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Responding to the Choices We Confront

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

On the day of her death, we are destined to cry,

On the day of his burial, we are destined to reflect.


How many days will pass until I feel normal again,

And will I, after achieving my new normalcy, be able to grow into a new self?


Will I forever shun her advice, refusing to see the errors of my way,

Or will I allow her rebukes to correct my bad behaviors?


Will I allow the roughness of his tongue to continue to intervene in my own speech?

Or will I bear his presence in mind, and learn to respond in my own, better way?


Will I blame her forever for my own shortcomings,

Or will I allow her to lie in peace in my mind?


Will I condemn myself for foolishly wanting to call him and tell him of events in my life,

Or will I accept my sadness, and, nonetheless, have that imaginary conversation with him?


Will I shut out offers of warmth and shiver in my frigid solitude,

Or will I willingly welcome those who extend their empathy my way?


Will I complain about my absent friends who seem to have forgotten me,

Or will I understand one day that few know how to deal truly and effectively with grief?


Will I, in loneliness, sink far down into a depression simply to gain attention,

Or will I seek help and work to great lengths to raise me out of my depths?


Will my idealism be paralyzed, and my creativity handicapped by fear of future grief and sadness,

Or will I still—as before—gaze in wonder at the future with thoughts of them, and what they had envisioned, for our time together?


V’ahavah, v’Zikaron, u’G’vurah – but love, and memory, and strength will help us find courage and optimism to face the future. For how we react to our grief is dependent upon us.

"Our Freedoms" - Yom Kippur Daytime Sermon 5779

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

G’mar tov, and may you have a sweet and good year ahead.

In the book of Deuteronomy, we read directions about what to do when we find lost objects. The rationale given for returning such a lost object to its owner is: “Lo tuchal l’hit’aleim, you will not be able to shrink from this responsibility.”[1] Almost sounds like a compulsion, or like almost nothing should deter you from fulfilling this commandment.

The word “l’hit’aleim”, a verb here which means “to ignore, back away from, deny, be indifferent to” and so forth, has—as its root—the word “elem” or “child”. So with this translation, we might hear the text saying, “When you come upon lost objects, you can’t react like a child; young people don’t understand the value of returning lost objects”. In other words, the mature way to deal with lost items is to return them properly.

The Torah underscores—in many places—the expected civic responsibilities of those defined as members of a community. Restoring lost animals to their owners, ensuring that waste water runoff does not affect a neighbor, participating in joint security measures to protect their town: All these and more were the concerns of ancient communities, and were covered by discussions in the Talmud.

The strongest implication of “lo tuchal l’hit’aleim” is that ‘no one should hide behind the ignorance of youth when engaging in these important community matters’.

My friends:

In our day, we also have many civic responsibilities. From paying our property taxes to answering that summons to jury duty, from obeying traffic laws to putting out the refuse and recycling in an orderly fashion: Each of us supports our community by fulfilling these basic civic commitments. Not only do our individual actions benefit everyone, but we actually preserve the many freedoms we enjoy by performing our civic duties properly.

And even in extraordinary or difficult moments, our civic responsibilities continue. We might be witnesses to a traffic accident or a crime, and we need to offer testimony as to what happened. We might be called upon to perform CPR—if we have been certified—in a life-and-death situation.

In other words, our duties to one another reach beyond the usual and everyday activities of life, and compel us to embrace the difficult and problematic situations we confront. In these special instances, we follow the lead of the Torah when it talks about paying compensation when we cause damage, or how a town goes about accepting responsibility if there is an unsolved murder within its boundaries.

These sacred words, lo tuchal lhit’aleim, direct our public behavior at both easy and difficult times. They also refer to our engagement at the ballot box whenever an election takes place. Voting strengthens and enhances the freedoms we cherish in this land. Our Jewish American ethos, supported by ancient-but-ever-relevant values, is resilient because these Torah values still address human needs today.

 This year, especially, we are concerned about overcoming voter apathy. Frankly, I can think of no better Yom Kippur undertaking than a commitment to assist in getting as many people as possible to go to the polls six weeks from now, and encouraging them to exercise their right to vote. This is how we change society for the better...and our lives, as well.

*   *   *   *

I would like you to bear in mind for a moment the following number.


Got it? 87,810.

Ready? Okay, here goes:

There were, in the state of Michigan at the time of its November 2016 election, 87,810 special ballots cast by Michigan voters. Why were these ballots special? Some of you likely know. For those who don’t, these ballots were special because: On those 87,810 ballots, along with their votes for national, state, county, municipal offices, and referenda, these ballots had no votes for president.[2]

None at all! None of these almost 90,000 voters selected even one of the presidential candidates.

Now here is another number for you to think about: The margin of victory in Michigan between the two major political party candidates was 13,097 votes.

The number of people who did not cast any vote for president was more than six times the margin of victory.

Unfathomable! Unbelievable! I was shocked when I recently learned of these facts. And yet, that was the reality.

And what caused this voter unresponsiveness?

Voters who acknowledged they voted this way related that neither major party candidate was the right choice for our nation, so they did not feel compelled to vote, even for the perceived lesser of two evils.[3]

Similar attitudes were expressed across the nation, when analyzing voter turnout results.

According to George Pillsbury, author of a report by Nonprofit VOTE and the US Elections Project, Wisconsin’s overall turnout was lower than in past years due in part to a reported “distaste for both [major] presidential candidates.[4]

Overall, in 2016, Wisconsin had a turnout of 70.5%, which is not bad when you consider the national turnout rate was around 60%[5], and that we were the fifth highest turnout rate in the country; Minnesota was highest at 74.8%, by the way[6].

Still: Nationally, four out of ten eligible voters did not bother going to the polls. The main reasons cited by these non-voters were these:

  • 25% of non-voters reported that their vote probably wouldn’t make a difference;
  • 15% said they thought the outcome of the election, at least in their state, was a foregone conclusion, so their vote—their voice—would not have made a difference;
  • eight million voters cited problems such as a voter registration issue or getting to the polls;
  • and still others feel little confidence in the fairness and integrity of U.S. elections[7].

Some of us have likely felt these same things. Nonetheless, we went to the polls to fulfill our civic duty in that election.

These attitudes among the millions of apathetic voting or non-voting citizens indicate a low confidence level in the integrity of our election system.

And in addition to the apathy, we have seen barriers to voting that officials and non-officials alike have erected in our way:

  • obstacles to voter registration, such as complicated processes and the difficulty of obtaining photo IDs in those places—like Wisconsin—that require them;
  • the flood of secret money pouring into races from outside groups and individuals who wish to manipulate us and our local communities’ needs;
  • limiting absentee and advance voting opportunities;
  • reducing the number of polling places in minority counties, and—in some places—not supplying polling places with an adequate number of ballots;
  • false and misleading social media posts that are created and manipulated not only by foreign nations but also by domestic campaigns or their supporters:

All these realities—intentionally manipulative—and more suppress the normal and expected fulfillment of our civic responsibilities as voters. These are nefarious efforts to thwart the process for some set of non-democratic ends.

And it is this last point that should concern us all. Our democracy is in peril, and we have not taken this danger as seriously as we should. About this we should say, “chatanu”, we have sinned.

To correct this situation, let us employ one of our Jewish values, to come to the aid of those in peril. We members of Temple Beth El, along with other religious communities, need to engage our community and one another in the tasks of raising our fellow citizens’ confidence in our election system and increasing their active and engaged participation.

Even the Talmud supports this view: In the book of B‘rachot, Rabbi Yitzak asserts that “One may appoint a leader over a community only if he consults with the community and they agree to the appointment.[8]” This amazingly democratic affirmation set forth in our basic legal text underscores the needs of the governed to select those who govern. It is as simple as that.

Some of you may have noticed in the High Holy Day program the note that Temple Beth El is joining together with other local and national Jewish organizations to promote 100% participation in the November 6th election. Locally this is a joint project of our Sisterhood and the Social Action Committee. Please consider becoming part of this effort. You should come to Food-a-Rama at some point that day, but you also need to vote!

The Reform movement’s plan includes three major components to increase civic engagement:

  • to achieve 100% voter participation;
  •  to engage the candidates by building upon relationships and creating new ones with the candidates, and hosting non-partisan candidate forums;
  • and, in five specific instances, to promote, create, and, when necessary, defeat ballot initiatives on issues that affect our religious community.

For us at Beth El, we will engage in voter registration of us and others in Madison, and reminding our voters to go to the polls. Future projects could entail sponsoring candidate forums (which we are legally permitted to do when we ensure equal access to all candidates) and bringing people to their polling places.

And one additional area for long-term development: amending the Wisconsin constitution to allow for binding voter initiatives and referenda. We currently lack this ability, and I wonder whether it is time that we consider this for our state, along with the 24 states that currently permit it.

If you are interested in helping with this effort; if you need to register to vote and have not yet gotten around to it; if you are simply curious about this effort of our synagogue movement, please stop by the tables in the Weinstein Community Court at the conclusion of these morning services, and there will be volunteers to help and speak to you.

The main thrust of our efforts is to increase the participation of eligible voters to vote…in each election!...every time. For when there exist those in our society who wish to sabotage our precious voting process, the best defense comes from “We, the people”.

If it is true, that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”, are we not willing to watch carefully over our precious voting rights to ensure that we have the most reliable form of democracy that we can acquire?!

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught this parable: While sailors were on a journey, one of them took an auger and started drilling directly underneath his seat. The other sailors began to worry, and they said to him: ‘What do you think you are doing?!’ He replied: ‘Why do you care? I am drilling only underneath my seat.’ They said to him, ‘Yes, but the water will rise and flood all of us on this ship. We're all on the same boat. Your transgression will endanger us all’[9].

I told this story to our family service last Monday morning, reminding the kids and adults in attendance that if one person causes a problem, then everyone might suffer. And they got it! So, let us hear the words of Torah, “lo tuchal l’hit’aleim”, and let us not back away from; let us not defer; rather, let us act like the adult and responsible members of society that we are, and vow to restore the confidence we would like to feel in engaging civically with one another.

Let the light of civic engagement that we kindle this year, continue its warming glow far into the future.

Ken y’hi lratzon.

"Our Forgetting and Our Remembering"- Erev Yom Kippur 5779

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

L’shanah Tovah, G’mar Chatimah Tovah!

There are many things my father taught me. Some were easier for me to learn than others.

I especially remember his emphasis on positive thinking. Instead of saying to someone, “Don’t forget to …” whatever, you can fill in the blank; you should say, “Remember to …” My father may have offered a minor bit of reframing, but that little change of direction made a huge impression on me.

Perhaps even more germane to the subject of forgetting and remembering is a beautiful midrash from the Talmud[1] on the origin of the philtrum, that little divot that lies just beneath our noses. Many of us know this story.

While a child is still in the womb, so goes the midrash, an angel of God teaches it the entirety of Torah. When the child passes into living world, the angel touches the child just above the lips, causing the child to forget everything they had known.

The origin of this midrash lies in the rabbis’ explanation as to why a baby cries when first born. Their midrashic conclusion was that the child was unhappy at the prospect of having to go and re-learn everything.

Well, this much is true: We Jews do love learning and, at least once we’re born, we actually do remember things. And forgetting something would make us very unhappy.

When it comes to Jewish learning, the Torah is replete with commands about memory: “Remember the atrocities of the people of Amalek”, the first nation to attack Israel after its departure from Egypt.[2] “Remember the Sabbath day and sanctify it”.[3] “Remember the day we went forth from Egypt”.[4] “Remember all the kindnesses God offered to us”,[5] and so forth.

That the Torah focuses on remembering these significant events might suggest that we humans need constant reminding, so that, indeed, we don’t forget the important matters before us. Especially at this season, as we review our deeds from this past year, our remembering must be keenly honed, to honestly and fully address the tasks of repentance that we confront. Misdeeds are easy to repress; part of the work of this holiday is the task of remembering and holding ourselves accountable.

 “Hinei ma-tov”, how good it is, to be in a community of like-minded individuals, each of us with our faults, each engaging in the process of refining ourselves, and accepting both our tendency to forget and our willingness to be shown how best to remember.

At this season, there are two kinds of remembering which we must practice.

First, we need to remember who we are. As Lamed-Vavniks in training, we must develop courage to be exemplars, that our righteous behavior can encourage others to lives of goodness. For it’s not a moment of remembering, it’s the constant vigilance to be our best selves. Further, if we remember that we are mentsches, then we can confidently teach others to be mentsches, too.

Second, we must remember to protect others, whether in our nuclear families or in our community. Our mentschlichkeit must be used as a force for good in the world.

*     *     *     *

Sometimes, demonstrating our mentschy qualities means making grand sacrifices for a higher cause. In this light, I would like to relate two brief true stories to you. They are about two men whose lives intertwine; both demonstrate courage, and their actions are, I think, germane to this day.[6]

Many years ago, Al Capone owned virtually all of Chicago. He wasn't famous for anything of a wholesome or decent nature. He was notorious for blanketing the city in illegal enterprises such as bootlegged liquor, prostitution, and murder.

Capone’s lawyer was nicknamed ‘Easy Eddie’. He was very good at his job; his legal maneuvering kept Al Capone out of jail on many occasions.

Capone paid Easy Eddie very well and filled his life with luxuries. And Eddie lived the high life of the Chicago mob and paid very little attention to the atrocities taking place around him. Like his boss, Eddie was far from a mensch.

Eddie did have one soft spot, however. He had a son whom he loved dearly. Eddie made sure that his son was well taken care of and was given a good education. Despite his involvement with organized crime, Eddie even tried to teach him right from wrong. Yet, despite his wealth and influence, there were two things he couldn't give his son; he couldn't pass on a good name, and he could not set a good example of righteous living.

These moral quandaries so exasperated Easy Eddie, that one day he determined to rectify the wrongs he had done and turn state’s evidence against Al Capone.

He would tell the truth about the gang’s activities, clean up his own tarnished name, and offer his son an example of integrity. He would also need to testify against the Mob, and he knew that the cost would be his life. (And he was, indeed, gunned down by the Mob on a deserted Chicago street.) But in his eyes, he had given his son the greatest gift he had to offer, even at the greatest price he could ever pay.

Now for the second story.

World War II produced many heroes, among which was Lieutenant Commander Butch O'Hare. He was a fighter pilot assigned to the aircraft carrier Lexington in the South Pacific.

On one occasion, all the planes on his carrier were sent on a mission. Once airborne, Butch realized that his plane did not have adequate fuel for both the mission and a return to his carrier. His flight leader told him to return to base, so reluctantly, he dropped out of formation and headed back to the fleet.

As he neared his ship, he saw something that made his blood boil; a squadron of Japanese aircraft was headed toward his naval group, apparently in attack formation.

His comrades were out on their sortie and unreachable, and the fleet was all but defenseless. He couldn’t even warn the fleet of the approaching danger. There was only one thing to do. He must somehow divert the enemies from bombing the fleet.

Laying aside thoughts of personal safety, he flew straight toward the formation of Japanese planes. His wing-mounted guns blazed as he charged in, attacking one surprised enemy plane after then another. Butch wove in and out of the now broken formation and fired at as many planes as possible until all his ammunition was finally gone.  

Undaunted, he continued the assault. He dove at the planes, trying to clip a wing or tail in hopes of damaging as many enemy planes as possible, rendering them unfit to fly.

Finally, the exasperated Japanese squadron took off in another direction. And Butch O'Hare and his tattered fighter eventually landed back on the carrier.

Upon arrival, he related the event surrounding his return; film from the gun-camera mounted on his plane confirmed the tale. It showed the extent of Butch's daring attempt to protect the fleet. He had, in fact, destroyed five enemy aircraft.

This took place in February 1942, and for that action Butch became the first Naval Aviator to win the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Sadly, a year later, Butch was killed in aerial combat; he was 29. His hometown would not allow the memory of this WW II hero to fade, and today, O'Hare Airport in Chicago is named in tribute to the courage of this great man.

So, what do these two stories have to do with each other?

Butch O'Hare was Easy Eddie’s son.

And while Butch the aviator—we can all agree—was a true hero, his father, in the end, also demonstrated righteous behavior to a young and impressionable mind, who thereby learned how to live in a responsible way.

Perhaps rehabilitation can occur even after a life of deceit and crime. Perhaps even a mobster can produce a mentsch.

Now, being a noted hero may not be the fate of each person in this congregation tonight, but we become heroes in our own right when we teach others by our example; how we endure even the most difficult of circumstances for a higher cause; and how we teach another person to persevere even in the face of likely defeat. These are ways that we teach others to be mentsches.

*     *     *     *

The heroism of people like Butch O’Hare is celebrated and public. But there are others whose heroism is private and passes unnoticed; others who quietly endure indignities and violations that are routinely unacknowledged and often disbelieved; people who, as much as Butch O’Hare, deserve to be remembered.

We must acknowledge and remember those who are exposed to danger and humiliation as survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment. These survivors need our support and trust, and individuals and society must be there for them.

Predators involved in crimes of violence and sexuality violate two of Judaism’s prime directives, which are (1) that all people were created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of the divine, and (2) that our health and our bodies are gifts from God that we are to protect and nurture[7]. Crimes combining violence, power, and/or sex have no place in our world.

As inheritors of a tradition that takes seriously the issue of modesty and respect in matters of human sexuality, we should be able to identify with the survivors of sexual abuse. We know well—and we agonize over—the Torah story of the rape of Dinah, the only daughter of our patriarch Jacob and matriarch Leah, a story presented to us in the pithy language of two verses of Torah, in the thirty-fourth chapter of Genesis:

Shechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite leader, took a look at Dinah: He seized her; he raped her; and he humiliated her[8].

And after Shechem rapes Dinah, he begins to show affection for her. The Torah next says his ‘soul clung to her’, he ‘loved her’, and he spoke kindly to her[9].

The language of the Torah is curt, yet both the words and cadence transmit the naïveté, carelessness, and—most important—the callousness of Shechem’s violence-driven approach to sex and love.

This is not the only illustration of lust and violence of this kind in the Hebrew Bible: We could consider King David’s rape of Batsheva, the wife of Uriah the Hittite[10]; Judah’s mistreatment of his daughter-in-law Tamar[11]; or when the wife of Potiphar attacks Joseph, who rebuffs her seduction only to be arrested for a false accusation of attempted rape[12].

We have countless contemporary examples to consider as well; some are high visibility crimes: Just in the last few weeks, another large child abuse scandal rocks the Catholic church. A prestigious New York Jewish day school’s leadership dating back to the 1970’s admits to ongoing sexual attacks on young students. Also called to mind is the Washington-DC Orthodox rabbi who, a few years ago, clandestinely photographed women in his synagogue’s mikvah’s dressing room. Even the immediate past president of Israel—Mosheh Katsav—served a five-year prison sentence for rape and obstruction of justice.

Occurrences of sexual harassment and abuse have involved people from show business to athletics to academia to religion to science to politics to jurisprudence to…so many fields. A new headline seems to appear daily.

But now, empowerment is in the offing; survivors are believed; they are empowering each other to confront this problem; and they are amassing the necessary fortitude and support to take on their attackers.

As we witness the parade of women coming forward seeking to be believed, many of us can only imagine their pain, embarrassment, and frustration. But I invite us also to imagine their prayers: “Who will be by my side? Who will stand with me? Who will intervene on my behalf?”

And our response must be, “I hear you. I am sorry. How can I support you.” For Judaism teaches that we must not stand idly by the blood of a neighbor[13], so each of us must ally with survivors of sexually based violence and confront the ugly implications of inaction and apathy.

What does it mean to be an ally in this modern context? It means listening well to those whom we support. It means stepping in and firmly reproving someone who tells a sexual or sexist joke. It means acting according to the survivors wishes and strategies, and not imposing our own, sometimes misinformed, approaches. It means standing in the shadows, permitting the survivor to tell what they need, and assisting as invited by the survivor.

In the Yom Kippur context, what is needed to address these transgressions against humanity? Should perpetrators of sexual abuse and harassment be able easily to rehabilitate their public careers when few have demonstrated the requisite amount of shame, guilt, and sincere atonement? And how do we, as a society, seek repentance for such behavior, especially when public celebrity apologies seem too facile?

As Rabbi Albert Friedlander (z”l) said

“We can have compassion for damaged, tainted human beings who have come to personify evil in the world. We can hope that they will return and repent. We can and do recommend them to the judgment and compassion of God. But, here in the real world, we have to defend standards of justice and must fight against evil”.[14]

For those infamous perpetrators of sexual abuse and violence, simple norms of reconciliation do not suffice. Apologies, even when they are public, do not allow for true justice to be meted out. Public displays of remorse, especially those without real consequences, should not allow perpetrators to manipulate the system and continue the harm they inflict. Public shame is not enough. Perpetrators must be held accountable in a court of law. There should be no statute of limitations on crimes of sexual violence.

Rehabilitation can come only when the perpetrator has performed these actions: publicly expressed remorse, privately expressed their guilt and sorrow and sought forgiveness, compensated the survivor, performed visible acts of public service, demonstrated repeated resistance to temptation to sin when presented with the opportunity, and, most importantly, served an appropriate prison sentence.

The hardest part of this holiday is our determination as to whether an apology or act of contrition is enough to warrant forgiveness. Especially when society so often affords a smooth and speedy path to redemption for even these worst of offenders.

Author and sex educator Merissa Nathan Gerson challenges us by asking us to consider a new “Al Cheit” in our worship. This prayer of confession relates to the sin that we commit by not forcefully addressing issues of sexual violence and harassment. Her attitude is that even if only one person sins, we are all responsible. So, she offers this new liturgy:

“Forgive us for the times that a person said ‘no’ and we overrode the voice of that person and continued finding our own pleasures.

“Forgive us for the times that someone looked so scarred as we were pursuing our own pleasure and we thought nothing of it, because our pleasure was more important than their safety.

“Forgive us for the times that we were so arrogant that we thought that rape and sexual violence aren't real; forgive us for the arrogance to feel that if it didn't happen to us then it couldn't be real.

“And forgive us for the times that we were so drunk, that it didn’t even occur to us that our partner might say either ‘yes’ or ‘no’, yet we could not discern the difference between the two because we had lost our ability do so.[15]

*     *     *     *

 Like the crimes themselves, survivors are easily forgotten by society. They have been written off in the past, and that is our collective sin. So, let us remember how best to address their needs and repair the breech between them and society.

Let us also remember that there is a chance, even for criminals, to reform their behavior if given proper direction and motivation. The sins of one generation need not infect the next, so long as we model the qualities of a Lamed-Vavnik, wielding both the righteousness and justice necessary to fix the world.

May this Yom Kippur be a day of good thought, good company, easy fasting, and significant commitments to tikkun olam.

Ken y’hi lratzon. May this be God’s will. Amen.


[1] Niddah 30b

[2] Deuteronomy 25:17

[3] Exodus 20:8

[4] Exodus 13:3

[5] Deuteronomy 7:18 plus many others

[7] Genesis 1:27

[8] Genesis 34:2

[9] Ibid., 34:3

[10] II Samuel 11

[11] Genesis 38

[12] Genesis 39

[13] Leviticus 19:16

[14] “Multicultural Britain and Interfaith Dialogue”, Margaret Shepherd and Jonathan Gorsky. Public Life and the place of the Church: Reflections to Honor the Bishop of Oxford, edited by Michael Brierley. 2006.

"Our Sacred Soil" - Rosh Hashanah Morning 5779

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

L’shanah tovah.

This morning’s Torah portion[1] contains one of the key principles that define the mission of the people of Israel.

This first principle is foundational to our people’s ethos and lies within God’s description of the commissioning of Abraham as a prophet of Israel. This element defines not only who we are as a people, but also what we must do to merit the title of “Israelite”, one who strives—even with God—and prevails.

We discover this basic ethical component when we hear God engaging in an internal debate on whether and how to disclose to Abraham the Holy One’s intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. In the text, God says:

“Since I have known [Abraham] intimately, [I will tell him] so that he will command his own children, and all his descendants, that they should observe the way of the Eternal, which is to perform righteousness [tzedakah] and justice [mishpat]; [and I will tell him] so that I, the Eternal, may bring about for Abraham what I have promised him.”[2]

God’s rationale embodies benefits that would return to Abraham, such as blessings of numerous descendants[3], universal greatness[4], and a land to call his own[5]; God also identifies responsibilities that come down to us: to manage our affairs through righteous and just deeds, and to demonstrate proper stewardship of the sacred soil that Abraham bequeaths to his posterity.

Now: ‘stewardship of the soil’ is not an obligation only in an agricultural context. Today’s Torah reading suggests that the people of Israel can claim legitimate possession of the land only through performing acts of tzedakah—our doing what is right—and verdicts of mishpat—proclaiming what is just—within the land.

‘Observe these sacred obligations’, God implies, ‘and Israel will merit true sanctity', that is, a sense that God’s moral and ethical commandments will inspire future generations of Israel.

Sadly, as close as we have come to these ideals in some generations, we’ve not yet arrived at a time when we fully merit God’s presence in the land of Israel. The chilling and portentous events in Israel over the past few years suggest that we have a long way to go before we can effectuate God’s original intentions for the land.

There was a time when we had earned God’s sacred presence. In the book of Exodus, when God initiates the process for serving God in the desert, the Torah places this sacred commandment in God’s mouth: “Let them build me a mikdash, a sanctuary, so that I can dwell with them.”[6] The Exodus text assures that God desired to live among us and help to direct our behavior.

And even when Israel went into exile, so says a midrash of the Talmud, God quit the land and went with her, to celebrate her accomplishments, to comfort her at times of sorrow. In that midrash, God commanded them to build, wherever they settle, a ‘mikdash me’at’, a miniature sanctuary, a place where God could find a home, and a symbol to which they could turn in times of need.

But I believe even this miniature sanctuary of God’s can exist only when we act righteously and advocate justice. In our day, even as the people of Israel is happily reunited with the land of Israel, there are dangers: a loss of democracy when Jewish ultra-religious minorities receive a disproportionate amount of power; increased tribalism, which has led Israel to alliances with nations experiencing similar right-leaning phenomena; and unconscionable disregard in some realms for equality of her ethnic and racial minorities.

By the way, any parallels to events in other nations is purely coincidental…but nonetheless quite unfortunate.

Our task is to determine how best to bring increased righteousness and justice to the land. And we, living in the Diaspora, must be involved through the performance of the moral and ethical standards of our people.

These two concepts—tzedakah and mishpat, righteousness and justice—are like the colossal foundation stones of the ancient Jerusalem Temple that physically supported the Temple walls, and spiritually undergirded centuries of religious life. For a nation to stand firm and grow strong, it must establish itself on a legitimate, positive, moral, and ethical ideological premise, such as performing righteous deeds and enacting just laws, and my hope is that, as a world-wide Jewish community, we can take these two Abrahamic values of righteousness and justice, and use them to fortify Israel’s foundation, so that she will conduct her internal and external life in righteous and just ways.

Although we may each have many different feelings about the modern state of Israel, we Jews are undeniably and unalterably connected to her. As Jews and as people connected to the Jewish community, we cannot easily escape this connection. Further, we know that what affects one, affects the other.

*     *     *     *

Now, this connection has its benefits:

Israel guaranteed in its Declaration of Independence of 1948 that the state “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex”[7]. Hearing these words, we offer praise and support for the generation of Israel’s founders who enshrined this concept in the history of not only Israel but also of humanity. We feel a sense of pride in Israel’s place in the world, for in that section of Israel’s Declaration lie the seeds of righteousness and justice. It would be a joyful duty to support Israel were she to grow as a society that personifies these values.

*     *     *     *

Our connections to the land of Israel also has its challenges:

In recent years, the values of righteousness and justice seem to have been tested and found insufficient.

When local Israeli municipalities assume the ersatz religious authority to control secular women’s attire or mandate separate men’s and women’s seating on public buses, we sense a lessening of righteousness and justice.

When a governing coalition blocks passage of a law permitting two gay men to jointly adopt a child, we see a violation of these values.

When the Haifa branch of the Orthodox rabbinate has a Conservative rabbi detained and interrogated because he had the ‘audacity’ to perform a wedding in Israel not under the auspices of the Orthodox rabbinate, we feel the degradation of those basic ethical guidelines.

These are symptoms of a civil society in peril.

*     *     *     *

But wait, there’s—sadly—more.

Consider the recently passed—by a bare majority, mind you—Israel’s new Basic Law on “Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People”.[8] This new legislation could reverse the course of human rights and liberty for a good portion of Israel’s citizens, and threatens righteousness and justice within the land.[9]

The language of this new law seems to purposely avoid the call for equality of all Israel’s citizens, as we find in the Declaration of Independence. If fact, an early version of the bill would have allowed the state “to establish separate communities based on ethnicity or religion”. In other words, communities would have been better able to discriminate against minorities, a term here I use to refer to Israel’s Arab citizens[10].

I breathe somewhat easier knowing that such extreme language did not enter the final version of the law. But the law as passed included two ill-composed clauses that do trouble Israel’s Arab minority: “The right to exercise national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”[11] And “The state views the development of Jewish settlement as a national value and will act to encourage and promote its establishment and consolidation[12]”. Taken together, these two sentences could create an official move toward “Jewish privilege”, and could eliminate or severely curtail the rights of minority populations when it comes to individual housing, or even the proper apportionment of the land in an eventual two-state peace settlement.

The way I see it, those who feel the same despondency as I do have only two options before us.

We can turn away from Israel and totally deny our responsibility to be involved with influencing the moral direction of the Jewish state.

Or we can continue to be engaged, despite the emotional upsets of the present generation.

We can offer support to those organizations and movements that support the civil state in the face of such extremism, such as the Campaign for Religious Equality sponsored by the Reform and Conservative movements, or the Jewish Federations' Israel Religious Expression Platform (iREP). Ask me about this after services.

Just this past week, in fact, a new public opinion survey among Israelis shows that Israelis see a need for further separation of religion and state. I digress to offer a sampling of these promising survey results:

Today, two-thirds of Jewish Israelis support separation of religion and state, representing an increase of 10 percentage points since 2012. Seventy percent back government recognition of all forms of marriage, including civil marriage — an increase from 53 percent in 2009. Sixty-six percent believe that the three major denominations of Judaism — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — should enjoy equal status in Israel.

And in results that are more geared to the everyday life of Israelis, more than 70 percent want increased public transit on Shabbat.

Suffice to say that the tide is turning among secular Israelis, who now wish to have help from the Diaspora Jewish community in moving their country to a place of true equality.

So being involved in this pluralistic work, again, is one way we can be involved.

But wait, there is -- happily more.

We can, by writing letters to the editor or talking with our friends, support Israel’s defensive posture against Hamas’ propaganda or rocket and resistance attacks. At the same time, we can -- if it is warranted -- be critical of Israel's prosecution of any military encounter with its enemies.

We can raise our voices in protest when Jewish thinkers or leaders of civil state organizations are stopped at Ben Gurion airport and interrogated about their ideologies before being allowed to enter the country.

In these and many ways, we can seek to help Israel renew a call for righteousness and justice.

Look: Israel can be a place of inspiration and pride, a beacon of humane values, a start-up nation whose fame is known not only through technological breakthroughs and military moxie, but also through her laboratory of ethical practices where Israelis learn to bring forth the essence of Torah values.

Here is what we can advocate:

By suppressing petty political squabbles and establishing the moral high ground of which she is capable, she can become that ‘mikdash’, that ‘holy place’, that God assigned the people of Israel to build.

By continuing to welcome her exiles, she can be that sanctuary against the antisemitism that continues to afflict our world.

By offering sanctuary to refugees from various nations, she can fulfill the 37 commands of Torah to care for the stranger among us.

By striving for justice for those persecuted by racism, bigotry, and homophobia, she can preserve liberty for all the marginalized in her society.

By refusing to give in to the nativist and tribal tendencies of some of her right-wing politicians, she can act righteously and offer the justice referred to in today’s Torah portion.

By thinking carefully about how to live among Middle Eastern entities awash in their own tribal loyalties and anti-Israel sentiment, she can encourage the US government to return to its position as a neutral arbiter in the peace process, so that all parties feel that their concerns are addressed.

By maintaining the democracy that is inherent in her governmental structure and enshrined in her Declaration of Independence, she can give majority rule back to the majority of her citizens.

By employing the concepts of righteousness and justice, she can become more like the land that Abraham and God envisioned in Torah, a land where her citizens will celebrate the sanctity of God, and the holiness of humanity.

*     *     *     *

Whew! That is a large agenda...but one that is doable and necessary if Israel wishes to preserve and promote the values of righteousness and justice we cherish in our 4,000-year-old tradition.

The Torah and the midrash of our people describe an Abraham who involved himself in both the internal matters of his family, and the grander and more consequential process of building a nation.

One element of that process was establishing a land and a maintaining a way of life there: one that was elevated above the ordinary; one that acted in humane ways; one that gave its people one day in seven to rest; one that offered an ethical approach to everyday life; one that saw even its rulers as never being above the law; one that established justice and righteousness as foundation stones for everything else it supported.

These are hopes set forth in Torah; and now that we have set forth our dream, let us continue to strive to make this dream real for future generations of our people, whether in this Diaspora where Jewish survival is never guaranteed, or the in land of Israel which has served as an anchor of Jewish identity, and which needs to become an exemplar in the world of moral and ethical leadership.

*     *     *     *

We know that dreams of a better future can ignite human imagination to accomplish great things. Think about what we have done:

When a nomadic people establishes a nation driven by moral and ethical values;

When the concept of a small and legendary desert sanctuary evolves to become a magnificent Jerusalem Temple;

When a ragtag band of freedom fighters overthrows a powerful Syrian-Greek army and re-establishes their nation’s sovereignty;

We accomplished all of this in the past—and we can do this once again: by declaring, and acting upon a foundation of moral and ethical values that supports all that we do.

God’s commandments directed this. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob, Leah, and Rachel recognized this> And I hope we will as well!

L’shanah Tovah.

Lyrics for sermon anthem: Shiro Shel Aba, Naomi Shemer, words; Nachum Heiman, composer. 1970.



[1] Genesis 18:16 ff, Abraham’s bargaining with God over Sodom and Gomorrah

[2] Genesis 18:19

[3] Genesis 12:2; 13:16; 15:5; 17:4-6

[4] Genesis 12:3

[5] Genesis 12:7; 13:15; 15:7; 17:8

[6] Exodus 25:8

[8] ישראל - מדינת הלאום של העם היהודי

[9] There are some benign parts of this law. Asserting that Jewish holidays and the Jewish calendar are part of the nation’s ethos, along with exceptions for other religions and their religious needs; declaring the state symbols and anthem; the openness of the state to Jewish in-migration: These qualities of the law support the Jewish character of the state in appropriately Jewish ways.

[11] Section 1, paragraph C, Israel’s Basic Law -- Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People

[12] Ibid., Section 7, paragraph A

“Our Connections” - Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

Hinei matov, umah na’im, shevet achim gam yachad.

The words from Psalm 133: ‘How sweet it is for humanity to dwell peacefully together.’

How many times have we read or sung these words of unity!

How often do we enjoy hearing people of varied faiths or nations intone these sentiments!

And as many times as we have sung them, how often it is that we have regrets that we’ve been unable to fulfill their vision.

Still, we Jews maintain them as a goal and sustain them as our Jewish firmware: because their fulfillment could help restore our fragmented nation; they have potential to bridge the chasm between and among our Jewish cousins; and they provide inspiration to repair interpersonal relationships that flounder on the rocks.

You know, the simple problems we face.

So, I invoke this psalm on this Rosh Hashanah night, because the ideal of dwelling with all humanity in unity must never disappear from our vision. We each need to be engaged in bringing about this dream of unity. And this dream begins with our working to improve the human condition on this planet.

 Look: Each of us plays a part in the ongoing story of human elevation. That is why I’ve been writing via email and in the bulletin recently about the legend of the Lamed vav-niks, the so-called Thirty-Six Righteous souls. Our tradition tells that their concealed efforts at resolving human dilemma is critical to the very existence of our planet.

The typical Lamed vav-nik story[1], for example, brings us Shmuel, a simple, poor cobbler who is so kind and selfless that his fellow townsfolk think he is simple and stupid. In the course of time, Shmuel's sincere prayers about rain save the town from destruction, yet most of the townsfolk are skeptical about him. They wonder why God would listen to naïve, pathetic Shmuel.

As in most such stories, the townsfolk run to ask their rabbi about Shmuel. While pondering the question, the rabbi has a dream in which Shmuel's true identity as one of the Thirty-Six Righteous people is revealed. The next morning the rabbi tells the townsfolk about Shmuel’s identity, but when they go to look for him, they discover that Shmuel he has moved on to another town.

A few months later, a new cobbler comes to town, and even though he's poor, the people treat him with great respect, thinking that he too could be a Lamed vav-nik. “After all”, they reason, “you never know”.

That is the end of this story. And yet, I like to imagine that the townsfolk begin to treat everyone in town with greater degrees of kindness because, well, “you never know”.

There could also be a Lamed vav-nik sitting next to us tonight. ‘You never know’. But let that possibility begin to change our behavior for the better, toward that person sitting next to us and toward our fragmented world. For then, even in our small corner of the world, we can begin to fulfil the goal of dwelling truly in unity.

Hinei matov umah na’im; shevet achim gam Yachad. ‘How sweet it is for humanity to dwell peacefully together.’

*     *     *     *

“Dwelling peacefully together in unity” has obviously been difficult, or else we’d have accomplished it already. Human behavior actually demonstrates that many people think quite selfishly about the world and their place in it. So, perhaps there is a clue in this psalm that hints at the difficulty of our living together peaceably.

The Hebrew word “shevet”, “dwelling” or “existing”, in the phrase “shevet achim gam yachad”, has a homophone in Hebrew: “sheivet”, which translates into the word “tribe”.

When read using this translation, the psalm would yield a more particularistic image. “How sweet it is when a tribe of brothers and sisters is together.’

What does it mean to be a tribe?

On the positive side, a tribe fosters strength and cohesion among a group of otherwise disparate people. A tribe’s people work together toward a common goal. A tribe publicly celebrates its victories, and communally nurses its members after a defeat.

Yet living as a tribe also leads to self-absorption, insularity, and a suspicion of outsiders. An inward turning tribe yields defensiveness, intolerance, and prejudice, and people who defend the group even through violent means.

I am certain we know of groups of people, either in history or in present day, who share these qualities.

In our world today, many are rightly critical of tribalism. In her recent book Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, academic Amy Chua questions how the United States can possibly maintain itself as a democracy, as her citizens shift away from common ideals and move toward greater tribal self-identification.

Our nation, she observes, is unique in that it was founded on a shared set of ideas and hopes, such as freedom of speech and religion and commerce, and not on common ethnic or cultural characteristics such as race or genetic commonalities. Over time and even through a civil war, our nation remained together and eventually adopted the qualities of, as she terms it, a “super-group”. Such a tribe can include individuals from many different ethnic, religious, racial, and cultural backgrounds, all subscribing to that set of common ideas and hopes I just mentioned.

Membership in this super-tribe has not required its members to conceal or disown their subgroup identities. In our day, Chua laments, loyalty to certain interests, such as strong religious viewpoints or extreme interpretations of the constitution, have evolved to outweigh the common national ideological considerations.

This has led, she concludes, to a fragmenting of our nation into self-interested and polarized tribes. And she questions whether we can maintain our national sense of purpose in light of people’s obsession with their own particularistic needs.

I will leave it up to political scientists to determine the legitimacy of her geopolitical theories. But I would ask us to think about how the modern phenomenon of tribal identity affects us as Jews, a people dedicated to improving the world in which we live.

The biblical concept of tribalism is seared into our Jewish psyche. We were once twelve tribes; we were reduced through exile and assimilation to, essentially, one tribe; and we existed over centuries as that self-absorbed, suspicious, insular, defensive, sometimes intolerant, and prejudiced group of people we know so well. We have been zealous, and we are nothing if not fiercely loyal to members of our tribe.

And yet…we know there is a difference. For we Jews have also looked outward, fixing our sights on the greater good AND seeking out ways to actualize that value.

When we wrote Talmudic laws of good neighborliness, they were for both the Jews and non-Jews living among us. When we dreamed and prayed for the coming of the Messiah, we acknowledged that all people in the world—not only we Jews—would benefit from such a miracle. We undertook moral leadership when few others would. We believed our responsibility directed us to repair the schisms within the human family.

In seeing ourselves as a “sheivet achim gam yachad”, as a ‘tribe of people together’, we have also perceived two pathways ahead of us, and we must continue to take them both simultaneously.

We need to appreciate who we are: our origins, our cultural uniqueness, our instinct to turn inward, and our desire to remain forged together.

At the same time, we must also assume responsibility for making the world better. We must take seriously the midrashic intent of God’s taking Adam and Eve around the Garden and explaining to them the purpose of humanity.

‘Look at my works!’ says God in this midrash. ‘See how beautiful they are, how excellent: For your benefit, O humanity, I created them. Do not mess things up; (I think God's language may have been a bit more colorful). If you do, there will be no one else to repair it.’”[2]

This is how we actualize the vision and the values contained in that psalm, saying ‘How sweet it is to dwell even as a tribe together.’

*     *     *     *

But is it sweet? Is being part of all this Jewish enterprise worthwhile?

Each Rosh Hashanah, or at some other Jewish milestone along our lives, each of us asks this question of ourselves. We have obviously answered “yes”, because we are here tonight, with this community, and we perceive some benefit, some advantage, some blessing in our gathering to celebrate the New Year with one another.

Think about this for a moment. Think about our connection to the Jewish community and the reason we have decided this year to be sitting here with a portion of that community. When we consider that fewer than half of the Jews in our country actively affiliate as Jews, we must wonder what is it that keeps us attached to one another.

About a month ago, at its annual retreat, I asked members of our Men’s Club to address these matters, but we looked at them from a slightly different point of view.

For this night—for this coming year—for the next period of our lives as Jews living in this complex world—I ask that we all consider these questions.

First, imagine the world in which our great-grandparents lived. Now, most of us did not know our great-grandparents, let alone knowing anything about their religious or cultural values, so this may be a challenging task. But let’s try.

Next, think about the kind of Jewish knowledge and inspiration we believe we need—and actively search for—today. What kinds of Jewish wisdom and insight do we think we require to lead fulfilling lives as members of this faith community?

Finally, imagine writing a letter to our great-grandparents, asking for their insight and wisdom in helping us maintain our connection to Jewish life today.

Knowing what we know and what we need, what advice would we request of them? And how do we think they would respond?

And there was a second question I posed to our Men’s Club members.

Think—now—about the world of our great-grandchildren. Some of us here tonight may have great-grandchildren, thank God, and those who do can perhaps see hints, small elements, of the world that those young’uns will inherit. But most of us will not know great-grandchildren, or can even envision what wonders and dangers their world will consist of.

Next, think again about the kind of Jewish knowledge and inspiration we need today to lead fulfilling lives as members of this faith community.

Finally, visualize writing a letter to those great-grandchildren, or our great-great grandchildren, telling them what you think is essential for them to know about Judaism, and what would be essential for them to do Jewishly, to preserve Judaism for the future. What should they appreciate about the heritage we’re passing down to them? What lessons should we impart about the meaning of Jewish identity today? What are the undercurrents of which they should be aware as they navigate their lives as Jews?

While I can’t share with you the specific answers of our Men’s Club members, I would offer three observations they made about their reasons to remain connected to Judaism.

By the way, this discussion took place among born Jews, Jews who made the choice to convert to Judaism, and non-Jews who are actively considering conversion.

First, they acknowledged the importance of knowing the history of our people’s 4,000 year-long odyssey. Over time we have acquired, and have come to appreciate, our remarkable resilience to forces that would have otherwise destroyed what we have developed: the moral and ethical value system by which we live our lives; the ethnic and cultural treasures that make our lives joyful; the passion for education and knowledge that propels us to survive, and that others envy.

Further, our Men’s Club members realized that our lot is cast with the Jewish world, and this fate cannot be altered. Because of pressures from inside and outside our community, we could not depart from this tribe even if we wanted. Somehow, we are inescapably tied to this peoplehood and to one another.

Finally, over the course of our history—in each generation, at some point—we have come to make peace with our being different and distinct, and maybe even a bit outside the mainstream. At the moment when we accept this singularity, we begin to live lives unencumbered by oppression and doubt, lives that contain confidence in promoting our world view, lives dedicated to preserving what is essential to us.

*     *     *     *

One generation ago, a passionate preserver of Jewish life, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, provided these definitions of being Jewish. He would say that a member of our tribe should have these qualities.[3]

“Who is a Jew?’ asks Heschel. A Jew is “a witness to the transcendence and presence of God.” But a Jew is also “a person in travail with God's dreams and designs, a person to whom God is a challenge, not an abstraction.”

 “Who is a Jew?’ asks Heschel. A Jew is a person who has the “ability to experience the arrival of Friday evening as an event.”

“Who is a Jew?’ asks Heschel. A Jew is “a person who knows how to recall and to keep alive what is holy in our people's past, and to cherish the promise and the vision of redemption in the days to come.”

These were all our particularistic ideals.

Then comes the kicker.

“Who is a Jew?’ asks Heschel. A Jew is “a person who cultivates passion for justice…and whose integrity decays when unmoved by the knowledge of wrong done to other people.”

*     *     *     *

My friends:

Our presence here tonight, together entering this New Year, signifies our membership in this ongoing tribe of Israel, a tribe which is so precious and dear. And the challenge for us in the new year to come—the balance that we need to find, in reality, in each generation—will be to strengthen the bonds to our tribe, while at the same time maintaining our mission of making the world accepting of the needs of everyone on the planet.

The rabbis say that we might not complete this work, but that we are bound to remain involved in it.[4] Then we can truly say that we have striven to bring unity to humanity, establishing a world where there is true unity among peoples and tribes of all nationalities, races, and religions; the spectrum of gender identifications; all of the ideologies and passions that is the make-up of all humanity.

Hinei matov, umah na’im, shevet achim gam yachad.

L’shanah tovah.


[1] You Never Know by Francine Prose, Greenwillow, 1998.

[2] Midrash Kohelet Rabbah, 1 on Ecclesiastes 7:13

[3] “A Time for Renewal”, essay of Abraham Joshua Heschel (Germany and United States, 1907-1972), found in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1996.

[4] Pirkei Avot 2:21

The courage to say Yes, the Strength to say No:Conviction for a Cause

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

The world is blessed, because there are, at any moment in time, 36 righteous souls who quietly yet efficiently, prevent the world from falling into ruin by bringing wholeness to our world. These individuals are called lamed vav-niks because the number 36 is presented in our sacred literature as Lamed Vav. Here is a story about one of these righteous people.
Judaism teaches us that taking a principled stand is the tradition of the prophet. It is a mitzvah to rely on the strength of one’s convictions sometimes even in the face of stern opposition. To firmly declare the rightness of her position is the task of this lamed vav-nik.
When she won a Parliament seat by virtue of her position on the Likud party slate, MK Sharren Haskel likely did not know the degree to which her party would insist on loyalty. Even when it might affect the ruling coalition, she did not understand the standard political operation procedure to ‘give a little to get a little’ when it came to their coalition partners.
Not that this would have made a difference. She knew that the so-called ‘Shabbat shuttering law’ was wrong for the nation, and last January she threatened to vote against the bill. High profile party members sought to bring her before an internal party ‘court’ and compel her to support it.
The legislation would grant authority to the Ministry of the Interior to monitor and approve/disapprove of city statutes regarding what businesses can be open on Shabbat. Because of the economic situation of mini-markets, restaurants, and other such businesses, non-observant business owners want the flexibility to be open when they choose, not when the government would permit.
When Haskel announced her disapproval, other members of the Knesset have similarly voiced their opposition. Coalition leadership decided to delay a final vote on the measure, even though it was clear that opposition such as Haskel’s would damage the relationships among the coalition party leadership.
Both substance and process were Haskel’s concerns. She said, “The mini-market bill is the proposal of a party that barely passes the electoral threshold, yet is trying to force a certain way of life on the entire public. This is a law that would discriminate against certain cities and deepen the secular-ultra Orthodox rift.”
Haskel’s resistance to the imposition of Orthodox religious standards in a society which is 80% secular is an important factor in her possible status as a lamed vav-nik. The Torah insists that we follow the desire of the majority (rabbinic interpretation of Exodus 23:2), and Sharren Haskel believes that, in many internal matters, Israel today must adhere to this meta value.
You can read more about Sharren Haskel here:

A Lamed Vav-nik Learns and Teaches:A Long-time Advocate for Equality in Education

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

The world is blessed, because there are, at any moment in time, 36 righteous souls who quietly yet efficiently, prevent the world from falling into ruin by bringing wholeness to our world. These individuals are called lamed vav-niks because the number 36 is presented in our sacred literature as Lamed Vav. Here is a story about one of these righteous people.
The rabbis of the Talmud taught that the first human being was created as a single person to show forth the greatness of God, the Ruler Who is beyond all Rulers. When a human ruler like the Roman Emperor (who was indeed the ruler in the Talmudic era) mints many coins from one mold, they all look the same. God, on the other hand, shaped all human beings in the Divine Image, and yet not one of them resembles another. To remind us that true equality must exist within humanity is the task of this lamed vav-nik.
Linda Brown died in March 2018, 67 years after she was prevented from enrolling in a segregated Kansas school district in 1951. Three years later, in 1954, her experience helped the Supreme Court to strike down Jim Crow segregation in all American schools.
“The fight of Linda Brown and her father led to the SCOTUS decision entitled Brown v Board of Education, setting the stage for students like me to avoid the kind of discrimination she suffered,” tweeted Rolling Stone’s Jamil Smith. “I’ll always argue that she was one of the most important Americans who ever lived.”
Linda Brown was a reserved young woman propelled into prominence in connection with this Supreme Court decision ending school segregation. The Brown family long has emphasized the importance many plaintiffs played in Brown v. Board, saying their family has been given an outsized starring role.
Linda’s father, Oliver Brown, was rejected when attempting to enroll his third-grader in an all-white school in Topeka. The Topeka school district maintained 18 elementary schools for white children and four for black children.
Oliver Brown responded by joining a dozen other plaintiffs in a legal challenge of segregated schooling in Kansas. Cases from the District of Columbia and four states — South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and Kansas — were consolidated into Brown v Board of Education. And the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 1954 that “separate but equal” schools violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
In 1979, Linda Brown, now with her own children in integrated Topeka schools, became a plaintiff in a resurrected version of Brown, which still had the same title. The plaintiffs sued the school district again for not following through with desegregation. She won this case as well.
For her tenacity in securing the blessings of equality and liberty for herself and for others, she might have been one of our lamed vav-niks.
You can learn more about Linda Brown by going to:

A Lamed Vav-nik Jurist Establishes a Pathway toward Justice: Providing a Voice for the Victim

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

The world is blessed, because there are, at any moment in time, 36 righteous souls who quietly yet efficiently, prevent the world from falling into ruin by bringing wholeness to our world. These individuals are called lamed vav-niks because the number 36 is presented in our sacred literature as Lamed Vav. Here is a story about one of these righteous people.
When the Torah directs us to pursue justice diligently (Deuteronomy 16:20), this jurist takes this responsibility seriously and thoroughly. Her empathy has blessed the lives of many people, even outside the circle of the case that propelled her into notoriety earlier this year. To advocate the cause of the downtrodden, and to lead others to empathize with the pain of the needy, is the task of this lamed vav-nik.
“Leave your pain here,” Judge Rosemarie Aquilina told one young victim of the sexual predations of sports doctor Lawrence Nassar, “and go out and do your magnificent things.”
Dr. Nassar’s infamous deeds and trial this past year unsettled Olympic athletes and fans alike. And Judge Aquilina, assigned to this case, showed herself and an unusually courageous victims’ advocate in a sentencing hearing that drew national attention for the scope of Dr. Nassar’s abuse and for the complicity of institutions like U.S.A. Gymnastics and Michigan State University, who employed him for decades.
One of the more prominent aspects of this trial, and the reason that Judge Aquilina might be a lamed vav-nik is that she allowed nearly 140 girls and women, including several prominent Olympic gymnasts, to give statements against Dr. Nassar in open court.
Judge Aquilina’s commitment to let every victim speak has also unexpectedly turned the hearing into a forum that has encouraged dozens of women who had remained silent to come forward, not only to offer testimony but to allow the victims to start toward healing with a public acknowledgment of their pain and distress.
Judge Aquilina commented on each victim’s statement, offering gratitude for her coming forward, empathy for the manner that Dr. Nassar imposed himself on their lives, and justice for the enormity of the crimes.
Legal scholars have questioned the use of victim statements tactic as an attempt to persuade the jury to impose tougher sentences. In this instance, there was no jury and Judge Aquilina determined that, for the record, victims’ voices needed to be heard.
For actively searching for justice and personal healing in a world of personal terror, Judge Aquilina might, indeed, be one of our current lamed vav-niks.
See more about the Honorable Rosemarie E. Aquilina at:

A Young Gender-Fluid Lamed-Vavnik:Standing Up for their Uniqueness, Giving Courage to Others

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

The world is blessed, because there are, at any moment in time, 36 righteous souls who quietly yet efficiently, prevent the world from falling into ruin by bringing wholeness to our world. These individuals are called lamed vav-niks because the number 36 is presented in our sacred literature as Lamed Vav. Here is a story about one of these righteous people.
The Torah stresses that because each person in the world is made in the Divine Image, each person deserves the same respect as everyone else. To advocate for this value, and to lead others to understand and integrate it, is the task of this lamed vav-nik. This person is quoted as saying, “One day I will maybe lean towards the masculine side," said Ara Halstead of Tumwater, Washington. "The next day, I’ll lean towards the feminine side. There are some days gender is non-existent.”  So below I will use the pronouns they, them and theirs.
Up until their senior year (2018-2019) at Black Hills High School in Olympia, WA, Ara Halstead had never been to a school dance. Having been told by their socially conservative parents that their acknowledged attraction to women meant that they could not be present at such events, Ara had erased from their mind any consideration of attending them.
Ara later determined that they were gender fluid, floating between feeling feminine and masculine, and most of the time somewhere in between the two. This was confusing not only to Ara but also to their parents, who eventually ordered Ara to leave their home for their last year of high school.
Without the pressure of living with hypercritical parents, Ara’s studies improved; they had the opportunity to further ponder the plight of gender-fluid students at school; and having made the decision to attend the prom on their own terms, they determined that their gender and sartorial selections could be truly their own.
For the spring semester, Ara served as a positive role model for the other gender-fluid students at school. Despite the usual gender roles in school, they felt that they could make inroads in making other gender-fluid students more comfortable. And it was their opportunity to declare their own identity, whatever that might mean.
Ara’s friends persuaded them to try to serve on the prom court, an idea that would break down the barriers between the world of gender fluidity and gender-binary options. “If I made prom court, I wouldn’t accept the label of either king or queen—maybe I would be something like monarch, or royalty.”
They write, “I believe the big fights for equality around L.G.B.T.Q. issues, such as hate violence, homelessness and economic fairness, can’t be won unless we fight the smaller ones along the way: the ones that parents tell you to shrug off and school administrators tell you to live with, including that homecoming courts contain kings and queens, and prom dress codes must involve either dresses or suits. There is so much change to work for.”
Ara’s tenacity and courage have contributed to saving the life of those
students searching for their gender identity, and those who simply want to be different in a world that pushes people toward conformity.
See more coverage of Ara Halstead at: 

Volunteer spotlight—Mary Fulton

Social Action Committee

Longtime TBE Social Action Committee member Mary Fulton recently received a United Way Community Volunteer Award for her work with Madison-area Urban Ministry (MUM). Mary has provided 4,000 hours of service over the past 19 years, advocating for and supporting families affected by the criminal justice system. She began volunteering with MUM in 1999 and was one of the first volunteers in the Family and Reading Connections program.

Mary serves MUM in several capacities. She regularly travels to a local prison, bringing children to visit their incarcerated mothers and maintaining family connections. She is active in MUM’s Circles of Support, which provide mentorship and support for citizens transitioning from prison back into the community. She has also served on the MUM Board for the last nine years. Mary’s work was featured in Brava magazine in July.

Mary is also the July 2018 winner of the Jefferson Award, a national award recognizing the dedication and service of volunteers who transform lives and strengthen communities across the United States. See her story on WKOW-27 here.

Volunteer for Porchlight in August

Social Action Committee

Our next Porchlight men’s shelter meal is Wednesday, August 29. We are still looking for one shopper, one cookie baker, three cooks, two transporters, and three servers. Sign up here. Contact Pam Robbins with questions at

Thank you to our Porchlight volunteers for May: shoppers Staci Rieder and Sarah Sherman; cooks Pat and Mel Weinswig and Lori Edelstein; cookie bakers Casey Slaughter Becker and Lillian Abrams; and servers Seamus McWilliams, Sophia Grande, Robin Sweet, John Grande, David Friedman, and Pam Robbins. We served approximately 70 men on May 30.

Reading and math mentors wanted for Emerson Elementary

Social Action Committee

The TBE Social Action Committee works with the social action committees of Beth Israel Center and Shaarei Shamayim to support Emerson Elementary School in east Madison. Each school year, we look for volunteers who can help during the school day or in the early evening.

Our reading and math mentors work with children in grades 2 to 5 to develop confidence in basic academic skills. Reading mentors help children discover the joy of reading; math mentors offer practice and encouragement in basic math concepts. You don’t need special skills for either spot—many kids need support with very basic facts and strategies. The teachers will provide instructions and materials each day, and the school will provide training in the fall and spring.

You need to be able to commit 30 minutes per week for one child or one hour for two children, at the same day and time each week, at a time that works with your schedule. Pairing will begin in October.

We also help with special events at the school on a few Tuesday evenings during the year, such as harvest night (carving 100 pumpkins), science night (launching rockets), and international dinner (helping with a fantastic potluck). These events are a great opportunity for teenagers looking for volunteer hours. To learn more, please contact Marcia Vandercook at

Support our vulnerable immigrant neighbors

Urgency of Now

Leviticus 16:19 teaches: “Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.” This principle, along with the memory of the Holocaust, impels the Jewish community to stand alongside our vulnerable immigrant brothers and sisters in solidarity, and to hold our elected officials accountable to create humane and compassionate immigration policies.

In this Jewish spirit and as a Supporting Congregation of the Dane Sanctuary Coalition, we have been asked by Voces de la Frontera to sign two important petitions. One petition urges the ICE regional director to end ICE’s threats to detain a Wisconsin undocumented immigrant and separate her from her children, despite the fact that she is a domestic violence survivor and has an open application for a U Visa, which is intended to protect victims of crime from deportation. The other petition asks us to urge the same ICE director to use his power to free an undocumented immigrant who has lived in Wisconsin since 2001, when he was 13. He was detained during a check-in with ICE in Milwaukee in June and separated from his children, which has traumatized his family. He was detained after being stopped for driving without a license, although undocumented immigrants are not permitted to obtain driver’s licenses in Wisconsin.

Please click here and here to sign the petitions to support our vulnerable immigrant neighbors.

Celebrate Madison Pride Weekend with TBE!

Urgency of Now

Pride Shabbat (Friday, August 17): Kick off the weekend in a fun and meaningful way at our Pride Shabbat. Join us at 6:45 pm for a light nosh of rainbow-inspired treats and poster making for the pride parade. Our special Midor Lador Service (honoring members of our LGBTQ+ community in prayer and song) begins at 7:30 pm.

Madison Outreach Pride Parade (Sunday, August 19): Join TBE as we march alongside our fellow Madison Jewish congregations to celebrate LGBTQ+ pride, demonstrating our commitment to justice and equality for all members of our community! Everyone is invited to participate (LGBTQ+ and Allies), and you don’t need to be a TBE member to march with us.

Meet between 12:00 and 12:30 pm by the Colectivo Coffee at 583 State St. Look for the large, lime-green Temple Beth El banner. The parade starts toward the Capitol at 1:00 pm, with a big rally and dance party on the square at 2:00 pm. In addition to the signs made at Pride Shabbat, we will have lots of brightly colored accessories and flags to show our ruach (spirit)!

The rally features a keynote address by author and transgender rights activist Sara McBride. For more details about the parade and rally, visit

Questions? Contact Gwen Jacobsohn at or 217-621-8846.

New ways to support The Road Home

Social Action Committee

TBE recently completed 18 years of providing meals and shelter for families from The Road Home. The Road Home has now developed a partnership with Stone House to provide housing in the Breese Apartments so that families can stay in one place while they work with case managers to find stable, affordable housing.

Our volunteer commitment to The Road Home will continue in a new form as we provide meals and children’s activities during family programs at their new offices on Wingra Drive. We will work with the same team of congregants from Blessed Sacrament Parish, Bethany United Methodist Church, and Shaarei Shamayim. Each team will provide volunteer support for one month, twice a year, with two teams scheduled together each month. Volunteers will be able to sign up online.

Our first opportunity is coming up in August. Sign up here, or contact Cathy Rotter at This is a great opportunity for families with school-age children.

TBE volunteers provide a warm welcome for Congolese refugee family

Social Action Committee

Jewish Social Services of Madison (JSS) has been resettling refugees escaping oppression and war for the last two years. TBE is honored to have welcomed one of these families, who arrived in May from the Democratic Republic of Congo. The mom, dad, and four daughters ages 3, 8, 11, and 13 were met at the airport by JSS staff and our congregants. Thanks to the generosity of our congregants, they arrived to a beautifully furnished home that was well stocked with all the needed household supplies, groceries, and a tasty first meal.

They are an incredibly kind, motivated, and appreciative family. They speak Swahili, and the parents take the bus to ESL classes daily to learn English. Two of the children are attending summer camp for the summer, partially supported by the money our congregants provided prior to the family’s arrival. The older children have attended summer school and are looking forward to returning to school in the fall. In addition, our congregants are providing tutoring and social opportunities for the children four days per week over the summer. We continue to work with JSS to provide transportation, clothes, smiles, and hugs.

Committee member Deborah Giesfeldt shared, “I love being part of this important work and am proud that our Temple took a leadership role. It is great to help others adjust to a better life. I am delighted to make new friends in the Temple family.” We are proud that our TBE community has come together and continues to work as a team to support this amazingly brave family!

Join Jewish organizations providing advocacy for refugees

This is a critical moment to advocate for the safety and dignity of refugees. For that reason, HIAS and Jewish Social Services of Madison are offering a timely Refugee Advocacy Training on Sunday, August 5, 12:00–5:00 pm, at UW Hillel.

As Jewish organizations, both HIAS and JSS Madison believe that our community cannot stand idly by as the United States slams the doors on tens of thousands of victims of violence and persecution. HIAS has been working to provide tools and training to communities around the country to be effective advocates in this moment. This training is part of a series happening in a few select locations around the country.

The training session will bring together advocates and leaders who are refugee professionals, Jewish professionals, refugees, and more. We encourage you to extend the invitation to others who are interested in being part of ongoing local advocacy efforts for refugees and asylum seekers. Sign up now.

Madison's Shlicha (Israel Emissary) Shlomit Ezer to Speak at Temple Beth El

Joanna Berke, Kesher Israel Committee

On Friday, August 24, during our 7:30 pm Shabbat service, Temple Beth El members will have an opportunity to hear from Shlomit Ezer, Madison's shlicha (Israel emissary), about the expanding growth of progressive thoughts and feelings among our fellow Jews in Israel. Identify with their concern regarding the arrest of Conservative Rabbi Dov Haiyun for having conducted non-Orthodox marriage ceremonies. Come and learn about their growing need for a spiritual life without political restrictions and limitations.

Kesher Israel Committee - new members welcome!

The Kesher Israel Committee (Connection with Israel Committee) is looking for new members eager to share ideas and happy to learn. If interested, please contact Joanna Berke at: or, 608-298-7493.

March For Our Lives Town Hall This Friday, June 22

Social Action Committee

Join the March For Our Lives Founders and Wisconsin Student Activists at the Alliant Energy Center in Madison (on John Nolan Drive), this Friday, the 22nd starting at 5:00 pm.

They will be hosting a town hall with students from the Margaret Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and with WI student activists from 5 to 6:30 pm, followed by a voter registration party from 6:30 to 8:00 pm!

Madison town hall- all are welcome:

There will be a smaller youth meet-up in Janesville from 2 to 3:30 pm. It is for students but will be open for a town hall and a voter registration party for everyone. For students in the Janesville area:

Temple Beth El Opens Its Eastern European Trip to the Madison Jewish Community

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

On my office study table is a bowl containing six stones. I collected them from six locations at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 2013. To me, they represent the six million reasons why it is our responsibility never to forget the Holocaust, and to remember our people’s glorious legacy in Europe.

I acquired these stones when I accompanied 75 Reform high school teens on their pilgrimage to sites of Jewish history and heritage in Eastern Europe. We encountered places of incredible Jewish renewal, like the Jewish communities of Krakow and Prague. We learned more about our people's descent into the Holocaust and how Jewish life is now rebounding with new strength.

Now you, too, will have the opportunity to take an extraordinary journey to these places.

I invite you to join us on TBE’s journey to Prague, Budapest, Krakow, and Warsaw, May 6–16, 2019.

We will explore Europe not only through the lens of the Holocaust, but with an eye to the long history of Europe as a renewed center of Jewish culture, filled with periods of intellectual achievement and spiritual growth. Accompanied by our professional guide from Ayelet Tours, a well-known, respected travel company offering quality Jewish tours worldwide, we will understand more about the heritage our people once lost and is now recovering.

Join us for our next informational session on Wednesday, July 25, 7:00 pm at TBE, to learn about the trip.

We will look at the itinerary, examine travel options and prices, and begin to integrate this journey as a special event of Jewish life in Madison. Snacks and beverages will be served; please RSVP to let us know you can attend the meeting.

You can also go to the Ayelet website for travel information and registration.

This is truly a significant journey. Please come and see how you can discover new connections to our Jewish heritage.

RSVP for Informational Meeting on July 25

Articles and Resources about the Current Situation in Gaza

Rabbi Biatch

Recent media have promulgated conflicting accounts of the situation in Gaza. For more rational and, perhaps, objective coverage, see these resources:

“13 Inconvenient Truths About What Has Been Happening in Gaza” at

Two weeks ago, Hamas urged thousands of worshipers at Friday prayers to join the protests. According to the New York Times, Hamas leaders falsely claimed that the fence had already been breached, and declared that Palestinians were flooding into Israel, which they were not. Refer to

A report in the Washington Post noted that “At a gathering point east of Gaza City, organizers urged protesters over loudspeakers to burst through the fence, telling them Israeli soldiers were fleeing their positions, even as [the Israelis] were reinforcing them. See this article at

A senior Hamas official boasted about the military and intelligence involvement in the Gaza protests, comparing his militant approach to the ineffective (in his view) non-violent protests of the Palestinian Authority. He said: “So when we talk about 'peaceful resistance,' we are deceiving the public. This is a peaceful resistance bolstered by a military force and by security agencies, and enjoying tremendous popular support. As for (Fatah's) 'peaceful resistance,' it consists of rallies, demonstrations, protests, pleas, and requests, to improve the terms of the negotiations, or to enable talks with the Israeli enemy. This deception does not fool the Palestinian public.” See

When Israel tries to offer appropriate help, it is thwarted. Israel's Keren Shalom border crossing station, near the Egyptian border in southern Gaza, was damaged by fire the week before the May 15 protests. This border crossing has been the main artery into Gaza for medical supplies and food. After Israel repaired the crossing station, Israel re-opened the border station, but trucks filled with food and diapers were turned back. Only medical supplies were allowed to cross over into Gaza. See

Exciting Update to Our TBE Mitzvah Project!

Social Action Committee

The Congolese family is arriving on May 23rd.  They are flying from Burundi through Dulles airport and then on to Madison.  The family includes a mom, dad and 4 daughters ages 13, 11, 8 (the 8 year old’s birthday is May 23rd) and 3. 


It is beautiful to see our congregation work together on such a meaningful mitzvah project!

Before May 23, we will need assistance with moving into the apartment, including some heavy lifting and someone that is good with tools.  Details will follow as date is determined.

We look forward to welcoming this family as a community!

Questions? Contact Sherie Sondel at  or  608-444-3051.

**Interesting info on Congolese culture and refugee status:

Temple Beth El's Journey to Eastern and Central EuropeMay 6 - 16, 2019

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

On my office study table there is a bowl containing six stones. I collected them from six different locations at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp during my visit in 2013. To me, they represent six million reasons why it is our responsibility never to forget the Holocaust, and to remember the legacy of our people’s glorious past in Europe.

I acquired these stones when I accompanied 75 Reform high school teens on their pilgrimage to sites of Jewish history and heritage in Eastern Europe, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. We also encountered places of incredible Jewish renewal, like the Jewish communities of Kraków, Poland and Prague, Czech Republic. We learned more about our people's descent into the depths of a Holocaust, and how Jewish life is now rebounding with new strength.

Now, you too will have the opportunity to take an extraordinary journey to these places. We will explore Europe not only through the lens of the Holocaust, but with an eye to the long history of Europe as a renewed center of Jewish culture, filled with periods of intellectual achievement and spiritual growth. Accompanied by our professional guide from Ayelet Tours, a well-known, respected, and quality tour company of Jewish tours worldwide, we will understand more about the heritage our people once lost, and is now trying to recover.

Join us for our next informational session to learn about our tour to these extraordinary places (Prague, Budapest, Krakow, Warsaw) during our May 6–16, 2019 journey. This session will take place on Monday, May 14, 7 pm, at TBE. Snacks and beverages will be served; please RSVP below to receive the door code for this occasion. At that time, we will describe the itinerary, examine travel options and prices, and begin to integrate this journey as a special event of Jewish life at Temple Beth El.

You can also go to the Ayelet website for information and registration. Click here to be taken to that web page of information.

Please go to the TBE website by clicking here to let us know you can attend. This is truly a significant journey. Please come and see how you can discover these connections to our Jewish heritage.

Tech Tip - Introducing our new Member App and Ways to Go Green!

Stefanie Kushner

We hope that you are all feeling more comfortable and confident using our new website and the features of ShulCloud. With all the technology we now have available, we are working to reduce the amount of paper we use and mail we send. As we continue our technological journey with ShulCloud we are using it's features to make Temple Beth el's information easier to access and ecofriendlier.

Connect with us with our very own member app!

We are excited to announce the rollout of the ShulCloud member app.

You can access your account, pay a bill, donate, read our blog, check the directory, register for an event, see the calendar, and MORE - all from your phone or tablet!

To download the member app go to: Download the app the log in with your regular ShulCloud login. Each adult account holder that has an email address can have their own login. If you don't have one, please email Stefanie at Look for more tips and tricks about using the Member app in future communications.

Go Green! 

Electronic Statements and Payments

You can now pay your Temple fees online when you choose, or you can set up recurring payments. You can also choose to receive your statements electronically as opposed to mailing a hardcopy to your mailbox. This email will include a link to go directly online and pay your bill.


You can go paperless and keep informed by going paperless and opting in to receive notification of when the Bulletin is available online. All Bulletins are uploaded to our website under About/Recent Bulletins. Like the Membership Directory, you will only see and be able to access this link if you are logged in. The Bulletin is published six times annually. You will receive an email announcing the newly uploaded Bulletin so you can read it as soon as it's uploaded. This link will also be in the Weekly Happenings. 

Choosing Your Mailing Preferences

To choose your mailing preferences please fill out the form at: Choosing a preference on this form is not set in stone! You can try it one way and if it doesn't work for you, you can switch it back!

If you share an account with a family member be sure you are both in agreement on how you would like your statements and Bulletin delivered to you. Of course, for those that still want to continue receiving mailings that is still an option too. If you have any questions about this or anything else about ShulCloud, please contact Stefanie Kushner at

Kesher Israel Skype with Anat Hoffman

Joanna Berke, Chair, Kesher Israel Committee, Temple Beth El

Editor's note: Kesher(meaning connection). The Kesher Israel committee at Temple Beth El attempts to make connections between individuals and organizations in Israel and the United States
Anat Hoffman

Anat Hoffman, leader of the Women of the Wall, and executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, joined the Madison Jewish community via Skype at Temple Beth El, Wednesday, February 7, 2018. 

She began her talk with a few jokes and then plunged into concerns and questions many of us have today. She didn't mince words. Israel, she said is being ruled by a tiny minority of its population. 

She spoke about inequality of women and men at the Wall; refugees now being turned back to their countries of origin where wars are waging; the suffering of Palestinians in the West Bank. Anat spoke about money coming from various organizations and the concerns of how money is being spent.


Anat took questions from the group. Some had been sent in for her to view beforehand; some came directly from the audience. The overriding question from all was: what can be done? And Anat's response was direct and challenging.

Her response: what are you doing? She stated clearly that we diaspora Jews need to have our voices heard as much as the Israeli Jews are heard and it is important for us to be aware and engaged. Anat spelled out what we can do - we can watch carefully where we put our dollars, we can write letters to the Israeli Embassy, we can call the Embassy, we can write to Netanyahu, to the Knesset. In short, we can make ourselves heard. If we do this, she said, Prime Minister Netanyahu and the Knesset, will take note!


If you would like to be involved in the Temple Beth El Kesher Israel Committee, please contact Joanna Berke at

Origins of the term “URGENCY OF NOW”

Betsy Abramson, TBE Urgency of Now Coordinator

In 2017, the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) social justice arm, the Religious Action Center (“the RAC”) unveiled the “Urgency of Now” Initiative. This Initiative focuses on building power and momentum by engaging Reform congregations in issue-specific social justice work that enables congregants to benefit and learn from one another. The RAC launched this initiative because developing a strong network of active and empowered congregations is imperative to the sacred work of tikkun olam (“repair of the world”). Temple Beth El is engaged in this work focusing on all three issues identified by the RAC: (1) Immigrant Rights; (2) Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System; and (3) Transgender Rights.

On Tuesday, February 13, 2018, the Temple Beth El Board of Trustees voted unanimously to approve the proposal of the Urgency of Now Steering Committee and Immigration Rights Action Team to join the Dane Sanctuary Coalition, I know I speak for the entire UON Steering Committee in expressing how thrilled we are that at this critical time, Temple is stepping up to deepen our engagement and commitment to this extremely important issue. Listening to the discussion and witnessing the Board’s unanimous vote, I thought of the sermon given by Martin Luther King Jr., in April 1967, entitled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence” in which he urged protest against the Vietnam War and first spoke of the “Fierce Urgency of Now.” I find his words just as relevant today as they were 51 years ago.

From Beyond Vietnam by Martin Luther King, Jr. (1967):

“These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” We in the West must support these revolutions. It is a sad fact that, because of comfort, complacency, a
morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch anti-revolutionaries . . . Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.

With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain.”

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a world-wide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all men . . . When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying
principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. …

Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day. We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate.

We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked and dejected with a lost opportunity. The “tide in the affairs of men” does not remain at the flood; it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage,
but time is deaf to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on…” We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation.

We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace . . . and justice throughout the developing world — a world that borders on our doors. If we do
not act we shall surely be dragged down the long dark and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter — but beautiful — struggle for a new world. … Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? … Or will there be another message, of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.”


Move Us to Reduce Gun Violence

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if she saved an entire world. (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; Jerusalem Talmud 4:9; Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 37a)


Praying for the souls of the dead,

support for the survivors and their families

and courage to press forward

with gun control in this country.

Radical love is the antidote for radical hate.

The heart of our work is recognizing

that our humanity unites all of us.

We must use every ounce of our being

to counter this culture

of dehumanization that infects our communities.

(--Rabbi Shawn Israel)


Let me say, at the outset, that my anger has been riled up again.

Let me say, at the outset, that I am not sorry for my anger.

And let me say, at the outset, that I want to use my passions for the truly achievable goals of gun control.

But there are some things I just don’t understand:

I don’t understand that unusual kind of pride when a legislator impedes legislation that can save lives.

I don’t understand the astonishing kind of patriotism that blindly defends the Second Amendment through heartless contributions to politicians who will do their bidding only to say in office.

I don’t understand the moral blindness of national leaders who turn away from parents whose children literally have been stolen from them and with whom they will never share another life achievement.

I don’t understand the callousness required to deflect attention from a commonsense debate on the need to reduce gun violence with the tired mantra of “Today is not the day to debate gun legislation.”

I don’t understand the heartless and calculating political mind that offers a facile condolence message after a gun tragedy, but then refuses to apply the political will to change laws to save lives.

There are so many things I do not understand.

Since the shooting in an elementary school in Sandy Hook, CT, in 2012, there have been at least 239 school shootings in our nation, in which 138 people were killed, 300 more were injured, and countless hundreds suffered the psychological effects of trauma, which will haunt them for the rest of their lives. And according to the Gun Violence Archive, already in 2018 alone there have been 1,829 deaths from gun violence incidents nationwide (

Every day that we avoid the difficult but achievable work of preventing gun violence, the NRA, the gun manufacturers, and the politicians who are beholden to them, get richer and more entrenched in office.

The recent Quinnipiac poll data indicate an overwhelming majority of our citizens want to enact common sense gun control legislation:

Levels of Support for national gun measures (

94% - 5% support requiring background checks for all gun purchases

93% - 6% of voters in gun households support universal background checks;

79% - 19% support a mandatory waiting period for all gun purchases;

64% - 32% support a ban on the sale of assault weapons;

86% - 12% support a ban of the sale of guns to people convicted of a violent crime;

58% - 38% support stricter regulations on ammunition sales;

64% - 34% support a ban on high-capacity magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.

I can understand these numbers, for these data must compel us to get excited and involved in the pursuit of gun violence reduction.

So, today is the day when we must talk about ways to prevent gun deaths.

Today is the day when we commit ourselves to address the out-of-control and widespread availability of weapons and ammunition.

Today is the day when we legislate for thorough background checks on any prospective gun buyer anywhere within our nation’s boundaries, and we insist that criminal, military, and civil court data bases be scoured for any and all facts that could disqualify someone from purchasing a gun.

Today is the day when we reinstate the ban on assault weapons and outlaw the manufacture of ammunition for any automatic or semi-automatic weapon available to citizens in our country.

Today is the day when we allocate more dollars for mental health services, to speak to the pressures that people feel which drive them to create scenes of carnage.

Today is the day to seize courage to confront the so-called gun lobby, and to tell our national legislators that they can successfully break the addiction of campaign contributions from peddlers of murder.

All it takes is for us to get angry, excited, and involved.

The poet Aaron Zeitlin wrote: “Praise me,” says God, “I will know that you love me. Curse me, I will know that you love me. Praise me or curse me, I will know that you love me. But if you sit fenced off in your apathy, entrenched in – ‘I don’t care,’” says God... “if you see suffering and don’t cry out… if you don’t praise and don’t revile, then I created you in vain,” says God.

Today is the day when we must be involved. Today is the day when we refuse to back down.

The Rabbi's Blog:The Story of Arnold and the Parliament of Poland

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

I would like to tell you the story of Arnold. His last name, sadly, is not known, but as a Jewish victim of the Holocaust, his story needs to be told along with all those who suffered disability and death at the hands of the Nazis.[1]

Arnold’s story also involves Mr. and Mrs. Schatzberg, two young Polish Jews caught up in a desperate struggle to remain alive during the Nazi occupation of Poland.

Arnold actually becomes involved in the story a bit later; this tale begins with the Schatzberg’s.

They were two young medical students in the town of Lvov, about to receive their medical certifications when the invasion of Poland occurred. Because of the German occupation and restrictions against Jews, they could not work as doctors.

And because of those wartime restrictions and persecutions, they assumed new identities: By purchasing false Catholic identity papers, they became Mr. and Mrs. Sawicki. And not only did they survive by assuming new names; throughout the war, they succeeded by hiding in plain sight.

Using their new identities, they left the town of Lvov. Mr. Sawicki took to playing the violin in various street orchestras, and Mrs. Sawicki tutored in Polish underground schools. Still, they lived in constant fear of someone recognizing them from their past and denouncing them to the Germans or to the Polish police, who were duty-bound to hand them over to the Germans. Their war-time lives consisted of constant movement around Poland, never staying in one place for more than a couple of months.

By the spring of 1944, the Sawicki’s had made their way to eastern Poland, and were working as orderlies in a small hospital. They were lucky to have a room provided for them by the hospital for their living quarters.

By this time, it was also clear that the Nazis were going to lose the war, and Polish sentiment was turning away from Germany. Consequently, it became dangerous for Germans to come to the hospital for treatment because the partisan fighters in the surrounding forests were now searching for Nazis and arresting or killing them. And further, the hospital staff began openly treating Polish underground fighters as a sign of their allegiance to their native land.

The Sawicki’s heard a report one night that a certain Polish underground unit was making its way to the hospital for treatment. They also understood that this unit had a medic attached to it who was from Lvov, the town where they had gone to medical school. Afraid that they might be recognized, they abandoned their shift for the night, and hid in the attic of the hospital.

They were, however, curious, and through holes in the ceiling they were able to look down upon into the treatment areas below, and they recognized the doctor who worked as the underground’s medic. His name was Arnold, and he was a medical student whom the Sawicki’s recognized from school. Mr. Sawicki had even known Arnold’s family quite intimately in their home town, as his father was a kosher butcher there.

For reasons that remain unknown, the Sawicki’s decided to leave their hiding place in the attic, and help treat the wounded underground fighters. Arnold and the Sawicki’s recognized one another but behaved as though they didn’t know one another.

Later the next day, Arnold came to the Sawickis’ room in the hospital to talk. He had been serving with this underground unit for the past two years, but because this unit had been infamously nationalistic and antisemitic, he never revealed his identity, and certainly not his religion.

The Sawicki’s and Arnold parted when the underground unit left the hospital, but they made plans to reunite somehow after the war.

A few months later, by the summer of 1944, the Red Army arrived, and eastern Poland was freed from Nazi occupation. As different underground units came out into the open, the Sawicki’s began overtly searching for Arnold, hoping to renew their relationship. Finally, they came across some of the underground fighters who knew of Arnold.

“Ah, that Zhid[2] doctor,” someone said. “When he told us he was Jewish, we shot him.”

The underground fighters, who had fought at the direction of the Polish government in exile in London, and who had bravely defended the Polish homeland, killed a doctor who had tended to their wounded for two years. They killed someone who had saved many of their own lives.

And if we were living in Poland today, it’s legally possible that we would be arrested for even discussing this story.

As you may know, the parliament of Poland recently passed, and the Polish president signed, an ominous and outrageous piece of legislation that could stifle free speech and suppress the truth about the Holocaust.

The new Polish law would impose jail terms for merely suggesting that Poles were complicit in the Holocaust. The Law and Justice party – the leading party in the parliament and one rife with nationalistic and right-wing sentiment – says the law was necessary to protect Poland's reputation and to ensure historians recognize that Poles as well as Jews perished under the Nazis.

Polish government officials believe the law was needed to fight expressions like “Polish death camps” for the institutions Nazi Germany operated in occupied Poland during World War II. Poles object to this terminology because, they feel, it defames Poland for the Nazi-run camps, where Poles made up the largest group of victims after Jews.

But others, such as academics, the government of Israel, and the US state department, believe the law would undermine free speech and stifle legitimate historical inquiry. Israeli officials insist the issue is not the language about “Polish death camps.” Instead, they see the law as a slippery slope that could minimize the role of Poles in the Holocaust, as well as devalue the painful Jewish experience in that country. Poland has a long history of antisemitism, and Holocaust scholars everywhere believe that many Poles were willing to at least look the other way, if not actively collaborate, with the Nazis.

Emmanuel Nahshon, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in a recent tweet: "Dear Polish followers — the issue is NOT the death camps. Of course they were not Polish. Those were German death camps. [Rather,] the issue is the legitimate and essential freedom to talk about the involvement of Poles in the murder of Jews without fear or threat of penalization.”[3]

Whether we talk about the involvement of any country’s citizens in acts of genocide, or whether we wish to inquire one government’s intervention in a national election of another country, the suppression of the truth is an enemy to the freedom of humanity. Lying to protect the guilty makes a mockery of the human intellect and can lead to disastrous effects. We know when governments lie. And when they do, so erodes our confidence in systems that were established to bring order into a chaotic situation.

…which brings us to the Torah portion of Mishpatim, Exodus 21-24.

Among the myriad of laws and regulations that our Torah portion sets forth are judgments about lying. Here are two such laws, from the first verse of chapter 23 of Exodus:

“Do not carry with you false rumors; do not join hands with the guilty so that you become a corrupt witness.” (Exodus 23:1)

Gossip, rumors, denying the truth, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice: These personal actions are wicked enough, and can bring anyone grief if they practice them. We’ve seen many instances of this in our times and before, and we understand how such actions will weaken a person who engages in such deception.

But another consequence of these laws is that lying and complicity with evildoers could lead an entire society to lawlessness, disorder, and chaos. Unless people bear truthfulness in their intentions, they can literally bring destruction into the lives of those around them.

The antiseptic effect of truth, transparency, and honest historical evaluation: These are things that we need to promote in our world, whether we discuss current events in Warsaw, Jerusalem, Washington, or wherever we choose to focus our attention.

Is it embarrassing to discuss the role of loyal Polish citizens, or those of Vichy France, or of other countries, in being complicit with the Holocaust? Yes, perhaps it is.

Is it necessary to investigate and acknowledge Turkey’s role in the mass killing of Armenians a hundred years ago? And shall we call that genocide as well?

The straightforward search for truth continues in many areas, from academia to history, perhaps in fulfillment of these laws from Exodus.

For like Germany, which has strongly acknowledged its monstrous role in World War II history: Out of a transparent reckoning – out of a search and discovery for the truth – we can derive a proper cleansing and resolution of animosities and grief.

As the Torah tells us, deception and duplicity with the truth will lead us to corruption. So, let us always point ourselves toward the truth.

Supporting Our Immigrant Neighbors in Madison

Urgency of Now Immigrant Action Team

Jewish teaching is clear and unequivocal regarding our obligations to care for the stranger in our midst. In Leviticus 19:33–34 we are told: “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This concept is repeated 35 times in the Torah. In this country, to which most of our grandparents and great-grandparents arrived as immigrants or refugees, many of our immigrant neighbors, due to their immigration status, are at great risk. This is true in Wisconsin, and right here in Madison. These neighbors, who are part of the fabric of our community, are living in constant fear of being stigmatized, deported, or separated from their loved ones. This terror affects individuals’ abilities to apply for and hold down jobs, enroll children in school, seek health care, contact the police when they are victims of crime, and access many other critical services the rest of us take for granted. Madison is not exempt from the tragedy of families being ripped apart by our federal government’s immigration policies. This message was recently posted to the Dane Sanctuary Coalition’s Facebook page, with a plea for help:

I have just learned of a young mother who works for us whose husband was detained by the police in Madison last week, who then called ICE who picked him up this morning. If you know anything about how this works, you know

that this means that he is gone. She is alone. They have three children under five years of age. She does not have family in Madison. As Jews, we believe in a world where every person is treated with dignity and respect, where all contributions to our society are valued, and where all can live together in freedom and safety. This vision compels us to stand in unity with our immigrant friends and neighbors, to offer our support and help, and to provide protection and support to those in need.

Now is the time to turn our Jewish values into action. You are invited to join our Urgency of Now Immigrant Action Team, one of the three action teams of the Urgency of Now Initiative at TBE. This group will help decide how we at TBE will advocate for and act to support and protect our vulnerable neighbors. Learn more, share your voice, and work with us to welcome those in need of our support.

For more information about the immigrant action team, contact Erica Serlin (, 608-833-8586) or Sherie Sondel (, 608-444-3051).

For more information about the crisis facing Immigrants:

  • Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism:
  • Voces de la Frontera:
  • Sanctuary Not Deportation:
  • United We Dream:
  • Church World Service:

For information on the Dane Sanctuary Coalition:


A Weekday Taste of Torah

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

For the Torah Portion of Beshalach, Exodus 13:17 – 17:16

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

Does Prayer Work?

I recently had a conversation with a member of my synagogue who discounted the effects of prayer in the healing process. “Why say a healing prayer for my relative? God’s not going to be swayed on her behalf by my worship.”

And I had to agree. From what we believe today, God does not intervene in the affairs of the world, whether requested or not.

But this does not mean that our prayers are ineffective. And the Israelites, in this week’s Torah portion of Beshalach, demonstrate this point.

We read in the Torah this week that the Israelites have departed from Egypt, and God has led them to the sea that will eventually part for them.

According to the text, God carefully manipulates this situation:

  • God hardens Pharaoh’s heart and causes him to regret his decision to let the Israelites leave.
  • God brings the Israelites to the sea, so that they appear to be hemmed in against the raging waters.
  • The Pharaoh makes the decision to bring the Israelites back to Egypt.
  • After the deaths of all the animals of Egypt during the Ten Plagues, God allows Pharaoh to wondrously find six hundred horses to enable Pharaoh, along with six hundred charioteers, to pursue the Israelites to the final confrontation at the sea.


There by the sea, the Israelites are oblivious to God’s machinations, and imagine only the worst possible outcome, which is their recapture and return to Egypt. The last resort is for them to cry out to God:

“Pharaoh drew near [to the Israelites by the sea], and the people of Israel looked up and – behold – the Egyptians were advancing after them. They were very frightened, and the people of Israel cried out to the Eternal” (Exodus 14:10).

A Third-century midrash interprets this cry of panic and fear not as distress, but rather as prayer, and reminds us that each of our three Patriarchs offered prayed at crucial moments in their lives:

“Concerning Abraham, scripture says of Abraham, ‘to the place where he had stood [in prayer] before the Eternal’ (in concern for Sodom and Gomorrah, Genesis 19:27); concerning Isaac, it is stated, ‘he went to pray in the field’ (to find a wife, Genesis 24:63); and concerning Jacob, it is related, ‘He prayed to the Omnipresent’ (in wonderment of the ladder extending to heaven and his finding the doorway to God’s abode, Genesis 28:11)” (Midrash Tanhuma).[1]

For the Israelites, their “cries” might not have directly affected God; the Divine One’s plans were in motion long before they arrived at the seashore. But their entreaties inspired one another to maintain courage and to await ‘the redemption of God’ (Exodus 14:13). It also strengthened those who took the first tentative steps into the sea, between the walls of water – on the right and on the left – that had never been seen before.

In a similar way, our prayers might not persuade God to change the Divine Mind on matters already destined to occur. But they can help us maintain courage at moments of doubt, and they can encourge us find our own solutions to our problems.


[1] Midrash Tanhuma Genesis, Mikeitz 10:11

October 17, 2018 8 Cheshvan 5779