Friday, April 7, 2017

The Fierce Urgency of Now: MLK and Passover

“… I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.”

Martin Luther King spoke these words 50 years ago, on April 4, 1967 and they sound as if he were commenting on America today.

One year from now, April 4, 2018, will mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. King's death. Thanks to the initiative of Rabbi Arthur Waskow and The Shalom Center, faith communities across the country will be marking the coming year as an American Jubilee Year of Truth and Transformation.

In his sermon at Riverside Church, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” Dr. King gave voice to a feeling we know today:
“We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”

Driven by that sense of urgency, I spoke this past Shabbat about Dr. King’s prophetic call 50 years ago, and how we must answer it today. You can read my message below. Excerpts from Dr. King’s speech can be found here.

Wishing you and yours Chag same’ach
A joyous holiday that brings us renewed courage and strength,
Rabbi Barbara Penzner
* * * * * * * *

This next year is critical for the survival of democracy, for the survival of our world. We have already seen the dramatic destructive tendencies of this administration and Congress. Executive orders. Congressional repeal of basic protections of women, of immigrants, of our environment. We are in for far worse. When that happens, we will be there for each other, a beloved community, a kehilla kedosha, to provide comfort, courage, and confidence in our cause. And together, we will continue to resist. Because we believe in moral bottom lines over corporate bottom lines. Because we believe in lives over profits. Because our Jewish tradition began with the Exodus, a moral revolution of values, a slave revolt against a self-aggrandizing tyrant. And because our Jewish tradition reminds us at this time of year, and year-round, of that moral revolution.

In the spirit of Martin Luther King, and in the spirit of Pesach,

I offer three simple ways to bring that moral revolution into our present and shape a future that we can all share in equally.


Speak up. Show up. Vote.

Speak up.

            You don’t need to be MLK to speak up. The first to speak up in the Exodus story was not Moses. No one whose name we know. Not any one person. It was the cry of the Israelites. The liberation did not begin with Moses, but with the cry of the Hebrews themselves: “They were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God. God heard their moaning, and God took notice of them.”

The Jewish tradition understands these verses to mean that until the people actually cry out, until they speak about their suffering, until they come together to say “we won’t take it anymore,” nothing changes. The midwives were ready to be leaders, Moses’ mother Yocheved and his sister Miriam were ready, Pharaoh’s daughter was ready, and Moses himself was ready. But no one could take the Israelites out of Egypt until the people were ready. Each of us has a role to play in the task of liberation; when we lift our voices together, we can crash through all obstacles to justice.

How do you speak up? Write letters. Call elected representatives. Urge family & friends in other states to write and call. Use your own words, don’t just repeat catch-phrases. Look people in the eye. Listen attentively and with curiosity. Connect.

Show up.
Jewish tradition may involve talking, discussing, asking questions. But in the end, it is through mitzvot, fulfilling our obligations, doing, that we live our Judaism.

"Rabbi Tarfon and the Elders were once reclining in the upper story of Nitza’s house, in Lod, when this question was posed to them: Which is greater, study or action? Rabbi Tarfon answered, saying: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered, saying: Study is greater. All the rest agreed with Akiva that study is greater than action because it leads to action."  (Talmud)

The Rabbis all agreed that Jews are called to action.

How do we begin every seder?

“This is the bread of poverty, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need come and celebrate Passover.
Now we are here — next year in the land of Israel.
Now we are slaves. Next year we will be free.”

There are plenty of ways to show up, and they don’t always demand major sacrifices. Yes to rallies and protests. Yes to town meetings and organizing. And yes to taking care of others’ children so the adults can go to actions. Yes to feeding people who are hungry and inviting people to your seder. No to sitting in front of the tv or the computer all day by yourself! Do one act of resistance every day, no matter how small.


We proclaim the central message of Passover in the Haggadah: “In every generation, each individual must feel as if he or she personally had come out of Egypt.”

Every individual. Not men only. Not adults only. Everyone. It’s about participation in the story. Not just telling it, but being part of it.

If you believe in democracy, you need to participate. Voting is a combination of speaking up and showing up. Register voters. Help with Get Out The Vote. Insist that your kids, your friends, your colleagues votes. Not just every four years. Not just for president. Democracy is built on down-ballot offices.

Democracy can be dismantled when voters don’t pay attention to those elections.
According to The Hill, in the past eight years, Republicans have gained 1000 seats in state legislatures, leading to a growth from “just under 44 percent in 2009 to 56 percent” after the 2016 election. State legislatures have used that power to gerrymander congressional districts, entrenching incumbent House members with unbeatable majorities. If we care about divided politics, the place to start is making House districts less one-sided, and ensuring that members of Congress hear multiple opinions.

Vote in every election you can. Democracy depends on you.

Speak up. Show up. And vote.

Martin Luther King prophetically calls to us from 50 years ago:
“We must move past indecision to action. If we do not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

“Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter—but beautiful—struggle for a new world. The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Standing up to Anti-Semitism/Standing up to Hate

I can’t recall ever being afraid because I’m a Jew. Until last year, Haman was a fictional anti-Semite. This year, he represents all those filled with vicious and unprovoked hatred.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has tracked domestic hate groups for decades, noted a dramatic increase in all hate crimes immediately following the November elections. In the first month, they verified over 1000 incidents of bias-related attacks. In just the first five days after the election, they documented over 400 attacks. Those attacks abated, but the threats have not disappeared.

Since Inauguration Day, over 100 JCCs and Jewish day schools have received phoned-in bomb threats. Three Jewish cemeteries, in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Rochester, NY, have been the targets of massive vandalism and grave desecrations.  

Locally, the Newton JCC has been threatened more than once. The Solomon Schechter Day School in Newton and the local ADL office received bomb threats this week. Across the country, young children from day care centers and schools have been evacuated swiftly in a manner that undoubtedly causes them mental distress.

Last Friday, a 31-year-old man was arrested in connection with threats made to 10 Jewish and one Muslim institution. That only provides a measure of relief, given the larger continuing threat.

We remain grateful that these cowardly acts have not resulted in the killing or harming of living Jews. We know that hatred in this country has led to severe attacks on immigrants, Muslims, blacks, and the LGBT community, including violence against individuals and the burning of mosques and black churches. Nevertheless, all acts of vandalism are intended to inspire fear.

Anyone who has seen a swastika spray-painted on a home or Jewish building, stepped into a Jewish cemetery where loved one’s stones have been toppled and desecrated, or seen bullet holes in a Jewish school, like the synagogue building in Evansville, Indiana last week, can’t help but feel threatened.

We know that, as Rabbi Mark Sokoll of the Newton JCC has written, “Hate against any one group is hate against all.” When we stand up as Jews against anti-semitism, we demonstrate our pride and conviction to those who wish to frighten us. We must also testify to all victims of hate that these acts will not divide us.

It is up to us to be vigilant in our own Jewish community.
It is up to us to bravely come together as never before.

Here in our temple, our leadership is taking steps to increase our attention to security. We want to make everyone feel safe without creating an atmosphere of dread.

This week of Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim when we recall both historic and mythical enemies of the Jewish people, let us contemplate how we can stand up to hatred for all people, and take pride in our community’s perpetual stamina, faith, and courage in response.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Rabbi Mark Sokoll offers these ways to show your support, and make your voice heard. Though he emphasizes the threats against JCCs, we can apply any and all of these to other Jewish institutions as well.

Support the JCC on social media by using the #IStandWithTheJCC hashtag with supportive posts across your channels.

Sample posts:
·         Threats against JCCs are threats against the entire community. #IStandWithTheJCC
·         We stand beside JCC Greater Boston. Antisemitism and hate have no place in our community. #IStandWithTheJCC
·         There is no room for hate in our community. #IStandWithTheJCC


Calling members of Congress is the most effective way to have your voice heard. Calls are tallied by staffers and the count is given to your representatives, informing them how strongly their constituents feel about a current issue. The sooner you reach out, the more likely it is that your voice will influence their position.

To find the phone number of your local congressman/congresswoman, please click here

Sample script for the call to your U.S. Representative.

Hi, my name is [NAME] and I'm a constituent from [CITY or TOWN in Massachusetts].

I’m calling to urge the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Attorney General, and the Director of the FBI to take swift action to address the bomb threats that have been telephoned in to Jewish Community Centers and schools across the nation, and the rise of anti-Semitic incidents in the last two months. We remind you that participants from all different backgrounds come to JCCs and synagogues and other Jewish institutions for activities, Jewish cultural and religious programming, and opportunities to come together as a community.

We stand together against anti-Semitism and against all hate crimes. Thank you for your hard work.
[IF LEAVING A VOICEMAIL: please leave your full street address to ensure your call is tallied]

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Wisdom. Power. Wealth. Honor: A Primer for our Elected Officials

When the Massachusetts General Court (House) opened its 190th biennial session on Beacon Hill on January 4 and the members of the House were sworn in, I had the privilege to give a blessing to the chamber.

As the session came to a close I shared a teaching from Pirke Avot, a 2000-year old Jewish text on ethical living. The passage that I chose is a classic Jewish upending of our usual assumptions, and speaks to the noble responsibility of those who hold elected office. Here is the teaching, and my blessing.

The ancient Rabbis ask four questions:
Who is wise? Who is powerful? Who is rich? Who is honored?
And they answer the questions in surprising ways.

Who is wise? One who learns from everyone.

Who is powerful? One who shows restraint over one’s impulses.

Who is rich? One who is content with one’s portion.

Who is honored? One who honors others.

We call on the Holy One, the Source of All, to bless these officers of the Commonwealth, their families, the staff, and all those who work in this building. Bless them all with your gifts of wisdom, power, wealth, and honor.

May these public servants gain wisdom by listening to others, to the thoughtful voices of experts and to the quiet voices of the poor and the needy, to advocates and plain citizens alike. May they gain wisdom from those with whom they disagree as well as those who share their views.

May these public servants use their power, first and foremost, to control their own worst impulses. May they be mindful to restrain the impulse to use power coercively and corruptly, and always to give their very best to the people of Massachusetts.

May these public servants enjoy the wealth that comes from knowing how blessed they are to serve. May they be satisfied with what they have and dissatisfied with what the people lack.

May these public servants be honored for their integrity, compassion, and commitment to justice and bring honor to their office, to this House, and to our Commonwealth.


Thursday, December 29, 2016

The UN Insecurity Council

The upshot of last week’s UN Security Council vote condemning Israeli settlements has caused a great deal of insecurity in the American Jewish community. Too often, hurried statements from Jewish organizations (fueled by the Israeli government) increase the heat when what we need is light.

FB posts and tweets in response to events seem reckless, especially in comparison to the hour-long oration by Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday.

Listening to the entire speech on Wednesday, I found Kerry’s rebuttal to the claims made by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and his followers in the US comprehensive and thoughtful. Giving the background to the vote, as well as an historical perspective on the all the previous Security Council resolutions and the US continued condemnation of settlements, Kerry’s words were balanced, honest, and based in both Israeli and American values. One headline in Haaretz today even called his remarks “superbly Zionist.”

It’s time for the leadership of the American Jewish community to pay attention to the power imbalance, the economic disparities, and the inequitable systems of justice applied to Palestinians on the West Bank. It’s time for American Jews to meet Palestinians, to visit their villages, and to see, in contrast, how well-developed bedroom communities for Israeli settlers are choking off Palestinian life and establishing what currently looks like a one-state solution.

This assessment does not ignore the challenges from the Palestinian leadership. The Palestinian Authority is considered corrupt by the average Palestinian. The PA has not succeeded in stemming terror attacks on settlers. The peace process has stalled for lack of leadership—on both sides.

Yet, short of signing a peace accord, the government of Israel could relieve much suffering. Instead, they have stifled the Palestinian economy, limiting Palestinian control over their own land, their own towns, and their own destinies. While Israelis build on land that they do not legally own, and are protected by the Israeli army, Palestinians are refused permits to build and their homes are demolished on a regular basis. Israeli powers prevent Palestinian entrepreneurs from establishing businesses that will create jobs. Roads that connect Israel and the West Bank, extending well into Palestinian-controlled areas, ease travel in and out for Israelis while Palestinians are stymied from traveling daily from home to work or school (often in their own neighborhoods) by closures and checkpoints.

While respecting the concerns of Israeli citizens and settlers for their safety, I find the current blind responses extreme and short-sighted. Thankfully, groups that support the voices of opposition within Israel, including Ameinu, Americans for Peace Now and JStreet have given American Jews a different way of looking at the situation, a middle way that supports the long-standing commitment to a 2-state solution while decrying tactics like boycott, divestment, and sanctions.

My personal position is most aligned with T’ruah, whose statement reflected what Kerry subsequently stated. The full text is also included below.

I offer a few other links to thoughtful posts to help us all move past the rhetoric and come to a deeper understanding of the Obama Administration’s decision to allow the Security Council resolution to pass 14-0. These posts probe both sides of the argument and raise interesting questions for us all to consider.

David Remnick in The New Yorker, "The Obama Administration's Final Warning on the Middle East Peace Process"

T'ruah Statement on UNSC Resolution
תניא, רבי אומר: איזו היא דרך ישרה שיבור לו האדם - יאהב את התוכחות, שכל זמן שתוכחות בעולם - נחת רוח באה לעולם, טובה וברכה באין לעולם,ורעה מסתלקת מן העולם
Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi said, “What is the correct path that a person should choose? Love tokhecha (rebuke/correction), for as long as there is rebuke in the world, comfort comes to the world, good and blessing come to the world, and evil departs from the world.”—Talmud Tamid 28a
Over the past few days, we have heard significant pain and anger from the Jewish community and from the State of Israel regarding the recent UN Security Council Resolution and the decision by the United States to abstain, thus permitting it to move forward. It is true that the UN has a history of paying disproportionate attention to Israel. In the past, T’ruah has spoken up against problematic resolutions, including the UNESCO resolution this fall that ignored the Jewish historical connection to Jerusalem and to our holiest sites there.
In this case, however, the tokhecha contained within this resolution simply reflects decades of U.S. and international policy that affirms the goal of “two democratic States, Israel and Palestine, liv[ing] side by side in peace within secure and recognized borders,” and decries settlements as an obstacle to achieving this vision. We encourage those concerned about this resolution to read it in full before responding.

T’ruah has long advocated for an end to occupation, which violates the human rights of Palestinians while threatening the safety and security of Israelis. The expansion of settlements involves land theft, as well as the blocking of access to land and of freedom of movement for Palestinians. Within Area C of the West Bank, where the settlements sit, Palestinians and Israeli citizens living side-by-side are governed by two different systems of law, in contradiction of international law and of the biblical principle, “You shall have one law for citizens and strangers alike.” (Leviticus 24:22)
The settlements and the entrenched occupation also threaten the well-being of Israelis, including those soldiers who risk their lives to defend an ill-fated policy; the Israelis who see their tax dollars diverted from needed health, education, and welfare programs in order to allocate disproportionate funding to those living in settlements; and Israelis and Jews around the world who face increasing isolation as a result of the policy of occupation. No less a figure than Rabbi Ovadia Yosef ruled that the return of territory may be permitted--or even obligatory—for the sake of pikuach nefesh—saving life.
Despite accusations that the resolution is one-sided, we welcome the call to the Palestinian Authority for “confronting all those engaged in terror and dismantling terrorist capabilities, including the confiscation of illegal weapons” and the condemnation of “all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror, as well as all acts of provocation, incitement, and destruction.” T’ruah has always condemned terrorism and rejected any claims that political aims justify violence against civilians.

The capture of East Jerusalem during the Six-Day War restored Jewish sovereignty over our holiest sites for the first time in modern history. We pray and work for a two-state solution that will preserve Jewish access to these sacred sites. However, the continued policy of demolition of Palestinian homes;  the lack of permits for Palestinians to build in the East Jerusalem neighborhoods where they live; the expansion of settlements in these neighborhoods, often by shady legal tactics; and the failure to provide basic city services to East Jerusalem Palestinians living on the wrong side of the wall that cuts through the “eternal undivided capital of the Jewish people” simultaneously violate human rights, fly in the face of Jewish law and values, provoke anger among the Palestinian population, and make the goal of peace harder to achieve.
The rhetoric on the part of the Israeli government and some segments of the Jewish community that caricatures the UNSC resolution as an erasure of Jewish history or as a rejection of our connection to Jerusalem only blurs the distinction between Israel and the occupied territories, and reinforces the perception that standing up for Israel requires defending occupation. In fact, we should celebrate the resolution’s distinction  between Israel within the Green Line and the occupied territories, and its rejection of the one-state solution increasingly called for by many in the BDS movement. Standing up for the future of Israel and for the safety of Israelis and Jews around the world requires distinguishing between our commitment to Israel and the current policy of occupation, and working toward a two-state solution.
We affirm the call by the UNSC resolution for “all parties to continue, in the interest of the promotion of peace and security, to exert collective efforts to launch credible negotiations on all final status issues.” The expansion of settlements, including so-called “natural growth” changes the facts on the ground before territory can be negotiated. Even the areas that, according to most maps, will end up in Israel must be negotiated as part of a final status agreement. We also affirm the call to Palestinians to end the terrorism and incitement that frightens Israelis from taking bold steps toward peace, as well as rejecting “Price Tag” attacks and other violence and incitement on the part of Jews.

Much of the Israeli and Jewish communal response to the UNSC resolution, as well as to all tokhecha regarding settlement growth, has emphasized the failure of Palestinians to accept past agreements, or focused on terror as the primary obstacle to peace. While there is certainly reason to find fault with both sides—as the UNSC resolution does—Zionism, ultimately, is about taking our future in our own hands, rather than waiting for someone else to determine our future. This means both accepting responsibility for the misguided and dangerous policy of settlement expansion, and taking it upon ourselves to do what is necessary to bring about peace.
In permitting the hotly contested peace agreement with Egypt, including relinquishing land captured in war, Rabbi Chaim David Halevy wrote:
We have great doubts regarding this peace agreement. That is to say—it’s possible that it will be temporary until the Arab world gathers the strength necessary for another round.
But it’s also necessary to remember that it’s possible that it will continue for a long time. . .Therefore, it is incumbent on us, without considering their ultimate intentions, to cultivate this peace, and to do whatever is in our power that it should develop and set down roots, out of hope and faith that time will heal all wounds, and that a new generation will rise that has not personally suffered the defeat of war and the humiliation that follows. (Aseh L’kha Rav 4:1)

The obligation to pursue peace weighs especially heavily as we approach the momentous fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War. Just as the biblical yovel year—the fiftieth year of the agricultural cycle—brought liberation and a fresh start, we commit to using this moment to move forward toward peace, a two-state solution, an end to occupation, and a better future for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

How to Increase the Light

Why do Hanukkah and Christmas come on the same day this year?

Hanukkah falls on Kislev 25, just as it does every year.
This year, incidentally, the Hebrew month of Kislev coincides with the month of December.

And that’s how we end up lighting the first candle on Erev Christmas.

I’m thinking about how best to light up Hanukkah in eight different ways.  “We have come to banish the darkness” is a contemporary Israeli Hanukkah song that speaks to the darkness many of us may be feeling (whether due to personal issues or anxiety about our country and the world).

Here are suggestions for bringing more light into the world for every night of Hanukkah. Read them all now so that you’re ready to welcome the lights of Hanukkah next week!

Night 1 (Saturday night, December 24)—lighting up the world for 65 million refugees
When you say the blessings for the first night and say the shehecheyanu to give thanks for being alive to celebrate this holiday, add this prayer from HIAS for the world’s refugees.

Night 2 (Sunday night, December 25)—lighting up our intergenerational community
Second Night Light promises to bring light to HBT members and friends of all ages with fun, joy, family, and friendship. Come spin the dreidl with our youngest members and hear stories of Hanukkahs past. Discover the magic of the HBT community. Bring your own hanukkiyah (Hanukkah menorah) to light up the social hall.

Night 3 (Monday night, December 26)—lighting up with an inspiring book/video
Snuggle up and enjoy Ezra Jack Keats’ The Snowy Day. Did you know that Keats was Jewish? Read the classic book that changed children’s literature in 1962,celebrate the author’s 100th birthday, and watch the streamed animated special with a Hanukkah twist.

Night 4 (Tuesday night, December 27)—lighting up with Guilt-Free Gelt
No, it’s not calorie-free. T’ruah offers fair-trade Hanukkah gelt (in milk and dark chocolate). Read this kavvanah and enjoy your chocolate while lighting up your conscience!

Night 5 (Wednesday night, December 28)—lighting up our own spirits
Maybe you can’t escape those feelings of fear, anxiety, and loss. Maybe candles aren’t enough. RitualWell offers prayers and rituals to find healing in hard times. Have you ever visited a mikveh? If you haven’t watched it, see the Mayyim Hayyim video that features HBT, Rabbi Penzner, and member Forbes Graham. Or watch it again.

Night 6 (Thursday night, December 29)—lighting up the baseball diamond
Spring training is just eight weeks away!
Get a taste of spring by celebrating baseball—Jewish style.
Remember, relive, or become acquainted with Hank Greenberg. Not only was he the first famous Jewish player in the major leagues, but he had a social conscience, too. Watch the film, “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” (a terrific present for Hanukkah fans and baseball fans alike!)

Night 7 (Shabbat, December 30)—lighting up the spirits of people who are alone
This short essay in Hadassah magazine can inspire you to be with someone who might be alone right now. Invite them for Shabbat and candlelighting, or bring Shabbat and Hanukkah to them. Cherish the moment. (Full disclosure: a FB friend drew my attention to this article because the author quotes me in it. Besides that, it’s a very moving piece.)

Night 8 (Saturday night, December 31)—lighting up the New Year with rededication
That’s what Hanukkah means, after all. How will you pick yourself up after 2016 and bring your light into the world? Start off 2017 with resolve to recommit yourself to live the values you espouse. Will you add an hour or two each week or each month to write letters, volunteer, show up at a rally? Will you add a little more to your donations to the organizations you believe in most? Will you add an act of kindness every day? Will you come to HBT one more time each month to support and sustain our community and nurture your soul? Make a list and put it somewhere where you will see it every day.

Hag urim sameyach! Happy Hanukkah!

Monday, December 19, 2016

"We pledge to be stronger together" - My prayer at the meeting of the Massachusetts Presidential Electors

Today I attended the ceremony where the Massachusetts Electors for President of the United States met at the State House to cast their votes for President. All 11 of the Massachusetts electoral votes went for Hillary Clinton. 

The presiding state Secretary of State received thunderous applause when he reflected back on Massachusetts' role in the 1972 election of Richard Nixon: "I'll conclude by reminding you that 44 years ago this day, at this proceeding, Massachusetts stood alone as the only state not voting for the constitutional winner of that election. Less than two years later, he was no longer president." 

I was honored to be chosen, along with a Catholic Priest and Muslim Imam, to deliver an invocation before the balloting. 


This was my prayer (slightly edited):

We pause in this moment to give thanks to the Holy One, the Source of All, who brings us to this historic moment to witness the fulfillment of the historic duty of these electors, representing the diversity of our people and the values that are representative of this Commonwealth. We give thanks to the Holy One for the good that has come from the historic administration of the first African-American president of these United States. And we give thanks for the goodwill that resides in the American people, we give thanks for these leaders, and for all who are committed to the highest ideals of this democratic republic, we give thanks for those who believe in the ideal of public service and good governance, and for the ideal of working together for the common good.

In the Jewish tradition, we mark the ending of a sacred book by standing together and proclaiming, in Hebrew chazak, chazak, venitchazek, meaning “be strong, be strong, and we all will become stronger." As we close the book on one era and prepare to open another, we speak to one another as a sacred community and say, “I will be strong, you will be strong, and together, we will be stronger."

We pledge today to be stronger together to resist the forces that seek to divide us.
We pledge today to be stronger together to support one another when faced with bigotry and hatred.
We pledge today to be stronger together to preserve our planet’s life and health.
We pledge to be stronger together to defend the Constitution.
We pledge to be stronger together to protect human rights.
We pledge to be stronger together to sustain our democracy.

Chazak, chazak, venitchazek. Holy One, Source of All, give us all the strength to stand together through adversity and challenge as we have stood together through prosperity and progress. Stand with us, Holy One, and make us stronger as we face the days ahead.

Thursday, October 13, 2016


Walls are going up everywhere. Great Britain wants to create a virtual wall from Europe, and European nations want to erect walls to keep out immigrants. Not to mention the wall that Mexico is going to fund to keep immigrants out of the US.

There are other walls inside our country. We are walled off from people who are different from us. In detention centers, walls separate families. Those in prison are surrounded by walls. These walls divide prisoners and their loved ones. In solitary, walls divide one human being from the entire world of experience, human connection, human touch, life. These are walls that sap the strength and deaden the lives of human beings. Human beings who need to be tended and mended are buried alive behind walls.

We could take hammers to smash the walls that divide us. That might feel good in the moment. But violence doesn’t bring walls down. Violence only helps erect new ones. How we take down the walls is related to how we make peace.

Making peace is hard. Shimon Peres, after a lifetime of leadership, making mistakes and ultimately committing himself to peace, said in an interview not long before he died,
“Whoever you try to negotiate with is not a partner. You start from animosity, not from peace. The purpose of negotiation is to convert somebody who is not a partner to somebody who will be a partner,”

Making peace is hard. I did not come back from Israel with a grand vision for peace. I came back from this trip, my 20th time in Israel, with a shift in my thinking about Israel, Palestine and peace, and how to break down the walls.

In two and a half weeks, I visited my favorite people and places and was reminded of all that I love about Israel. And my eyes saw and ears heard the disturbing aspects of life in Israel and in Palestine. I felt love and joy, distress and discomfort, kindness and generosity, fear and anger. And heartbreak.

For nine days, Brian I joined Rabbi Toba Spitzer, members of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek, and a few HBT members for an unusual tour run by MEJDI. This company specializes in “dual narrative tours.” We had two guides, an Israeli woman named Morgie and a Palestinian man named Nabil, whose personal stories became part of our itinerary. We stayed in hotels in Tel Aviv, Nazareth, and East Jerusalem and visited sites in Israel as well as the West Bank. Wherever we went, we heard different narratives from our two guides, and we met Jews and Palestinians doing work for coexistence in Israel and in Palestine.

[I hope you will each consider signing up for an HBT dual narrative tour that I hope to lead in February 2018, 1 ½ years from now.] I believe that every Jew, whether a supporter of Israel or a critic, should go on a tour that tells the Palestinian narrative as well as the Jewish one. In between the hard conversations on this trip, we also got to know the pleasures of Israel in its fullness, from welcoming Shabbat in Tel Aviv at the port, to eating shakshuka in a crowded restaurant in Yaffo, to visiting olive groves and eating honey from the comb in the Galilee, to wandering through the Arab shuk in Akko, in Nazareth, and in Jerusalem. It was the best tour I’ve ever taken.

After only one day of touring together, our group gathered to share first impressions. Over and over, people shared this observation: the situation is complicated. That summed up every day afterward.

In my time in Israel, there was almost no one that I agreed with wholeheartedly. Not even my closest friends. And that’s ok. That’s the nature of being human. We are all puzzle pieces, and they don’t always fit together to make a coherent picture.

Instead of finding agreement, my purpose was to listen to everyone with an open heart. What I want to share on this Yom Kippur night are those places where I found open hearts that left me with reason to hope. Not a messianic hope. Not a Niagara Falls of hope, but the drip drip drip of small acts of everyday people that over time, wears down mountains. The unending stream of small hopes that lead us, someday, to a river of peace.

I have chosen this path to help us bridge our divides, to move us away from the paralysis and fear of expressing our opinions, and to give us direction as a congregation. I want to adapt the mission of Kids4Peace: “to change the conversation, to bring new questions, and new answers to the struggle for peace, ones that are based in real relationships of trust and understanding.”

Let me share three places that we visited on the tour that filled us with hope:
Sindyanna olive cooperative in the lower Galilee.
The three-fold mission of this cooperative run by Arab and Jewish women:
·         providing fair wages to agricultural workers
·         improving the agricultural sector of the Israeli Arab community
·         women’s empowerment.
Our group walked in the olive groves and saw how Sindyanna’s trees flourished, went to the visitor’s center in Kafr Kanna, where we bought olive oil products (also available at Whole Foods!). We ate a delicious lunch prepared by the women of the cooperative, watched a video about Sindyanna’s empowerment program teaching women to weave baskets, and met the women from local villages whose lives had been changed. By the end we had a full experience of the success of Sindyanna and its hopeful vision. Jews and Arabs working together to improve the economic life for everyone in the region, creating new friendships in the process.

Roots. Some of us had already heard the founder, Ali Abu Awad, tell his story in the Boston area over the past two years. Ali is one of my heroes. His personal story is one of growing up in the West Bank in a home dedicated to the PLO. He served time in an Israeli prison for throwing rocks, then read Gandhi and Malcolm X and a host of other books while in prison. After Ali’s brother Yousef was killed by Israeli soldiers, Ali made non-violence his life mission. At his family home located in the midst of the Jewish settlements of Gush Etzion, just south of Jerusalem, Ali brings people together who otherwise don’t speak to one another. Ali has cultivated a number of settlers and rabbis who share in his vision. As Ali put it, “There is no peace without truth. Not one truth, but the two truths.”

While we sat in the shaded hut drinking Turkish coffee, we heard from a settler named Shaul Judelman and then Ali spoke. They each told their personal story, their pain and struggles, their connection to the land and why each believed they had a right to live there. They spoke without apologies or defensiveness and listened to each other with respect and friendship.

Ali asked: “What is justice? The only justice is to bring back my brother Yousef to his kids. Short of this there is no justice. Revenge appears to be justice. Reconciliation is the best revenge. Suddenly the devil has a face and he’s not a devil, he’s just like you and he has paid the same price as you. We have both lost but our life conditions are not the same. The best weapon that I never use is inside me. My humanity.”

Yakir Englander is another one of my heroes. He too comes with a complicated personal story. Yakir grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic family in B’nai B’rak, and left at age 22 to see the wider world. First he served in the army. His job was to collect the human remains after terrorist attacks. He went on to get his PhD, no small feat for someone who had never had secular studies. Now he is fully committed to peace-making. For several years he was director of Kids4 Peace in Israel, bringing together Jewish, Muslim and Christian teenagers. (You will have the chance to hear him in November.) Here is Yakir’s vision:
“I don’t believe in peace. I believe in making peace. Oseh shalom is in the present. It’s not a future goal, it’s what you do.”

Knowing how hard this is, Yakir believes that peace making requires hearing the other’s pain. Like Ali, Yakir will meet with anyone. Yakir brought with him a young Jewish Israeli named Oren who has been active in Yakir’s newest program, Dialogue to Action. This group brings together everyday residents from both the Jewish and Palestinian communities of Jerusalem to meet one another and work together in concrete ways for change.

Oren described how he was afraid to attend a meeting of Dialogue to Action because it took place in East Jerusalem. But then, he told us, “I shattered a wall and went to East Jerusalem.” While having a conversation about peace-making with a Palestinian on the roof of a house, he got an idea. Let’s start right here. So they worked together to clean up the roof. They painted a mural on the wall. For Oren, this was a success: “small enough to work and big enough to do something.” Now he is a leader, building a network of peace-makers across Jerusalem.

These three hopeful examples (Sindyanna, Roots, and Dialogue to Action) are but a few of the many grassroots efforts that we rarely hear about, programs that bring Jews and Palestinians together, among them the Abraham Fund, Sikui, Hand in Hand Schools, Givat Haviva, Galilee Foundation for Value Education among many other groups, most of them with supported from the New Israel Fund.  

Oren said he “shattered a wall” to go to East Jerusalem. Where was that wall? It wasn’t a concrete barrier. It was an internal wall, a wall that divided Oren from himself.

The hardest wall to break down is the wall around our hearts. These walls defend us from change, from our fears, from becoming vulnerable. But the walls that protect us can harden and choke us off from love. That is the wall that Oren shattered. And that was the wall I learned to shatter. This was the most instructive lesson of my time in Israel, because breaking down the wall around our hearts is something we can all do, we all need to do, to make peace here at home. The story of breaking down the walls of my heart is the story I want to tell you tonight.

One of the reasons I planned this trip to Israel this summer was because my niece, Moriyah, invited me to her bat mitzvah. She even changed the date of the party to suit my schedule. Of my four siblings, I was the only one who would be at the celebration. The only problem was a big one: the party was going to take place in the West Bank.

My sister Devra has lived on the West Bank for over twenty years, but recently, she and her family had moved from Ma'aleh Adumim, a bedroom community close to Jerusalem where Brian and I had visited numerous times. Now she lives on a small religious yishuv (settlement) outside of Hebron.

Devra and I have had an agreement for years not to discuss Israeli politics. We’ve found a way to discuss our Jewish religious differences with respect and mutual interest, but since the Gaza withdrawal in 2005, we've avoided anything political. We enjoy getting together when I’m in Jerusalem, but I stood my ground against going to a remote settlement, because I have opposed Israeli settlement policy for most of my adult life. That has always created some distance between us.

As plans for the bat mitzvah changed, the venue shifted from Jerusalem to Maaleh Adumim, to Kiryat Arba and eventually to Ma’ale Hever, the yishuv itself. After much soul-searching, I finally agreed to go. After all, Devra and her family have come to the States for all of our family simchas. She and I both knew it would be hard, and we both ended up being grateful for the other’s kindness.

The yishuv, Ma’ale Hever, is a 45-minute drive south of Jerusalem, past Bethlehem and Kiryat Arba. I was nervous about going there. My sister rented an armored bus, used primarily by settlers to protect them from possible attacks. As I boarded, many of the other guests greeted me warmly. Looking around, I realized that all the women covered their hair, all the men wore large knitted kippot, and every person on that bus lived on a settlement of some kind. I was totally among strangers, and amid people with whom I disagreed about religion and politics. I was about to enter a world that I really didn’t know, and up until that day, didn’t care to know. The day turned out to be filled with surprises.

One of the first surprising things I learned was that several guests had chosen not to come, because they were afraid to travel there too. A few days before, a Palestinian from the area around Hebron had entered a home in a settlement and murdered a thirteen-year-old girl in her bedroom. The entire country was in mourning over this brutal and unprovoked attack. It was understandable that others were afraid.

When we arrived safely at the party, my five nieces and nephews embraced me with joy. I danced with the girls and women behind a partition. I watched my sister sing and dance with the same wild abandon that I’ve felt at a Springsteen or Grateful Dead concert. Though I’m not a fan of segregated dancing, I was again surprised to see how these 12-year old girls were having so much fun, playing games, dancing with their friends. They were dressed in pretty party dresses, not slinky black evening wear like bat mitzvah parties I’ve seen here.

I bounced back and forth between enjoying being at the simcha with my family, and feeling alienated by things I heard.  “Next is the wedding!” they shouted to the twelve-year-old. In her dvar Torah, Moriyah spoke of the imperative to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. And as we stood on my sister’s patio looking out at the desert, my brother-in-law proudly showed me where Abraham walked in his neighborhood, proving his right of ownership. (But I held my tongue.) On the other hand, I was deeply moved by my family’s closeness and the way they adored their younger sister (singing a song they wrote for her, with one of her brothers accompanying the family on the guitar), and by the genuine hospitality and mutual support of their guests.
I discovered the human side of the people I had only known, and opposed, as “settlers.”

To balance this experience, I had decided beforehand that I would need to do an act of tikkun, healing, to reclaim my principled opposition, after the bat mitzvah party. As it happened, the very next day T’ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, was offering a day trip for rabbis. The trip was sponsored by Breaking the Silence, a controversial organization of former soldiers who document the injustices that they witnessed and participated in while serving in the West Bank. It was eerie, heading in another bus—this one without armor—down the same road into the South Hebron Hills, passing the same settlements and hearing a different narrative.

We stood on land in the village of Susya that belonged to Palestinians, where the army had demolished homes and clogged up the wells. We heard about the different justice systems for settlers and Palestinians. Palestinians are under military rule; Israeli citizens are subject to Israeli civil law. When settlers complain about Palestinian attacks, 98% of Palestinian suspects are convicted. When Palestinians complain that settlers are killing their flocks, burning their olive trees, and harassing children walking to school, every day, they have to call the Israeli civil administration, which is a half hour to an hour away. 90% of complaints against settlers are never brought to court.

These were very difficult to see and to hear, as I’m sure they are for you as well. The message of the tour was that the Israeli government is working to make life so miserable for the Palestinians that they would rather leave than stay. At the same time, I had noticed that the Israeli settlers seemed so at home, driving easily from Jerusalem into the territories. It was as if the West Bank was already part of Israel.

Your head may be spinning from these dramatically different stories. Believe me, so was mine. I was confused for days, alternating between anger and despair. I saw no hope for the end of the occupation. No hope for peace. My heart was broken.

That all changed in the coming days. Eating lunch with the people of Sindyanna, sitting in a kind of sukkah with Ali and Shaul, and hearing Yakir’s story on Shabbat morning in the dining hall of an East Jerusalem hotel—all woke me up from my paralysis and pointed me in a new direction.

Hearing their stories gave me the courage to take what I had learned into my own life. My heart was broken open and I decided to take a risk. I had to open up to my sister.

Back in 1997, President Bill Clinton inaugurated his Initiative on Race, saying:
“I believe talking is better than fighting. And I believe when people don’t talk and communicate and understand, their fears, their ignorance and their problems are more likely to fester.”

That became clear to me when I arranged to meet Devra and her husband when we returned to Jerusalem.  Over falafel and pita in an outdoor cafe, we talked about things that matter to us, things we’ve never discussed. Through an indirect route, we ended up talking about dialogue between settlers and Palestinians.

It was a very difficult conversation, and yet we were both grateful for it afterward. I learned things that I had never really known about them. Things that surprised me. It didn't change my political views, but it did create an opening for us to speak more openly, to understand what we share as well as how we are different. Since my return home, we have used email to ask each other probing questions and share some of our heroes, like Yakir and Ali. I am hopeful for this to continue, not knowing exactly where it will lead.

Professor Harlon L. Dalton, professor of law and expert in critical race theory, once wrote, “When we are open and honest with each other; when we abandon our hiding places, take risks, and own up to our own self-interest, when we place on the table our assumptions, fears, trepidations, and secret desires, by that very act we are connecting with one another as equals.”

It doesn’t matter whether we are talking about Israel and Palestine, or race, or any other issue. When we can see each other with the heart, knowing our joys and sorrows, we have the power to bring holiness to our world.

Parker Palmer put it this way:
“imagine the heart broken open into new capacity—a process that is not without pain but one that many of us would welcome. As I stand in the tragic gap between reality and possibility, this small, tight fist of a thing called my heart can break open into greater capacity to hold more of my own and the world’s suffering and joy, despair and hope.” 

Walls are held together by fear. When we bring love to others who are fearful, when we listen to their pain without turning away, we can chip away at the fear and destabilize the wall. When we break down the walls of our own hearts, we open up the possibility for reconciliation, whether with a sister or brother, a parent or a child, a friend or even an acquaintance. It's those small acts of opening the heart that drill holes in the walls that will, slowly yet surely, break them down.

To arrive at a place of understanding, of holding both/and, suffering and joy, despair and hope. That is the work of tikkun olam, repairing our world. That is where I believe God dwells. That is where we begin to work for peace.

Ken yehi ratzon.

Rabbi Barbara Penzner
Kol Nidre 5777
Temple Hillel B’nai Torah