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Volunteer Opportunities

Do you have some time to give? We have lots of great opportunities to help out in our community.

Catholic Multicultural Center: Serving Meals at the Catholic Multicultural Center Is Fun and Easy
Looking for a fun, easy opportunity to help the community and spend quality time as a team? Help serve the daily meal at the Catholic Multicultural Center! The Catholic Multicultural Center provides free meals every day to low-income community members and people experiencing homelessness. Volunteers set out and serve the food and clean up after the meal; you’re busy the whole time and on your feet. Temple Beth El has agreed to serve on the second Monday of each month. Sign up here or contact Sue Levy at

Porchlight Men’s Shelter Needs Cooks, Bakers, and Servers
Our next Porchlight meal is Wednesday, January 29. We need shoppers, cooks, cookie bakers, kitchen minders, delivery people, and servers. This is a fun way to get to know your fellow volunteers!

Learn about Porchlight at

Healing House Volunteer Opportunities
Our next week to help at Healing House is February 9–15. Healing House, a program of Madison-area Urban Ministry (MUM), gives people without homes a place to recover after receiving medical care. This eight-bed facility at 303 Lathrop Street provides 24/7 recuperative care by medically trained staff and volunteers for up to 28 days. Volunteers are asked to assist by cooking and dropping off meals or by serving and cleaning up after dinner at the house. To help with this mitzvah, please sign up at

Emerson: Emerson School Is Seeking Reading and Math Mentors
Seven years ago, Jewish Congregations for Social Justice “adopted” Emerson School on Madison’s east side, and we have been supporting their academics and family programming ever since. We would love to have you join us.

We’re looking for adults who want to work with elementary-age children on reading and math skills:

  • Reading mentors work with beginning readers. Your job is to help children build skills and discover the joy of reading.
  • Math mentors work with children on basic math concepts and lessons. You don’t have to be a math whiz—many kids need support with very basic math facts and strategies that most adults are comfortable with.

Interested? Please contact Marcia Vandercook at

Immigration Assistance Fund: Raising Awareness for Local Immigration Assistance
Temple Beth El is a member of the Dane Sanctuary Coalition, joining with other congregations and organizations to support immigrants in our community. The coalition is starting a project to raise awareness and to fundraise for the Immigrant Assistance Fund. This fund pays for legal services, emergency aid, bail, travel costs, and other aid for undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in Dane County. The fund is administered by the seven members of the Immigration Collaborative (Catholic Multicultural Center, Centro Hispano of Dane County, Community Immigration Law Center, Jewish Social Services, Literacy Network, Rise Law Center, and UW Immigrant Justice Clinic). You can read more about the fund here.

We are looking for volunteers with public relations and/or fundraising experience to be part of a small committee to work with the Immigration Collaborative and move this effort forward. For more information, and to volunteer, please contact Rabbi Bonnie Margulis at

Hanukkah: Suggestions for a More Meaningful Celebration 

Hanukkah has traditionally been a time for giving children gifts and gelt. In Eastern Europe, teachers would let children out of school early to enjoy their bit of pocket money and time off during the holiday. Although gift giving has become more elaborate over the years, Hanukkah can also be a time to reexamine how and to whom we give.

The Union for Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center (RAC) offers ideas on how our celebrations can incorporate social and economic justice. One suggestion is to use the sixth night of Hanukkah to have a family conversation about which charity to donate money to in lieu of gifts that evening, allowing us to redirect our giving and have a meaningful discussion about tzedakah. You can also check out the RAC’s Hanukkah social justice gift-giving guide, with eight different suggestions for eight nights.

Volunteer Profile: Addressing Weekend Hunger at Thoreau Elementary

By Bobbie Malone

Many students at Thoreau Elementary School and their families lack sufficient food on weekends. Forty-five percent of the children attending Thoreau receive free or reduced-fee lunches, and students have asked their teachers for food help for years. While Thoreau students are not the only children in Madison facing weekend hunger, this school, on Nakoma Road, is the public elementary school serving students in the neighborhood of Temple Beth El.

A coalition of local congregations and neighborhood groups is mobilizing to address this need. Westminster Presbyterian Church minister Scott Anderson organized a coalition that includes Midvale Baptist Church, Glenwood Moravian Community Church, and Temple Beth El along with the Nakoma League, a century-old neighborhood association, and Brad Bodden, whose American Family Insurance agency is located directly across Nakoma Road from the school. The Thoreau Weekend Food Bag Program also obtained grants from American Family Insurance and GHC. The program is also affiliated with the school nutrition program Food for Thought, which already distributes food at several other public schools.

Vic and Sue Levy live in Nakoma, and their children attended Thoreau. As a Social Action Committee member, Vic represented TBE as he began attending coordination meetings beginning in the fall of 2018. The Thoreau Weekend Food Bag Program worked to find the most effective means for dealing with the weekend hunger issue by providing four meals per weekend for as many of these children as possible.

After months of figuring out the logistics—establishing a fiscal agent and affiliations, learning the health and safety rules regarding food storage, and writing grant applications to raise funds—in October volunteers finally initiated the program to place the necessary food in students’ backpacks on Friday mornings.

School social workers chose the initial group of children to receive the shelf-stable food, which comes from the River Food Pantry. The meals include protein-rich food and a fruit cup. Although the program involves only 50 students this year, it will double during the 2020–21 school year and reach an additional 50 students the following year. The $30,000 budget already secured covers all three years of operation.

Thanks to the generosity of TBE members through the increase in High Holy Day Food Drive funds, Rabbi Biatch’s discretionary fund, and other members’ financial commitments to the program, TBE’s participation matches that of the other neighborhood partners. In March 2020 , TBE will be in charge of the actual food distribution, and Vic will be looking for volunteers to help with our congregation’s commitment to pack the bags each Thursday of that month and deliver them each Friday. To participate, contact Vic at


Thank You TBE Members: Another Successful Year for TBE Food Drives 

Our generous members have come through again to fight hunger in our community. The High Holy Day Food Drive raised over $14,000 this year. Of these funds, $10,000 has already been sent to Second Harvest Foodbank, which distributes millions of pounds of food each year in southern Wisconsin. We will use some of the remaining funds to support hunger relief efforts at Temple Beth El, including dinner supplies and groceries for the Porchlight Men’s Shelter. To support our work on immigration, we will make a contribution to the Dane Sanctuary Coalition immigrant assistance fund earmarked for food assistance.

High Holy Day Food Drive funding will also support our newest food program at Thoreau Elementary, the neighborhood school for the Temple Beth El area. Volunteers from many community organizations have joined together to provide weekend food for eligible families. Food drive funding will be combined with generous contributions from the rabbi’s discretionary fund and from Vic and Sue Levy, totaling enough to cover TBE’s contribution for the first three years of the project. You can read more about this program and how it got started here.

“We joined this coalition because it is aligned with our belief that students should be hungry to learn, not hungry,” said Lea Aschkenase, founder of Food for Thought, which is coordinating the weekend food program at Thoreau Elementary. “Research unequivocally demonstrates hunger impairs health, learning, behavior and the ability to attend and focus. By working together, we can simultaneously sustain and expand our school-based nutritional support.”

Right after the High Holy Days came our second major food drive, when the Religious School classes competed to see which grade could donate the most canned goods and supplies to the Goodman Community Center Thanksgiving basket collection. We are pleased to report that TBE families collected a total of 452 items for Thanksgiving dinners. The grade that contributed the most was revealed at a school service on Sunday, December 8. 

We appreciate everyone who made these two food drives such a success. Special thanks to our office madrichim (teaching assistants ), Eliana and Ben, for counting and boxing up the Thanksgiving contributions, and to Hank and Jesse Sherman for delivering everything to the Goodman Community Center.

Reproductive Health & Rights: Sisterhood Shabbat Welcomes North American WRJ Speaker

At the Sisterhood Shabbat on January 31, Ally Karpel from the WRJ-RAC Reproductive Health & Rights Campaign will address some of the most contentious public policy issues today: the debate over reproductive rights and what restrictions a society may impose on reproductive health care decisions.

The legal right to women’s health care, birth control, and abortion does not guarantee access for all, even with Roe v. Wade in place. Many women face financial barriers, lack transportation to a clinic, or may not be able to take the time off from work. The problem is far bigger than a legal issue alone.

Women of Reform Judaism (WRJ) and the Religious Action Center (RAC) are working together to address these issues on behalf of the North American Reform movement. Ms. Karpel’s work focuses on reproductive health and rights advocacy and mobilizing Reform communities to take action on a local, state, and federal level.

TBE member Jane Taves is on the board of WRJ and serves as the vice president of advocacy, marketing & communications. She says: “I am proud that Women of Reform Judaism is championing this important work, and I am honored to work closely with Ally Karpel. She is a true expert on the issues around access to reproductive healthcare. I look forward to introducing her to our TBE community.”

The right of individuals to control their own bodies is deeply rooted in in Jewish law and has been the position of the Reform movement since 1935. It is grounded in the concept of human dignity —Kavod Ha’Briyot—which supports the right of individuals to make moral decisions about health care. It is also consistent with our respect for the sanctity of life. Banning potentially life-saving medical procedures, interfering with a doctor’s decision-making, and restricting family planning methods only to those who can afford or access them—all of these run contrary to the Jewish commandment to protect life. These problems are also closely tied to other social justice and human rights concerns like poverty, sexism, and racism.

Ms. Karpel will also address how the Jewish community can amplify its impact on this issue. With states across the country passing abortion restrictions and the future of Roe v. Wade up in the air, now is the time to put our Jewish values into action to protect and enhance reproductive rights. You can read more about the collaboration between WRJ and the RAC here.

We hope you'll join us for this very interesting evening. More details are available here.

About the RAC: For nearly six decades, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism has been the hub of Jewish social justice work. The RAC mobilizes around federal, state, and local legislation; supports and develops congregational leaders; and organizes communities to create a world overflowing with justice, compassion, and peace. Their work is completely nonpartisan.​

Montgomery, Selma, Atlanta, DC: Reflections on Our Civil Rights Journeys

This fall four TBE members devoted their travels to learning more about the history of American race relations.

Rabbis Bonnie Margulis and Jonathan Biatch joined 50 rabbis organized by the Central Conference of American Rabbis and spent 48 intense hours in Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, discovering roots of our nation's slave history and hearing from eyewitnesses to racism and bigotry from the 20th to 21st centuries.

Mary Fulton and Steven Koslov joined a friend who has worked as an attorney for Georgia Legal Services for more than 40 years on their trip to visit civil rights memorials and museums in Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma, and Washington, DC. The inspiration for the trip came from Mary's family's immersion in civil rights issues, Bryan Stevenson's work, and learnings from TBE's Racial Justice Action Team.

This promises to be an interesting discussion. Please join us on Wednesday, January 29, from 7:00 to 9:00 pm at Temple Beth El. You can sign up here:

Becoming Better Allies: “What If It’s YOUR Voice That Can Make a Difference?”

On November 22, we welcomed Rev. Marcus D. Allen Sr. and his wife, Tara, to our Social Action Shabbat. Rev. Allen serves as pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church and is the newly elected president of the African American Council of Churches in Dane County. Rev. Allen’s talk focused on the struggle for racial justice and how the black and Jewish communities can work together more effectively.

Rev. Allen said that he came to Madison after three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and four years as a pastor in Virginia. He and Tara had read all the articles touting Madison as the best city in America on many measures, but they soon found that the reality for black people is quite different. The black community in Madison ranks the highest on every negative measure, including poverty, school test scores, homelessness, unemployment, and incarceration. He asked us to picture what would happen if white religious congregations went together with black congregations to tell the county this was wrong.

Assuming that we knew he was a Baptist preacher when we invited him (we did), Rev. Allen drew on biblical stories to illustrate his remarks. He spoke about the power of “radical relationships,” relationships different from the usual, where differences don’t matter. As an example, he cited the way Ruth stayed with her mother-in-law Naomi after the death of her husband, Naomi’s son, even though Ruth and Naomi were of different people and religions. Although hard times were looming, Ruth threw in her lot with Naomi, saying, “Wherever you go I will go, and wherever you stay I will stay. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” Because of this radical relationship, Ruth supported her ally when times got tough. According to Rev. Allen, “Collaboration is never truly effective until what’s bad for me causes you discomfort.”

The story of Purim also revolves around a radical relationship. Esther was brought up as the adopted daughter of Mordecai and became queen of Persia. When the evil Haman plotted to kill Mordecai and all the Jewish exiles in Persia, Mordecai prevailed on Esther to speak to the king to defend her people, even though she could be put to death simply for speaking out of turn. Mordecai prevailed upon her, saying, “Who knows if you were put in your royal position for such a time as this?” Because of the trust built up between Esther and Mordecai, she gathered her courage and was able to foil the plot.

Rev. Allen enumerated five practical ways to be an ally to the black community:

  1. Get to really know each other, not just through an occasional coffeeshop visit.
  2. Know your role—be there to assist and not to take over.
  3. Have meaningful conversations about race within your own communities and families.
  4. Be committed to stand by your ally when the going gets tough, like Ruth.
  5. Use your position to speak truth to power, like Esther.

Reflecting on Rev. Allen’s talk, TBE member Alice Kavanagh said: “We need to meet and listen to those experiencing inequity in Madison, so we can work together to eliminate the racial disparity that exists here in education, affordable housing, incarceration, and food accessibility. Our Temple community already contributes to solving these problems, but I’d like to learn more about what we can do to engage with others around these issues.”

Rev. Allen closed by asking us to speak on behalf of the voiceless even when it doesn’t directly affect our way of life. “What if it is YOUR voice that can make a difference?”

Your Donations: Honor, Remember, Sustain

Tributes, memorial plaques, and simcha plaques are wonderful ways to honor or remember someone while supporting Temple life. Donations to a TBE fund can be made via our website, by personal check, or even through a donor-advised fund or an IRA.

With a minimum donation of $18 per tribute, an acknowledgment card will be sent, letting the individual or family know about your thoughtful gift. Your gift is also recognized for the rest of the TBE community. For more information, visit

To order a memorial or simcha plaque, go to or call the Temple office at 608-238-3123.

Thank you for upholding our values through your kind contributions.

Changes in Your Membership Renewal Packet

by Stefanie Kushner, executive director

Please watch your mailbox for your Temple Beth El membership renewal packet in early December.

In the packet we will share stories from current members describing how TBE fuels their lives, just as your membership dollars fuel our work.

Our Board of Trustees carefully oversees the use of these funds, which represent the single largest source of revenue for TBE.

In recent years we have been very gratified to welcome new, young families to our congregation, which has increased our total membership. These new faces are a testament to the strength of our Temple.

However, TBE has experienced a decrease in total income: membership contributions dropped from $815,000 in 2018 to just below $800,00 in 2019.

Reasons include recent tax code changes, which have decreased charitable contributions. We have also seen a decrease in the average contribution as younger families have joined, congregants with larger average contributions have left for retirement in warmer climates, and many current members have not increased their contribution in many years.

As income from membership has decreased, our expenses have gone up:

  • Inflation has led to higher utility costs, higher prices for the goods we purchase, and higher prices for services such as cleaning and garbage collection.
  • Staffing changes have added to our payroll costs, while allowing us to improve our member relations, enhance the professionalism and effectiveness of our communications, and maintain our aging building.
  • Costs to repair or replace equipment in our aging building have continued to climb, and frequency of maintenance has increased.

To account for the difference between membership contribution income and rising operating costs, the Temple Beth El Board of Trustees has passed a one-time request for a donation equal to 10 percent of your current membership contribution. For example, if you currently pay $1,500, we will ask you to consider an additional $150 donation. We thank you in advance for your generous response, which will help keep TBE on a sustainable path in the face of rising expenses. 

The board approved this increase with the understanding that the finance committee will continue to evaluate the membership contribution process and recommend potential changes to the current structure, which has been in place for approximately 20 years.

I am always available to answer your questions about membership contributions and the financial health of Temple Beth El. We will continue to keep you updated through future editions of the Giving Spotlight and the Temple Bulletin. Don’t hesitate to contact me at or 608-238-3123.

A Gift from Rona Malofsky

Rona Malofsky was a Temple Beth El member for over 50 years before her death in September 2019. Rona and Harvey Malofsky’s four children all attended Religious School and were active in the youth group at TBE.

Together, Rona and Harvey gave their time and talents to Temple Beth El until Harvey passed away in 2013. Rona remained a valued member, volunteering at Temple and with Sisterhood. Rona will be dearly missed by all who knew her.

Rona’s legacy continues through the generous gift she provided to Temple through her trust. Her daughter Lyn, who remains an active member of TBE along with her partner, Jessica Perez, summed up how much TBE meant to her mother and why Rona included TBE in her plans:

“TBE has always served as an anchor for our family. All four of us kids were consecrated at Temple Beth El, and we attended Religious School. Most importantly, we actively participated in the Temple youth group. Through our participation we strengthened our Jewish identity and our knowledge about Judaism and ultimately found a safe place to be and grow in the community. TBE has been there for both family weddings and funerals, but it was our youth group experience above all else that my mom valued.”

Rona's gift will help sustain our Yerusha Fund and provide for improvements to our building. We miss Rona's smile and warmth, and we will remember her with gratitude for her commitment to Temple through her planned gift. Her generosity will be felt for generations to come.

The Silverbergs and the Dorot Society

“As my ancestors planted for me, I plant for my children and my children’s children.”
(Taanit 23)

As we celebrate our 80th anniversary, we honor the generations who founded and nurtured TBE and grew our congregation into the vibrant community we are today. Sam and Rose Silverberg, parents of Joe Silverberg, are two of those individuals. Sam and Rose were charter members, and Joe grew up at Temple, even before TBE found a permanent home on Arbor Drive. After Joe was introduced to his wife, Jeanne, and convinced her to move to Madison, they “were married in New York and immediately joined the Temple,” Joe says. Joe and Jeanne’s children attended Religious School and the family celebrated other life-cycle events at TBE.

Joe and Jeanne are honoring the Silverberg family legacy by being inaugural members of our Dorot Society. Membership honors those who commit to leaving a legacy to sustain TBE for future generations, just as Joe’s parents did for them. When asked why it was important for them to do this, Joe simply responded, “It was the natural thing to do.” We are grateful that for Joe and Jeanne, helping to provide for Temple’s future well-being is the natural outcome of being part of our community.

There are many ways to become a member of the Dorot Society. Several of these are easy to do on your own and don’t require amending your will or trust.

And now, we have even more reasons to join the Dorot Society: Pam and Howard Erlanger, Amy and Marty Fields, and Gary Friedman and Bonnie Denmark Friedman together have offered an instant donation of $8,000 to the Yerusha Fund as soon as the Dorot Society reaches 80 members. (Couples are counted as two members.) Our goal is to make this happen during Temple Beth El’s 80th anniversary year. If you’ve considered joining the Dorot Society, now is the time to become a member!

Please join us at Temple on Monday, November 18, at 7:00 pm to learn about simple ways to leave TBE in your estate plan, with Jordan Taylor of DeWitt law firm and Dean Stange of Wipfli Financial. Please sign up at

Please reach out to Dorot Society co-chairs Howard Erlanger ( and Gary Friedman ( or executive director Stefanie Kushner ( with any questions or to set up a private meeting.

Thank you to our inaugural Dorot Society members:

Niles & Linda Berman
Rabbis Jonathan Biatch & Bonnie Margulis
Pam & Howard Erlanger
Marty & Amy Fields
Gary Friedman & Bonnie Denmark Friedman
Paul Grossberg & Dean Ziemke
Janice Kaplan
Tamara Sue & Ken Kaplan
Harry & Karen Roth
Joe & Jeanne Silverberg
Jerry & Vicki Stewart

Gratitude and Giving

by Julia Katz, Development Committee

Judaism values gratitude quite strongly. There’s even a term for it, hakarat ha tov, “noticing the good.” In this new year, here are some of the things I am grateful for:

1. I am grateful for community. The Temple Beth El community welcomed our family when we moved here from Pittsburgh in May 2018. With a young child and one on the way at the time, we knew that a strong, committed Reform Jewish community was an important factor when even entertaining the idea of moving our family. We have truly found that at TBE: through Shabbalala, Religious School, young-families events, and so much more.

2. I am grateful for the opportunity to make a difference. As a Jewish communal fundraiser, I have joined the Development Committee and am honored to help TBE build a plan for future sustainability.

3. I am grateful for the support of our TBE members. This community is strong because of your dedication to ensuring TBE’s success. It is incredible that with your tremendous generosity we were able to surpass our goal for the 80th anniversary, raising just over $66,000 in sponsorships! These funds directly impact every member of TBE. Most recently, the volunteer support of our members created the incredibly successful Trivia Night, where more than 130 people gathered for Havdalah and an evening of fun. This was the first of three events planned for our 80th anniversary, and I hope that you will join us for the next events: the Haggadah Debut and Art Show on March 7 and Taste of Wisconsin on June 27.

4. I am grateful for TBE. I am grateful to have a place in Madison where I can demonstrate my enduring commitment to Jewish life to my children and guarantee that they have a place to start their Jewish journeys.

Julia and her husband, Willie, a faculty member at UW, and their children (Brynn, age 4.5, and Lewis, 15 months) live on Madison’s west side. They all look forward to meeting you.

Volunteer Opportunities

Do you have some time to give? We have lots of great opportunities to help out in our community.

Immigration Assistance Fund: Raising Awareness for Local Immigration Assistance

Temple Beth El is a member of the Dane Sanctuary Coalition, joining with other congregations and organizations to support immigrants in our community. The coalition is starting a project to raise awareness and to fundraise for the Immigrant Assistance Fund. This fund pays for legal services, emergency aid, bail, travel costs, and other aid for undocumented immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees in Dane County. The fund is administered by the seven members of the Immigration Collaborative (Catholic Multicultural Center, Centro Hispano of Dane County, Community Immigration Law Center, Jewish Social Services, Literacy Network, Rise Law Center, and UW Immigrant Justice Clinic). You can read more about the fund here.

We are looking for volunteers with public relations and/or fundraising experience to be part of a small committee to work with the Immigration Collaborative and move this effort forward. For more information, and to volunteer, please contact Rabbi Bonnie Margulis at


Healing House: Like to Cook? Volunteers for Healing House Meals Needed in November


The Healing House is a place where a homeless child or family member can go to heal after surgery, illness, or childbirth. Imagine you have just delivered a baby and your family is homeless. The shelters are only open at night. You are on the street with your newborn and other children for 10 hours a day. You have no safe place for your newborn to sleep.

That’s where Healing House comes in, providing clients three meals a day, childcare assistance, and case management to end the cycle of homelessness. Research shows that homeless patients have 50 percent fewer hospital admissions within 90 days of discharge if they receive respite care.

The Healing House, a program of Madison Area Urban Ministry, officially opened on July 8, 2019. Located at 303 Lathrop Street in Madison, it is an eight-bed facility providing 24/7 recuperative care by medically trained staff and volunteers for up to 28 days. Case management is provided by The Road Home staff.

Temple volunteers are being asked to assist with dinner by cooking and dropping off dinner or serving and cleaning up after dinner at the house.

If you are interested in helping out the week of November 10–16, please sign up here or contact Cathy Rotter at


Catholic Multicultural Center: Serving Meals at the Catholic Multicultural Center Is Fun and Easy

Looking for a fun, easy opportunity to help the community and spend quality time as a team? Help serve the daily meal at the Catholic Multicultural Center! The Catholic Multicultural Center provides free meals every day to low-income community members and people experiencing homelessness. Volunteers set out and serve the food and clean up after the meal; you’re busy the whole time and on your feet. Temple Beth El has agreed to serve on the second Monday of each month. November is already full, but we’d love volunteers for Monday, December 9, and in 2020. Sign up here or contact Sue Levy at


Emerson: Emerson School Is Seeking Reading and Math Mentors

Seven years ago, Jewish Congregations for Social Justice “adopted” Emerson School on Madison’s east side, and we have been supporting their academics and family programming ever since. We would love to have you join us for the 2019–20 school year. We’re looking for adults who want to work with elementary-age children on reading and math skills:

Reading mentors work with beginning readers. Your job is to help children build skills and discover the joy of reading.

Math mentors work with children on basic math concepts and lessons. You don’t have to be a math whiz—many kids need support with very basic math facts and strategies that most adults are comfortable with.

Interested? Please contact Marcia Vandercook at


Coat Donations: It’s Getting Colder—Do You Have Some Coats You Could Donate?

Jewish Social Services will welcome a new refugee family this month from Afghanistan. With these new arrivals and the fact that our current families’ kids keep growing, we are in need of gently used or new winter outerwear in sizes from infant to age 18. How can you help? Easy-peasy!

If you have gently used coats, snow pants, boots, or accessories, you can drop them off at:

  • Jewish Social Services, 6434 Enterprise Lane
  • Temple Beth El, 2702 Arbor Drive
  • Beth Israel Center, 1406 Mound Street

Or buy a gift card to Target, Kohl's, Walmart, or the discount store of your choice and mail to JSS, 6434 Enterprise Lane, Madison, WI 53719, or send a check. On your check, please write "Winter Wear for Refugees."

Community Program: The Border, Asylum, and How to Get Involved

Concerned about ongoing events at America’s southern border? Looking for ways you can learn more about the asylum process and how to volunteer locally through Jewish Social Services? Jewish Congregations for Social Justice is pleased to sponsor a program that will offer eyewitness information, observations, and advice. Please join us at Temple Beth El on Wednesday, December 11, 7:00–8:30 pm, for this event.

In late September, Carrie Fox-Kline, the Immigration Legal Services and Quality Assurance Director at Jewish Social Services, traveled from Madison to El Paso, Texas, to provide immigration legal aid to asylum seekers and other immigrants facing our immigration detention and court system. During her week there, she worked in conjunction with the HIAS Border and Asylum Network and their local partner, Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center. As part of an emergency response program in both El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, she focused on ensuring that asylum seekers received much-needed legal representation.

Carrie is eager to share this recent experience with our community, along with her long-term view of immigration and refugee issues, based on many years working with HIAS in Pennsylvania, first as their Immigrant Youth Know Your Rights Manager and then as Director of Refugee Programming and Planning. Learning more about her work in the newly reconstituted immigration legal services program at JSS will give the community a valuable perspective on both local and national efforts.

We look forward to seeing you at this important program.

Every Person Counts: Why the 2020 Census Is Important

2020 is not just an election year—it’s also the time when the federal government counts the population in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and five US territories. Around March and April 2020, each home will receive an invitation to respond to a short questionnaire either online, by phone, or by mail. This will mark the first time that you will be able to respond to the census online.

This census is mandated by the Constitution and conducted by the US Census Bureau, a nonpartisan government agency. The census provides critical data that lawmakers, business owners, teachers, and many others use to provide daily services, products, and support for our community. Every year, billions of dollars in federal funding go to hospitals, fire departments, schools, roads, and other resources based on census data.

The results of the census also determine the number of seats each state will have in the US House of Representatives, and they are used to draw congressional and state legislative districts. So a complete and accurate count of the population is essential to drive policy decisions over the next 10 years.

However, finding everyone is not an easy task. While most TBE members will probably receive their questionnaires at home and will be able to answer online if they choose, there are many people who are traditionally undercounted. The most commonly overlooked people include seniors, children under five, immigrants, and those experiencing homelessness. The US Census Bureau is looking for partner organizations to help with outreach and education.

You can find more information about the census at If you are interested in getting involved locally, please contact Aleeza at

Civic Engagement—Helping People Exercise the Right to Vote

Several members of the Social Action Committee recently attended a meeting in Milwaukee of the six Reform congregations in southern Wisconsin. The meeting, convened by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Religious Action Center (RAC), focused on looking for social justice and advocacy issues where the congregations might want to work together. The issue that rose to the top was civic engagement. Civic engagement includes helping people register to vote, learn about candidate positions, use early voting, and get to the polls.

As Reform Jews, we are encouraged to participate fully in democratic processes, to promote Jewish voices and values in a nonpartisan way. As Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the RAC, put it, “we support issues and values, not people or parties.” The Talmud teaches: “A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted” (Brakhot 55a).

The RAC successfully mobilized thousands of people ahead of the 2018 elections. Reform Jews from nearly 1,000 communities in 43 states participated, and together engaged over 158,000 Americans in the democratic process through voter registration and candidate forums. Civic engagement programming took place at seven NFTY events and at nine URJ camps, reaching hundreds of teens and young adults. A similar campaign will be launched for 2020, and we will be sharing more about it in the coming months.

In addition, Wisconsin is one of only five states to receive a civic engagement grant from the PACE Foundation (Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement). The “Faith In/And Democracy” grant supports exploration of how faith and faith communities can support democracy and civic life, particularly in underserved regions and populations. The grantees, Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice and the Wisconsin Council of Churches, will use this grant to partner with interfaith religious institutions across the state to increase engagement in democratic processes. You can read more about the five projects at

Rabbi Bonnie Margulis of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice has been invited to speak about the civic engagement grant at the Sisterhood/Men’s Club dinner on December 17. Register for the dinner now at

If you are interested in helping people register to vote, the Madison City Clerk will offer a free training on Monday, November 18, 4:30–5:45 pm, at the Madison Municipal Building, Madison Municipal Building, 215 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. You will learn how to accurately answer questions about voter ID, voter registration, absentee voting, and the election process. Advance registration is not required. If you live outside of Madison, check with your local clerk for trainings near you.

Talking Turkey: Students Begin Thanksgiving Food Collection

This fall, at least 3,500 low-income families in Dane County will be depending on the Goodman Community Center for their Thanksgiving meal. This total of 3,500 families means that 21,000 residents, including 10,000 children, need help to make sure they are included in this enduring family tradition. As you can imagine, 3,500 families need a lot of groceries! Our Thanksgiving Food Collection is just one of many across the city to help fill this need. For many years, our Religious School families (and others) have helped out by donating items during October and November.

Things got really interesting a few years ago when we started a contest between the grades for who could bring in the most food, and now it’s a race to the wire every year! You can bring just one item, several items, or best of all, a whole flat of cans or boxes to the collection bins in the coatroom.

Here’s what we are collecting:

  • Boxes of macaroni and cheese (4K & kindergarten)
  • Boxes of stuffing (1st grade)
  • Aluminum roaster pans (2nd grade)
  • Cans of fruit (3rd grade)
  • Cans of vegetables (4th grade)
  • Broth, any kind (5th grade)
  • Cans of cranberry sauce (6th grade)
  • Gravy (7th grade)

The collection deadline is 10:00 am on Sunday, November 24. Items will be counted that morning and then delivered to the Goodman Community Center’s Fritz Food Pantry. To find out which grade donated the most, join the Religious School Song Circle on December 8, where our Mitzvah Core students will announce the winning grade.

Because the real winners are the families who get to enjoy a holiday meal with their loved ones, we welcome donations from anyone (not just our Religious School families). Consider bringing the requested items during regular business hours or when you come for Shabbat services, Swarsensky Weekend, Midrasha, or any other reason.

If you’d like to donate your time, please see for how you can help with sorting the food and filling the baskets shortly before the holiday.

Reminder: Send in Your High Holy Day Food Drive Contribution

Don’t forget to turn in the donation envelope you received on Rosh Hashanah! Through October 31, you can donate online. You can send a check at any time. Please return the envelope to the Temple office, making your check out to Temple Beth El and adding “food drive” on the memo line.

Thank you to everyone who has already made a donation to help relieve hunger in our community. To learn more about our involvement in fighting hunger in our community and how your donation to our food drive helps, read this:

Social Action Shabbat: “Becoming Better Allies: Our Role in the Struggle for Racial Justice”

On November 22, the Social Action Committee will host a Shabbat service focused on the struggle for racial justice and what we can do to support real progress. We are excited to announce that our speaker will be Rev. Marcus D. Allen Sr., pastor at Mount Zion Baptist Church and the newly elected president of the African American Council of Churches in Dane County.

Pastor Allen will talk about the power of a team in achieving racial justice and how the black and Jewish communities can work together more effectively. We will reaffirm why racial justice is important to us as Jews and learn about meaningful actions we can take. The evening will help us build more effective and consistent teams, through our racial justice action team and elsewhere. This Shabbat service will build on Rabbi Biatch’s Rosh Hashanah sermon on racial justice.

Pastor Allen was ordained in July 2005. Before that, he served in the United States Army for over 10 years, including three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he received a number of medals and awards. He also preached while abroad, assisting soldiers with motivation and spiritual guidance to help endure the hardships of being in a war zone. Since then, he has completed studies for his Master and Doctor of Divinity degrees and served as a pastor for four years in Virginia. He has been in Madison serving at Mount Zion since 2017.

Please join us for any or all of the evening. Dinner from Banzo will be served at 6:30 pm, with services at 7:30 pm. The Oneg Shabbat will feature pastries from Just Bakery. RSVP and register for dinner here. Please register for dinner by November 13.

The Social Action Committee will also share information about all the work we are doing and how your family can participate. Social Action Committee members will be available to answer questions.

My Grandfather’s Kittel (Yizkor Sermon, 5780)

by Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

(Rabbi's note: For those who attended Yizkor and heard me deliver this sermon, they know this was a very difficult set of remarks for me to offer. It involves a personal experience of my family, and therefore hit home closer than I had imagined. I apologize if my delivery was punctuated with moments of tears; I hope that listeners were able to see through my emotions to their own resonance with this talk. Please let me know if you would like any more information.)

* * * *

I never saw my grandfather’s kittel. I heard quite a bit about it, however: a long and flowing robe that my grandfather slipped over his usual shul [synagogue] clothes on Yom Kippur: It was a pious and modest mantle, which was white (though I can imagine it probably became a dull ivory after years of use), and completely enveloping. My grandfather likely wore it on other festival days as well, but for sure he would wear it on Yom Kippur all day.

Plain and unadorned to resemble the burial shroud in which our loved ones are compassionately dressed prior to burial, the kittel is the traditional clothing for the Day of Atonement. This day of judgment, on the tenth day of Tishrei, is to be similar to the proverbial 'day of judgment' after our deaths, when the length of time we spend in purging our sins is determined.

On both occasions, we are supposed to be brutally honest about our shortcomings and pledge to do better, in this world and in the next. Such was the lot of my grandfather Avrum, or Abraham.

My father’s parents arrived into this country in or about 1905, and settled on 6th Avenue North, in Minneapolis. Escaping the dangers of Jewish existence in Latvia, they were accustomed to cold winter weather, so the climate of the Twin Cities was familiar to them. But being uneducated, especially to the ways of life in America, my grandparents established a traditional patriarchal family, with the husband becoming the breadwinner, and the wife raising the children and becoming the homemaker. They eventually bore four children, two girls, then two boys.

My grandfather was an observant Orthodox Jew; that’s why he had a kittel in the first place. But the kittel was not the sole indicator of his piety. His grandchildren have other remembrances of his religious life: a pair of sadly decaying t’fillin that need burial; a number of cloth yarmulkes that he wore; a black silk miter that is still starched and pressed, and never seems to lose its shape; and a Yiddish rendering of the Hebrew bible. A few of his prayerbooks have since deteriorated, and have been returned to the dust of the earth.

My grandfather was a simple man, so I am told, who drove a horse-drawn junk wagon, and made his livelihood buying and selling other people’s trash. Perhaps we can think of his profession as among the original recyclers. I believe there were hundreds of Jews in that original recycling business.

He possessed his necessary supply of Jewish artifacts for living a Jewish life, and that supply included this kittel that everyone knew about and recalled. There was a wine-stain on the upper left side, as he was left-handed and likely spilled some wine on it on some Passover holiday, and the collar was torn in places too hidden to be seen.

And although it was supposed to be a plain garment, it had some interesting embroidery down the front and on the sleeve cuffs, a small collar that hugged his neckline, and a matching cotton sash that held it together while being worn. The cloth was heavy enough that one could not see through it at all. It held an air of modesty; it was beautiful for its day.

There is an apocryphal story told about this kittel, and I wanted to relate it as we begin our Yizkor observance this afternoon. Again, whether and how much of this story is true is unclear. But the values of friendship, family, and loyalty are seen throughout.

In the shul where my grandfather davened [worshiped] was an older man who was fortunate enough to leave Lithuania around the time when my grandfather and many of his compatriots emigrated from Europe. His name was Samuel Katz – Shmuel K for short, so they called him Shmulik. And although he was of an age of some frailty, he was a strong worshiper whose resounding voice, often off key, could often be differentiated from among the throng of men in the minyan [the quorum of ten men required by some Jews for engaging in public worship].

Shmulik came to Minneapolis with a wife and some grown children. His wife died of pneumonia one winter, and his children moved to another section of the city when they got married, leaving Shmulik alone in his little apartment home. They were very good about visiting Shmulik weekly, as they venerated him as their widowed father.

One Yom Kippur day – it might have been the Yom Kippur that fell on September 16 of 1918, just weeks prior to the end of World War I – there was great optimism in the shul. Many of the young men who had gone off to war would soon be reunited with their families, and the young heroes who died in battle were remembered in tears and sorrow. So, it was a day to remember.

Naturally, Shmulik attended synagogue that day, along with all the worshipers. It was not a very warm day outside, likely in the mid-70s. But inside the shul it was very warm and close, and Shmulik was in his traditional corner where he prayed every day. No one usually gave him much notice, as he tended to be a loner and, despite his exhibitionistic manner of worship, he was not very outgoing. That day, however, his voice was not very loud. But he was a loyal member of the minyan, and he was davening up a storm. On this occasion, because of the impending cessation of the war, everyone was in a buoyant mood.

Although Shmulik could not afford it, he received an aliyah to the Torah that day. Such things were auctioned off – before the holiday, of course – and it was the wealthier men who received the honors. But for some reason, the recipient of one of the aliyot felt some pity on poor old Shmulik, and Shmulik was the joyful beneficiary of this person’s largesse.

In the early part of the afternoon, and all of a sudden, Shmulik fainted. Passed out. Collapsed and fell to the floor. When the other men came to check on him, he was conscious but shivering as if in deep throes of fever. No one knew what to do, except to summon a doctor and hope for the best. They did not want to move him, lest someone be liable for hurting him.

My grandfather came over to him, worried about his friend, and in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, of all days. But my grandfather saw him shivering. Not a bad sign, or so my grandfather apparently thought. But Shmulik needed help. So, my grandfather took off the kittel he was wearing, and placed it over Shmulik to help warm him from his fever chills. Someone else came over to offer some schnapps (they found some in the closet, even on Yom Kippur), and somebody else brought some water from the rain barrel outside.

Slowly, Shmulik recovered and was able to sit up and thank his friends. He eventually rose to his feet, and began his short walk home, still using my grandfather’s kittel to keep him warm and protected. The fellow worshipers watched him as he walked down the street toward his small apartment home.

That Yom Kippur afternoon was the last anyone saw of Shmulik. You see, he had gone home, prepared his meager evening meal as his break-the-fast, then gone to bed and peacefully died in his sleep. When they needed a minyan for the next afternoon’s minchah/maariv [late afternoon worship], they knocked on his door and discovered him in his bed, still wearing the kittel that my grandfather had provided for him as a warm coverlet.

My grandfather did not ask for his kittel in return – but not for the reason you may think. He suggested that his kittel become Shmulik’s tachrichin, his burial garment, and everyone – including his children – agreed that this garment which served as his protection in life would be an appropriate garment of protection to Shmulik in death as well. And so, Shmulik’s funeral was the last time that my grandfather saw his kittel, the one with the wine stain down the left side, with the embroidery on the front and on the sleeves, and probably worn, faded white to ivory colored, aged, and comfortable.

Again, this story is apocryphal, and there is no end to the versions and variations that exist among members of the families involved. But lessons of compassion, caring, dedication to friends, and acting within the value system of “derech eretz”: these matter. The values that our loved ones leave behind: They become the legacy of service and humanity that we recall when we say Kaddish for our loved ones, and to which we devote our lives into the future.

As we remember our loved ones on this day of remembrance, this day of Yom Kippur, may these memories sustain us at times of need, and may we all be comforted when we consider the deeds of those we love.

Israel in the Consciousness of the Reform Jew (Yom Kippur Day Sermon 5780)

by Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

L’shanah Tovah and G’mar Chatimah Tovah: May we all conclude this day with a brighter outlook and a renewed spirit for the work ahead of us: the work of tikkun, of repairing the fractured world we inhabit, and repairing our souls as they yearn for fulfillment.

Since Rosh Hashanah, and really since the beginning of the month of Elul 40 days ago, we have considered what we have done wrong and how we were going to reconcile our broken relationships. And Yom Kippur is a day on which we consider how we are to improve our lives in the future. So, this morning I’d like to speak about Israel because of the wonderful possibilities of that small nation playing a positive and significant role in our Jewish lives.

Imagine this as the teaser for a new television program called “Israel: Religious Freedom for All Its Citizens”:

“Imagine an Israel in which the State treats all expressions and streams of Judaism – and other religions – with equal respect and dignity; where the State recognizes the right to freedom of religion and freedom from religious coercion...”

And here is the teaser for another episode:

“Imagine an Israel in which the State guarantees and preserves the freedom of worship for members of all faiths at their holy sites in the spirit of mutual respect and sensitivity..”

Or maybe you could be enticed to watch this episode:

“Imagine an Israel in which gender equality fully guides the state, and women are not demeaned or otherwise disadvantaged, whether on public transportation, in legal proceedings regarding personal status, at the Western Wall, and in other public venues and services.”

Well, they make not make scintillating prime time television; I think “Shtisel” or “S’rugim” would score higher ratings. But these aspirations and others are on the mind of Israelis today. Promoted by Hiddush, an Israeli organization nearly 10 years old, they stand for a renewal of the pledge, audaciously a part of the Declaration of Independence, that aspired to a society of equals.

That document courageously states the hopes for a future of dignity and respect: “The State of Israel … will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it [the state] will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it it [the state] will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it [the state] will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture … ”

This is an achievable goal, even though after 71 years we have not yet realized it. But the good news is that despite forces in Israeli society that strive mightily to establish a narrowly-based theocracy, there are many more people who still believe in and struggle to secure a society that honors all streams of Judaism, and people of other religious traditions.

I invite us to consider the positive vision of Israel, a society that would not dwell on past events and mistakes even though they make them, but one that dreams of welcoming new Jewish residents and streams of Jewish visitors; one that makes equal room for those of other religious communities; one that develops and promotes life based on the aspirations and values of Judaism; one where secular models of democracy guide the Jewish state despite variations in the practices of religious communities or the secular society.

* * * *

What is the nature of our connection with Israeli Jews? What are the challenges inherent in this relationship?

Donniel Hartman, the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, explains that the challenge of Diaspora Jews connecting well with Israel is found in the degree to which we see Israeli Jews as members of our family.[1]

In a typical nuclear family, people view their spouse-parent-child relationships as primary; the “family” is the safety net that assumes that all will be present for each other no matter what, that we watch out for one another, that we have a special relationship to protect.

Inside this nuclear family, we experience life together. We celebrate, we mourn, we strive, we cry, and we laugh. All of that happens – for the most part – with people who are physically closer to us.

Outside of this primary relationship, we may have other relatives living hundreds or thousands of miles away with whom we DON’T share everyday life, and our family ties with them may not be as strong as with our primary family. We may feel concern for them, but the connection is not a primary one.

So, we might compare the relationships between Diaspora and Israeli Jewry to those distant relatives, people whom you hear about and feel empathy for, but the distance prohibits us from cementing a firm relationship. Perhaps there is insufficient reason to care about one another; or maybe we don’t share a vision of being close as family with one another.

Let’s see what the data say.

The American Jewish Committee last June released its annual survey of attitudes held by the Israeli and American Jewish communities toward each other, and visible were large disparities in how we feel about each other.

Almost a third [31%] of Israeli Jews consider us American Jews as “siblings”, and 47 percent consider us as “cousins”. Not bad. Yet only 13% of American Jews think of Israelis as siblings, and 58 percent of us see Israeli Jews as all kinds of relationships, and certainly members of an extended family. And in America, 28% of us don’t consider Israelis part of our family at all.[2]

Anecdotal evidence, however, does not always confirm this ‘relationship gap’. A few years back, I asked here as to the number of worshipers present who had visited Israel. The percentage of hands that shot into the air was significantly higher than the average of 35% of American Jews who have been to Israel. So, there is, at least within our community, a stronger recognition of family ties that bind us to one another. The challenge is to discover the association with Israel that motivates and excites us, and then strengthen and share that motivation with others.

* * * *

How do we come to know Israel living some 6,000 miles away? First is through teachers who come to share with us.

Some of you may be familiar with our Israeli sh’lichim here in Madison. The sh’lichim are the Jewish Federation-sponsored emissaries from Israel who help to awaken the spark of interest in Israel matters. And during my tenure in Madison, we have had some exceptional sh’lichim teaching us about and connecting us to Israel. Our current new sh’lichim – who are newlyweds, by the way – are no exception to this, and I hope you have an opportunity to meet them.

They both came, last week, to attend our Rosh Hashanah morning services, and they enjoyed them very much.

And talk about Jewish geography: I was speaking with our community Sh’lichah, Danielle, and it turns out that her father was a young resident of a certain youth village at the same time and in the same youth village that I spent my first summer in Israel. He was 10, and I was 15; so, I began to think back and wonder if he was the young kid – who knew a lot more than I did about farm life – working with me when we irrigated the banana orchards or mucked out the cow barn.

Anyway, the presence of the sh’lichim here in Madison – and in the other communities where Israelis go to connect with Diaspora Jews – has, over a long time, demonstrated that a connection to Israel is desirable and necessary.

Our religious school children feel it when, in Third grade, they take a year-long virtual trip to Israel (though I don't think they get to eat schwarma). We adults, if we have taken advantage of our congregational trips to Israel, know the joy and good nature of Israelis whom we meet along the way. People have visited on b'nai mitzvah trips, business trips, and other excursions. We are fortunate to have had a lot of TBE members visiting Israel.

Another way we learn about Israel is through our religious movements. We are informed that Israel is becoming a place of pluralistic religious fervor; being "religious" there is no longer the purview solely of the Haredi, or Ultra-Orthodox community.

We see organic Jewish life from many religious communities: from the Haredim to the standard dati or Orthodox Jews; from masorti or Conservative Jews to mitkadmim – Reform and Progressive Jews – and hitchadshim or Reconstructionist Jews. And there are independent communities of prayer and learning among the older and younger Israelis, especially the secular ones, Jews who are exploring their Jewish roots in search of values by which to live as Jews in the Jewish and democratic state of Israel.

Israeli Jews have also become more focused on religious and social matters as primary motivations for voting. We see this in the priorities of Israelis as they went to the polls recently.

Beginning with the election in April and continuing with the election held a few weeks ago, opinion polls demonstrated that security matters took a backseat to the influence of the religious right in Israeli life. We also learned that voters overwhelmingly wanted all men and women, including the Ultra-Orthodox, to serve in the army; most citizens want religious exemptions from national service to disappear. Secular Israelis also wanted the Orthodox rabbinate out of the personal and religious lives of Israelis. And there was a strong public expression that the next ruling coalition NOT include the religious parties.

In short, public attitudes and motivations for voting now center on developing true Jewish and democratic life in Israel. For in addition to its position as a place of Jewish refuge, Israel stands as an exemplar of Jewish literary and cultural creativity, coming from both religious and secular world's. And there is still appreciation for the rich cultural diversity of Israel, due to the immigration of Russian, Ethiopian, and other ethnic communities.

Our family may be an extended one, but its riches are beyond count.

* * * *

There still remains, though, the nagging question of how we view our relationship with Israel, and the degree to which we would want to be involved in the life of Israel herself.

According to that same American Jewish Committee survey, 63 percent of Israeli Jews believe it is “not appropriate for American Jews to attempt to influence Israeli policy on such issues as national security and peace negotiations with the Palestinians,” while 57 percent of American Jews feel it is appropriate for them to do so.[3] This statistic suggests our strong desire to connect to Israel. The challenge is to find the context where this makes the most sense.

We could always take the route that my niece’s son David traveled this past year. As a 20-something interested in serving Israel, he joined the two-and-a half year Garin Tzabar program of the Israel Defense Forces, and is now serving in a combat unit. Short of officially making aliyah, David now can fulfill his aspiration for service to a cause greater than himself. Whether he eventually immigrates will depend on other many factors, though his parents are supportive of his efforts. We're simply hoping he'll find a partner before he makes that big decision.

As for us, we can sit here in America and complain, and physically protest various Israeli government actions. But that is less likely to be effective.

Or we can lend our voices to the overall movement to expand the civil and democratic society in Israel and we can do this through our participation next year in the international elections to the World Zionist Congress.

The first World Zionist Congress took place in Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, and its primary goal was to establish the state of Israel. Today, the Congress serves as a parliament for the Jewish people to determine policy for the World Zionist Organization, designates the Organization’s course of action, chooses the leadership of the World Zionist Organization and the Jewish National Fund in Israel, and allocates funds to causes in Israel and the Diaspora. Closer to home, the Congress makes decisions that affect Reform Jews in Israel and across the world, and allocates considerable funding to Progressive Jews in Israel.

In elections five years ago, prior to the last meeting of the World Zionist Congress, Progressive Jews in America elected 56 delegates to the 500-member World Jewish Congress. It may sound small, only ten percent, but because our delegates voted in coalition with partners from other countries, movements, and Israeli political parties, we had a broad seat at the table, secured funding for Reform organizations in Israel, and helped to influence policy for many progressive causes. In this coming election cycle, the Reform movement both in Israel and the Diaspora could likely garner $20 million for their institutions.

But along with the money for our own movement, the Reform-Progressive presence on this governing board could have significant impact on Israeli social policies.

As a result of progressive Jewry’s presence at the last Congress, we influenced the appointment of key professionals to carry out our Reform Jewish values regarding equality, pluralism, and our commitment to a two-state solution. We joined with Israeli political parties to influence Israeli society in matters of conversion, marriage and divorce, religious pluralism, gender rights, and combatting racism. We passed key resolutions in the World Zionist Organization’s policy body for equality, transparency, and societal pluralism.

In short, our participation matters.

My offering you this information today is in preparation for the international voting that will take place beginning on January 20, 2020, and will extend for 50 days.

At that time, we will ask you to vote, and we hope that you vote for the slate connected to ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists in America. This is the one significant way that we Diaspora Jews can, indeed, influence what happens in Israel. The positions we take in the Congress next year will directly help our Israeli sisters and brothers who wish to create a civil and progressive Israeli society consonant with Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

Please watch your electronic inboxes and our synagogue bulletin for information about this election in January. There are four simple requirements to vote in this election:

  • Be 18 years of age or older by June 30, 2020
  • Self-identify as Jewish
  • Agree to the Jerusalem Program, the official platform of the WZO and the Zionist Movement
  • Pay the minimal $7.50 processing fee

Five years ago we were fortunate to have had Jane Taves, one of our more active TBE members, as a delegate to the World Zionist Congress meeting. For this upcoming election, she serves as a member of the campaign cabinet of the Association of Reform Zionists of America and the Union for Reform Judaism, as well as a congregational coach for us and three other congregations. Our Temple Beth El coordinator/captain will be our Associate Executive Director Kendra Sager. Along with a team of members, we will create ways to educate us and encourage us to vote, promoting a strong voter turnout and result.

If you would like a fact sheet covering some of the aspects of the election, as well as different websites for you to visit to learn more, I have them here and will hand them out after services all day today. Please see me.

Our participation really will make a difference. We can affect real change and become even more visible as our political influence increases. If we increase our Reform presence in the World Zionist Congress:

we will be able to directly promote the cause of liberal Judaism in and for the Jewish state;

we will be able to directly influence Israeli society toward both its democratic and Jewish destinies;

we will bring nearer the day when we will actualize the values of religious and societal pluralism for all of Israeli society;

and we will find even more positive reasons to support Israel from wherever we are in the world: as it will be a place with expanded creativity and ways for all Jews to create firm connections with our homeland.

* * * *

Five years ago, Reform and Progressive Jews secured a significant delegation at the World Zionist Congress. That was not the first time that Reform Jews participated in those elections, but it was the strongest showing to date. So that was, perhaps, a teaser to what’s to come in the elections and in our participation next year.

All it takes is imagination to perceive the future, a future of increased Israel activity for us all.

If you’ve not been to Israel, I invite you to imagine a place where one’s Jewish roots can be nourished by the soil of hundreds of years of Jewish history and learning; a place whose citizens are called sabras, after the hearty – some would say “tenacious” – prickly cactus pear, which is bristly on the outside, and mushy and soft and inviting on the inside.

If you have not been to Israel lately, I invite you to consider a return trip to re-orient yourself with the land and its fast-paced development.

Israel continues to be that ‘miracle on the Mediterranean’ that remains special to us. Is it what Theodor Herzl dreamed about when he remarked, “If you will it, it is no dream.”? He was a visionary, so it’s entirely possible that he was able to envision a land of great promise. You will see amazing changes there, and the potential for reaching its goals are still bright. Let us hope that we can all imagine Israel as a land of equality and dignity for all people. Let us then work for those changes.

L'shanah tovah!


[1] Rabbinic webinar August 29, 2019



Antisemitism – It Should Not Have to be This Way in America Today (Erev Yom Kippur, 5780)

by Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

G’mar Chatimah Tovah! May your new year be one of safety and peace.

In “Fiddler on the Roof”, Tevye bemoans the announcement brought to him by the town constable – and unofficial leader of the Cossacks – that a pogrom was going to be declared on the shtetel of Anatevka. In his one-way dialogue with God, Tevye complains, “It's true that we are the chosen people. But once in a while, can't you choose someone else?”[1]

Tevye’s dry remark was intended to bring forth a sympathetic, maybe even a comedic moment, but this past year, nothing has been more exhausting than dealing with antisemitism. We American Jews hurt. We ache. We are confused. And we are frustrated and angry over the vitriol and violence perpetrated against us. Antisemitism has raised its horrifying head, and this is my chief concern on this Night of Atonement.

Normally, when we engage in strategic discussions of the Jewish virtue of tikkun olam and actions we take to struggle for human rights, we include all those suffering pain, all those whose lives are endangered by haters. Our dignity and security are wrapped up in theirs; we advocate emphatically that none is free until all are free.

However: On this night of Yom Kippur – the most sacred and important night of our religious calendar – it is about us. Tonight is a night when I invite us to think of how to confront our unique situation.

Antisemitism in America is on the rise, the evidence is real, and our freedoms – and perhaps our lives – are at stake.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic activity in America rose 57% from 2017 to 2018. A reporter for the New York Times, notes that in New York in 2018, there were four times as many hate crimes against Jews as against blacks.[2]

We are obviously unnerved by the most egregious occurrences: violent, premeditated murders in synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, CA; a Racine synagogue, just a few weeks ago, where neo-Nazi slogans were painted on the walls; a shul in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on Rosh Hashanah day last week, where there was vandalism while worshippers were still inside the building; and in recent years, blows against our own Jewish community in Madison, including threats, tagging, and antisemitic taunting of students in our high schools.

Are these increased occurrences the canaries in the coal mine, alerting us that Jewish existence in America will not be as comfortable as our parents and grandparents had hoped? Will we continue to be welcomed here?

* * * *

I am grateful for you members of Temple Beth El – and others – who have supported our security enhancements here, measures that provide our staff, and members and guests, with a greater degree of security when they’re in the building.

But it should not have to be this way today.

Shver tsu zayn a yid, as my parents of blessed memory would resignedly say: “It’s hard to be Jew”.

But that was a century ago. It should not have to be this way today.

Antisemitism lives as a virus in the bloodstream of humanity, sometimes dormant, and sometimes not, but is activated in every generation by the introduction of some new pathogen: a pathogen like white nationalism, or activists in other racial communities who adopt antisemitic tropes unknowingly or with intention. So why can’t our scientists develop an effective anti-viral treatment to save this body?

Despite years of suffering antisemitism; regardless of the toughening we have received; our body’s response to anti-Jewish attacks in America are always anguish and confusion, even though we appear to be tough.

But it should not have to be like this today.

In almost every generation, the Jewish community has learned to combat the forces of bigotry arrayed against us. We have struggled to achieve equality – both for us and for other victims of persecution – in all the places we have lived. This approach has been instilled in our Jewish DNA, and we teach it to our children, so that each generation understands its history as well as the responsibilities of the future.

But knowing these things; struggling and fighting for our very existence: It should not have to be like this today.

So perhaps, in the future, this is the “talk” that Jewish parents, teachers, and leaders have with Jewish children:

Never forget the past.

Be careful and wary and not too comfortable in the present.

Be optimistic – and cautious – about the future.

And always have a valid, up-to-date passport. (I am serious about this.)

But it should not have to be this way today.

* * * *

Antisemitism has had many manifestations over time and Jewish legendary space:

The Pharaoh, seeking an excuse to increase his labor pool, charged us with disloyalty, and chained us to slave labor.[3] The Romans assaulted and murdered Jewish scholars in the Talmudic era land of Israel, in the hopes of eradicating our connections to God. Torquemada and religious officials in 15th century Spain tortured Jews who would not renounce their religion. Bogdan Khmelnitsky massacred thousands of Jews in 16th century Poland. The Tzar of Russia instituted horrifying pogroms in 18th century Russia. Hitler and his Nazi-perpetrated Holocaust decimated six million brothers and sisters.

B’chol dor vador – “In every generation…”

But it should not have to be this way today.

* * * *

Events such as Pittsburgh and Poway in our recent memory, as well as similar attacks against other houses of worship in our generation, painfully remind us of our vulnerability as members of a unique religious tribe.

Every person’s response to hatred, or the fear of attack, is unique. Every soul, however, is precious. And therefore, we must listen to the distress in the hearts of others, as we seek resolution and comfort.

I’d like to share with you a posting my son made to Facebook about six weeks ago. Some of you might have seen it online:

“Friday night was Pride Shabbat at Temple Beth El … the synagogue where I have been a member and my father has been the rabbi for over 14 years. For those 14 years, I have felt nothing but safety, love, support, and community within Temple Beth El's walls. Pride Shabbat was no different…almost.

“It was beautiful: Jews of all kinds, young, old, straight, gay, of all genders and colors, all decked out in rainbows; the sanctuary had never been prettier, with the stain glass windows and warm wood paneling accented by the multi-colored draperies on the pews and the Jewish Pride flag hanging from music stands on the bimah … This was the first service I had attended at my synagogue since the Tree of Life shooting.

“The service opened with the song "The Rainbow Connection", a song about human curiosity … our pursuit of something just out of reach, something that may not even exist … a better world … a place where we all belong, where we all are included, where we all can find love…

“Throughout the service, songs of joy and pride rang out from all in the assembled congregation. There was such love in that room as to make one burst.

“There were also a few small children, wide eyes, toothy grins, impatient to return to the sweets in the Community Court. Their parents, try though they might, were hopeless in their attempts to corral [them]. Consequently, every so often from behind my seat, I would hear strange, disconcerting, child-not-happy noises I could not immediately identify.

“And those were not the only such noises.

“About mid-way through the service, as Cantor Jacob led us in song, I took occasion to observe my father upon the bimah; he was putting on a wireless microphone, and gathering items in a basket, preparing to leave the bimah and move out among the pews. But, all of a sudden, there was a muffled BANG followed by loud grunting, which emanated from the hallway outside. Both I and my father, from opposite sides of the room, flinched.

“The service went on. Evidently, no one else had heard the noise, or if they had, they were content enough to ignore it, to instead focus their energies where they should be: on prayer, on community, on love.

“I was not so able. My heart rate elevated, my eyes shot to the doors, searching for any hint of danger or alarm, as I began to formulate a plan. If the worst should happen, if the worst should be currently happening, what would I have to do.

“[The noise was] one of our custodians, breaking down the tables from the program before the service, I realized.

“I breathed, and relaxed back into my seat…

“Every night, when my father walks through our door, as we greet him and share stories about our days, there is always a nagging thought in the back of mind: thank God he made it; thank God this wasn't the night. This wasn't the night he didn’t come home; this wasn't the night we would rush to the hospital in hopes that he had only been injured; this wasn't the night that the work begun in the 1930's in Germany would come to my house. Thank God we're safe.

“Too few Jews can say the same.

“I don't know if I have a larger point here. I’m scared, and I’m sad, and I’m angry. And most of all I am tired; I am tired of being afraid. I am tired of men like this making me afraid to enter the ONE space I should always be safe. I am tired of being afraid to walk into my own father's place of work. I am tired of being afraid in my own skin.

“I'm just so tired.”

If my 22-year-old-son feels this way, there must be others who feel similarly: tired of the attention, exhausted from the necessary watchfulness, disappointed in humanity for foisting this set of circumstances upon us.

It shouldn’t have to be this way today.

I remember when I entered the field of Jewish communal work in 1980, “Jewish continuity” was the buzzword, the objective for creative programming and services. Today – sadly – we might use the term “Jewish continuity” in a more existential manner.

Pittsburg, Poway, Overland Park, the Bronx, Seattle, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Eugene, Washington, University City, and more: How many more bodily insults will we need to endure before we eliminate the scourge of antisemitic images, caricatures, accusations, and physical attacks that have been our lot in American life?

* * * *

And what is more, antisemitism comes at us from both the right and the left these days. It is dismaying and demoralizing to have fewer friends in each of those political arenas.

Looking to left, the relationships we should have with African Americans, for example, are sometimes strained because of the ties of some black activists with anti-Israel forces, or the likes of Louis Farrakhan. Clashes among Jewish and African American leaders of the Women’s March have led to disarray. Jewish women should be in the forefront of that movement along with all women who believe in the struggle against misogyny. But we don’t feel welcome there.

And to the right, white nationalists and hate groups have continued their traditional fomenting of antisemitism, albeit repurposed in modern-day trappings or veiled behind some disguise designed to appear less threatening. And those voices on the right echo the words and attitudes of some of the highest-ranking officials in our nation. The fact that our country elected these antisemitic voices also reveals new strains of this old disease.

And then, to add insult to injury, some white nationalists will hold their noses to temporarily dismiss their own antisemitism, and bludgeon the communities on the left with counterfeit charges of antisemitism. When this happens, we feel complicit in their attacks on the left, which is liable to distance us from our allies in many social movements. And we, if you will pardon the expression, we get caught in the crossfire.

* * * *

What gives me hope have been my meetings, over business and over meals, with supportive Christians and Muslims and others here in Madison. Never have I felt such close kinship with people who sincerely look out for us and our needs. After the Tree of Life murders a year ago, a thousand people came to support the Jewish community at the First Unitarian Society. These interfaith and inter-group alliances are significant and vital in this community.

What gives me hope is my work in organizing a multifaith coalition of faith leaders in south-central Wisconsin. At our second organizing meeting last week, we agreed on rapid response mechanisms for congregations and individuals who become the target of haters. I pray we do not need this network of helpers, but I am comforted by their existence.

What gives me hope are the emotions of my child as he expressed his anxiety about his experience here on Pride Shabbat. This gives me hope, especially when I read the sensitive and caring reactions to his post online from his peers, and I know that his generation is sweet, supportive, and – at the same time – passionate and engaged in the issue of eradicating hate.

What gives me hope is the optimism expressed by Bari Weiss, reporter and editor for the New York Times, who advocated for a positive and affirming American Judaism of the future,[4] one in which we could wear a kippah in public – or not – and one in which we stand up for ourselves along with allies of all colors and varieties. These alliances we need to form and maintain along the way, and not be reticent when seeking help.

What gives me hope is the support that you have given us, you who are members of this sacred community who support one another in this community of caring.

What gives me hope are the millions of allies across this country who will not allow prejudice to flourish, and who will not – like lemmings – follow the current blighted crop of bigoted leaders blindly into the abyss.

Sometimes our chosenness causes us to suffer assaults. And sometimes our chosenness reminds us that we have chosen to identify as Jews, and that we have decided to help others and ourselves achieve a life of dignity, despite our facing hostile forces. This, too, gives me hope.

* * * *

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last November ran the opening lines of the Mourner’s Kaddish in Hebrew across the front page. Praying for the dead, as well as for the healing of their community, became a city-wide event, something that might have annoyed the haters, but comforted the Jewish community and its supporters.

This small action bolstered the confidence of that community. And the words of the Kaddish, too, have the potential to strengthen us as well to reconsider, each time we recite it, how we need to act in a world that sometimes acts violently toward us.

The last two stanzas of the Kaddish say, “May there be abundant peace from heaven – and life – for us and for all Israel; and we say, Amen.” And “May the one who creates peace in heaven, may God create peace for us and for all Israel” – and we add, “and all the world” – “and we say, Amen.”

I can only add, may this be the will of heaven. When we engage in this struggle, may we feel comforted and supported, and may we be successful.

L’shanah tovah!


[1] Act 1, Scene 5, Fiddler on the Roof, book by Joseph Stein, MTI, New York NY: Page 34.

[2] Bari Weiss in

[3] Exodus 1:10


God’s Image in Every Human Being - Rosh Hashanah 5780 Sermon

by Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

L’shanah tovah.

Last month, the world of literature lost Toni Morrison, acclaimed and award-winning author and teacher. She once offered this bit of wisdom to her students: “If you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”

To me, actualizing this vision is a privilege, and this is the thesis for my remarks this morning.

* * * *

Rabbis and African American pastors were once engaged in a lively discussion about the systemic racism that has characterized American life for more than 400 years, ever since the first slave trader’s ship left what is today Ghana, for its destination on the Virginia colony shore.

The discussion took many turns, but they were avoiding one significant question, which finally came forth from one of the rabbis:

“Jews and African Americans have a long history of working together. It’s been an up and down relationship, to be sure. But what can we do together to improve the situation?”

The response from a 30-something African American pastor, Pastor Richard, was immediate.

“Those who know how to drive, should drive. Those who know how to lead, should lead. African Americans need access to ideas: Share them with us! You need to use your white privilege for this purpose. You also need to use your Jewish privilege.” That same pastor, earlier in the evening, had decried the violence stemming from the police shootings of black youth and from black-on-black crime. He despaired and he even remarked, “Black lives matter when they matter to black people.”

Another black pastor, Pastor Edward, someone who had been in the pulpit for more than 30 years, changed the discourse. He said, “White rabbis can't lead the movement, and need to acknowledge that the African Americans must be in the forefront. White people make too many assumptions about what the African American community needs.”

I wanted to relate this brief exchange because it may provide direction to Jews and Blacks who should be engaged together, at all times, in the struggle against racism.

That conversation took place about six weeks ago in a synagogue auditorium in Montgomery, Alabama, where, along with forty-nine other Reform rabbis, I spent a concentrated period studying the grim and problematical history of the Black experience in our country. From the active years of the international slave trade to the most recent police shootings of young African Americans: For many of us our eyes were opened even further to the realities of inequity and inequality in America.

Being in Montgomery and speaking to African American leaders enabled us not simply to hear about the persecution of the African Americans. Many of us rose to new and different levels of empathy:

We gleaned information from The Legacy Museum, located in the same slave warehouse -- and cell-like rooms -- in which families and individuals were kept while they were being bought and sold.

We learned through the museum’s permanent exhibit, about the sad and distressing history of 400 years of African American life.

We observed the greedy nature of the slave trade through notices in an auctioneer’s catalogue about their ‘merchandise’. Here is a sample listing:

There was an ad about someone named Tilla, which read: “about 16 years old, of a fine family, and very large people. Good in the house or the field, quick to learn, humble, obedient, and valuable servant. Has neither fault nor blemish that the proprietor knows, ought to command a high price”;

We viewed newsreel footage of southern bigots from the 1930’s to the 1980’s defending and expressing pride about their prejudices;

And we spoke to African Americans who were present in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and lived through the era of Jim Crow.

Museums and monuments dedicated to the Holocaust, like the ones our Beth El travelers experienced in Eastern Europe last May, or that many of have seen in Jerusalem, Berlin, Washington, Skokie, and others, teach – on a visceral level – the enormity, the grotesqueness, and the pain of the Holocaust; we know of the impact that those places have on non-Jewish visitors.

And in the same way, for most of the rabbis on our group, our experiences in Montgomery and Selma last month had a similar emotional impact on us. As individuals and as a group, we are now much more dedicated to addressing the problem of race and bringing about justice and reconciliation between the white and black communities in our country.

Such a reconciliation is far off, yet the more we defer our work, the longer it will take. But since we at Temple Beth El have a Brit Olam Action Team dedicated to racial justice and reconciliation, our synagogue now must prepare to take the next steps to make a difference in our local community. I am an ally in this, our common struggle. I hope you will join me as well as the dedicated members of our Brit Olam action team.

* * * *

It is essential that we approach this issue mindful of the texts of our tradition firmly in mind. Throughout its history, our people has developed a sophisticated set of values and commandments about how we treat other people, and we must be familiar and comfortable with them.

This morning we read from the book of Genesis, about the origins of humanity. That creation story revealed more than the substance of creation. Our ancestors brought forth a basic set of instructions on how people should relate to people.

The opening of Chapter Five of Genesis reads:

“When God created humanity, God made humanity in the likeness of God; male and female, God created them; when they were created, God blessed them; and God called them ‘adam’”, (which I am translating as ‘earth creatures’, because of the dust of the earth from which humanity was created.)[1]

So, these are four basic truths about the human being:

that we are created as beings filled with Divine knowledge and impact;

that we include a myriad of genders;

that we as a species are special, unique, and sacred;

and that each human shares a common name and fate: we are all earth dwellers: we are all human.

Merely knowing these truths is a privilege. And the Midrash relates that this distinction – that we are aware of this privilege – confers upon us special responsibility.

This is not “white privilege”, nor is it “Jewish privilege”. This is a notion of “human privilege”. And since our human privilege is a gift, we should not underestimate the value of the privilege, or the magnitude of this responsibility.

Indeed, let us be proud of these four truths about humanity each time we step outside and intervene in the life of the world. We are all one species – people – with much diversity … and many commonalities. And as my midrash states, we each have divinity within; we each are human regardless of our gender identities; we are sacred beings both within ourselves and to others; and we share a common human identity as earth-dwellers, responsible for this planet and making us all family.

There are those who would refute and disparage these values. But the Jewish community inspired and created them; they are Integral. And. Essential. Parts. of who we are.

* * * *

There are other texts to learn, however, texts germane to the African American experience. So, here are some basic history from those texts. They may seem elementary, but we need to start from a common level of knowledge if we want to root out prejudice and reverse the effects of the pervasive inequality in our country.

From the beginning of the slave trade in 1619, 12 million people from Africa were effectively kidnapped and placed on boats to the West. One estimate was that perhaps 40% of them never even arrived at our shores.

In 1808, Congress outlawed citizens’ participation in international trading of slaves. But Congress turned a blind eye to the domestic slave markets. They remained legal.

From 1848-1860, 164 businesses in Montgomery, Alabama, were licensed to buy and sell slaves. The city’s location on the Alabama River – with its eventual opening at the Gulf of Mexico – made this city and port a natural locus for the slave trade.

After end of the Civil War, slavery was abolished in law. But in practice, very little changed regarding social attitudes toward slaves. Southern state legislatures came to enact laws that segregated black and white communities from one another. And the constitutionality of this practice was oddly upheld by seven of nine of the US Supreme Court justices in the 1896 ruling, Plessy v Ferguson. The ruling gave license to segregated facilities if they were equal in quality. That was, of course, rarely the case.

By 1898, 73% of the revenue of the state of Alabama came from ‘Convict Leasing’, a system of prisoner labor provided to private parties, such as plantation owners and corporations. The issue of race emerges because the so-called ‘convicts’ who were leased, were often in prison under false arrests or trumped-up charges.

From 1910 to 1940, six million southern Blacks migrated North, finding homes in cities where the racial strife was less intense. But persecution was not limited to the South. States like Nebraska, Nevada, and even my home state of California approved anti-miscegenation laws and imposed other social disabilities upon African Americans.[2]

It is one matter to learn these and hundreds of other realities through historical resources. It is entirely different to stand in a former slave warehouse in Montgomery and absorb salient facts about the persecution of a people within the boundaries of our “free” nation.

It is unique to stand on the stoop of the Montgomery parsonage of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and to see the dent in the concrete porch made by a 1956 pipe bomb.

It is a solemn experience to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and remember those who died and were injured on Bloody Sunday, 1965.

It is breathtaking to see monuments dedicated to the victims of slave kidnapping and lynching, and visit historic sites preserved to help us recall the terrors of this era.

It is heartbreaking to hear the story of a Jewish merchant in 1965 Selma, who tried to bring his son to see the Brown Chapel, the operational nerve center for the Montgomery marches. This pair of would-be visitors were turned away from the church because the street was filled with police cars, end to end, like barricades restraining the Blacks in their housing projects and keeping visitors out. (The father, by the way, said to his son, “We better get home and hunker down,” not realizing the privilege in that statement, the privilege, that is, of being able to leave and hunker down.)

There is so much we yet don't know. We can learn from various resources and we may develop relationships, but sometimes our Jewish myopia – especially when it comes to the sufferings that we experienced throughout our history – could blind us to the needs of others.

We understand our lives, our family, our friendship networks, our desires, our sins, our accomplishments, our failures. Yet, despite our keen ability to empathize with those who suffer, sometimes we know very little of the needs of others, of their sufferings, their longings, or their difficult pathways through life.

* * * *

My friends,

We have a major task before us if we wish to reverse the systemic racism that has plagued our nation, and to repair the inequities in our land due to race. The report from our national partners at the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism is that dialogue between the African American and Jewish American communities is today not broad or deep enough to be transformative. Here in Madison, my impression is that we’re still getting only our toes wet. And nationally, the specter of alleged and real antisemitism constitutes the Damoclean sword that hangs above these two communities.

For many years, American Jews and Blacks have jointly sought ways of working together in the struggle against persecution and bigotry. But the time is more pressing now – as some of our nation’s leaders express prejudices against both Jewish and Black communities – that we become the right kind of allies in the struggle for human equality.

For us, this is the moment of using our human privilege for good.

* * * *

What does it feel like to be Jewish in America today? Proud and out? Assimilative and restrained? Victimized by pervasive antisemitism? Unfettered, and able to wear one’s kippah if one so chooses? We feel a myriad of emotions as American Jews, who, on one day, can be subject to politicians who use us as a political wedge, and who, in the next breath, can cheer for yet another Jewish Nobel laureate or celebrity who says the right truth to the right person in power.

And what does it feel like to be black in America today? That, I don’t know.

Can I, a cisgender male member of the Jewish tribe, dripping with privilege only because of the accident of my birth; who passes for white every time I enter the public sphere; how can I possibly claim to know the indignities of people of color in our nation, a nation that, over time, imported 12 million human slaves – carelessly losing some on the way – and whose countrymen and women offloaded them just as easily as modern cargo ships dock and disgorge their freight?

But we must try to understand more. As much as we know, there are tons of things that we do not yet know.

Very few of us can easily comprehend the humiliation and the degradation of slavery. More of us, perhaps, can empathize with prejudice based on one's connection to their people. But the way to be an ally is to try to know these things.

On this Yom Hadin – this day of judgment, this New Year’s Day – we must discover three realities that Mahatma Gandhi spoke of when naming his movement Satyagraha: there must be clarity in our thinking about these matters; truth in our speaking about them; and authenticity in our actions to change the world for the better.[3]

Let us work diligently in the struggle for equality. Let us tell our African American brothers and sisters that we can be loyal and energetic allies. And let us integrate into our souls those words of Toni Morrison, that “If you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”

This is my wish and my prayer for us in this new year ahead. May we go from strength to strength. L’shanah Tovah.


[1] Genesis 5:1-2

[2] A smattering of state laws from this very period of exodus of black Americans from the South to the North:

Alabama, 1952: “No cards, dominoes, checkers, pool, or billiards to be played in mixed race groups.”

Nebraska, 1943: “Marriages between a white individual and someone deemed 1/8 black, Chinese, or Japanese, will result in the dissolution of the marriage.”

Nevada, 1929: “No one, including priests and ministers, will perform mixed race marriages; it is a gross misdemeanor.”

And California, my home state, 1949: “No marriage may take place between whites and blacks [A different term was used: negroes], Mongolians, members of the Malay race, or mulattos.”

[3] Reading Gandhi, Surjit Kaur Jolly, Concept Publishing Company, 2006 India, page 91

Pathways toward Human Love and Humanity’s Existence - Erev Rosh Hashanah 5780 Sermon

by Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

L’shanah tovah. May this be a good year for us all!

“Dear Amy,

“My family tries to be close, but when it comes to me (the youngest) and my oldest sibling (eight years older) — we just don’t click.

“Despite being born to the same people and raised in the same household, we have very different views, opinions and beliefs about nearly everything. I don’t recall having a good relationship as children; he was always yelling or angry at me.

“My sibling never seemed interested in being close, though we did have our moments of getting along. As adults, this feels unchanged and strained; he’s made it clear he doesn’t approve of my career, schooling, and spiritual beliefs.

“He always talks down to me, and once stated out loud that he can’t respect me as an adult. That hurt more than he’ll ever know. “He seems to believe that I don’t want to be his brother; I think he just wants me out of his life. My parents wish we’d get along, but I can’t force myself to pretend anymore.

“I will be civil, but I don’t feel we can be regular friends.

“Is this awful of me? Should I keep trying? I just don’t see the point.

“Signed, Youngest of two.”[1]

This letter appeared recently in an advice column in the local newspaper, but it just as well could have been written by the biblical character Abel referring to older brother Cain.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

As someone who works with families confronting all kinds of issues, I can tell you that problems of love – or the absence of love and familial connections – are becoming more prevalent and more tenacious.

So, I begin my series of remarks for this holiday season on matters of individual and family love: first, because they are so pressing, and second, because unless we achieve wholeness as individuals – which we achieve through addressing issues directly within our families – we won’t be able to focus on the major world issues that we also need to address.

One simple way that we develop love for family is appreciating the Jewish value of derech eretz, our ethical standard of interpersonal behavior about which I have been writing this summer.

This Hebrew expression, derech eretz, translates into English as the “way of the land”, and the connotation is “the best and kindest way to treat other people”. Using derech eretz can be challenging, because it requires us to recognize the image of God in each person around us, and give that person dignity because, indeed, they embody the Divine.

We are required to show derech eretz to strangers we encounter, the homeless on the street, those who suffer the oppressor’s hand, and – yes – even those family members we don’t get along with.

Simply put, conducting our lives with a healthy dedication to derech eretz means refraining from self-aggrandizement, and rather, treating all those around us with dignity, and sincere and genuine human kindness.

When I read that letter in the advice column, my thoughts immediately went to the story of Cain and Abel, the two children of Adam and Eve. They apparently had similar issues. But in the Torah, the result wasn’t simply Cain and Abel distancing themselves from each other; their story ends in murder.

Recall that Cain slays Abel because of Cain’s jealousy of Abel’s sacrifice being more acceptable to God than his own. After trying to hide the evidence of his crime, God puts to Cain a simple question: “Where is Abel, your brother?”, adding the phrase “your brother” as if Cain might not recognize that Abel was even related to him. After all, the concept of siblings did not exist before them.

Cain, of course, provides this well-known response. “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The appalling second half of Cain’s answer, the rhetorical question, answers itself. Of course, we are responsible for one another, and siblings should be responsible for each other despite the sibling rivalry that is sometimes so ingrained in our family dynamic.

But the first half of Cain’s statement – lo yada’ti, “I do not know” – is more revealing.

That Hebrew phrase lo yada’ti, which has been translated as “I do not know”, actually reveals a continuing past-tense action, meaning “I have not known”, maybe even “I have never known”. Cain could have had a very long lapse of filial responsibility, if he had any to begin with.

With this broader translation of the Hebrew, the transgressions of Cain expand to include sibling neglect and a careless disregard for humanity, as well as murder.

I raise this issue tonight because I grow concerned about the families in our Temple Beth El community.

Let us think carefully: Have we, within our own families’ lives, faced disregard, violent disagreement, separation, estrangement, or abandonment? Have we neglected an email message from a family member who longs to connect to us? Have we not returned a phone message from a parent or a child, who is anxious to hear from us? Have we avoided discussions on sensitive matters because we think they’re too sensitive? And has our avoidance caused difficulties? Should there ever be legitimate reasons for any of this? How can we best repair relationships within our family constellations?

I ask us to consider carefully how best to mend our family relationships that are fractured, especially as this New Year’s Day is the moment for cheshbon hanefesh, the accounting of our soul and our behaviors in the past.

We know families have difficulties, but let us address these issues immediately when they happen, so that small mishaps or slights don’t escalate to full-blown detachments. This is the pathway of derech eretz, of elevating the other above our own needs, of taking their pain into consideration, of reaching out to someone from whom we have been distanced, and trying to set things on a different course. We need reminding that each human life is our responsibility.

* * * *

Two individuals like Cain and Abel can certainly find a way to get along. But what about our ability to be neutral and bring peace to others in conflict?

“Dear Amy,

“I am having a problem pregnancy. After years of trying to conceive, my husband and I were very lucky to finally have gotten pregnant. But I am carrying twins, and I can feel them inside, struggling, pursuing, striving with each other, almost like each is trying to win a battle. Hey, if this is the way things are going to be, what do I matter I all of this? Why did I ever bother getting pregnant?

“My husband: he has such big dreams for his kids. He believes the children represent two nations who would struggle with each other through eternity. Ha! I just wanted a family. Why is my destiny to be an incubator of strife?

“My doctor said I should eat some lentil soup and lie down, but I simply can’t get this situation out of my head. What should I do?

“Signed, still pregnant and not happy.”

That was NOT a letter in the advice columns, but rather a rendering of the feelings of Rebekah, our people’s Matriarch, as she anticipates the birth of her twin boys Esau and Jacob. As we know, they grow up in a conflict-laden interrelationship, aggravated by parents who didn’t know how to parent.

The brothers initially fight over a bowl of soup, then strive over a birthright inheritance, then pledge revenge against one another over possessions and wealth. And all through this, neither parent does anything to intervene in their fighting. In fact, the parents take sides, thereby worsening the problem.

I have seen many families in disrepair. I have heard Temple members’ testimonies of the slights and petty insults made by one family member toward another. They explode because of stubbornness and unwillingness to compromise. And there are few willing to engage these warring family members in dialogue that would lead to reconciliation.

On the other hand I often see potential for a peacemaker to emerge, someone who could remain neutral, and influence the belligerent parties to calm their emotions and work toward peace. I. So. Wish there were more situations such as these.

The sage Hillel challenges each of us to be like Aaron the High Priest, someone who was fearless in engaging in peacemaking. The midrash relates[2] that when two people would quarrel with each other, Aaron, counseling them separately, would say to the first, “My daughter, look what that other person is going through. He beats his breast and tears his clothing, and he keeps crying, ‘Woe is me! How could I possibly stand before her, the one with whom I have this disagreement? I should be ashamed, because it is I who treated her so cruelly.’” Aaron promptly would go to the other person with the exact same story about the first one. So that the next time the two people met they were tearfully hugging each other, embracing in reconciled friendship.

Having witnessed opposite sides of a quarrel within our families, who has been willing to step in and intervene? Or have we served as a peacemaker within our family? Have our families needed a peacemaker, and none was around?

The matter of love of family requires us to take this kind of risk for the sake of unity. How best to bring peace to broken families and relationships? Sometimes it is we who must intervene and bring the inspiration of peace to those around us. Derech eretz, elevating others than ourselves, means that we must actively search for a solution to enable others to find love.

* * * *

And sometimes, the good intentions of some family member are misinterpreted, and seen as insufferable. Or some family members get a reputation for being a little crazy and cannot be viewed as a legitimate member of the family. Some of our family members just don’t fit it.

“Dear Amy,

“I am not sure what to do about my muddled and disorganized son. I love him to bits – he is my second youngest, and most vulnerable, I fear – but he is, in the words of people who will live centuries after me, a “luftmensch’: You know, his body is present but his consciousness flits around and never comes to land.

“Oy, and he’s a dreamer, too, but I fear he infers reality from his imagination. He has dreams of making it big one day: He sees himself in those dreams as one mighty sheave of wheat, and the rest of his family – who are also caricatured as sheaves of wheat – he sees bowing down to him. Having dreams of exaggerated greatness is fine, but hey, Amy, he had the bad judgment to relate those dreams of superiority to his brothers and parents. That did not go well.

“I tried to placate him by getting him a really expensive, colorful coat, but that seemed to have pushed him further from reality. So much so that when his brothers accused him of trying to lord his feigned superiority over them, he remained mysteriously silent. No affect whatsoever. No denial, no warmth, no ‘Hey, I was only joking’. Just a large, enigmatic grin, as if he held onto a secret that he would never share.

“Maybe if I give him some supervisory responsibility around the farm; maybe that will allow him to focus on real life tasks.”

“Amy, tell me I am not spoiling him, and that I am not being too overprotective.

“Signed, Jake who’s not so jake.”

Joseph was the youngest son of our Patriarch Jacob, and he had no awareness of his effect on others; and he was the dutiful son who wished to please. Jacob eventually did give Joseph some tasks around the farm – I guess that went well – and one day Jacob sent him to check on his brothers while they were tending the sheep. Joseph somehow gets lost, and he encounters a stranger, who notices that Joseph is unfamiliar with his surroundings.

“What are you searching for?” the stranger asks him.

Joseph answers, “I am looking for my brothers. Could you tell me where they are tending the sheep?”[3] One aspect of Luftmensch Joseph’s state of mind is that Joseph assumes the stranger knows where his brothers are; there is no “Do you know” or “Have you heard” about them. He only wanted to know where they were.

Joseph is in need of direction, and is very trusting, and luckily the stranger does point him in the right direction. From that moment, of course, his life is never again easy, or the same. (But that is the story for another sermon.)

Joseph was a special young man with different social and emotional needs. Yet his parents did not recognize his special gifts, and they could not handle the challenges he presented. And the question asked by the stranger – “What are you searching for?” – therefore becomes more of an existential one. He found his brothers, but he was completely confused by his life, and was likely confounded by what came next.

I think we all know of young people who have needs that go far beyond those that their parents can handle. Those on the autism scale; those with Down Syndrome; those with psychological and biochemical imbalances; those who are differently abled; or those with language skills that are not as developed as others.

And today we can add to this group of young people with unaddressed needs: young Jews of color; LGBTQ Jews; women; adoptees; those who, for whatever reason, are sometimes ‘left outside the camp’, to use a Torah metaphor.

I have seen many young people who could have been left behind . . . but we can always find room for them IF we know about them, if parents are open and transparent about their needs, if their families come forward to disclose the reality of their situation. Doing that is daunting, as it causes parents to confront – yet again – the difficulties they’ve suffered. Not to mention revealing something that the child may not want revealed.

But I offer advice for all of us tonight: When we see these special children in our midst, let us not shy away from them, or let not their differences distract us from the task of Jewish and social strengthening. All will be welcome here. All needs can be attended to. The answers to their question of "What are you searching for?" will be listened to with respect and acceptance, and we will make the promise to accompany them on the journey. Those young people will find here the love they seek and deserve.

If derech eretz requires us to lift up even those who find themselves on the margins of what others may label as “normal”, then it is essential to bring these young people into the community. We, their family members, do them homage by respecting who they are, by acknowledging directly and addressing their needs, and elevating them as beings made in the image of God.

* * * *

And further:

If derech eretz allows us to lift up anyone who has fallen, haven’t we accomplished something important, something that advances the cause of humanity. Each human life is our responsibility. Each dispute has a role for a peacemaker. And each young person – especially in our day – requires all the love we can muster.

That is a lot for one Rosh Hashanah. But I think we can handle it.

* * * *

“Dear Amy,

“So, I took your advice. I approached my family at our annual Erev Rosh Hashanah family dinner with love and respect. I walked the pathway of derech eretz: I celebrated with them when they told me of their successes over the past year, and I felt no need to crow over my own. I sympathized with their hardships, without drawing attention away with recitations of my own difficulties. We reminisced about past good times, and everyone looked forward to more good times in the future. It was the best Rosh Hashanah dinner we’ve had together in a long time.

“Thank you for your good advice!

“Signed, …….” well, you fill in the blank.

L’shanah tovah!


[1] “Ask Amy” column, edited, Wisconsin State Journal, September 19, 2019

[2] Avot d’Rabbi Natan, 12:3

[3] Genesis 37:14-16

Ten Ways You Can Help Fight Climate Change

For more than 40 years, the Reform movement has been committed to protecting the environment. Our tradition of stewardship goes back to Genesis and teaches us to be partners in the ongoing work of creation. The Reform Jewish movement believes that it is our sacred duty to alleviate environmental degradation and the human suffering it causes. Learn more here.

The David Suzuki Foundation lists ten concrete actions we can take to address this issue:

1.Demand climate solutions
2.Use energy wisely
3.Get charged up with renewables​​​​​​​
4.Eat for a climate-stable planet
5.Start a climate conversation
6.Green your commute
7.Consume less, waste less, enjoy life more
8.Invest in renewables and divest from fossil fuels
9.Support or join youth-led movements
10.Get politically active and vote

For more details about each action, see “Ten Ways You Can Help Fight Climate Change” 

Fires in the Mirror Explores Racial Tensions Between Jewish and Black Communities

The Milwaukee Chamber Theater is now running Fires in the Mirror, a play by Anna Deavere Smith, through October 13.

Here’s a synopsis of the play:

In 1991, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, a Hasidic man's car jumped a curb, killing a seven-year-old black child. Shortly after, a Hasidic rabbinical student was stabbed and killed in what appeared to be an act of retaliation, sparking riots that made national headlines and exposed a growing friction in racial and cultural relations. But behind the headlines, there are people—politicians, activists, religious leaders, victims, and perpetrators alike—who each have their own story to tell. Anna Deavere Smith's landmark work of documentary theatre, presented here with two actors playing 26 roles, is a theatrical event that cannot be missed—an illuminating exploration of identities in conflict.

In partnership with Jewish Museum Milwaukee, Fires in the Mirror patrons will have the opportunity to see a traveling portion of the museum’s exhibition Allied in the Fight: Jews, Blacks and the Struggle for Civil Rights in the theater lobby.

Educational Programs in Our Community

YWCA Racial Justice Summit, October 15 and 16
Each year, the YWCA Madison hosts a Racial Justice Summit that brings together people and organizations committed to learning about institutional racism as well as to building an ongoing practice of racial justice. This year’s theme is “Transforming Ourselves.” The summit focuses on systemic racism and convenes nationally known keynote speakers and researchers, in addition to local experts and advocates, for an audience of over 800 participants. You can read more about the program and register here. Spots are limited, so register now if you are interested.

Madison City Clerks Offers Voter Education Ambassador Training
It’s important to make sure that each eligible voter is able to cast a ballot and have that ballot counted. On Monday, November 18, the Madison City Clerk's Office will offer a free training to help with voter outreach efforts. You will learn how to accurately answer questions about voter ID, voter registration, absentee voting, and the election process. Advance registration is not required, but contact the City Clerk in advance if you want to receive a packet of voter outreach materials at the training session.

Following the training, participants may sign up to help the City Clerk's Office provide voter education at community events.
When: Monday, November 18, 4:30–5:45 pm
Where: Madison Municipal Building, 215 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

Volunteer opportunities

High Holy Day help Volunteers are needed to help get out and put away the prayer books used for High Holy Days. We also need a few people to help take Tashlich materials to the park and back.

Catholic Multicultural Center  dinner Sign up 

Porchlight Men’s Shelter. Our next Porchlight meal is Wednesday, October 30. We need shoppers, cooks, cookie bakers, kitchen minders, delivery people, and servers. This is a fun way to get to know your fellow volunteers! Sign up 

Emerson tutors for reading and math

Dane Sanctuary Coalition volunteer driver project

Emerson School: “Mentoring is so much fun, I look forward to it each week.” 

If you can spare an hour each week during the school day, you can make a positive difference in a child’s education. Seven years ago, Jewish Congregations for Social Justice “adopted” Emerson School on Madison’s east side, and we have been supporting their academics and family programming ever since. We would love to have you join us for the 2019–20 school year.

We are currently recruiting for adults who want to work with elementary-age children on reading and math skills:

-Reading mentors work with beginning readers. Your job is to help children build skills and discover  the joy of reading. 

-Math mentors work with children on basic math concepts and lessons. You don't have to be a math whiz; many kids need support with very basic math facts and strategies that most adults are comfortable with. 

For both kinds of mentors, the teachers will provide instructions and materials and the school will provide training. You need to be able to commit to an hour each week, usually at the same day and time, at the school (2421 East Johnson St.). You suggest some available times and the school will try to find a match that will work for you. Pairing will begin in October.

Emerson is a great community school with a dynamic principal and devoted staff. The student body is diverse in race, income, and English language ability. The school has shown better-than-average growth in the students’ literacy and math skills over the last few years, and we like to think that our mentors have played some small part!

Jewish Congregations for Social Justice is lucky to participate in this special program, and we would love to have you join us. If you want to learn more, please contact Marcia Vandercook at

Serving Meals at the Catholic Multicultural Center

by Sue Levy

Looking for a fun, easy opportunity to help the community and spend quality time as a team or group? Help serve the daily meal at the Catholic Multicultural Center!

The Catholic Multicultural Center provides free meals every day to south side community members and homeless people. The center buys and prepares the food, but volunteers serve the food and clean up. Participants join one another at café tables next to the center’s kitchen, and volunteers set out and serve the food. The center serves food to about an average of 70 people daily. A variety of church congregations and community groups provide volunteers to support this effort.

Temple Beth El plans to provide a volunteer group of six to eight people (age 12 and above), for two hours one day a month, on an ongoing basis beginning in October. Volunteers set out and serve the food and clean up after the meal. We have signed up for the second Monday of each month. Our first date will be Monday, October 14.

Who: 6-8 volunteers each day of service

When: 3:30–5:30 pm on the second Monday of each month (you can commit to one or more days)

Where: Catholic Multicultural Center, 1862 Beld St., Madison, WI 53713

Interested in engaging with other TBE members to meet this critical community need? Click on the sign-up link and tell us when you are available. Additional days will be added in the coming year.

December 8, 2019 10 Kislev 5780