The Jewish Women’s Archive is an amazing compendium of resources documenting the role and importance of Jewish Women!  The have started a special section on women rabbis.  I am thrilled to be among some of the first women included in the rabbinic section of the archives. It is a great honor. 

Here is the link to visit.  

Synagogue Etiquette: The Sequel

Well yesterday’s post about synagogue etiquette and the unwritten rules of the synagogue struck a chord! I have had hundreds of people share things they have observed and have questions about.  So today-the sequel. More unwritten rules for those who are part of a synagogue community whether a member or just a visitor.

First no talking on  your cellphone in services.  If you are in an Orthodox synagogue on a Shabbat or holy day you should not be on your cell phone on Shabbat or the Chag in the first place. It violates the strict interpretation of Halakah (Jewish law).  If you are there during the daily minyan, or in a Reform, Reconstructionist or Conservative Shul at any time–refrain from talking on your phone in the prayer space.  If you absolutely must–leave the sanctuary, chapel, or prayer room and attend to your business.  But it is a distraction from the kavannah, the spiritual intentions necessary for prayer.  On Shabbat and holidays we are not to conduct business! At the very least silence your phone.  And please do not snap photos during services.  It is tempting I know to take a picture of the Bat Mitzvah giving her d’var torah and upload it immediately to Facebook or Instagram.  I know everyone wants to hear the Bar Mitzvah chant his Haftarah portion and you think no one will mind if you video record just a few seconds to upload to You Tube but it is not appropriate to utilize these devices during worship. It destroys the holiness that is present by creating an intrusion in the sacred space.  A b’nai mitzvah is not a performance.  It is a sacred moment of transition for the young person and their family from childhood to young teen age responsibilities.

Same at a wedding.  The ceremony is a holy ritual called kiddushin. From the word for holiness.  If you have been invited to the wedding, you are part of the congregation and holy witnesses to the couple’s creation of their family! The wedding ceremony is a holy moment and most likely the couple has hired official photographers. Leave your phone in your pocket or your purse!

Next a reminder when the Holy Ark is open-Jews stand up as a sign of respect. If you are physically unable to stand then sit taller in your chair.  Above many arks are written a phrase “Know Before Whom You Stand”. Of course this means God.  We aren’t so casual around the Holy One of Blessing–so when the Torah is lifted, or the ark is open we stand.  If you have left the prayer space to go to the restroom and you are coming back in to the service and the ark is open- WAIT.  It is a peak moment in the worship service.  If the Torah is processing or being held aloft, WAIT to return to your seat.  It is a sign of respect and honor to not be distracted when the ark is open or the Torah held aloft. So if you must go out and come back in please do so in the least obtrusive way.

Other areas of importance are the gatherings before and after services.  Often there will be on Shabbat evening an Oneg Shabbat either before or after the Friday night service.  Oneg means joy.  This is a time to gather to socialize and visit and build holy relationships with each other.  On Saturday morning after services this is called a Kiddish or kiddish luncheon.  Sometimes after the daily morning minyan there is also a light nosh before people go on their way.  At any of these gatherings even if you don’t know someone else there it is always appropriate to introduce yourself. Synagogues want to know you.  And if you are a regular at temple-then you have an especial obligation to welcome newcomers. Don’t just hang out with  your own friends. One of the biggest criticisms of synagogue life that I hear as a rabbi is that I went to such and such temple and  no one bothered to talk to me.  I don’t think anyone does this on purpose. But it is important to be mindful that there are always visitors and synagogue members even if not a board member or a chair person should warmly embrace those who are not a regular part of the community.  Who knows they may be checking your temple out!

Every synagogue is different when it comes to saying the Mourner’s Kaddish. In some congregations everyone stands to say the Kaddish prayer. In others only those in the period of mourning or observing a yarzeit stand.  In others they begin with the those in mourning and those observing a yarzeit and then ask everyone to stand in support. In some communities there will be an opportunity to say the name of your loved one that you are remembering aloud.  In other congregations it is appropriate to call ahead if you want to ensure that your loved ones name is said aloud and they don’t have a yarzeit (memorial) plaque at that synagogue.  But it is appropriate if you ask for a name to be read aloud for Kaddish and you are a visitor or they don’t have a memorial plaque to make a donation to the congregation. You can sponsor the bima flowers, sponsor the oneg in your loved one’s memory or give to one of the many funds of the congregation.  This is a free will offering for the synagogue.

Synagogues vary in custom and culture and vary from place to place.  North America is different than Australia or Germany.  If you aren’t sure the best advice is to ask. Ask the rabbi about or a lay leader if you are unsure about what to do.  It is not a sign of weakness or ignorance.  When we ask about the customs we are learning and showing respect for the community.  So don’t be shy.  After all, in Judaism we love questions! Don’t we?


Synagogue Etiquette

If you belong to synagogue or if you don’t there are so many unwritten rules of the road. I thought I would take a moment to help you navigate being part of a synagogue community. Synagogues or Jewish temples are sometimes referred to by the Yiddish term–Shul which in the German means School.  And every synagogue, temple or shul is unique.  Ok, they share some things in common.  The have some kind of holy ark-where a Torah scroll or scrolls is kept.  They likely have prayer books known also as a siddur (unless it is for the High Holy Days then it is called a machzor).  Most temples or synagogues have classrooms for learning for adults and children. Some will have special programs for early childhood or nursery school but not all. Many congregations will have a rabbi.  Some both a rabbi and a cantor. Large congregation will have multiple rabbis and cantors. But there are some communities that can’t support even one clergy person. And that is one of the things that makes Judaism unique.  Lay people can lead worship and teach. Unlike the Catholic Church where only priests can perform the sacraments. There is nothing in Judaism that a non-ordained Jew cannot do!

Most congregations finance themselves with a combination of dues, fees, voluntary offerings and fundraising.  Some congregations are now experimenting by getting rid of the dues model and going to a completely voluntary offering.  But in either case support for the institutions requires generosity of resources.

In congregations where dues are still the main financial support for the congregation there is either a set fee to be become a member or a percentage of income often at 2 or 2.5 percent.  Membership in the synagogue is something to be proud of. It goes beyond money. Membership is a foundation of Jewish life-supporting the ongoing engagement of Jews with Judaism. Membership in a synagogue enables the Jewish people to thrive through engagement with learning, celebration, the arts, and most importantly one another. The synagogue is a place where Jews and their families can build relationships with each other! In an era when most people don’t even know their neighbors this is so important.

But now to the some of the unwritten rules of synagogue.

It is customary to put on a kippah or yarmulka when you come into the temple. Even if you might not normally wear one in your day to day-when you come into the synagogue most likely there is a stack of head coverings. This goes for both men and women. It is a sign of respect that in the holy place you cover your head.


It is customary that if you observed a yarzeit or the rabbi or cantor officiated at a lifecycle event for your family that you make an extra donation of charity to the synagogue.  Judaism believes strongly in the power of tzedakah. When we recite the El Maleh Rachamim prayer at a funeral or memorial service the words of the prayer challenge us to give charity in memory of the deceased! So if you are observing the yarzeit of someone in your family, or you asked the rabbi to come help you hang the mezzuzah in your new condo, or she officiated at the baby naming of your grandchild make an extra donation to the Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund, or Cantor’s music fund, or the campership fund in your congregation as a way of saying thank you.

If someone dies in the congregation or a parent of a congregant that you know dies, it is customary to make a small donation in their memory to the temple.    The Synagogue will send a note to the family to let them know of your kindness in their loved one’s memory.  You should also try to attend the funeral and shiva (The week-long memorial period at the home of a mourner).  Helping to make the minyan (the prayer quorum) necessary for the mourners to recite the Kaddish prayer is a wonderful show of support and caring for a fellow congregant! You don’t have to be close to the deceased or to the mourner. This is what temple members do for one another.

Also when someone is ill.  Many congregations will create a meal train. Helping bring meals to those at home after a surgery or with a lengthy recovery period.  Even if you don’t know the person you have a bond already. You are part of the same synagogue community. This is how we help each other in times of sorrow or difficulty.

And in times of joy as well.  Show up at the B’nai Mitzvah services. They are not meant to be private affairs. It is a coming of age of the young person in the context of the Jewish community and specifically the synagogue community. In a congregation everyone should rejoice in the youth of a synagogue. The Bar or Bat Mitzvah child is the next generation and when we celebrate that as a temple community we go a long way to help sustain the Jewish people! You don’t have to know the parents or grandparents or the child.  But you share a bond together with that family. All are part of the Temple community!

Being a part of synagogue community can be enriching and rewarding through the relationships that are built.  It is a place like no other. It is sacred place of sacred learning and sacred relationships. And it is so necessary in these cruel and rough times to have a place that helps to elevate our souls.  That is what the synagogue can do. But it takes us being there to help bring about that sanctity and spirit. I hope you will add yours

There are a lot more unwritten rules–stay tuned here for more.



Striking at Holy Rocks: On Chicago and Israel

This was my sermon from Friday night June 30, 2017. Many of you have asked for a copy. Here it is.


Shabbat Shalom

Tonight I had a different sermon.  A sermon to celebrate our 25 years of our Congregation and to imagine together the next 25 years.  But that will wait for another Shabbat because the events of the past week cry out to us. Affect us.  Right in our kishkes—at our core.  Two pivotal events one in Chicago and one in Israel speak to the nature of our communal identities and also to the core of what our congregation values are all about.

For 25 years Kol Ami has given voice to values of inclusion and diversity. Long before it was fashionable. Before even Macy’s changed their logo for June to a rainbow.  Long before any other synagogues marched in pride events, Kol Ami stood for LGBTQ Equality.  Our original vision of our congregation was to be a place truly where gay and straight people together could create a dynamic Jewish home. 25 years ago most synagogues had no real place for Gay people –even Temple Israel up the street—wouldn’t let gay people have a commitment ceremony in their sanctuary.  I know I officiated at the first one there for our temple members.  Same thing at Steven S. Wise synagogue.  I officiated there for two of our members.  The rabbis didn’t or wouldn’t back then.  Many day schools were not prepared to handle the children of Lesbian and Gay parents. And the larger Jewish world, Federation, AJC, Jewish National Fund wouldn’t touch gay equality issues.

Even in our own Reform Movement 25 years ago- better than Conservative Judaism and of course Orthodox Judaism each who were anti-gay at the time, our own Reform Movement wasn’t always so embracing.

But this congregation and our work together helped make that change.

Lots of change. Quickly. Because we together imagined a synagogue where we could let all the different parts of who we were come together.  Gay and Jewish. Straight Ally, Lover of Israel, Lesbian parent, Person with HIV, intermarried husband and wife, Single parent, single person, married, long term relationships, whatever your status in the safety of Kol Ami we created a synagogue a Jewish place of meeting, study, spiritual celebration, arts and social justice that helped us bring all of the parts of our identity together under one banner.—The Kol Ami banner.

And we have had a false sense of security in some ways.  But this week was a wake- up call.

First in the Midwest- when Jews went to celebrate Pride.  Nothing remarkable in 2017 that a Jewish lesbian should want to march in the Dyke March in Chicago.  Nothing remarkable that they should march with a pride flag with a Magen David in the middle.  Simply a lesbian Jew displaying her pride at bringing all of her identities together.  And evidently something that she has done in previous years.  But this year prior to the parade a woman who works for the organization A Wider Bridge—which brings together the gay community in the US and the Israeli gay community (and who we have hosted and worked closely with at Kol Ami) was asked to leave and remove her flag because it was making others uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable because it was a symbol of “Zionist oppression”.  “The star of David was a Zionist symbol,” they say –“like the Israeli flag.”

Make no mistake this is a familiar trope.  Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israeli hatred all wrapped into one.   The Magen David, yes appears on the Israeli flag—but as you and I know was a symbol of Jews and Judaism long before the creation of the modern state of Israel.  The Yellow Star was the ultimate symbol of oppression by the Nazi of the Jews. The organizers were striking out at the Rock identity, the Jewish foundation of their core.

The Organizers of the Dyke March believe they acted justly.  After all their official position supposedly is anti-Israel anti-Zionist.  They claim they are pro-Palestinian.   But not anti- Jewish.

They like many gay organizations are being held ransom by the far left.  By those who so believe in an idea called intersectionality that they have lost their ability to think.

Intersectionality is an idea invented by Kimberle Williams Crenshaw an important civil rights advocate to describe overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression.  This can include gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, nationality, sexual orientation among others. And asks that a person is linked with all the other oppressions throughout society.

Thus the difficulties the Palestinians experience become the same oppression that Gay people suffer.  But here is the problem with that thinking and in the Chicago case in particular—they believe Jews aren’t oppressed but rather do the oppressing.  Israel is described as the white, European power mongers- which I might add is an old Anti-Semitic canard—of Jews and power.  In some places this is expressed as Jews controlling money and media.  And it confuses things in the world of identity politics.

The actions of the Chicago Dyke March are inexcusable essentially denying a person legitimate right to express all of their identity.  Let alone the fact that dykes marching down the streets of Ramallah would be murdered. There is no free expression of LGBTQ identity in Palestine or anywhere else in the Arab world.  Iran throws us off of roofs.Egypt gay men are rounded up and shot. Saudi Arabia lesbians are raped; Turkey we are imprisoned.  Yes, Dyke March Chicago-you have lost your minds.  The ability to think.  And the only place in the Middle East where LGBT people can celebrate, and have their marriages recognized—yes-Israel. One of the largest Pride celebrations in the world.  But when we mention things like this… we are all accused of Pink washing—meaning trying to negate Israel’s evil status as colonial oppressor by uplifting the safety and security of the LGBTQ community in Israel.  This is another problem with intersectionality.

But this isn’t new in the LGBT world.  It was only last year at Creating Change—the signature conference of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force that a riot ensued when a group of far left anti-Israel queer people shut down a Shabbat oneg reception hosted by A Wider Bridge. Again under the so called banner of anti-Zionism the rioters chanted “Death to the Jews”.  “From the River to the Sea Set Palestine Free”,—which of course means destroying Israel.

This is common in the LGBT world in San Francisco, New York and other places that it is no longer safe to be pro-Israel and gay.  And we have seen it in Chicago now.  (A place where there no longer is a gay synagogue I might add)

Here in Los Angeles we have avoided this by the work of our synagogue. I have built strong relationships with our LGBT leaders and elected officials Our synagogue and you our members have in your work in other parts of the community proudly shown your love of Israel.  We as a congregation in our mission statement say that we love and are committed to Israel.  And we work toward and support an Israel that we dream of –a strong and democratic Jewish state. We believe that An that we don’t have to turn a deaf ear to the pleas of the Palestinian people either. We together with others can be proud of Israel’s achievements while holding in tension the parts of Israel we saddened by. And we can work to support and change our homeland –through the organizations we support—working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

But the far left can’t seem to hold two complex thoughts together. Hence a Jewish Dyke is asked to not march with her Jewish pride flag.  Because someone might mistake the symbolism.  Excuse the treifa comment, this is hog wash.

The problem with any idea that becomes so rigid is that you lose your ability to discern reasonably or to exert judgement and as a result you oppress others.  And that is what the Dyke March did-oppress Jews from expressing their true selves.

Empathy is what we all need. The ability to see the human being across from us.  That is how we know racism is wrong.  That is how we know Islamaphobia should be stamped out.  And yes we need to work for the day when Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in peace.  But the dangers of Intersectionality is that it can be just as intolerant. And that is as bad as the oppression it seeks to mitigate.

Which leads me to the second problem this week—and that was from Israel itself.  From the Prime Minister and the Cabinet who voted to quash the compromise deal that was negotiated to create egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, the Western Wall.  The Prime Minister gave this bone to the Charedim, the black hats to keep them in his government and to stay in power as they have threated to withdraw from the very fragile coalition that is the current government of Israel.

Even as we love Israel and work to defend her right to exist we also see that it isn’t all roses.  Our identities as Reform Jews were attacked again. The compromise plan negotiated over 5 years, was reached between the Israeli government, the Reform and Conservative movements and the group the Women of the Wall which for more than 20 years has sought to have women’s public prayer at the Kotel.  The compromise reached last year was to build out a section of the Kotel near the Robinson’s arch area—which would connect to the current Kotel Plaza which has become an Orthodox synagogue.  But most importantly and this is the main sticking point, where the PM is backtracking in his bow to the Charedi right wing, is that it scrapped a commission that would oversee the newly built area that included representatives from our movement and Conservative Judaism and Women of the Wall.  And this is really what the Charedim objected to.  Because in their minds it means de facto recognition by the Israeli government of other streams of Judaism.  Never mind that this was court ordered.  The Israeli Supreme Court ordered the government to find a solution.  Never mind that the deadline was approaching because the Netanyahu government has literally dragged its feet and purposely delayed over the last year so he can keep his grip on power and the PM’s office.


There is a fundamental problem.  The betrayal of the PM to Diaspora Jewry with this decision is of crisis proportions.  And here is why.  The Kotel is not just Israeli—it is Jewish.  It was for generations the symbol of our longing to return to the land—an expression of our Jewish yearning. It is why it used to be called the Wailing Wall because we still mourn the destruction of the Temple and our sovereignty as a nation. And in 1967 when Israel unified Jerusalem and captured the Old City and the Temple Moun and the cry came – “Har Ha Bayit b’yadenu-the Temple Mount is in our hands”,  the whole Jewish world rejoiced. Jerusalem was one and the Kotel—the place of our collective longing. symbol of our people was in Jewish hands for the first time since the year 70.

Yes, you heard that—since the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70.

Reform and Conservative Judaism are second class citizens in Israel.  The corrupt Chief Rabbinate in Israel excludes Reform and Conservative rabbis from marrying people, converting people, burying people. Our synagogues receive no state funding in Israel as do Orthodox ones. Our schools do not receive funding as do orthodox schools.

And for decades we have worked to change the status quo-growing our movement without the government.  Suing in the courts when necessary.  Seeking change through the political system. And the Kotel compromise was a significant and symbolic change.

In February 2016 at the CCAR convention in Israel during my presidency we held the first service at the site of the egalitarian prayer space.  It was the first service following the agreement. 350 Reform rabbis davened the morning service and we read Torah there.  I will admit most of the time the Kotel has left me cold.  I was always uncomfortable in the women’s section. Trying to pray. It felt unfamiliar when I was separated from other members of my family.  It felt inauthentic when the guards would look at me in pants with a disapproving eye.  But that service with my colleagues brought tears to my eyes and joy to my heart-to pray our melodies, aloud, men and women together next to the Kotel—next to the symbol of our people’s journey and history was a spiritual highlight I will cherish.  This is what should be available to anyone who comes to the Kotel; To pray as a Jew with their authentic identity.
Whether from the Right or left of the political spectrum—orthodoxies and rigidity create problems because human beings smother if held too tightly.  Judaism knows this. It is unfortunate the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate doesn’t.  It instead, like the PM, is desperate to hold on to power in a changing world.

The outrage in the Diaspora world has been swift.  Our own Rabbi Rick Jacobs and the Conservative movement leaders were on the ground in Israel.  For the first time in 30 years AIPAC leaders went to Israel to meet with the PM in an emergency meeting to tell him the fallout from this was too much and to reverse course.  American Jewish Committee condemned the PM’s action as well as the powerful Jewish Federations of North America.   The Orthodox former chief rabbi of England condemned it,Lord Jonathan Sacks. Even a group of 200 Modern Orthodox rabbis here in the US condemned this.  The holy rocks of the Kotel carved and placed so long ago must continue to be a place of gathering for ALL THE JEWISH PEOPLE  to pray, not just some.

Symbols do matter. They speak to us of who we are and what we stand for as individuals and the community. The Pride flag, the Magen David, The Kotel, Kol Ami, not the building but our congregation. Each of you -the people are the symbol of a set of values that we cherish.

Those values include being all of who we are-Jewish and proud of all our identities.  Comfortable in our own shoes.  Gay and Straight, Queer and Bi and Trans, Jewish, Lovers of Israel, lovers of our non-Jewish family and friends, committed to erasing, racism, and Islamophobia, and most of all doing what we Jews believe—Seeing everyone as created in God’s image.  B’tzelem Elohim.

This week’s Torah portion is Chukat in the book of numbers. Moses has encounter with a different set of holy rocks.  He is to speak to the rock to quench the thirst of the Israelites in the desert.  In his frustration he strikes the rock.  Waters come gushing forth—but as the Torah describes it—they are like flood waters—overwhelming.  The PM is no Moses, but he too has struck out at the holy rocks of the Kotel.  And he will not be able to stop the copious waters of outrage, and protest around the world from his action. Already he is backtracking. And the brief filed in the Israeli Supreme Court will be heard July 30.  But striking out at holy rocks doesn’t work.  And in fact it didn’t end well for Moses who as a result of his actions, disobeying God’s request that he speak to the rock—not hit it, he is not allowed to finish his mission to cross over into the Promised land.  Perhaps the PM should have paid attention.

I hope that soon-we together as a congregation can stand at the Kotel together—in the newly refurbished egalitarian prayer space and sing out together just as we do here on Shabbat. And sing of our joy and love of being Jewish. And sing of our joy and love of being all of who we are.

Then we will know a taste of that true freedom that God has given to each of us.  Ken Yehi Ratzon.


On the Kotel Debacle

I was asked by the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles on Monday to react and share my thoughts about the Prime Minister of Israel’s action to reneg on the deal to create egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, known as the Kotel in Hebrew. The Western Wall is one of the few remaining remnants of the Roman era Second Temple. The wall held up the enlarged mountain platform where the temple stood prior to the year 70, when it was destroyed by the Roman army.  It was a terrible blow to the Jewish people and the Israelite nation was destroyed. The Jewish residents of Jerusalem and Israel were ripped from their homeland and sent into exile.  Another Jewish nation would not arise until the modern state of Israel in 1948 on that holy ground.

When Jerusalem was reunified following the Six Day War when Israel was attacked by her Arab neighbors and Israel  recaptured the Old City and the Temple Mount after nearly 2000 years–the Western Wall long a symbol of our people’s agony became a renewed symbol of our endurance.   The Wall and the plaza today have been taken over slowly but surely by the Orthodox rabbinate in Israel and they have created an Orthodox synagogue at the national monument.  Following Orthodox prayer customs there is a separate men’s and women’s section.

After many years of protest by an organization Women of the Wall seeking equality for women’s prayer at the Kotel, and joined by the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism who believe in equal religious rights and rites for women, as well as mixed gender prayer and equality negotiation with the government of Israel began. It took more than four years but a compromise was reached to build an appropriate prayer space of equal beauty and access for liberal Jews who wish to pray in their style at the Kotel.  The Israeli Government dragged its feet this last year-and little progress was made on actually constructing the site. And then out of the blue–the Prime Minister calls the deal off.

Trust has been broken with Jews around the world.

Here is my reaction printed in this week’s Jewish Journal.

L.A. clergy respond to the Kotel controversy


We have seen the selling out of the Jewish people for crass political power.  However, it isn’t usually done by a prime minister of Israel to Jews around the world. Benjamin Netanyahu’s crass political move to renege on the compromise reached with the Reform and Conservative Movements and Women of the Wall on appropriate egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel is alarming and shameful.

The plan to build egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall was negotiated by the prime minister’s own representatives. His representatives Natan Sharansky and now-attorney general Avichai Mendelbilt were the ones who spoke for the Israeli government. It was hailed as an historic agreement by the prime minister’s own office. Netanyahu came to the U.S. and himself addressed American Jewry about the importance of this.

I sat across from the prime minister a year ago February in his office when he assured me and rabbinic leaders of the Reform Movement, “It will happen.”  Following the meeting at the annual convention of the Reform rabbinate in 2016, we held the first services in what was to eventually become the new space. It was a spiritually uplifting and moving experience to pray with my fellow rabbis next to the ancient and historical symbol of our people’s continuity, men and women together as is our authentic Jewish experience.

The prime minister, who claims to speak for all Jews, has betrayed a significant portion of the Jewish people by giving in to Charedi demands.  He is not a man of his word or a man of honor and he is leading the government of Israel to act immorally.

The sacrifices of the ancient Temple were designed to restore wholeness and holiness to individuals who have sinned and to the Jewish people. Prime Minister Netanyahu instead has sacrificed the majority of American Jews on the altar of his political expediency, reinforcing the very sin that destroyed the ancient Temple: sinat chinam, the hatred of Jew against Jew. This is the sin our Talmudic Sages teach destroyed the Temple. Netanyahu’s actions further alienate American Jews from finding a place and connection to the Jewish homeland. As a Reform rabbi I try to build up that connection and help Jews find their way home. The prime minister has increased the distance and removed the welcome mat from the doorway.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger, Congregation Kol Ami

There is a Debate Raging

Here is my sermon: June 23, 2017/1 Tammuz 5777  Shabbat Evening @Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood, CA

There’s  a debate raging.  It’s been going on in the Jewish Journal for the last few weeks.  Rabbi David Wolpe  of Temple Sinai here in Los Angeles wrote an article about why he doesn’t preach politics from the pulpit. He claims that the synagogue should be a politics free zone.  Synagogue in his view is an escape from the worries of the day. A place of prayer and study.  He wrote that the Synagogue should not be divided in these highly contentious times.  Wolpe wrote these words “You can love Torah and vote for Trump. You can love Torah and think Trump is a blot on the American system. What you may not do, if you are intellectually honest, is say that the Torah points in only one political direction”


Our own Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, our denomination wrote,  a reply to Rabbi Wolpe’s article.  He claimed that it is not politics to speak on moral issues of the day. But that our study of Torah and prayer lead us to action and toward shaping our faith. And therefore it was incumbent upon rabbis to use their voice to instruct on moral and ethical ideals as they apply to the issues of our times.  Rabbi Jacobs wrote this: “Sermons that “speak up” on the great moral issues of our world and our lives may address politics and policy as a means of addressing such moral issues but they are not about politics. On the contrary, they are about our Jewish values; the values we teach and the values we pass on to our children; the values that have kept us together as a people for centuries.”


Both are right.


I think you all know I don’t shy away from addressing the moral issues of our times.  Like Rabbi Jacobs I believe the Torah is our guide.  It is not just some ancient book to be read but not lived. For me, the prophets of old, Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, and Micah are not just to be read but to be taken seriously. When they call for justice and equity they are speaking not just of their times but of our own.  We assert the timelessness of Torah, the eternal nature of the message of our tradition.  And so when the issues of our times confront us, the poverty, racism, and inequality that are so evident and the corruption that seems ever present in our government and institutions we have to give voice.


That is not politics it’s called morality.


Rabbi Wolpe’s large congregation maybe more diverse in its political outlook than Kol Ami. We are a small congregation in a progressive city of West Hollywood. But to shy away from issues of morality is I believe to put one’s head in the sand about the world around us.  But Rabbi Wolpe makes an important point about divisiveness. And that has no place in the synagogue.  The vitriol that inhabits the public square, the online forums and the media has no place in shul.

As you know I don’t  endorse political candidates. I talk to both sides of the aisle. I meet with Republicans and Democrats and Independents.  And I don’t buy party lines.  Because my line is the Jewish line.


I think the challenge that Rabbi Wolpe and Jacobs should address is  a call for everyone take it down several notches. We can disagree on solutions to large issues but the ad hominem attacks must cease.  All conservatives are not bad.  And all liberals are not bad.  But to read twitter depending on whose tweets you see it will reinforce that message.
The challenge in our day and time is to learn to disagree lovingly.  To honestly care about each other as part of the human family.  To see in each other eyes our humanity.  This is what our great Jewish Philosopher Martin Buber taught us all.  To have I-Thou relationships.  To have real encounters with people rather than use them in some utilitarian way.  What Buber calls the I-It.  You see the incivility, anger, and rage-are symptoms of a greater ill—refusing to see another person’s humanity.

That is the core of the problem.  We dehumanize each other.  Right and left, Republican and Democrat.  This is why it is so painful and hurtful.  We traumatize one another because of the slights and erasing of human dignity.  We denigrate individuals’ experiences in the world.  We imagine that everyone experiences what we do and invalidate someone’s differing perceptions. This transforms itself into policy as well.   And so we can get 12 rich white men locked in a room making health policy-without input from women, or people of color, or poor people because their experiences don’t matter-inconsequential.  And let’s be honest whether it is health care or ensuring the US continue to stand by Israel—the utilitarian mode rather than the human mode remains dominant because money is the God—rather than God being God.


Oh there is a lot of God-Talk.  Lots of self-righteousness on both sides of the aisle.  But in a synagogue our job is to come together to study Torah, discuss it, chew on it, come to some conclusions based on the best in our tradition, the best of our teachers and then to live it out.  And yes that will mean that different people live out their religious ideals differently.


For the Torah is multi-valent; meaning it speaks with many voices.  You can read the Torah literally and come away with the understanding that slavery is allowed and the death penalty is permitted.  But if you only read and study the book of Exodus you are not understanding the force of our teachings.  Both were outlawed by our rabbis.


And that is why deep engagement with Torah study is so necessary.  Most Jews today only know a little bit.  Jewish education is lacking.  We have to as Rabbi Wolpe believes, engage and study more Torah to help shape our moral views.  And it is as Rabbi Jacob’s believes that the Toarh and our tradition’s teaching urge us to speak up and loudly.  Silence is not an option.  Because our tradition does have some important conclusions about how we are to treat one another and the responsibilities of society to help those in the least powerful positions of society.


But most importantly when we disagree with our fellow congregant –we have to take them seriously and not simply write them off.  After all Judaism is a religion of relationships.  We must encounter the other and we are called by God to be part of the community, not separate ourselves out. Al tifrsoh min hatzibut, do not separate yourself from the community the Talmud teaches.


But there is so much incivility in the world around us. And it is built in the idea of that to disagree we must attack one another.  The politics of our times is based on this kind of dehumanizing attack that is I believe the root of our problems.  We have to learn to look in the eyes of one another-see each other’s humanity.


And we have to see our common bond with each other that we are part of each other’s lives.  There is a collective basis for our commonality.  By this I mean that – we are dependent on each other.  Our wellbeing depends on each other.  Not so easy in a society that teaches independence.


I believe this is what we have lost in our political discussions and in our communication with each other whether on line or often in person.  We pull away, and hide behind our screens rather than try to build real relationships in real time with each other.  The Jewish demand to pray with a minyan-to pray in community is designed to help us engage and not isolate from each other.


It forces us to interact with each other and with God.  Praying together in community is a way that we remind ourselves that our collective is a necessary component to our spiritual wellbeing.


It is not the ego driven I that matters –but the “we”. And it is the “we” that can transform our own lives and the life of the world. The collective power of community to engage in tikkun olam.


And so while I applaud Rabbi Wolpe’s reminder of the need for the synagogue to be a safe place, a place of prayer and reflection, a place of sanctity that heals the divisions of the outside world.  I also know that Rabbi Jacob’s vision that the synagogue must be a moral voice for good in our world.


At Kol Ami we believe deeply that all are created in God’s image. That is why we worked so hard for LGBTQ equality in this congregation, why we go to Guatemala to help the impoverished, why we work at Sova, why we partner with our non-Jewish church friends.  When the world and our government policies seem to forget our humanity, women’s humanity we have to speak to that.  God created us not to sit on the side lines but to live.  As our Torah teaches  Chai Bayhem—live by them.  And so it is not politics that we address—but policy and humanity.



This week’s Torah portion is Korach. After the rebellion led by Moses’ and Aaron’s cousin Korach is put down, God instructs Moses to take the staff of leadership from each of the chieftains of the 12 tribes. Each must write the name of their tribe on their staff. Aaron will write the tribe of Levi on his staff.  The 12 staves will then be placed in front of the Holy Ark and left over night.  It is a test of leadership.  God says that staff that blooms will be the head of the tribes.  And so they gather the staves, and the next morning miraculously—the staff of Aaron blooms beautiful almond blossoms!  It is a sign, a miracle that reaffirms Aaron’s leadership and that of the Levites to serve.


We have no Levites that serve in the holy Temple. But our service now is in service of holy relationships with one another and God.  That was in part Aaron and the Levites role—to help ensure our relationships were in balance.  I pray that we continue to blossom as did Aaron’s staff of old-signifying our leadership on these issues of our time.


I pray that our congregation continues to be a place that speaks up together. But also speaks to each other with kindness, humility on our lips engaging in discussion together about how we can live out the Torah and the prophetic ideals of peace, justice and equality.    Ken Yehi Ratzon  So May it be God’s Will


Rabbi Denise L. Eger   1 Tammuz 5777


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