Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Same-Sex Marriage: Let's Bring it Back!

As we were welcoming two new Jews into the Jewish people during a conversion ceremony, a few miles down the street in Downtown Indianapolis, another chapter in the struggle for marriage equality was unfolding.

Soon after a federal court judge struck down the discriminatory marriage law of our state on June 25, couples were lined up to get married. By the time I came back to Fort Wayne later that day, our members Harriet Miller and Monica Wehrle were already among the first to tie the knot – aided by Senior Judge Michael Rush, a Temple member, who officiated at the solemnization of their union of more than 37 years.

They were married on Wednesday afternoon and by Thursday afternoon I had been contacted by two other couples who wanted their marriages solemnized. Neither couple was affiliated with the Jewish community (although one of the women was Jewish) nor were the ceremonies “Jewish” in any traditional way. But these recognitions were Jewish in the sense that they were opportunities to show our support for same-sex couples.

Many clergy who performed same-sex ceremonies during the short window had concerns that we were not treating these couples equally. We did not require pre-marital counseling or a follow-up discussion, as we usually do. At the end, most local clergy who, like myself, were able (and eager) to perform same-sex weddings did it because we felt the importance and urgency of the situation. By Shabbat, it was all over, and we were back to living in a state that treats some loving relationships as having less value than others. Yet things are moving quickly nationally and we may have a positive resolution to this inequality.

If same-sex marriage equality is the civil rights issue of our time, it is imperative to act quickly, to take a stand in favor of equality, to “stand on the side of love,” as our Unitarian Universalist friends put it.

Solemnizing same-sex marriages was for me an issue of social justice for couples who, in many cases, have been living as a family for decades. During the time it was legal, albeit brief, it was an honor and a joy for me to be a part of it. The ceremonies also were a way to represent our Jewish values and the willingness of our congregation to welcome all families.

The future looks bright, but equality will not just come on its own. We must continue to work toward it by being vigilant against prejudice and by taking every opportunity to express our support for the issue, not only as a civil rights issue, but also as an issue that we as Jews see as an integral part of our value system and of what we envision as a just and equitable society. Let’s bring it back!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Thoughts from Morocco

           Last month I travelled with a group of rabbis on a week-long trip exploring Jewish Morocco. Here are two “postcards.” During the next few months, I’ll share my experiences, including a Marrakesh Shabbat on Friday, July 25.

           On our first day, we met with representatives of the Jewish community of Casablanca, the largest in the country by far. There are some 4,000 Jews in the city, from all over Morocco. My first impressions were that this is a very conservative and isolated Jewish community. There are no conversions in Morocco and virtually no intermarriage.
            At the same time, the Jews seem to be the biggest fans of the king! In Morocco, the picture of the king is everywhere (I have many photos of me with him – or at least his image!), and we were told that the king is the unifying element in Moroccan society. The current king, Mohammad VI, claims to be a descendant of the Prophet Mohammad, and, as such, he plays a role as the leader of all Muslims in Morocco.
            The one thing that impressed me the most is that Jews in Morocco do not celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day). It is simply unthinkable to me that there are Jews nowadays who do not put Israel at the center of their identity (not in public, at least, in Morocco). At the same time, the Jews of Morocco are the ONLY free and thriving Jewish community in an Arab and Muslim country, so they are in a very unique position.
            We also visited synagogues in Fez and Meknes, both cities which used to have very large Jewish communities until the 1950s. Sadly, the synagogues and cemeteries we visited are now museums and very few, mostly elderly, Jews remain in those cities. Most other Jews have moved to Casablanca or immigrated to France, Canada, the United States and Israel. We are heading to Marrakesh tomorrow.

            Erev Shabbat in Marrakesh was interesting. The synagogue we attended (one of two functioning in town) could accommodate 60 people at most. Men and women sat in separate areas. The arrangement of the synagogue was typical of Morocco, with the bimah in the center. The service was chanted entirely in Hebrew and no pages were announced.
           Our group was to have dinner at the home of Cantor Isaac Ohayon, so we stayed until the end. What we did not know is that most of the people in attendance were in the same boat! So, after the service ended, the few locals left and the other 40 or so followed the cantor through the streets of modern Marrakesh until we reached his apartment building. Inside we were greeted by his wife (and some Muslim helpers), and showed into our dining area. The space was big enough to accommodate a table for eight, but eighteen of us managed to fit (barely). The other half of the group (Israelis) sat at an even bigger table (the apartment is not large by any means). Isaac and his wife served us all!
            The dinner was abundant and delicious –Moroccan-style salads, chicken, meat, couscous, etc. After dinner, Isaac told us about the dwindling Jewish community of Marrakesh – 60 mostly elderly Jews are left of a community numbering 20,000 just five decades ago. We were deeply impressed by Isaac’s family and their willingness to welcome groups like us week after week. The groups do make a contribution to the community, which is the least we could do, but by no means does it cover all this couple puts into it. We left moved by the realization that Isaac and his wife are truly doing a great mitzvah –there is no other word to describe their dedication and love for the Jewish people.

Monday, April 21, 2014

GLSEN Day of Silence 2014: Break the Silence Invocation

As we gather to call attention to the silencing effect of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment in schools, let us take a moment to reflect on why some people and connections are respected or recognized by law while others are not.
Every day, students who experience intimidation, persecution and, sometimes, physical violence, feel powerless and alone before their oppressors and their peers. Whether gay, straight, transgender, or queer, on this Day of Silence, we stand in solidarity with those who feel silenced many times in the name of God.
Judaism teaches that all human beings are created b'tselem elohim – in the Divine image. The book of Genesis tells us that “God created humans in God’s own image, in the image of God […].” The belief that the stamp of the divine is present in all humans is fundamental to Jewish values; we cannot tolerate discrimination against or bullying of any person for any reason. But compassionate believes are not enough to end oppression.
In the book of Leviticus, the Torah instructs, “do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds” (Leviticus 19:16). Because we value human life, we must work to make life better for LGBTQ youth and end the harassment they face in our schools. Because we value human life, we must work so that every one of us is treated equally by the law, and in doing so, we will have paved a brighter future for generations to come.
O God, help us only to speak out and to hear the truth, yet time and again, from fear of loss or hope of gain, from dull habit or from cruel deliberation, we speak half-truths, we twist facts, we are silent when others lie, and we lie to ourselves.
O God of truth and justice, the evasions and deceits we practice upon others and ourselves are many; the cruelty and suffering so many endure are a slur to your Holy Name.
Whether we are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning, family or friends, our words and our thoughts speed to the One who knows them before we utter them.
May our prayer help us to practice truth in speech and in thought before You, to ourselves, and before one another; and may we finally complete our liberation so that no one should feel the need to practice evasions and deceits.
Remembering that we are all carry the Divine Image within us, we hope and pray for more inclusion. May our community honor our diversity and celebrate it. May the day soon arrive when respect and civil rights are freely granted regardless of who we are or how we choose to live our lives.

Baruch attah Adonai, elohenu melech ha-olam, Blessed, O God, Spirit of the World, who makes us holy through your teachings, and commands us to pursue justice and to honor all people and relationships.

(Delivered at the NE Indiana LGBTQ Coalition's Day of Silence Vigil, on 11 April, 2014 at Headwaters Park, Fort Wayne, IN)

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.