Monday, June 13, 2016

Stop the Pipeline!

On Wednesday, May 25, as I rose early to join an 8 am protest at the West Roxbury Lateral Pipeline site, I wondered what my purpose was for attending. While I believe in the importance of turning back climate change, I have not been a climate activist. Several questions remained unanswered: If we don’t build a pipeline, how will people heat their homes? Isn’t gas cleaner than oil? Is this a NIMBY issue? How effective would this protest be?

From the very first reading that morning, I realized that this protest was much bigger than our neighborhood. It was, no surprise, a poem by Mary Oliver. But it wasn’t the kind of nature poem I’m used to, and it grabbed me by the heart:
We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many.  We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers.  All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity.  And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days ,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

Standing in a circle of clergy from the Jewish, Christian, Unitarian Universalist, Hindu and Buddhist traditions, surrounded by neighbors and activists who had come from all over Massachusetts, I opened my eyes to a much bigger vision than stopping one, admittedly dangerous, pipeline from passing through West Roxbury, under a soccer field, through densely inhabited neighborhoods, and in close proximity to the blasting of an active quarry. The fears of building this pipeline are not centered on our community alone. The symbolism of this action goes well beyond Boston or Massachusetts or the Northeast.

We began our morning vigil at the corner of Grove & Center Streets, right across from the West Roxbury Crushed Stone Quarry. Clergy wore garb of all types and colors, including tallitot. Roy Einhorn, cantor of Temple Israel Boston, carried a Torah scroll. Others carried signs. Passing cars, trucks and buses honked their horns in support. We stood at the entrance of the metering station construction site, a 4-acre plot quickly being leveled and fortified with rebar and concrete foundations. There, Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman, associate rabbi of Temple Sinai, Brookline, opened the Torah scroll and chanted the second passage from the Shema:

“If you truly listen to me, then I will give you rain upon your land in its appointed time, the early rain and later rain, so you may gather in your corn, your wine and oil. And I will give you grass upon your field to feed your animals, and you will eat and be content. Beware, then, lest your heart be led astray, and you go off and worship other gods and you submit to them (you think you are in control), so that the anger of the MIGHTY ONE should burn against you, and seal up the heavens so no rain would fall, so that the ground would not give forth her produce, and you be forced to leave the good land I am giving you.” (Deut. 11:13-21)

Fortified with faith, prayer, and song, about 75 people walked down Grove Street, clergy leading in front, to the pipeline trench bisecting the street. As we approached, the loud bulldozer shut down, and the workers in their hardhats and yellow vests stepped out of the trench. The work stopped. Sixteen clergy leaders stepped into the road, crossed the protective markers, and sat down, feet hanging over the trench. I stood among the protestors across the trench who were not risking arrest, in solidarity with those who were.  

As a group, we began with a Prayer for the Spectra Workers, and a prayer for the police, affirming that our protest was not directed against them. Soon a police officer came over to warn the 16 that they were trespassing. He informed them politely that if they did not leave, they would be arrested. We watched as about ten to fifteen minutes later, a paddy wagon pulled up. Then another other. We watched West Roxbury police in blue uniforms step out and head, respectfully, toward the protesters.

Just before the police intervened, each of the 16 stated why they were there. One man spoke about people in his homeland of India where temperatures are a ghastly 124 degrees. Others spoke of their grandchildren. They were there out of love, out of conviction, out of humility, out of hope.

Then the police asked each one to stand, and one by one, they were handcuffed and escorted to the police vans. It was chilling to watch religious leaders locked behind bars in the police vehicles, and then closed in with heavy doors as if in refrigerator trucks, headed toward the West Roxbury Police Station.

The pipeline through West Roxbury is not bringing gas to heat our homes. Spectra is building this high-pressure (750 psi) pipeline for Algonquin Gas Transmission to transport fracked gas through our city. National Grid claims the pipe will help make National Grid's system more reliable. The builders claim the pipeline is safe, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission agreed, arguably with minimal investigation.

Opponents claim that no one has demonstrated sufficient demand to justify a massive new gas pipeline into Boston. Residents don’t want a dangerous pipeline running yards away from their front doors. The City Council has voted unanimously to oppose it. The mayor is challenging the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, in court. Boston’s state and federal legislators are against the project. Senators Markey and Warren have requested further study before proceeding.
We are protesting, because none of these voices have been heeded by the federal authorities.

Researchers at Boston University have shown that current pipelines have over 3,000 documented leaks in the current distribution system. Though the industry claims they are not dangerous — not prone to explosions — they do emit dangerous levels of methane into the atmosphere, a major source of global warming, making LNG even more polluting than coal. As the protestors were taken away, we chanted “Stop the pipeline! Fix the leaks!”

What really moved me was the realization that this entire protest is a wake-up call for all of us who have quietly and helplessly stood by as the economic forces of the fossil fuel industry, urging us to use more and more energy, continue business as usual. It’s a wake-up call that we can make a difference. With the 16 very visible clergy being taken to the police station, that makes over 80 arrests along the construction route in Boston. This movement is growing, here and around the country, calling for change in the way we use energy and where our energy comes from.

See the letter I signed, “Interfaith Religious Leaders Call For Climate Justice” at whose mission is to “invite clergy from all faith traditions to engage in soulful leadership by exemplifying the ‘task of re-centering society imbued with the hope, joy and serenity which only flow from living in the truth.’”

There are many small ways we can bring that hope, joy and serenity to our commitment to climate action. Drive by the construction site, honk your horn, join a vigil. Stop using plastic and paper grocery bags and bring your own reusable bags. Cut back on your energy use, whether turning down the a/c, turning off lights, reducing the temperature on your hot water boiler.

It’s time to change the conversation from political feasibility to moral imagination. 
It’s time for us to get beyond our sense of helplessness and despair. It’s time for us to peacefully, joyfully, and persistently choose a different path, the moral path. For our future, for our grandchildren, for the life of all humanity, we can make a difference.

Friday, May 20, 2016

A Bar Mitzvah party funded by exploiting workers?

Mazal tov, Nelson Peltz!

We share your joy in celebrating the bar mitzvah of your twin sons.

Bar mitzvah marks a young man’s coming into an age of responsibility. The Jewish community welcomes our young men and women into the world of mitzvot, of Jewish obligations. We look forward to seeing young Zachary and Gregory stepping into this role of making important decisions about their lives, about their Jewish observance, and about how they interact in the world.

In our Boston congregation, the b’nai mitzvah students demonstrate their commitment to others by taking on a community service mitzvah. In 2011, when T’ruah and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) called on us to speak to Trader Joe’s managers and executives to convince them to sit down at the table with migrant tomato pickers, our students showed up at our local Trader Joe’s with signs and petitions. It didn’t take long for Trader Joe’s to learn that consumers care about where their produce comes from. They didn’t want to buy or sell tomatoes that were associated with slavery, violence, or sexual harassment. Trader Joe’s joined the CIW’s Fair Food Program in 2012, leading to real change for farm workers and their families.

What is Nelson Peltz teaching his sons at their bar mitzvah celebration? While Peltz lavished them with a $2 million dollar celebration, featuring a hockey rink, stilt-walkers, and celebrities, he continues to refuse to even sit at a table with the workers of the CIW. Peltz, as head of Trian Partners, is the largest shareholder in Wendy’s—the last major fast-food corporation to refuse to talk to the CIW. 

While Peltz and his family enjoyed a bar mitzvah that celebrates wealth, he and his corporation profit from human rights abuses in the tomato fields.

Not only has Wendy’s refused to join the CIW’s Fair Food Program, which has unparalleled enforcement (with market consequences) of its human rights protections for Florida’s migrant workers, Wendy’s has abandoned the Florida growers to buy tomatoes from notorious growers in Mexico. 90% of Florida growers are part of the Fair Food Program, supported by 14 major food retailers such as Taco Bell, McDonalds, Subway, Burger King (in other words, all of Wendy’s competitors), Walmart, and Whole Foods. But Wendy’s doesn’t seem to care about true prevention of slavery, worker exploitation, violence, wage theft, or sexual harassment. Instead, Wendy’s chooses to buy cheaper tomatoes from known human rights abusers.

Today, our synagogue students are spreading the word to boycott Wendy’s, until they show real commitment to supporting farm workers rights by joining the Fair Food Program. Recently, the students sent Mr. Peltz their own messages about why he should represent justice, compassion, and fairness.

We hope that the Peltz bar mitzvah was a joyous occasion. And we also hope that the lessons of bar mitzvah are more than self-congratulations and conspicuous consumption. A Jewish education stresses justice, compassion, and acting for a better world for all. 

As one of our synagogue’s students wrote to Nelson Peltz, urging Wendy’s to join the Fair Food Program, “Your parents would ground you for this.” 

Friday, March 18, 2016

Fasting and Hamantashen: the Dark and Lighter Sides of Purim

Purim is upon us! Fun for kids and grownups: carnivals, masquerades and hamantashen. Also thinking of others too — mishloach manot (sharing gifts of food) and matanot l’evyonim (giving gifts of money) are central mitzvot, as well as hearing the story of Esther on Purim night.

The day before Purim is not a jolly day. While we may be getting our costumes ready and preparing plates of hamantashen to share, the day before Purim is a Jewish fast day, Ta’anit Esther (the fast of Esther). Most liberal Jews I know ignore this and other fast days that appear in the Jewish calendar (except Yom Kippur, and maybe Tisha B’Av).

These “minor fasts” usually recall tragic events in Jewish history. Ta’anit Esther is different. First of all — spoiler alert — the Book of Esther is not historical. It’s a fictional account of Diaspora life as imagined in ancient Persia. The fast of Esther does not commemorate a tragedy; it is lifted from the account of Esther preparing to meet the king.

The Book is not only fiction, it is a farce. Every aspect of it is meant to be laughable. The king who approaches every occasion as an opportunity to hold a feast and get drunk. The Jewish woman who masquerades as queen, and whose identity is revealed at the critical moment, to save her people. The comedy of the villain leading his nemesis around town on a horse, following the king’s orders to sing his praises as the villain himself had wished to be praised. The book is filled with ludicrous reversals of fortune, similar to those found in comic opera or Shakespeare.

Even the dreadful denouement in chapter 8, when the Jews go on the rampage, is a communal catharsis, a ridiculous fantasy. Since the King cannot change his own decree (how ironic!), he gives the Jews “permission” to defend themselves against those who come to destroy them. In the process they slaughter 75,000 people, and while many others immediately chose to convert.

The Book of Esther was written at a time when it was inconceivable that Jews might be given permission to kill others, even in self-defense. Through times of persecution, exile, pogroms, and massacres, for one day a year Jews enjoyed the Purim celebrations and retold the Purim story as a time for release and revelry.

It can be difficult to recognize comedy in literature. I remember the first time I read Pride and Prejudice. No one told me that it contained satire. I only discovered the humor years later while watching numerous film versions of Jane Austen’s masterpiece and howling with laughter.

Reading the 8th chapter of Esther in our own day, particularly in a political environment poisoned by vicious hatred, raises legitimate concerns. The violence is worthy of being noted and condemned. However, those who believe these passages provide a precedent for violence today are missing the point of the story. Not just for the Jews but among persecuted peoples everywhere, playfully imagining the destruction of one’s attackers is not akin to real violence. While we need to be careful about the link between violent speech and violent action, we also need to be able to see cartoon humor for what it is.

Nevertheless, some contemporary Jewish extremists have misread these sections and used them as a mandate for violence against any enemies of the Jewish people. These Jews are wrong and their actions bring shame on all Jews. For this reason, I choose to fast on Ta’anit Esther. This is the way that I respond to the fantasy violence in the Purim story — by grieving the deaths of those who have been the victims of Jewish hatred. I was living in Israel when Baruch Goldstein slaughtered innocent Muslims at prayer on Purim. Most Jews were shocked by this immoral act. Baruch Goldstein not only did violence to innocent Muslims, he violated Purim itself. Just as the Fast of Esther was the queen’s way of acknowledging the danger that awaited her when she went, unbidden, to see the king, this fast is my own “tikkun,” my personal act of repair, for the danger that has been unleashed from the Purim story.

I love Purim and I deplore violence. Yet I choose to celebrate the holiday with abandon, and I refuse to delete the offending passages. One essential lesson of Purim is to recognize that we can hold joy and humor at the same time we acknowledge grief and suffering. The world is filled with both. One of my very favorite rabbinic takes on Purim addresses this paradox directly.

Rabbah and Rabbi Zera joined together in a Purim feast. They became drunk and Rabbah arose and killed Rabbbi Zera. On the next day, he prayed on Rabbi Zerra’s behalf and bought him back to life. Next year, Rabbah said: “Will your honor come and we will have the Purim feast together?” Rabbi Zera replied: “A miracle does not take place on every occasion.” (Talmud Megillah)

This is a Talmudic joke, built on a terrifying story. That’s the poignant truth of Purim, right there. Celebrate until your heart’s content, and be wary of the dangers.

As my colleague, Rabbi Rena Blumenthal, has written so beautifully:

“Purim is the most exhilaratingly honest of holidays. For one day a year we stop pretending that we understand the way of the world, that we know the purpose of our lives, that we can possibly comprehend God’s will.… We playfully hold up the idolatrous masks under which we have been hiding, laugh at our elaborately costumed selves, and, in opening our hearts to the terrifying truth of the human masquerade, experience deep liberation and joy.”

Wishing you joy, even amidst our fear and sorrow.
Rabbi Barbara Penzner

Thursday, March 10, 2016


“Wendy’s is the new Haman!”

That was the conclusion our Chaverim School students came to after hearing about Wendy’s refusal to join the Fair Food Program and treat the tomato pickers fairly.

Last week, our students created colorful “Tomatoes of Justice” (protest letters) to Nelson Peltz, CEO of Wendy’s, which I carried to a protest rally in New York City on March 3. Check out the link for photos! You can also see color photocopies of the kids’ tomatoes in the entrance to the temple (by the office).

I reported back to them that the tomato pickers announced their decision to BOYCOTT WENDY’S. All our kids took the pledge to boycott, and to tell other people why.

The students knew about boycotts that have succeeded in the past. They brought up the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I told them about the successful Hyatt Boycott. But not all boycotts are successful. The CIW is choosing boycott as a last resort. 

For over three years, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has tried to persuade Wendy’s to sign on to the Fair Food Program. This tactic was successful in the past with Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Walmart and Stop n Shop, as well as the other major fast food chains. The only boycott in the CIW history was its first campaign to convince Taco Bell to sign on in 2005.

Instead of protecting workers through a system of accountability, Wendy’s has abandoned the Florida tomato fields altogether. Now they are buying tomatoes from Mexico where workers suffer exploitation and abuse without any recourse. That’s why the CIW decided to take the next step, to BOYCOTT WENDY’S.

What can you do to give migrant workers a fair wage and a work life free of exploitation, sexual harassment, and violence?
  • Take a moment to watch a short video from the Worker’s Tour as they stopped to honor women on International Women’s Day.
  •   Click here to access everything you need to know about the CIW, Wendy’s and how you can be a part of the Tomato of Justice.
  •  Take the pledge to BOYCOTT WENDY’S.
  •  Share the story of the CIW, their fight for justice, and the WENDY’S BOYCOTT. Post a link on social media. Tell your friends.
Since 2011, HBT has supported the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to inform consumers about the plight of migrant tomato workers. Our visits to managers at Trader Joe’s contributed to the CIW’s successful effort to get Trader Joe’s to sign on.

We have partnered with T'ruah (The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights) to make the Jewish community a significant supporter of the CIW.

I am proud to be a “Tomato Rabbi.”

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Just Mercy: Reflections from Sabbatical

“I am a member of a racial minority. Often, a person I do not know will take pains to bring a matter to my attention (a news article, movie or lecture) that features the subject of my race. I don’t pretend that people are color blind. But I am put off when a person I have just met tells me that I should read a book on my group’s experience with the American justice system. How should I respond?”

This question came to the NY Times advice columnist, Philip Galanes. In his February 25 column, Galanes suggested several thoughtful ways to respond, including asking them “Why, exactly, do you suppose that book will interest me?” Then the columnist added “(And if the book is “Just Mercy,” everyone should read it.)”

Everyone should read this book.I'm grateful to Alice Levine and Rabbi Sheila Weinberg for urging me to read it. When I finally picked it up last month, I could not put it down.

Lawyer Bryan Stevenson is a marvel. He is obviously a skilled and talented attorney, who has freed hundreds from unjust prison sentences. He has argued to change incarceration laws for juveniles successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court. Twice. His organization, the Equal Justice Initiative continues to work successfully on behalf of those “who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.”

Stevenson is also an engaging writer as he unfurls the tale of Walter McMillian, a death row inmate who was arrested, imprisoned, tried, and committed to death row based on flimsy evidence (at best) and corruption and racial bias (at worst). In alternating chapters, he also describes how women, children, mentally handicapped, and poor people fall victim to our broken criminal justice system. Nearly every chapter broke my heart.

Surprisingly, this book also offers redemption and hope. Just as he depicts the system as unbearably out of whack, Stevenson’s honesty and personal commitment provide a stirring model for making real change.

The title of the book encapsulates Stevenson’s inspiring approach to his life and work. “Justice” and “mercy” are usually opposing goals. On Yom Kippur, we ask God to set aside justice and become merciful with us. Others in our culture embrace punitive justice without regard for mercy. (Angry reactions to the recent sentencing of Philip Chism are just one example.) “Just mercy” implies that these two truths can (and ought to) coexist.

The prophet Micah implores us to find a balance between justice and mercy in our everyday relationships. “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with…” (Micah 6:8) Micah lived through a time of upheaval, moral degradation, dislocation, and fear. He witnessed the Assyrian conquest of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 721 BCE and the exile of its leaders. He surely knew the suffering of the people of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, who endured the Assyrian siege of the fortified city protecting the capital, Jerusalem. Micah was one of the first to have foreseen the ultimate fall of Judah, which finally occurred more than a century after his death. Despite the terrors of war and destruction, Micah continued to preach a message of hope: “Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with…”

In our own day, we are also witness to upheaval, moral degradation, dislocation and fear. We may be filled with despair. Like a prophet, Stevenson offers us a path out of our fear and anguish. At the end of the book, he tells us that he’s learned that “fear and anger are a threat to justice; they can infect a community, a state, or a nation and make us blind, irrational, and dangerous.” Then he turns around and instructs us that “mercy is just when it is rooted in hopefulness and freely given.” That is, through love we can find the way to overcome injustice and to embrace hope.

One of the many gifts of having sabbatical time is having time. Period. Time to read. Time to write. Time to think. Time to cook healthy meals and enjoy being with loved ones. Time to do one thing at a time.

Coming back from these nine weeks “away,” I felt reinvigorated. It feels good to do the work that I love. I’m delighted every time I see someone who has been out of my line of sight for two months. I’m particularly grateful to learn that, while people are happy to have me back, the temple and its programs ran very smoothly during my absence.

One teaching I hold onto from this sabbatical time is not to wait until the next one. My book project has a long way to go. You are a part of that project, as I continue to think about Micah’s teaching of justice, mercy, and humility. From time to time I will share these thoughts with you, to continue to learn how these prophetic words can make a difference in our lives.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Why we need to spend 2016 participating in the election campaign

One morning while working out on the machines at the gym, I watched a political ad. Without the sound on, I saw some of the most outrageous statements made by Donald Trump, like banning all Muslims, building a wall and throwing out immigrants. It looked like an attack ad.

But by the end, it was clear, it was not. He was using these immoral, undemocratic, un-American claims as his platform. And we know why—because fear is working in his favor.

Fear is a dangerous force. Those who foster fear inflame the basest tendencies of humanity: anger and hatred. Trump’s words have unleashed a destructive force that not even he can control. When he spews unreflective, unrepentant rhetoric, he validates the evil in people’s hearts. Even if he never explicitly encourages violence, his words condone it. Innocent Muslims and immigrants have already been attacked. Who will be next?

Let’s be clear: we cannot pin responsibility on one candidate alone. Trump’s ideas would have no impact without the fertile ground of divisiveness cultivated by others. Irresponsible pundits and candidates have polluted political discourse with toxic statements of their own. While they attempt to distance themselves from his inflammatory speech, their own docile espousal of similar sentiments have made Trump’s words acceptable.

In Jewish tradition, this power of violent destruction has a name and a face, the “Mashchit” (Destroyer). Jewish tradition warns us that this force, once unleashed, cannot discern between the innocent and the guilty. This warning reminds us that the cycle of violence obeys no moral boundaries. This is the force of the 10th plague in the Exodus story (Ex.12:23) that murdered every firstborn Egyptian.

Nina Paley, "Death of the Firstborn Egyptians"

But if the Destroyer is an unstoppable force, how were the Israelite homes spared?  It took a potent sign, the blood on the doorposts of the Israelites, that protected them.

In a time when so many people are overcome by their fears, whether fear of the randomness of terrorism or fear of the pervasiveness of gun violence, how do we prevent a growing cycle of fear, anger, hatred and violence? What will be the blood on the doorposts that will protect us now?

The only way to close the door on the Destroyer is for us to stand together, not apart. It is up to us to create more human connections, not cut ourselves off. Whether we increase diplomacy with other nations or make peace with our neighbors, we put a stop to the cycle of violence. We must be ready to put the proverbial blood on our doorposts, to proclaim that we will not allow the Destroyer to invade our moral universe. That is the stand we must take as this campaign year unfolds.

Every four years, we have an important decision to make, and 2016 is no exception. Sometimes it feels like we keep fighting the same fight over and over again. The first election that got me involved in political work was the year of Richard Nixon’s reelection in 1972. I was in high school in the suburbs of Shawnee Mission, Kansas, when my family were ardent supporters of George McGovern and in a sea of Republicans. My high school principal had a 6-foot portrait of Nixon hanging in his office. I remember how isolated we felt, how fearful we were, and yet we held out hope. The 1972 election was a contest between supporters of war and seekers of peace. Of course, McGovern only won one state in that election, and all of you who voted in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts earned my life-long admiration.

I could have walked away from that election dejected. I could have refused to participate in campaigning ever again. And yet, I believed fervently that my participation—even though I wasn’t even old enough to vote—was important. Most important, I learned the importance of making my voice heard despite the overwhelming odds. Despite the outcome, I felt empowered. In a democracy, we need not fear airing our disagreements. That’s the power that impels us to join campaigns. That’s the power that brings us together tonight.

In truth, every election is important. The issues do change, the electorate changes, the world’s economic and political structures change. As the President’s State of the Union demonstrated so starkly, the election of 2016 is a choice between two world-views:  between hope and fear. It is a choice between science and science fiction, between health care and health crisis, between human rights and states’ rights, between rationality and the refusal to compromise. This election is a choice between preparing for the unfolding future and striving in futility to return to a sentimentalized past.

That is how the presidential race, the Congressional and Senate races, have shaped up so far. And it makes the work of each one of us all the more important: to speak out, to register voters, to donate to campaigns and attend rallies, to hold signs and go door-to-door, to join phone banks and drive people to the polls. We need to counter the forces of fear and anger with a message of hope and compassion.

However, I believe that these divisions do not define the American people.
I believe that the American public, on the whole, shares much more in common than the polls would have us believe. I am convinced that there are more like-minded Americans than there are extremists, and we have the power to come together—if we turn out to vote.

The shared values that attracted our own immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents to these shores, that gave us voting rights for women and the 40-hour work-week, the values that brought us together in Depression to build this country and in war to defend it and these shared values unite us more than they divide us.

Everyone here today is committed to the vitality of the American political system, whether we are voters, public servants, or elected officials. Yet even as we gather as Democrats, to support Democratic candidates and to advocate for a Democratic platform, we know that achieving those goals will require that we engage people who are not as passionate as we are, not as loyal to party politics, and many who are have opted out of the system entirely.

There are all kinds of strangers. I’m a stranger to most of you here, and likewise, you are strangers to me. But the fact that we’ve all been invited to this gathering, that we pretty much look the same, come from the same town, more or less, makes us feel comfortable together. Perhaps we will become friends. In this company, we aren’t afraid of strangers.

But in another setting, we might feel very differently. We might be suspicious of the stranger who carries a gun or wears a cap that says “Make America great again.” We are only human, and we need to be just as vigilant about our own prejudices.

I want to share words from 1859, the campaign speech that Abraham Lincoln gave at the Wisconsin State Fair

“From the first appearance of man upon the earth, down to very recent times, the words ‘stranger’ and ‘enemy’ were quite or almost, synonymous. Long after civilized nations had defined robbery and murder as high crimes, and had affixed severe punishments to them, when practiced among and upon their own people respectively, it was deemed no offence, but even meritorious, to rob, and murder, and enslave strangers, whether as nations or as individuals. Even yet, this has not totally disappeared. The man of the highest moral cultivation, in spite of all which abstract principle can do, likes him whom he does know, much better than him whom he does not know. To correct the evils, great and small, which spring from want of sympathy, and from positive enmity, among strangers, as nations, or as individuals, is one of the highest functions of civilization.”

Lincoln held up an ideal that still remains outside our grasp, “To correct the evils, great and small, which spring from want of sympathy, and from positive enmity,” and yet, in this time of great national divisions, when so much seems on the line, it is imperative that we continue to try to become even more willing to see strangers as human beings. As we seek to promote our candidates, we need to approach strangers with more curiosity about what they think. We need to listen more than we talk. We need to bring people close, not push them away. We need to hear the stories of pain and struggle, of family loyalty and family heartache, of hopes and dreams. That is the hallmark of a democratic system, to engage in respectful conversation. That is the only hope for the future of this country.

When we connect with other people, we have the best chance of joining together with them, and inviting them to join with us.

We need to acknowledge our fears, but not allow them to rule over us. We need to change the conversation, to advocate for truth, compassion, humility, equity, and justice.   

Let me end with a prayer for our country that comes from the Jewish Reconstructioniost prayerbook. Saying a prayer for the country is part our religious heritage::

Sovereign of all peoples, mercifully receive our prayer for our land and its government. Let your blessing pour out on this land and on all officials of this country who are occupied, in good faith, with the public needs. Instruct them from your ancient laws, enable them to understand your principles of justice, so that peace and tranquility, happiness and freedom, might never turn away from our land. Plant among the people of different nationalities and faiths who dwell here, love and brotherhood, peace and friendship. Uproot from their hearts all hatred and enmity, all jealousy and vying for supremacy. Fulfill the yearning of all the people of our country to speak proudly in its honor.  May our land be a blessing to all inhabitants of the earth. Cause friendship and freedom to dwell among all peoples, so that we may see the vision of the prophets fulfilled in our lifetime, “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Let them learn no longer the ways of war.”

speech delivered to the Ward 6 Democratic Committee of Newton, Mass. 1/14/16

Thursday, December 10, 2015

It is up to us

“Today I am a Muslim. This country sent away my people, the Jews, and they were slaughtered in concentration camps. Stop the hate! Remember the SS St. Louis.
Unite children of Abraham!”

My brother posted this cry on his FB page early Tuesday morning. When my own clock radio roused me with the news of Donald Trump’s so-called proposal to ban all Muslims, I felt a similar outrage.

As I listened all day to denunciations of the candidate, analysis of the impact on the presidential campaign, and Gov. Baker’s characterization of the proposal “ridiculous,” I appreciated the swift condemnations. But my brother’s post brought home a reality that goes beyond any one candidate, beyond decrying hatred and beyond flimsy dismissals.

Trump is no longer a joke. He is not ridiculous. He inflames the basest tendencies of humanity: anger and hatred. His unreflective, unrepentant rhetoric validates evil. His words encourage white supremacy, extremism and violence.

Even if he is defeated in the polls, Trump has given voice to a dangerous element in American society. With his words, he has unleashed a destructive force that even he cannot stop.  Even if he never explicitly encourages violence, his words condone it. Innocent Muslims and immigrants have already been attacked. Who will be next?

More disturbing is that we cannot pin responsibility on one candidate alone. Trump’s ideas would have no impact without the fertile ground of divisiveness cultivated by others. Irresponsible pundits and candidates have polluted political discourse with toxic statements of their own. While they attempt to distance themselves from his inflammatory speech, their own docile espousal of similar sentiments have made Trump’s words acceptable.

Tonight is the fifth night of Hanukkah, and today is also International Human Rights Day. Today is the day for us to remember the best of what is means to be human and to work to overcome the worst evil in the human heart.

It is up to us to work to implement the ideals espoused in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When we light our candles, we must dedicate ourselves to bring more light into a world that seems darker every day. It is up to us—Aleinu—to stand up, to speak out, and to act with love in order to overcome the power of evil.

Today I am a Muslim. Today I am an immigrant. Today I am a refugee. 
Today I am also an advocate for truth, compassion, repentance, equity, and justice. 
I can’t do this alone. Join me. It is up to us.

I was proud of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Boston (JCRC) to issue this statement condemning incendiary language against Muslims.