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I had a wonderful meeting with a man named Mark Crenshaw last month. Mark is the former director of the Interfaith Disability Network. Mark told me a story of how he was leaving a church that he was visiting with his wife and how impressed he was that the pastor was at the door wishing everybody a good day. To each and every person, the pastor asked, “What is your name and what do you do?” Mark saw this interaction as touching and thoughtful. When the pastor got to his wife, he asked her, “What is your name and what you do?” His wife of course answered. When Mark approached for his turn to greet the pastor, Mark, a man who lives with disability, who has led a nonprofit organization, who has a Masters of Divinity degree from Emory’s Candler School of Theology, and who is the Director of Interdisciplinary Training at the Center for Leadership in Disability at Georgia State University… To Mark, the pastor commented, “it’s a nice day out, isn’t it?”
Mark told me the story because he was trying to illustrate how inclusion is not just about offering a special program for people who feel excluded, such as those who live with disabilities. Inclusion is about providing a safe and welcoming space for all – for people with all kinds of abilities.
Sometimes we need to provide opportunities for people with disabilities to connect without worry or concern for being looked at funny or being shushed. For the very first time, Temple Beth Tikvah is going to offer a sensory friendly Shabbat service on Friday night, February 21 at 6:30 PM. I am thrilled to be presenting this in collaboration with the Disability Committee of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta. This is going to be a great learning experience for our congregation. I hope our friends will come, not because “they need it,” but because we will all be able to learn a little bit more about the spiritual and communal needs of people with disabilities and those who love them. If we really mean that we are “a warm and welcoming congregation,” then we have to learn how to open our tents wide enough so that all who choose to can enter and feel at home. Being an accessible congregation means that we have to move “beyond the ramp” and encourage people with disabilities that they are welcome. We can tell our friends, family and neighbors that this service will be open to all and I hope all who are committed to inclusion will come and pray and share together.
I am just as excited for us to host a short film and discussion. This 30 minute film is called, “The Collector of Bedford Street.” It is about a developmentally disabled man who is, frankly, just extraordinary. We witness the goodness he brings out in others as he helps raise money for different causes – despite the fact that he is poor and vulnerable himself. Our discussion will address themes like the gifts we can share with one another, how a community takes care of its neighbors, how one person can make a difference, and how every single person has a gift to offer another. Please look at the information in this newsletter about this program on Thursday, February 13 at 7:30 PM; please RSVP at firstname.lastname@example.org.
These two endeavors are part of the efforts of a new working group at Temple Beth Tikvah. This Inclusion Task Force is assessing the needs of our community to be more inclusive of people with disabilities and different abilities. We look forward to put together our thoughts and plans to present to our Board of Trustees in the near future. If you have an interest in getting involved in such a group, please write directly to me.
I do believe, without exception, that every single human being is created in God’s image. If that is truly the case, then we need to open our hearts and our eyes to the needs of so many who feel like they are on the periphery or just left out of the Jewish community. I think that if we open our tents wide, not only will we provide spiritual nourishment to people who are often forgotten, but we will be enriched by doing so.
Regarding our Sensory Friendly Shabbat Service: there will be a social story to prepare a child for entering into the sanctuary; there will be a safe room for anyone who needs to walk around and stretch or draw in our Oneg Room; there will be a section of the sanctuary where the lights will be lowered; there will be no “shushing”; there will be a sign language interpreter. To see a social story to prepare your child, click here. To RSVP for this Shabbat experience, please contact email@example.com.
For more information about what is going on in Atlanta for Jewish Disability Awareness Month, click here.
Did you know that in Jewish Tradition, when we approach someone who is in mourning, we are not supposed to say anything? We are supposed to let that person speak first. I find that when we are uncomfortable, we fill up the space or the room with words that distract us rather than letting us feel what we must feel.
That is how I feel today. Words cannot truly express the gravity of the losses or the disbelief that I have that such actions could be committed by human beings. It is beyond my understanding how people can be so cruel. And while no words seem to suffice, it is all we have.
Actually, it isn’t really true. We have more than words. I think our tradition tells us to bring comfort to someone who is mourning with our presence, not necessarily our words. It is the act of showing up that brings healing. “Being there” is a very powerful action. So perhaps, we need to “be there” today.
“Out of the depths I called You, O God. Adonai, listen to my cry; let your ears be attentive to my plea for mercy.” (Psalm 130)
While we remember those who died and this terrible crime, it is the Holy One of Blessing/HaKadosh Baruch Hu who is present for us. It is my greatest hope that our discovery of God’s Presence in our lives can lead us to “be there” for others. It is our acts of tzedakah, our acts of chesed (kindness), our ability to imbue such tremendous losses with meaning that will make the memories of those who died be an enduring blessing. It is a day like today that remind me to be a pursuer of peace, not just someone who wishes that it will come.
So maybe… say a prayer. Express some gratitude. Hug our nearest and dearest. Make an act of tzedakah as an offering to show that our lives have purpose. With that, God’s blessings will be upon us, upon those who died, upon those who ran towards the Towers rather than away, upon those who brought a plane down rather than being passive, and upon a great and wonderful country…May God continue to bless the United States of America.
We spend a lot of time talking about Israel’s security. For good reason. However, how can we take care of the body properly if we don’t commit ourselves just as seriously to its soul? We often hear from generals and security experts about the existential threats facing Israel. Iran is among the greatest threats Israel has ever faced, to be sure. But what about some of the internal struggles that Israel is facing?
Within Israel, we see an increasingly radicalized ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) community engaging in acts of religious coercion. This segment of Israeli society has challenged women’s presence in the public domain. The Chief Rabbinate’s Office is emerging more and more fundamentalist, challenging other Orthodox rabbis and their conversions (never mind their exclusion of Reform and Conservative rabbis and our important work). Hostility and even physical attacks are brewed in these anti-Zionist fringe communities. Yet, despite their minority status in Israel, their political power is great due to Israel’s challenging parliamentary system.
This fraction of Israeli society has held a monopoly of state-sponsored Jewish religious expression for decades. In more recent years, the High Court of Israel has mandated that the Government support Reform and Conservative institutions and programs. Those programs and opportunities presented to Israel’s Jewish citizens have been positively received with overwhelming success. But the playing field is still not level.
While I wrote this for our June newsletter, since we published it, dramatic news has come out…the Attorney General of Israel paved the way for the government to support Reform and Conservative rabbis. It isn’t the perfect solution, but it is on the right path for proper equality and recognition of Reform and Conservative rabbis and liberal Jewish practices in Israel. Read more here.
Israel needs us. Not just our support in Congress for things like the Iron Dome Missile System, but to be a partner with Israelis to make sure that Israel’s democracy and Jewish pluralism is sound and strong. Because of what many consider to be a fundamentalist stranglehold over Judaism, many Israelis feel pushed away from developing their own faith and seeing a Jewish tradition that is spiritually compelling and meaningful.
So here is my unabashed plea for support for the Reform movement in Israel. This Reform Jewish community is expanding in new communities to respond to a real need amongst Israelis. In the past ten years our congregations have doubled, our nursery schools have tripled and are full. Today the Israeli Reform movement, led by native born and Hebrew-speaking lay and rabbinic leaders, touches the lives of 250,000 Israelis. It is through the continued growth of our Movement that we are influencing Israeli society for the better. They want a Jewish voice that will give them a community of inspiration, hope, and a view at Jewish sources that is modern and relevant.
Every one of us at Temple Beth Tikvah can be a part of supporting this effort to strengthen Israel as a democratic, inclusive Jewish community by belonging to ARZA, the Reform Fund for Israel. ARZA strengthens the Reform Zionist movement in the U.S., helps to fund Reform congregations in Israel, and supports the Israel Religious Action Center.
As our Nadiv Lev materials go out to you, you will notice an optional (but encouraged) item for you to join ARZA. ARZA will use these funds to continue to educate America’s Jews about Israel, Zionism and Reform Judaism in Israel. It will fund emerging congregations in Israel and IRAC. Your $36 membership fee will go a long way if our community stands together and does its part. ARZA has committed itself to congregations like ours as it re-invests in our synagogue $2 out of the $36 to support Israel programming!
Your membership will enable ARZA to join with the Conservative Movement and the Jewish Federations of North America to continue the fight against religious exclusivity and coercion in Israel.
Zionism was always a big enough tent to include a spectrum of ideas, from Zeev Jabotinsky to Ahad Ha’Am, from David Ben-Gurion to Menachem Begin. While we join the common ground of supporting and showing our love for Israel, we are helping those share a voice reflecting our own, showing that there is more than one way to be Jewish.
So when you see your Nadiv Lev application this summer, I hope you check off the line to join ARZA and help Temple Beth Tikvah do its part as one community.
If you would like to lend your support to a new initiative, helping to provide scholarships to Israeli Rabbinical Students at the Reform movemen’ts rabbinical school, the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, contact me directly. I’d love to tell you more about how Atlanta’s Reform rabbis are coming together to strengthen a progressive Judaism in Israel by supporting an Israeli Reform rabbinical student!
For those of you who don’t know it, Bully is a film that follows the lives of five different students. Two of the stories are about young kids who take their own lives because they just can’t take it anymore. The other stories range from the courageous, resilient Kelby who is a target because she is a lesbian, to the numb Alex who stops feeling anything because he is routinely pummelled on the bus and in school.
The stories are heartbreaking. Simply heartbreaking. But rather than for me to write a review, take a look at the trailer and then scroll below it because…well, we have work to do.
One of the most significant parts of attending the viewing of this film was the discussion in the theater afterwards. What emerged started off as a sharing of feelings — outrage, inspiration, disbelief, anger, and so much more. There was also a sharing of students and parents who were exasperated by not finding the support of schools or local officials. Students are missing school, their grades are dropping, the health is less secure, or they are leaving their schools altogether to be home-schooled because our public and private schools are not truly safe.
Their parents weren’t people who didn’t fight for their kids. These were parents who advocated, fought and lobbied to try to insure the safety of their children. Nothing less than that…their safety! And yet, they were frustrated from the brick wall of school administrators more interested in “Schools of Excellence” rather than citizenship, or that a slogan of “Bully Free Zone” will do the trick.
I saw people with pain today. The stories of these families in the film and the stories of the families in the theater ought to ignite a raging intolerance for this bullying in our schools. We have to fight it because…it isn’t really bullying…it is abuse, assaults, and harassment.
I think right away to our Torah. Look at the very beginning of the Book of Numbers. It says that God instructs Moses to take a census. That makes sense since they were embarking on a long journey towards the Promised Land. They needed to know how many soldiers they would have during their travels. But the Hebrew is: S’u et rosh kol adat b’nai Yisrael — “lift the head up” of everyone in the community of the children of Israel. While the idiom used is simply for a census, I am struck by the idea that in order to take a count, we need to life up the heads of the people and have them feel like they count.
WOW! So to count heads is not enough. If we want to shape a good society and have everyone count, then we have to play a role and lift up the head of our neighbor. It isn’t enough to just take a count; we have to communicate that everyone counts! Everyone matters! Raise up their heads! This community can only make it to the Promised Land if we make sure that everyone is able to hold his or her head up high. Some of them might need some help.
Well, the same is true for today. That is the very least that we can do in our own communities, schools, synagogues, youth programs, and places of work. If someone’s head is down, we must raise them up.
As parents, educators, clergy, mentors or friends, we need to share with our young people that it isn’t only about getting good grades. As important as it is to reach your academic potential, it is just as important to stand up for your peer and take a stand against an injustice.
It’s that simple.
I was glad that our Jewish community got behind this film. The audience today was brought together by BBYO, NFTY-SAR, and a host of Atlanta synagogues and Jewish organizations (click here for info about the pledge to end bullying and who sponsored this gathering). I believe that this is something the Jewish community ought to talk about. It is not only that it is happening to kids in our community, but this is what we have been talking about for the entire past week — being redeemed from Mitzrayim/Egypt and the degradation of slavery. We know what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land, so we cannot tolerate it when it is done to others. Instead, we raise up the heads of others and have them feel like they count.
If there is one thing that I find myself saying over and over again…it is that the synagogue has to be a place where everyone feels safe. Not only is it a no bullying zone, it is where everyone gets to be themselves and be accepted.
I believe with all of my heart that every single person is created in God’s image. If that is our TRUTH, then we must live that way.
What are your thoughts?
Have you been a victim of bullying? How did you get through it?
Have you stood up for others? (Remember: “Don’t stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”)
Here are a few other things to look at:
The Bully Project – there are great resources for parents, educators, and teens here.
My wife’s blog on the film: Puzzled.
And to help you get started in this important task…here is a little inspiration —
A new announcement:
Please join us:
The BULLY Conversation (free to the community)
Sunday, April 29, from 2-4PM, MJCCA
For all parents, families, preteens, and teens who are ready to turn the tide on an epidemic of violence that has touched every community.
Registration will be open on Tuesday, and we will forward that link out to all of you as soon as it is up. (Check in with the MJCCA’s Teen Department).
Participation is not limited to those who were with us at the April 15th screening. Everyone is welcome. We recommend that you see the movie prior to this event, but it is not required.
Osama bin Laden is dead. I heard the news and took a deep breath. I pulled my car over and a sense of relief came over me. I think that there is a measure of justice that was enacted in our world. To reiterate what President Obama has said: “Bin Laden was not a Muslim leader, he was a mass murderer of Muslims.” And he certainly was a man who perverted religion and faith to instigate hatred, intolerance and violence against us and our values.
So why am I so uncomfortable? On the TV, I am seeing chants and celebrations, and despite my sense of relief and comfort with executing justice, I am also saddened — not by bin Laden’s death, certainly not! — but by the revelry that is associated with his death.
I’ll be honest: I do find comfort that he is dead, as difficult as it is to say, because I think the world is safer. I have a hard time believing it brings any closure to families that have suffered from his hands, but I suspect that they may find some level of comfort from his death, too.
But to celebrate someone’s death is different that celebrating a victory.
There is a message (for me) in the fact that we observe Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, last night and today. We remember those whose lights were extinguished far too soon by the Nazis, along with the resilience of the victims, the fighters, and the survivors. Rabbi David Wolpe sees the connection between Yom Hashoah and bin Laden’s death and instructs us as follows: “This is a time to remember those who died, pray for those who fight, meditate anew on wickedness and redouble our dedication to justice.”
Since Passover is so fresh in our minds, I turn back to two key teachings of our Jewish faith. The first is our tradition to remove some of the wine from our cups each time we recite one of the ten plagues during our Seder. If wine is the symbol of joy, then we diminish our joy when we acknowledge how our ancient enemy suffered by taking our fingers and removing some of the wine from our cups. The teaching is reinforced by Rabbi Yohanan who comments that when the ministering angels wanted to sing and celebrate the Israelites crossing the Sea and the water covering Pharoah’s army, God silenced them saying: “The work of my hand is being drowned in the sea, and you chant songs?” (Babylonian Talmud Megilla 10a). It is hard to acknowledge that even our greatest of enemies have some level of God’s divinity in them. But our sages seemed to have thought so.
There are indeed times when our enemies’ deaths are warranted and necessary. Yet our tradition challenges us not to celebrate their deaths; rather, we should show our gratitude for our resilience and survival.
I know that some will read the words above and argue that it is easy for sages who lived centuries ago to make such a pure claim, especially since they never encountered the heinous crimes of a Hitler or a bin Laden. But one of our greatest modern leaders shared the same sentiments. Yithak Rabin, before he became Prime Minister of Israel, was the Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces. He was credited with leading Israel to vicotry in The Six Day War in 1967. The Hebrew University honored Rabin with an honorary doctorate. After he reflected on what it means to be a soldier in Israel and why he, of all people, is getting an honorary degree, he talked about the tremendous spirit of the Israeli soldiers who triumphed over Arab aggression. But then he said:
Nevertheless we find more and more and more a strange phenomenon among our fighters. Their joy is incomplete, and more than a small portion of sorrow and shock prevails in their festivities. And there are those who abstain from all celebration. The warriors in the front lines saw with their own eyes not only the glory of victory but the price of victory. Their comrades who fell beside them bleeding. And I know that even the terrible price which our enemies paid touched the hearts of many of our men. It may be that the Jewish People never learned and never accustomed itself to feel the triumph of conquest and victory and therefore we receive it with mixed feelings.
We should express our joy that justice has prevailed, as we are taught “When the wicked perish, there is song.” There is surely something positive that happens when justice is served and democracy wins. That I can celebrate. I thank God for a strong United States and Israel and the inspiration they both bring to the world. Yet, the Proverb does more than to tell us to be grateful. Are we to celebrate our enemy’s death or rejoice when justice and integrity are victorious? Rabbi Lisa Silverstein Tzur teachers, “I sing, but I sing softly.”
I will sing, too, but softly.