Jaffa/Tel Aviv

Scenic view from the train

Sunset from my hotel room

Last evening the CCAR (my rabbis’ organization) Leadership trip began. I said good-bye to Bili and Mats (whom I will see again in a week) and took a beautiful scenic train ride from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, which I’d never done before. Our group gathered in the lobby of the Royal Beach Hotel in Tel Aviv at 6:30 PM, and I met the other eight colleagues on this trip, only two of whom I had not known before. Additionally, we are joined by our colleague Rabbi Hara Person who works for the CCAR.

Our tour guide is Uri Feinberg, the son of Rabbi Shaul Feinberg who had been the dean of the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College when I began in 1988. I will have to take Uri aside one of these days to let him know the debt of gratitude I owe his father for his care and concern when my mother took ill, then died, during that first year of rabbinical school. Shaul made all of the arrangements to get me and my brother (who was on kibbutz at the time) home to see her before she died, and it was only because of the Pan Am tragedy over Lockerbie, Scotland that there was even a flight to be had over Christmas to get us there in time. (Pan Am had availability, though no other airline did.)

This morning my roommate Michelle (a rabbi in California) and I took an early morning walk along the beach before going to the amazing Israeli breakfast buffet at the hotel. And from there we were gone from 8:30- 6:30 PM, touring and walking and learning and eating.

First off, a walking tour of Jaffa, starting at the Jaffa port which the Bible story of Jonah tells us is where Jonah embarked on his escape from God’s call. But for modern Israeli history, it is also where the first immigrants to Israel arrived in the late 19th century.

Jaffa port

Our tour of Jaffa included graffiti and an introduction to a couple of Arab-Israeli artistic collaborations, Na Laga’at and the Jaffa Theatre. Na Laga’at is also a theatre company of blind/vision-impaired and deaf, hearing-impaired performers, but their center also contains the Black-Out Restaurant which is set in total darkness, in which the waiters are all blind or visually impaired.

You tell me: am I devil or angel?

We then met with members of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism’s pre-Army mechinah (academy), a 10-month immersion into Israeli and Reform Jewish culture through study, volunteering, touring, and preparation for the Army, physically, emotionally, and morally. A key component of the program is when the young people are dropped off somewhere with no food or money in order to learn to trust both strangers and themselves for two nights — the first night asking to be housed by a stranger, and the second night living out on the streets!

Shimko, Nimrod and Tom tell us about the IMPJ mechinah program

We then visited Independence Hall where David Ben Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel on May 14, 1948.

The NY Times proclaims the new state of Israel AND the immediate bombing that resulted

We also visited the Shalom Center where we got a tour of the colorful mosaics by Nahum Gutman which depict the history of Tel Aviv.

Part of the mosaic

Our lunch consisted of an ethnic tasting tour, a walk through Tel Aviv’s famous Levinsky Market. We “visited” Greece (for olives, cabbage rolls, beans, salmon and other salads), Turkey (for bourekas), Libya (for a nut/quinoa/lentil salad), Georgia (for a walnut and grape energy bar concoction), and Iraq (for halvah).

The Georgian spices

The Greek olive and salad bar

The Turkish bourekas

The Iraqi halvah

The Iraqi halvah

After this feast, we went to the State of Mind Innovation Center, sponsored by Taglit/Birthright, a museum dedicated to Israel as a start-up nation, with exhibits about the technologies that Israelis have created in the fields of science, medicine, agriculture, transportion (we all use the Israeli Waze app, right?), and safety/security (did you know you can download an Israeli app called the Salient Eye that will do home security from your phone?) This was a feel-good place, indeed, (and not only because my friend Yosef Abramowitz’s company Energiya Global was featured). The medical advances included things like Orcam, Pillcam, Rewalk, and SoftWheel. And in the science field, I was amazed by a company called WaterGen whose machines can create water out of air (if there is at least 20% humidity). They are each worth a Google search!

At the Innovation Center

Our visit continued with a presentation by an entrepreneur who started a website buyforgood.biz which focuses on social impact products, and then we concluded with a fascinating conversation with journalist Nathan Jeffay about the (not very encouraging) state of Jewish and Israeli news coverage around the world.

Let’s call it a day!

My Israeli Birthday, My Israeli Family

Mats sharing the birthday cake that Bili’s mother made (Mats’ birthday was Wednesday) with me (whose birthday was today)

With Bili’s parents Yafa and Shmuel

With Oded, Bili’s brother

It had been five years since I’d been in Israel and last seen Bili’s parents. They first met me as a 20 year old college student, and welcomed me into their home Shabbat after Shabbat, helped me hone my Hebrew (Yafa speaks no English, and Shmuel speaks some), taught me to love the forest behind their home and the beauty of the land of Israel. Seeing them last night for Shabbat dinner was like coming home — a place of total acceptance (and amazing food). Yes, we were all a bit older, and yes, we had our heated conversations about Reform Judaism and Donald Trump (whom Bili’s father and brother consider “good for Israel”), but I knew that I was heard and valued. Before I left, Yafa told me that I am her American daughter, which made me cry.

This morning Bili wouldn’t let me into the kitchen as she whipped up an amazing Israeli birthday breakfast of borekas, salad, fresh orange juice, bitter orange marmalade, a gazillion sides, plus a strawberry cake. Only the pomegranate and the salad are on my Weight Watchers “zero point” list, but there are no points to count on birthdays anyway, right?

With Bili and her friend Tali at breakfast

Only one candle?

We (Bili, Mats, their friend — and my new friend —Tali, their dog Hunter, and me) then took a road trip in search of wildflowers, Bili’s weekend passion. She gets news alerts from her botanical club of where things are blooming when, and she goes running, taking loads of photos that she posts each week on Facebook. We went to both the Mata Forest and to the Adulam-France National Park where we saw a lot of red anemones, cyclamen, and, of course, the almond trees in blossom. We are actually in a winter heat wave in Israel so Bili is a bit afraid of what this will mean for the wildflower blooming “schedule,” but this is always the best month in which to see spring “spring” in the holy land.

Me and my anemone

Our picnic lunch

The almond tree in blossom

A glorious day concluded with another Bili feast and binge watching of a British series “Unforgotten,” a phone call with my sister, email and Facebook wishes from friends near and far, and a true sense of feeling younger, not older.

So grateful for this 48-year friendship with Bili. Penpals since age 10 and so many great memories from many (though never enough) different trips to Israel.

Thanks, Bili and Mats, for making today another wonderful memory for the archives of my blessed life.

Shavua tov.


All Roads Lead to Jerusalem

I sort of knew it would happen, expected it to happen. But even so, it felt like surprise, not inevitability, to run into people I knew in Jerusalem.

Yesterday it was Rabbi Rich Kirschen while I was wandering around the beautiful campus of Hebrew Union College, where I’d spent my first year of rabbinical school. We had known each other during rabbinical school in New York but mostly from when we’d both lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn. He works for NFTY, the Reform youth movement, in Israel.

With Rich Kirschen at HUC in Jerusalem

Part of the breathtaking architecture at Hebrew Union College campus

Today it was “Captain Sunshine” solar energy pioneer Yosef Abramowitz, married to my friend and classmate Rabbi Susan Silverman. Knowing I wouldn’t get to see Susan this visit since she is in the US, Yosef and I had made tentative plans to see each other at synagogue services tonight, which ultimately wasn’t going to work for me, since I will be visiting my friend Bili’s parents outside the city for Shabbat. So, voila, the magic of Jerusalem abra-kadabra’ed a serendipitous meeting while buying fruit and vegetables before Shabbat.

With Yosef Abramowitz in Baka

Susan and Yossi are, indeed, a power couple, both regularly featured in world and Israeli news: Susan for her activism on behalf of Women of the Wall and most recently on behalf of Miklat Yisrael, a organization opposing the deportation of the African refugees residing in Israel and finding homes in which to hide them. There is a growing movement in support of these African refugees, including Holocaust survivors who “remember when,” human rights activists, and now even some  ElAl pilots who are refusing to pilot the planes that would return these refugees to Africa. Susan has been called a “Zioness Lioness” for this human rights work. She was recently in the US on a different tour to promote her new book, Casting Lots:Creating a Family in a Beautiful, Broken World, about adoption and raising a transracial family (Susan and Yosef have 5 children; their two sons were adopted from Ethiopia). For his part Yosef was co-nominated 3 times for the Nobel Peace Prize, brought solar energy to Israel, and now is expanding accesss to renewable energy in Africa. A film is currently being made about his work (for which crowdsource funding would be welcomed.)

But, most essential to my Jerusalem experience is my time spent with Bili, the friend I’ve had since I was 10 years old and she was my penpal practicing her English on me. Bili has also been in — and on — the Israeli news of late, saving the Israeli TV archives (which she directs) from short-sighted governmental near-destruction. Bili vs. Bibi! (Bili, it’s worth my spelling your name my old way, rather than your newer way — Billy — just for that play on words!)

Bili and her husband Mats, eating his birthday cake! Happy Birthday, Mats!

Yesterday I had the great honor of travelling to the Jewish Kessem school in Neve Ilan and to the Arab school in Abu Ghosh to participate in classes of fifth graders as part of my friend Simon Lichman’s  program The Centre for Creativity in Education and Cultural Heritage. The CCECH is a nonprofit that brings Arab and Jewish school kids together around folklore programs. When I emailed Simon when I was coming to Israel, he wrote, “How wonderful! Would you like to come to the Abu Ghosh and Kessem schools on Thursday morning? I’m preparing them for a shul visit in 2-1/2 weeks so you’d be the perfect companion.”

In the Jewish School, we spoke about Jewish ritual objects which the kids had brought from home, and in the Arab school, the kids had prepared presentations about Jewish culture, such as Jewish garb, Jewish food, etc. In both schools I got to practice my Hebrew, and they all got to meet a woman rabbi. A win-win for all. Plus I then got to eat the famous Abu Ghosh hummus over lunch with Simon. We also visited the wild and crazy Elvis Diner outside of Neve Ilan, owned and run by a big Elvis fan. Simon also took me for a tour of two Arab villages, Ein Nakuba and Ein Rafa (where everyone seemed to know him) and explained the cultural differences (one is more traditional, in which the daughters marry early and don’t get educated) and history of each.

If you want to read more about the real impact of CCECH’s work, this article about what Simon accomplished in these two villages (and why they all know him) will warm your heart and perhaps spur you to make a donation to support his educational co-existence work.

The class of 5th graders in Abu Ghosh; Simon standing in the back.

Elvis memorabilia at the Elvis Diner

More to come; I’ll be in Israel for almost a month. Shabbat shalom!

Montreal, Leonard Cohen, and Anniversary #14

When Chaim and I decided to celebrate our 14th wedding anniversary in Montreal, a place we could easily take a train to (albeit a LONG train-ride and a troubling one — FOURTEEN U.S. border guards came on-board to grill us before we entered Canada, only to go through it again on the Canadian side), we did not realize that we would be here to witness an amazing exhibit dedicated to Leonard Cohen on his first yahrzeit at the Museum of Contemporary Art. For those of you who are Leonard Cohen fans, the exhibit lasts until April. It is a must-see (honoring Cohen as a painter, songwriter, musician, writer — he did not consider himself a poet — and humanitarian); I already want to come back.

Leonard Cohen exhibit at Museum of Contemporary Art, entitled “There is a Crack in Everything”

Yesterday we walked 12 miles all over the city, taking in street art and art installations,

The tree is a shadow, not part of the mural itself (Blvd. St. Laurent).

Chaim found a friend (on Sherbrooke).

Here I am with my zaftig friend (on Sherbrooke).

The little one carrying a giant (on Rue Jeanne-Mance.)

visiting an eclectic bookstore, eyeing the Belzer Hasidim who live in “our” neighborhood of Mile End,  tasting (1) the borscht at the new Jewish museum, (2) the famous Montreal bagels at St. Viateur bagels,

The bagel maven at St. Viateur bagelry!

and (3) great vegan food at two other restaurants (all while staying within my allotted Weight Watcher points!), and paying homage to Leonard Cohen’s home, where flowers were left to honor his yahrzeit, in addition to a sign requesting that no burning candles be left.

Front door at Leonard Cohen’s Montreal home

Today we took a 4-hour bus tour for a fuller overview of the city and then went to the contemporary art museum before going out for our anniversary dinner at an elegant vegan restaurant.

I had first been to Montreal when I was 16 on a teen trip to see the 1976 Olympics. Here is a photo of the Olympic Stadium, which I remember from then, 40+ years ago.

Olympic Stadium from 1976 summer Olympics, later used for now-defunct baseball team.

I next visited Montreal within the year after I was ordained, 1994 or 1995. I had gone on a women’s Outward Bound canoe trip as part of my ordination rites (I felt that I wanted to add a physical component to the spiritual, intellectual and emotional challenges that my rabbinical school training had offered), and one of the women from that trip lived in Montreal at the time, so I had come to visit her with another friend from that adventure. What I remember most was our trekking around on Mont Royal. Here is today’s view from the top.

View from top of Mt. Royal. The Olympic Stadium can be seen on the horizon just to the right of center.

We are looking forward to Shabbat at the Reconstructionist synagogue here, Dorshei Emet.

I hope I return to Montreal before another 20 years goes by. It’s a great city!

Inside Passages, Alaska

We had to get to our remote island by skiff from Petersburg

This was our lodge.

Our glacier view

On the water, glacier beyond

For many years my friend and colleague Rabbi Rachel Cowan has led a near-annual meditation and sea-kayaking trip to Alaska with her friend Kurt Hoelting of Inside Passages. As much as the trip has called to me, I kept telling her “next year” and would put off committing. However, after November’s presidential election, I knew this was the year. I feared that soon there would be no pristine wilderness left to meditate on or kayak in, and I wanted to honor Mother Earth in this particular way. So I signed on. An additional bonus was that this year’s trip was billed for Wise Aging facilitators, so I expected some deep learning with mature participants that would not only benefit me as I try to age with wisdom and compassion, but also the students in my Wise Aging groups. (And Rachel herself is the co-author of the book and curriculum we use in this program.) Sadly, however, Rachel could not ultimately join us for this trip due to a serious illness, and Rabbi Sheila Weinberg stepped in to co-lead with Kurt. (We spoke about and prayed for you every day, Rachel.)

The trip far exceeded my wildest expectations. The meditations and silent practice periods were profound, the group process and intimacy was powerful, the leaders (which also included Rey, our remarkable kayaking instructor, and Lena who was so much more than our cook) were soulful teachers extraordinaire, the disengagement from news and email immensely liberating, the kayaking challenging and fun, and the landscapes exquisitely beautiful.

As if that were not enough, we also had Qigung and yoga practice every day. (I fell in love with Qigung and want to find a teacher so I might deepen my practice of it.) I also found that out of the deep silence, my creativity flourished: I channeled an Esa Einai chant from Psalm 121 and wrote several poems. It was truly a week of “inner passages” for all of us (we were 10 participants and 4 staff members).

Despite the fact that I have been on many contemplative retreats over the last 18 years+, this is the one that has “changed my life.” I don’t mean that hyperbolically, either. Perhaps it was the intimacy and intensity or the maturity of the group; perhaps it was the particular setting and the addition of the kayaking component; perhaps it was how evocative the Qigung was for me; or perhaps it was how environmentalism, nature, social justice, meditation, silence, kayaking, eagle sightings, the full moon and exquisite weather, embodied practice, deep sharing, compassionate and wise leadership, being totally unplugged and off-the-grid (no electricity, cell or Internet) in such a remote location, prayer, and writing were all parts of a seamless larger whole…it may not really matter. I just feel like something significant has shifted for me.

I can’t wait to show you some Qigung, to share my new chant, and to show you my flying eagle photos!

Our 6:30 AM Qigung practice

Our guides and teachers, Sheila, Rey, Kurt, Lena

The group (minus me and Kurt)

Me with Rey

My newest collection of heart rocks

The full moon of Av (Tu B’Av) rising and reflecting

Yes, wolves really DO howl at the full moon. (Some of us heard them!)

I’m in the bow, skirted, vested up and ready to paddle.

Bonaparte gulls fly very close to the water in early evening

Six deer appeared on the beach early AM on our last day

Pink Out: Handmaids, My Senator, and Me

I’ve been a feminist since at least junior high, when the injustice of being born female in my family became apparent. I had been independently studying Hebrew through a correspondence course and had a great interest in my Judaism but was denied a bat mitzvah. Granted, we were not members of a synagogue, but 5 years later, when it was time for my brother “to come of age,” my parents clamored to affiliate, to get him the proper education, and to insure him the ritual of a bar mitzvah. More painful was that I was a straight-A student with ambitions to go to college, having been raised in an upper-middle class community where that was de rigeur for both boys and girls. However, my parents, concerned about money, wanted to send me to secretarial school for my MRS degree and save their money to send my brother to college since he would presumably “have to support a family.” Fortunately, I won that battle.

My work over the years for reproductive justice has been my way of helping to give women choices other than the MRS and MOM degrees.

It is therefore in my DNA to root for strong women characters as I did while watching Wonder Woman on the screen or Nora on the stage in a wonderful new play called Doll’s House, Part 2, a midrash on Ibsen’s original, in which Nora returns home 15 years after first leaving to demand further justice from her husband. Two weeks ago I had the privilege to hear the wonderful novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie deliver the commencement speech at Williams College. Her little essay “We Should All Be Feminists” (offered here as a TED talk) reminds us that a feminist is “a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.”

So I have been appalled, disgusted, outraged, pained, and rendered near speechless by the rhetoric coming out of Washington about healthcare and the likely defunding of Planned Parenthood. That iconic photograph of an all-man Senatorial committee arbitrating women’s reproductive choices and women’s autonomous healthcare decision-making should enrage us all. If women are forced (out of economic or political necessity) into carrying pregnancies to term that they may not want, then they are decidedly not — nor can they be — equal socially, politically, or economically.

Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale was considered a dystopian fantasy when it was published in 1985. Now it appears downright prescient — about a totalitarian theocracy that has overthrown the U.S. government, subjugating women and women’s reproduction. Last Tuesday I went to Albany, my state capital, to lobby on behalf of the Reproductive Health Act. (Unfortunately, NYS has an antiquated abortion law that, should Roe v. Wade fall, would criminalize abortion and leave New Yorkers in a very precarious position.) This is the fourth time I have lobbied in Albany on this bill since January, but this time, I was supposed to go dressed as a handmaid! This is an action that is taking place all over the country on behalf of women’s reproductive health law, as depicted in this chilling clip from Kansas City, MO. Ultimately, we did not dress as handmaids, but in hospital gowns, sending the message that abortion is healthcare, not a crime. Instead, the actions as handmaids will take place tomorrow, Tuesday, and Wednesday in Albany, during the last three days of the legislative session. If you want to go, sign up here. It should be truly amazing and powerful.

Abortion is healthcare–not a crime

Dressed in hospital gown

Action outside in 94 degree weather in Albany

Action outside the Senate chamber

While in Albany on Tuesday, I finally had the opportunity to sit down with my state senator to talk about this bill, a meeting I’d been requesting since January. Though he himself is pro-choice, the mess that is Albany politics means that the requisite votes aren’t there yet to pass this bill. Senator Klein helped me discern next steps in the fight, which means BEING SURE TO VOTE MORE PRO-CHOICE DEMOCRATS TO THE NEW YORK STATE SENATE, and VOTING OUT THE DEMOCRATS WHO ARE NOT PRO-CHOICE. (New Yorkers who care about this, let me know, so I can keep you apprised of the actions we need to take.) I brought him a letter signed by about 20 other clergy members in my district (including one Orthodox rabbi, I’m happy to report) which read in part:

We, the undersigned, are all members of the clergy who live and/or work in your district. Our experiences as faith leaders and pastoral counselors demonstrate that a woman, in consultation with her family, faith, and doctor, should be empowered to make an informed decision about her health care. Our respective faith teachings (and many of our nationally endorsed denominational statements) call for access to sex education, contraception, and safe and legal abortion care. We do not believe that religious leaders and politicians who are opposed to safe and legal abortion should impose their religious beliefs on people who follow other faith teachings.

I also gave him a copy of the new book Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice by Dr. Willie Parker to share with his anti-choice colleagues. Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision of justice, Dr. Parker (an African-American OB-GYN, formerly anti-choice, and now the last abortion provider in Mississippi), has come to understand that providing abortions is an expression of Christian compassion and writes about the moral fallacies of the anti-choice movement. I also dropped a copy of the book off at the office of a Republican senator who I was told would potentially vote for the bill should it come to the floor. I’m hoping it might sway her in the affirmative, though it is truly unlikely that the Republican Senate leader, John Flanagan, will bring the bill to the floor before the legislative session ends in Albany this Wednesday. Nonetheless, if you are a New Yorker, Senator Flanagan should hear from you that you want him to bring this bill to the floor! Go to this website of Rally and Rise, then click “Join our Call Campaign,” for his phone number and talking points.

You should also be aware of the actions of your local Planned Parenthood (Dr. Parker will be the guest speaker at the October gala for the Hudson-Peconic PP region which includes Westchester), the national Planned Parenthood action team the NYCLU, and the National Institute for Reproductive Health (which is the name of the NARAL affiliate in NYS). They are all working hard (and collaborating) on helping to pass the Reproductive Health Act in New York State. I’ve additionally had the good fortune to learn of Choice Matters, The Westchester Coalition for Legal Abortion, and if you are in Westchester, bring Catherine and/or someone from the Hudson-Peconic PP to speak to your synagogue or women’s group! Folks from each of the afore-mentioned organizations were instrumental in helping me plan for my meeting with my senator, for which I am grateful.

On Wednesday, I am bringing my 15-year-old niece for a tour of the White Plains Planned Parenthood Clinic where she will help me decide how to direct my donation in her honor, per my November blog post Lamentation for America.

In the meantime, on the national front, the vote to repeal the ACA and to defund Planned Parenthood will likely come down on Wednesday. It is a day to “Pink Out” to make your voice heard loud and clear. Please follow the link and do one or more of the following actions on Wednesday:

  1. go to a Pink Out event in support of Planned Parenthood
  2. flood social media with messages about standing with Planned Parenthood
  3. pink out your house lights with pink tissue paper, holiday lights, etc.
  4. call your senators AGAIN and AGAIN
  5. tag your senators on social media (all the info is available at the Pink Out link above)

And if you are a New Yorker, call Senator Flanagan before Wednesday, as well!

Your daughters, granddaughters, nieces — as well as your sons, grandsons and nephews, and all other children in your life — will thank you.

My family lore is that my grandmother personally thanked Margaret Sanger in the 1920’s — almost 100 years ago — for her ability to access birth control, aware that had she had to bear more than her four children, she could not have afforded to feed them all. Now in 2017, we are close to denying millions of women access to affordable contraceptive and reproductive health care. This is absolutely unacceptable. ACT!

The Urgency of Now

One of the crown jewels of the Reform Jewish movement is the Religious Action Center (“the RAC,” http://www.rac.org). Based in Washington, DC, the RAC serves to mobilize Reform congregations and congregants on legislative and social justice actions. Additionally, it trains teens, college students, and adults on how to be active citizens in the public sphere.

I have had many wonderful experiences with the RAC over the past 20+ years, including a dinner in the late-90’s at which then-President Bill Clinton roasted Rabbi David Saperstein, who then headed the organization. (Rabbi Saperstein went on to be appointed by President Obama to be United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, a position that President Trump has since eliminated.)

The RAC’s Consultation on Conscience takes place every two years, and though I haven’t attended in years, it was clear to me that with the threats post-election to many of the moral values we as Jews hold dear and to democracy itself that this president represents, this was the year to go! And indeed, I clearly wasn’t the only person to feel that way: registration was double what it has ever been in the past. Better yet, unlike the wonderfully energizing Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights conference I attended in February at which I got to share and strategize and protest with my rabbinic colleagues, I could bring Chaim along to this one, appropriately entitled “The Urgency of Now.”

Highlights included a plenary on today’s struggle for civil and human rights, featuring Vanita Gupta who served as chief civil rights prosecutor in the Department of Justice under President Obama; a conversation on race, rights and justice featuring NAACP president Cornell Brooks, Piper Kerman (activist and author of “Orange is the New Black”), and Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice; two enlightening presentations about civil rights issues in Israel today from Anat Hoffman, director of IRAC (the Israel Religious Action Center), the RAC’s sister agency in Israel; and a plenary today with members of the 115th Congress, including Senator Sherrod Brown, Congressman Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts (what a strong moral voice!), Congressman Jerry Nadler of NY (and our former beloved Congressman and fellow congregant at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun when we lived in Manhattan), Congressman Jamie Raskin of Maryland, and newcomer Congresswoman Jacky Rosen of Nevada who brought the house down with her humor about how having been president of her synagogue had prepared her for being in Congress.

Rep. Joe Kennedy III of MA

Panel (left to right) of Michael Waldman, Piper Kerman and Cornell Brooks being interviewed by Rabbi Sharon Mars from Columbus, OH

Though Chaim and I did not participate in the lobbying that followed on Capitol Hill, many participants then went to lobby their elected representatives on issues of immigration and criminal justice reform. All of these plenaries were supplemented by many other workshops on a large variety of issues and topics, from reproductive rights and employment rights issues affecting women to bringing a racial justice campaign to your congregation, to transgender rights, to refugee issues, to climate change issues, and on and on, all with the goal of engaging congregations in morally-based, very Jewish social action work.

Our time in DC was preceded by a very special Shabbat visit in Charlottesville, VA with my dear friend Tom. I also loved bringing Chaim to see Monticello on Friday, which I had just visited for the first time in September when I went to Charlottesville to install Tom as senior rabbi. What I found so interesting about visiting Jefferson’s tomb, which is also on the property, is that the gravestone (per Jefferson’s own instructions) does not mention any of his political achievements (U.S. President, Vice-President, Minister to France, Secretary of State, or Governor of Virginia), but only what he wanted most to be remembered for. It reads “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.”

Who wouldn’t like to see that kind of humility in a president?

Reconstructed slave home at Monticello. The “slave tour” was a scathing indictment of Jefferson’s many hypocrisies in his personal life and in his writings about “all men are created equal.”

Chaim and Jefferson

Jefferson’s gravestone

Monticello: Check it against the picture on your nickel!

Hatred, and Lies, and Scams — Oh, my!

Today was the first of many “Resist Trump Tuesdays” to come, organized by MoveOn, Working Families, and People’s Action. At least two hundred actions took place all across the US today, with over 10,000 people showing up at their senators’ offices, whether Democrat or Republican, to “Stop the Swamp Cabinet.” Here in New York City, hundreds gathered in front of the offices of Senators Schumer and Gillibrand on Third Avenue IN THE POURING RAIN. We chanted all manner of energizing battle cries like “We’ll remember in November,” “Save our schools” (a direct reference to the appalling possibility of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education), and “Drain the swamp.” Doing actions like this are straight out of the Tea Party’s playbook. The Tea Party succeeded because of squeaky wheel disruptions whenever and wherever their elected representatives happened to be.

Next Tuesday we meet at 6 PM at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn to protest outside of Senator Schumer’s apartment building. A few weeks ago Schumer appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show and I was so impressed, I wrote him a letter the day after that appearance, as follows. Perhaps I put too much hope in him, but as Martin Luther King said, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope”:

Dear Senator Schumer,

I was thrilled to see you last night on the Rachel Maddow Show with such a fighting spirit. I have worried that you might compromise on too many of our core Democratic values as we go into a new Congressional term with a new and “unpresidented” Commander-in-Chief. But Rachel’s introduction of you, and then your own words, helped me understand the “bulldog” side of you. What a relief!

As you made clear last night, so many of us are fearful, disgusted, and ready to organize. We just need leadership, like yours, to help us figure out what needs doing and how to keep obstructionist Republican feet to the fire.

I am sure you are familiar with the Book of Esther, and the line that I hope you will remember is Esther 4:14 when Mordecai says to Esther:

“If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance… will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your position for such a time as this?”

You indicated a sense of excitement about the fights to come, and perhaps you have come to your current position for just such a crisis as this. Perhaps you are a contemporary Esther, along with our other outspoken Democratic Senators and Congresspeople. If the Democrats do not write that line in the sand with the Republicans of what is inviolable and not negotiable, I do believe it is possible that we will all “perish” — if not physically, then surely spiritually. We need hope and we need purpose.

I wish you strength, courage, and resolve in the new year ahead, and please know that so many of us New Yorkers and Americans around the country are counting on you…

If our politicians won’t do it, WE need to nonetheless stand for truth, for right, for the moral high ground as this country tilts ever more dangerously toward totalitarianism. We MUST speak up. We must ALL be Esther, placed in this time, in this place, for this tremendous task before us — to save the soul of America.

I am reminded of the four freedoms for which I walked and rallied in Pittsfield MA on January 7: Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship. This is what we stand for, what we fight for.

An easy action: Today I bought 60 postcards that I plan to give out at work tomorrow for others to write to Senators Schumer and Gillibrand so that we might express our disgust, our outrage, our fear. Go out, buy postcards, give them to your friends, make it as easy as possible for others to engage in the democratic process.

One important thing I’ve learned over the last couple of years (thanks to AJWS for sending me to the Paul Wellstone organizing training two years ago) is that signing petitions is at the bottom of the totem pole in terms of its effect in swaying opinions of our elected officials — phone calls, snail-mail letters, and actual face-to-face meetings count far more heavily in their gauge of constituent sentiment.

The books for this absurdly dystopian age are George Orwell’s 1984, Phillip Roth’s The Plot Against America, and Eugene Ionesco’s The Rhinoceros. And for a touch of terrifying reality: the must-read Dark Money by Jane Mayer, whose subtitle is “The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.” Anyone want to join me for a book group, maybe virtually, to read and discuss timely and relevant books for our time? 


Hundreds rallied in the rain outside NYC offices of Senators Schumer and Gillibrand

Hundreds rallied in the rain outside NYC offices of Senators Schumer and Gillibrand

Lots of rain, but we stood out there regardless

Lots of rain, but we stood out there regardless

Stop DeVos as Secretary of Education

Stop DeVos as Secretary of Education

Hatred, Lies, and Scams

Hatred, Lies, and Scams

No, No, No, No, No!

No to Tillerson, No to Sessions, No to Price, No to Carson, No to Perry, No to Pruitt, No to DeVos!



What Democracy Looks Like

It is the day after the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States. But we are not united. So in all 50 states (and all around the world, as well), larger than expected crowds took to the streets, raised their voices, and stood up for women’s rights and the rights of all of those who will undoubtedly be under siege with this new administration, including protestors.

I registered to walk with the American Jewish World Service (ajws.org) with whom I had travelled to Guatemala as a rabbinic global justice fellow 1-1/2 years ago. AJWS is a tremendous advocate for women’s rights internationally.

"Act justly, walk humbly" on my hat, and wearing my ACLU t-shirt, "Dissent is patriotic."

“Act justly, walk humbly” on my hat, and wearing my ACLU t-shirt, “Dissent is patriotic”

Judy Stern, her friend Joanne, and me with AJWS sign

Judy Stern, her friend Joanne, and me with AJWS sign, “Pursuing justice for women and girls worldwide.”

As we walked, the chants would come in waves, energize us for a time before fading out, replaced then by friendly chit-chat amongst the walkers who were thrust together in tight space. The crowd in NYC was 4x expectations (400,000 rather than the expected 100,000!), and the going was slow, inch by inch. And then another chant would rise, and we’d join in, and sing. Singing as protest is a time-honored and holy tradition.

My favorite chant was the call “Show me what democracy looks like!” to which the crowd would reply, “THIS is what democracy looks like!”

There was also the call “Whose body, whose choice?” with the reply, “My body, my choice!”

And “Love, not hate — that’s what makes America great!”

Along with great chants were creative and meaningful posters. Here are some of my favorite signs and scenes.

I'm with her (version 1)

I’m with her (version 1)

I'm with her (version 2)

I’m with her (version 2)

This march is not rigged!

This march is not rigged!

They tried to bury us. They did not know we were seeds.

They tried to bury us. They did not know we were seeds.

Women are the wall, and Trump will pay.

Women are the wall, and Trump will pay.

Thanks, Trump. You turned me into an activist.

Thanks, Trump. You turned me into an activist.

Respect existence or expect resistance.

Respect existence or expect resistance.

Make America kind again.

Make America kind again.

Make empathy great again.

Make empathy great again.

Make America think again.

Make America think again.

"We won't go back" and "Vintage fashion, not vintage policies"

“We won’t go back” and “Vintage fashion, not vintage policies”

Don't make me use this.

Don’t make me use this.

If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.

If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.

Super-callous, fascist, racist, extra braggadocious

Super-callous, fascist, racist, extra braggadocious

I don't think so.

I don’t think so.

Speechless not voiceless

Speechless not voiceless

Appalled at Rushmore

Appalled at Rushmore

Ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have. (James Baldwin)

Ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have. (James Baldwin)


Along the way, I ran into my friend and teacher, Alicia Ostriker, poet extraordinaire.


Here is one scene of the great crowd on 42nd St.


The crowds, as I said, were HUGE, and rolled on and on for hours, peacefully, and in good spirit. It took me 6 hours to walk a total of what I estimate to be 3-1/2 miles (about 35 city blocks). That’s terrible mileage! It was dark by the time I finished, and people left their signs behind along 55th Street, which was a great photo opportunity, too.

Abandoned posters

Abandoned posters

But those slogans and sentiments must not be left behind on 55th Street. We must carry them in our hearts, continue to be inspired by them, and ACT on them. This feel-good day is a launching pad for further action.

I’ll look forward to working with you in the days ahead.

Remembering MLK, Jr. and His Optimism

FDR's grandson at 4 Freedoms rally

FDR’s grandson at 4 Freedoms rally

4Freedoms March

4 Freedoms March

The last week and a half has been filled with action, art, learning, and prayer in response to the impending Hrumph presidency and the social ills it will undoubtedly exacerbate.

On a frigid cold Shabbat afternoon on January 7, I attended the Four Freedoms March and rally in Pittsfield, MA, ending in speeches (including one particularly inspiring one by FDR’s grandson!) about FDR’s commitment to freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom of speech, and freedom of worship, and how we must continue to guard those freedoms vigilantly as they come under threat.

The next day, Chaim and I visited the massive Nick Cave exhibit at Mass MOCA. Part of it is a response to the collision of gun violence and racism.

Nick Cave exhibit on racism and gun violence. See the gun?

Nick Cave exhibit on racism and gun violence. See the gun?

Two days later I was in Albany for a day of action with Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and scores of other progressive organizations to speak out on behalf of issues ranging from the Dream Act to Medicare cuts to police accountability. It was not a traditional day of lobbying (which I will be doing on January 30 specifically on reproductive rights issues), but more a day of disruption to call attention to a broad range of threats. Our action at state Senator Serino’s office was a “kitchen table conversation,” complete with a fold-up kitchen table (a big piece of cardboard) and hot cocoa on the topic of health care and potential budget cuts.

The kitchen table conversation

The kitchen table conversation

End-of-day rally in Albany

End-of-day rally in Albany

Albany, NY -- children's art honoring Dr. King

Albany, NY — children’s art honoring Dr. King

The rest of the week was filled with calling US senators in opposition to repeal of the Affordable Care Act and nominations such as those of Jeff Sessions as US attorney general and Betsy deVos as education secretary. But it takes so long to get through — I hope that means that hundreds, maybe thousands, of others are calling, as well. If so, keep it up!

On Thursday evening I heard Howard Dean address Williams College students and express great optimism about this generation’s ability to see past color, gender, sexual orientation and create a truly diverse society.

Howard Dean speaking at Williams College

Howard Dean speaking at Williams College

On Shabbat, I led the community in a service in MLK’s own words, matching some of his quotes to our traditional prayers. His last public speech (the mountaintop speech)  was a remarkably optimistic statement about the time in which he lived and how, if God could place him in any place and age, he would choose the country and era in which he already lived:

Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.” Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding… And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we are going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence. That is where we are today…

I hear him lifting us up today as we face this specter of Hrumph’s presidency and reminding us that it is an opportunity to grapple and an imperative step on the road to ultimate survival.

Sadly, this was also a week in which Congressman John Lewis, MLK compatriot and civil rights hero in his own right, was attacked by Hrumph. We are compelled, like Lewis, to rise up against this demagogue and his self-serving and treacherous agenda.

Today I saw the film Hidden Figures, a great way to honor MLK Day and the evolution of civil rights for African-Americans and women in this country. See it!

For more on MLK and my visit to Atlanta to visit landmark sites associated with him, see my previous posts “MLK’s Atlanta” and “Fish and Human Rights.”