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Caring for the Stranger in our Land: A Call to Support Immigrants in America

 

A few weeks ago we read from the Torah in Parashat Mishpatim, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Torah sees a direct relationship between the experience of our own oppression and our ability to care for those who are marginalized. Additionally, the Torah specifically calls for the protection of the widow and orphan and describes the punishment of mistreating them. “If you mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans.” (Ex. 22:20-23). In fact, 36 times in the Torah, Israel is commanded to be compassionate to those that require assistance. This message is what separates the nation from its enslavers, reminding the Israelites and by extension the Jewish people how we should act when faced with the opportunity to care for the stranger.

Unfortunately, we find ourselves in a situation that calls on us to remember our own oppression.  Shaarei Tikvah’s Social Justice Committee is leading an effort to encourage all of us to recognize and respond to the concern for immigrants in our country. Thousands of individuals known as Dreamers who came to the US at a young age through a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which temporarily shields them from deportation and allows them to study and work legally, may be deported to a country that was never their home and possibly be endangered. (See some of their stories here.) In addition, we are concerned for the safety of many other immigrants who have come to the United States as a safe place to live and raise their families, who need support to help them integrate in a healthy way into their communities.

We are encouraging anyone who cares about the futures of these immigrants to respond to their needs right now. We have partnered with Neighbors Link which has been providing education, employment and legal services for immigrant families throughout Westchester County since 2001. A few months ago we learned about Neighbors Link in a presentation by a few of their leaders at Shaarei Tikvah. Check out the attached documents to read about this organization, which describes the mission and the work that they do along with volunteer opportunities in which we should all consider participating.

We encourage everyone to consider taking action in three ways. First, think about volunteering at Neighbors Link to connect with the immigrants who are supported by the organization. Second, please consider a donation to help Neighbors Link build its capacity to support more immigrants integrating into their communities. Currently, Neighbors Link is fundraising for an ESL Program (English as a Second Language). Please see the attached wish-list which totals $2,796 and see what you could do to help them achieve this dream. Please make your contribution directly to Neighbors Link as mentioned in the attachments.

Third, in order to advocate for immigrants, please send your email address to Robin in our office. In addition, we will keep the congregation apprised of additional ways to get involved in this issue.

Thank you for the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of thousands of people.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Baldachin and the Social Justice Committee
rabbi@shaareitikvah.org

Facing Darkness Together

Chanukah is the most Jewish holiday there is. It’s not only because family comes together or because we eat a lot of food, or even because dreidl is one of the most well known Yiddish words, but rather because of an underlying belief that the Jewish people have held connected to the meaning of the holiday: that even in the darkest of times it is possible to have hope.

I learned from my teacher at JTS, Rabbi David Hoffman, that there is a different side of the long-lasting-oil-miracle story as described by Jacob Falk (1680–1756, Poland), better known by the title of his book, the Penei Yehoshua.

He teaches that there is a law in the Babylonian Talmud (5-7th century, compilation of rabbinic discourse) which teaches that objects rendered impure can still be used for communal needs (BT Yoma 6b). Following that teaching, the fact that only one container of pure oil was found should not have been a concern to the Israelites that wished to rededicate the temple. They could have used any of the oil that they found in the desecrated temple- pure or impure. Seemingly, the miracle of the pure oil lasting for eight nights was unnecessary!

So if the pure oil was not necessary for lighting the menorah, what was the purpose of the miracle? The Penei Yehoshua teaches that God kept the oil lasting for eight nights to remind the Israelites that God was still with them. After the battle with the Greeks, the war-weary Israelites needed a reminder that God was with them in order to give them the inner strength they needed to re-engage with the sanctity of life.

Chanukah comes at the darkest time of the year and the darkest time of the month when the moon is almost completely hidden. And yet we light a candle to mitigate this darkness and bring our candles together to remind ourselves that all we need to bring a miracle is one light.

Shaarei Tikvah to Offer Interfaith Aufrufs

Recently, our ritual committee studied about a ceremony on shabbat offering blessings to interfaith couples before their weddings.

One of the things I love most about being a rabbi is introducing people to living a Jewish life- celebrating special and joyous occasions as Jews, helping individuals suffering a loss through the comfort of Jewish practices of mourning, and encouraging people to try ancient rituals to bring the sacred into their lives. Often, these moments can open doors for people as they explore their Jewish identity. And I am often amazed at the profound experiences people can have when they try something new.

Unfortunately, we live in a time and a place where many people find Jewish ritual foreign and irrelevant to their lives. Jewish identity is not assumed to be passed on to the next generation, and affiliation rates are quite low. The oft-quoted Pew survey of US Jews from 2013 spells out some of these trends.

http://www.jta.org/2013/10/01/news-opinion/united-states/pew-survey-u-s-jewish-intermarriage-rate-rises-to-58-percent

In particular, the reported intermarriage rate of over 70% of non-Orthodox Jews is quite startling and makes us question the continuity of the Jewish people. And yet, in my experience, having Jewish communities in America that are welcoming to interfaith families can have a tremendous impact on the identities of these families.

As a member of the Rabbinical Assembly, the association for Conservative rabbis, I honor a standard of the organization which prohibits me from performing weddings for interfaith couples. However, as a rabbi who cares for all people and acknowledges the diversity of families in our congregation as well as in our larger community, I am aware of the importance of providing a place for interfaith families to feel welcome at Shaarei Tikvah. In addition, I am committed to supporting Am Yisrael, the Jewish people, and believe that maintaining the continuity and strength of Jews and Judaism is one of my mandates as a rabbi.

Therefore, it is my obligation to ensure that I am playing my part to support the task of creating and maintaining Jewish families. In my first four years as a rabbi, I have met a number of couples where one partner is Jewish and the other of a different faith or no faith. Interestingly, many of these couples are committed to raising a Jewish family even if the non-Jewish partner has no interest in converting. Often, my relationship with that couple can help shape the future religious identity of their family.

In my experience, my participation in life cycle events can have an important impact on a family’s or individual’s experience of that event. More specifically, the work of relationship building I have done with engaged couples has been deep and profound, often resulting in decisions to bring more Judaism and Jewish ritual into the identity and practice of the couple and their children’s lives.

Shaarei Tikvah has taken steps through its Keruv committee work over the years to enhance its ability to welcome interfaith families. My interest in connecting with interfaith couples at this moment in their lives coincided with our community’s goal to welcome these couples and their families into our community, and this ceremony seemed like a good way to expand this effort. It is for these reasons that I brought before our ritual committee the question of Cantor Cohen’s and my officiating interfaith aufrufs at Shaarei Tikvah.

Aufruf, a Yiddish phrase which means “to go up”, refers to the ritual of an engaged couple “going up” for an aliyah to the Torah the Shabbat before (or close to) the wedding. The aliyah consists of blessings recited before and after the communal reading of the Torah. After the aliyah is recited, Cantor Cohen and I offer a mi sheberach, which is a prayer of blessing for the engaged couple before their wedding which speaks to the hopes of the community for the successful marriage of the couple, filled with joy, health, and other blessings. It is joyous for the community to see a new couple embark on their journey together, and we conclude with singing “siman tov umazal tov” to express our joy for this occasion.

Our congregation has already made the decision that interfaith couples who celebrate a child’s bar/bat mitzvah can stand together during an aliyah. And so, here too in the context of their upcoming wedding, the interfaith couple would come up for the aliyah. As is the case during the celebration of a bar/bat mitzvah, the Jewish partner then recites the aliyah, which includes the words of gratitude for God’s choosing the Jewish people to receive the Torah. The partner who is not Jewish does not recite this blessing. Cantor Cohen and I will then offer some words to the couple who seek blessings from God and the community that we wish for a couple before their wedding.

The ritual committee recommended in the late spring of 2017 to allow interfaith aufrufs at Shaarei Tikvah subject to my discretion. I will be basing my decision on a couple’s desire to maintain a Jewish home. Each family will discuss with me their interpretation of what that means and I will decide whether it is appropriate for that particular couple to have an aufruf ceremony. It is my hope that through these and consequent meetings I can delve into deeper discussions about the couple’s relationship and improve and encourage their family’s commitment to Jewish practice in their home.

I understand that there are many reasons why someone is unwilling to convert. I don’t want to put up extra barriers of entry into the Jewish community or make it more difficult for a family to raise Jewish children because they are excluded from a community or from a relationship with a rabbi when they are in the process of beginning a family and determining the religious identity of their family.

I believe we should take the opportunity to celebrate and encourage that process. We must acknowledge that we as a Jewish American community are in a world where Jewish identity and endogamy, marrying within one’s community, can no longer be assumed from one generation to the next. Rather, we must work with what we have and utilize the strength of interpersonal connections and powerful community gatherings, to open our doors and our arms to couples of different faiths.  Here, at Shaarei Tikvah, the gates of hope are opening more widely to all who experience their family’s identity as Jewish.

Mazal tov!

Connecting with Others

This week we commemorated Sh’va Asar b’Tamuz, the 17th of Tammuz, a fast day in the Jewish calendar and a day to commemorate the breaching of the walls in Jerusalem, which led to the destruction of the Second Temple (70 CE). On this day we also mark the destruction of the First Temple (586 BCE) and other tragedies of the Jewish people. One of the messages that our rabbis teach about this period of destruction in Jewish history is that Jews must not repeat the errors of the past. Most importantly, we learn that sinat chinam, senseless hatred between Jews, led to the destruction of the 2nd Temple in Jerusalem, and in order to prevent future calamities, each generation that commemorates the destruction must work to overcome the temptation to act or speak against others with sinat chinam.

This message of connection and openness to others, confronting bias and senseless hatred was ringing in the halls of Shaarei Tikvah on Thursday afternoon this week when I hosted a group of high school students from White Plains High School at Shaarei Tikvah. My friend and colleague, Rev. Lee Trollinger who participated in our community’s conversations about racism and privilege last August, requested that I spend some time with him and these students so that they could learn about the Jewish religion and our shared values. This annual program was implemented by the City of White Plains Youth Bureau through the Calvary Baptist Church of which Rev. Trollinger is the pastor. The Church helps the students from White Plains High School learn about civic engagement and community based organizations in Lower Westchester. The goal of the program is to engage students with new concepts by meeting various leaders of organizations, which will help them grow as individuals.

Our hour and a half together was fun, honest, and intellectually engaging. I offered the students a tour of our sanctuary and beit midrash and taught them about our rituals and the significance behind them. The students had many questions about the objects they saw and the explanations I offered. Rev. Trollinger explained the significance of the relationship between Jews and African Americans and we had a conversation about our shared experiences of slavery and how that impacts the way we respond to injustice. These students were asked to challenge assumptions and express their opinions honestly so that we could all learn from one another. As a group, we valued diversity of opinion, which allowed for more honest and interesting discussions about issues connected with the Jewish relationship with Israel and American politics. It was powerful that within a synagogue space, which promotes diversity of opinion, we were able to foster a dialogue in which students of various experiences and a diversity of opinions were able to learn from one another.

The polarization of our communities have made many important conversations taboo. And yet, we must remember that our relationships with one another can be strengthened if we are open to listening to opinions and ideas of those with whom we disagree. I am sure it was not easy for these students to walk into a space about which they knew nothing. In fact, none of these students had ever stepped into a synagogue before, and yet, they left with a new sense of understanding and connection. My prayer over these three weeks leading to the 9th of Av is that we can find space to engage in discussion with those who disagree with us in order to promote civil engagement and diversity of thought in our communities.

 

 

What Doesn’t Kill Me Makes Me Stronger

An unlikely pair, Friedrich Nietzsche, 19th century German philosopher, and Kelly Clarkson, 21st century American singer and songwriter, share at least one thing in common: They have both published the idea that what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. And interestingly, the Jewish calendar, especially in the summer, promotes this idea in its calendrical messaging.

The summer months are not generally known for their holidays. High Holidays in the fall, Chanukah generally in the winter, and Passover in the spring are the big ones for American Jews. And yet, Tish’a b’Av, the 9th of Av, is an
important annual psychological experience for Jews nationally and individually.

Tish’a b’Av and the three weeks that precede it create space within the Jewish calendar to remember national
sadness and loss. We mark an occasion which recalls the siege and destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem by reading Eicha, Lamentations. In chapter 3 of that book we read a description of the author’s deep sadness and a hope for redemption:

“They have cut off my life in the dungeon, and have cast stones upon me. Waters flowed over my head; I said: ‘I am cut off.’ I called upon Your name, O LORD, Out of the lowest dungeon. You heard my voice; hide not Your ear at my sighing, at my cry. You drew near in the day that I called upon You; You said: ‘Fear not.’ O Lord, You have pleaded the causes of my soul; You have redeemed my life. O LORD, You have seen my wrong; You judge my cause. (chapter 3, verses 53-59).”

The author recalls a feeling of complete abandonment, paired with the feeling of God’s presence. It is both the
experience of grief and comfort that find their way into this memory, and it is their pairing that gives us reason to read it each year and relive these emotions, in order to connect our own emotional experience to an ancient one. Reading Eicha as a community reminds us that tears are ever present for us—both communally and personally. As a people we have known oppression again and again, and yet, the knowledge that we have bounced back from these experiences of loss and pain build a resilience within us that focuses our cause even as we wipe tears from our eyes.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs explains how Jews differ from Buddhists in this regard. He argues that Judaism is more activist than Buddhism. To demonstrate this he compares Moses and Buddha. Both were raised in the king’s palace and when they left the walls of the palace, they experienced with horror a world filled with pain, injustice, and
suffering. However, Jacobs asserts that while Buddha’s enlightenment “consists in his realization that desire is the cause of suffering and the aim of man should be to rise above all desire,” Moses reacts to suffering
by “allowing the desire for a better world to lead to his fighting injustice and helping his brethren emerge from slavery and bondage.” (Jacobs, What does Judaism Say About…?) Moses and Buddha both see the terrible
condition of human beings. However, while Buddha does not encourage contentment or discontent, Moses teaches that divine discontent can cause humanity’s condition to improve.

Recalling our experience of loss reminds us that grief is a normal part of our human condition. There is no escaping sadness and grief. And yet, Jews are encouraged to have hope and to trust that comfort can still emerge from
discomfort. To quote the words of Isaiah, whose words we recite in the haftarah after Tisha b’Av, “kol koreh bamidbar, panu derech Adonai. Yashru ba’aravah mesilah l’Eloheinu.” “A voice rings out, ‘clear in the desert a road for the Lord! Level in the wilderness a highway for God!’” (40:3)

Isaiah reminds us that comfort after loss will come. However, it will not come without a voice calling for a new path in the wilderness. And that voice will ultimately lead to those working diligently to build a road to a better world, one in which the path of justice and righteousness is clear to walk down.

Isaiah’s prophecy reminds us that the work of forging a path is always available to us—even when it is not
convenient or when it doesn’t seem like the tools for building that road are available to us. And yet, our Tradition tells us that we must persist if we are to see a better world. These words urge us to ask ourselves the question: What do we, as a community, do to confront injustice?

This season at Shaarei Tikvah, we are expanding our social action work to include advocacy on behalf of
undocumented immigrants in America. By forging a new path for people who want to build a home here in
America, often escaping from dangerous places in search of a safer place to raise a family, we are supporting their right to lead a better life. By advocating for the vulnerable, we are helping others find a new path after loss with the hope that comfort will soon arrive.

During these months, let us listen to voices of our ancestors (as well as philosophers and American idol winners) and remember that witnessing pain and sadness is important for the purpose of strengthening our resolve to
respond with action and build a better world.

B’tikvah, with hope,

Rabbi Baldachin

 

 

 

Justice, Justice: New Initiative Launched

 

On May 17th, we had an extraordinary gathering to discuss our next campaign. This would not be a political campaign, but rather, a social justice campaign, aimed at coalescing around an issue in society that calls for a response.

Shaarei Tikvah already has a rich history of social action through our food donation programs and other activities. We are now expanding to include social justice issues with the goal of solving systemic problems at the root of the issue. As a community we are greater than the sum of our parts, and through a unified voice we can make an impact on an issue of moral conscience if we are organized and educated on the issue itself.

Since we are a community that cares, choosing one area of injustice was not an easy task. However, a thoughtful process helped us to move forward. Ultimately, our group settled on immigrant rights. The stories that were shared were powerful. A number of congregants shared that their own family’s story of emigration to the US reminded them of their responsibility to support the plight of immigrants in the country today. Ultimately, as one volunteer stated, we are fortunate to have been born into these circumstances. Chance made it possible for us to live in this country in the 21st century. We could have easily been born before WWII or today in a country whose citizens are being persecuted. Therefore, we have a responsibility to acknowledge our fortune by supporting others who are not so fortunate.

As a community, we will educate ourselves and find ways to advocate and support the fair treatment of human beings living in our communities. For example, recently, a senior at Ossining High School, Diego Puma, was arrested on the day of his high school prom by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, accused of being connected to gangs in Ecuador. Community activists are advocating a stay of removal and have support of local and federal politicians. The Ecuadorian government has confirmed that Diego has never had a criminal record nor any affiliation with any gangs in Ecuador.

This is an example of the kind of work that we may be involved in going forward. If you are interested in receiving information on ways to advocate for undocumented immigrants’ rights, please email Robin in our office at robin@shaareitikvah.org . If you have a particular passion for immigrant rights and want to get more involved with our committee, please email Rabbi Adam at rabbi@shaareitikvah.org .

 

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Dayeinu For Today

More than most other Jewish experiences during the calendar year, we love to celebrate Passover. A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center found that American Jews frequent a Seder in surprisingly high numbers. While only 23% of U.S. Jews said they attend religious services at least monthly, 70% said they participated in a Seder last year. That includes 42% of Jews of no religion (those who consider themselves Jewish in some way, were raised Jewish or had a Jewish parent, but say they are atheist or agnostic or have no particular religion.)

So, what is it about Passover that speaks to American Jews? I imagine that in large part … Read more

Esther’s Use of Prayer and its Impact on Ours: Finding the Right Words in a Broken World

I have always been amazed by Esther’s bravery. As we will read in the Megilla on Purim, Queen Esther approaches King Achashverosh in order to petition him to spare the Jews from the evil plot of Haman. Esther acknowledges that she is putting her life at risk in order to ask to see the king. The law is harsh—whoever enters into the inner court to see the king without being invited shall be put to death. If Achashverosh offers Esther his golden scepter, however, she will be spared and can plea for the fate of the Jewish people. In preparation for this meeting, Esther calls a three day fast for all the Jews in Shushan in order to pray for the continued existence of the Jewish people.… Read more

The Fierce Urgency of Now: Wading in the Waters of Activism

Sermon at the The Ministers’ Fellowship Council of White Plains and Vicinity along with the White Plains Religious Leaders
3rd Annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Joint Worship Service
Calvary Baptist Church of White Plains, 188 Orawaupum Street, White Plains, NY, 7pm, 1/15/17

I first want to thank Reverend Trollinger and Pastor Dalton for giving me the opportunity to address this honored assembly this evening. Each year, as I remember Dr. King’s Legacy by joining with others for worship, rededication to our shared values, and volunteering to help those in need, I am recharged for the year ahead.
This year however seems more challenging. Regardless of your political affiliation, it is a dark time because we as a country are particularly divided today.… Read more

Thoughts after the Election

Dear Shaarei Tikvah family,

Today has been a day of mixed emotions. Some are experiencing jubilation, while others are filled with anxiety, confusion, and deep sadness. It has been an incredibly trying time for our nation. The results from the election have ended an incredibly tense and at times nauseating campaign season, filled with vitriol and an overwhelming sense that America has been ripped apart with two distinct and conflicting narratives. The shock of the results leaves many with a sense of hopelessness, searching for meaning in a country that may now seem different, even unrecognizable.

Donald Trump’s victory raises an awareness of just how many people want radical change for our country, and a different path forward. We don’t know exactly what that path will be, and right now it seems obscure. … Read more