into our lives. We call the preparation “heshbon ha-nefesh” (lit. “taking an inventory of the soul”), our spiritual “homework,” during which we look at the year that has passed. As we reflect on our past actions, we find joy mingled with disappointment. We yearn for a sense of renewal.
This spiritual exercise begins by letting go of the inescapable fear of discovering what we have done and what we have allowed ourselves to become. Many of us are seduced into focusing merely on what we have achieved, on what we have done well. But our tradition calls us to take a measured look at our actions and our relationships –- in our family, our congregation, and our community. 
As the summer comes to an end, the natural world also enters as a time of transition; it is a time to bridge the lazy days of summer to the crisp fall mornings filled with autumn colors. We are part of nature so it can also be a transitional time between who we have become and that person whom we long to become. It is a bridge between regret and repentance, between guilt and renewal. It is a time that holds the promise of change.
Let us begin our spiritual homework and take a few minutes every day to reflect on the year that has passed, and to ponder the good deeds we have done – but let us also be sure to remember our omissions, our shortcomings as Jews and as human beings. Once we have done an honest spiritual retrospection, we will be ready and able to approach the New Year in the spirit of humility and repentance.
Shanah tovah, may the New Year bring spiritual renewal, joy, health, happiness and peace to us all.
How are you preparing for the High Holidays? Do you have any "family" traditions that help you get in the right frame of mind?