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Sober Assessments of Life as the Year Comes to a Close

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

Many authors and philosophers across time have offered a version of “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.” A partial list would include George Santayana[1]; Edmund Burke[2]; young adult author Sara Shepard[3]; and even Kurt Vonnegut[4], who said it in his backhand, cynical fashion: “We're doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That's what it is to be alive.”

I believe that the original source is our own Israelite patriarch Jacob.

We find this thought in the Torah portion Vayechi, that closes the book of Genesis, as Jacob confers blessings upon his sons. Jacob can’t help but point out the flaws in his children’s characters and implies that they can set a better course for their descendants only when they recognize their faults and make changes in their lives. It is his last act before he dies.

The Torah narrative in the last two portions of Vayigash and Vayechi (which we read over the last two weeks) presents us with a number of resolutions of the issues surrounding Jacob’s family:

his children are now reunited;

their sibling animosities are on the way toward some kind of peaceful solution;

Jacob’s younger son Joseph has solidified his role as vizier of Egypt;

and Jacob’s family is well on their way toward becoming a comfortable, prosperous even, minority amid the teeming masses of the Egyptian populace.

Such a conclusion could itself have been the dream fulfillment of any immigrant family in their new homes. Jacob undoubtedly was a proud patriarch seeing his children and descendants grow in size and influence.

Why, then, is Jacob so sad? Let me tell you what I mean.

* * * *

In the parashah of Vayigash, Joseph brings his father Jacob to an audience with the Pharaoh, certainly a moment of special honor. Yet when the supreme ruler of Egypt asks Jacob his age, Jacob turns negative. He is not offended by the question, but what comes out of his mouth indicates curmudgeonly sorrow.

“Well, if you must know,” says Jacob, “I am 130 years old, but my life has been miserable and of little significance. I have attained nothing like my fathers before me.” The Pharaoh likely didn’t like having a naysayer in the court, so he accepts a perfunctory blessing from Jacob, then moves on to other court business, never to see the Israelite patriarch again.

Jacob’s response to the Pharaoh represents, perhaps, the bluntest of post-mortems that we might imagine. And Jacob is also cynical in Vayechi, the next week’s portion, where he offers to his sons his deathbed blessings, compounding his negative feelings about his own life, with his candid appraisal of his children’s achievements.

Jacob says to Reuben, ‘O my first born, you made me feel strong and vigorous. I had such hopes for you. But you slept with my wife’s concubine while I was away—you thought I’d never find out—and so you will amount to nothing.’[5]

Then Jacob turns to Shimon and Levi, and berates them for their massacre of the people of Sh’chem after the rape of their sister Dinah. ‘Taking justice into your own hands is not the way of the world. I don’t even want to know you.’

Jacob’s blessings to the other sons are not so negative, but he does not mince words: he identifies their character flaws in the hope of staving off further questionable behavior. Based on their demonstrated bad behavior, he implies that past is prologue, and that his sons are doomed to repeat the past mistakes unless they straighten out their crooked lives.

* * * *

Hearing Jacob’s cynical expressions in these two Torah portions might encourage us to wonder about the legacy that we will leave behind when we depart this world. In the moments of clarity before we die, will we offer a negative assessment like Jacob, that our lives ‘have been miserable and of little consequence’, and that we ‘have attained nothing like our ancestors before us’; or will we find reason to say, ‘it was a good run all-in-all, and – all things considered – we are satisfied.’

As the calendar year of 2018 concludes, our thoughts might turn to this question. Indeed, every day—with every word we utter and every action that we perform—we should bear in mind not only the immediate consequences but also the possible long-term ramifications of our words and deeds.

What, indeed, will be the examples that we set for others? What will be the legacy that we leave behind?

* * * *

I am reading, perhaps for the second time, Ray Bradbury’s novel “Something Wicked This Way Comes”. Originally published in 1962, it is a brilliant mixture of horror and science fiction in a classic battle of Good vs Evil, and it has recently been republished with notes and essays by contemporary sci-fi and horror authors. I would like to share with you a small segment of his book, because it presents us with a suggestion of how one contemplates the legacy to be passed down to future descendants.

A father and son, engrossed in solving their immediate problem, engage in this brief exchange trying to understand how we should evaluate our lives.

In the book, Will, the twelve-year-old protagonist, asks:

“Dad…are you a good person?”

“To you and your mother, yes, I try. But no man’s a hero to himself. I've lived with me a lifetime. I know everything worth knowing about myself…and adding it all up, yes, I'm all right.”

“Then dad”, asked Will, “why aren't you happy?”

And here is the father’s sagacious answer:

“Sometimes the man who looks happiest in town, with the biggest smile, is the one carrying the biggest load of sin. There are smiles and smiles; learn to tell the dark variety from the light. The seal-barker, the laugh-shouter, half the time he's covering up. He's had his fun, and he's guilty. And men do love sin, oh how they love it, never doubt, in all shapes, sizes, colors, and smells. Times come when troughs, not tables, suit our appetites. Hear a man too loudly praising others and look to wonder if he didn't just get up from the sty.

“On the other hand, that unhappy, pale, put-upon man walking by, who looks all guilt and sin, why, often that's your good man with a capital ‘G.’ For being good is a fearful occupation; men strain at it and sometimes break in two. I've known a few. You work twice as hard to be a farmer as to be his hog. I suppose it's thinking about trying to be good makes the crack run up the wall one night. A man with high standards, too, the least hair falls on him sometimes wilts his spine. He can't let himself alone, won't lift himself off the hook if he falls just a breath from grace.”[6]

In the past year, have we been good people? Have we worked hard at it? Have we been mindful of the ways we have affected other people?

Have we always chosen the right word for the right occasion, or have we let our emotions rule our tongues? Have we exhibited too much braggadocio; have our demeanors been humble and unassuming; or have we found a healthy compromise between the two, in a place where we have, like Rabbi Salanter of our Mussar tradition, asked for ‘no more than our space, and no less than our place’?

We know that the legacy we ultimately leave behind in the world does not necessarily consist of possessions or wealth, but rather in the way we approach the world and its complex set of personalities and situations, and in the way we treat other people. Rabbi Salanter commends to us an unpretentious and self-effacing life. But he reminds us, too, that we also have a place which belongs to us and of which no one should deprive us. Finding a life which leads to both, or a balance of the two, should be our goal. We must live with mindfulness and sensitivity, so that we don’t take up more room on the planet than we’re due, but that we also don’t lose our individual human dignity.

Returning to our pair of Torah portions that conclude the book of Genesis, we observe the way in which Jacob establishes his legacy: He offers it in the blessings he gives to others. In this way, he teaches us something about what we need to possess, and what we can give away.

In the Torah, Jacob has become ill; he lies on his deathbed, and his son Joseph and his grandchildren Ephraim and Menasheh come to visit. And Jacob takes this opportunity to offer his fatherly blessings to Joseph and his sons; they are the first to receive these blessings.

The Torah tells us that “this is the way Jacob blessed Joseph” … and Jacob proceeds to bless his grandchildren, not Joseph. He does bless Joseph, but not directly.

He says, “May the god in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked; the god who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day; the messenger who has redeemed me from all harm: bless these youths (referring to Ephraim and Menasheh). In them may my name be recalled. And the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth.”

Jacob demonstrates that through his grandchildren—in all that their father has accomplished, and in every act that they will achieve in their lives to come—through his grandchildren will Joseph also come to be a blessing.

Perhaps this is a clue about why we, in the Jewish community, focus so intently upon our children. It is through them that we might better see our values lived out, that is, what we have taught them, and the priorities they have toward the world.

In the imagery of Ray Bradbury, a person who has striven with the world; someone who has, perhaps, been broken by their experiences yet is still walking and present in the world: it is through these people that goodness is perceived and properly evaluated.

Perhaps Jacob’s cynical words to Pharaoh, then, were not a skeptical commentary on his misfortunes. They were honest feelings, to be sure, but perhaps they represented the scars that Joseph acquired in his lifetime quest to instill decent values in his children.

In this quest, Jacob likely succeeded, for the Torah relates that his family carried on their traditions by burying their patriarch using the customs of the land of Israel, alongside Egyptian burial traditions. Both the native traditions, and the assimilated practices of their foreign home, were used. Overall, the descendants of Jacob, living in a foreign land and waiting to be brought back to the land that God promised to them, maintained their family practices and institutions, while assimilating some parts of their new culture.

A challenge for us to ponder as the year closes and a new one begins is this: Will we learn to mindfully discover how best to bequeath blessings to our physical and spiritual descendants, and remain upbeat and hopeful about the future?

I wish us all success.


[1] George Santayana (1863-1952) “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

[2] Edmund Burke (1729-1797) “Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it.”

[3] Sara Shepard (b. 1977) “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it”

[4] Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) “We're doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That's what it is to be alive. It's pretty dense kids who haven't figured that out by the time they're ten....

[5] Genesis 35:22

[6] Bradbury, Ray. “Something Wicked This Way Comes”. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks. Copyright 1962, 1980, 1997, by Ray Bradbury, page 124-125.

Playing the long game on social change

URJ recently published “Playing the Long Game on Social Change,” an article by Rabbi Daniel K. Alter about his visit to the border to witness and protest the detention camp there, and his thoughts about “the little successes and failures that define the perseverance of real change makers.” Many involved with our Urgency of Now advocacy work found it a moving read, we hope it speaks to you as well:

Dining and cooking to support Porchlight housing programs

Fourteen Temple Beth El members attended the annual fundraising dinner for Porchlight on November 13, where they heard about the wonderful work that Porchlight does to provide emergency shelter, transitional housing, support services, and advocacy on affordable housing issues. County executive Joe Parisi was the evening's keynote speaker, discussing his commitment to fighting homelessness, combating substance abuse, and treating mental illness in Dane County. A total of 511 people attended the dinner, which raised over $96,000 to support Porchlight.

Porchlight is the largest nonprofit provider of low-income housing in Dane County and has 330 housing units, including both transitional and permanent housing. Porchlight served over 1,100 men in 2017, providing shelter, meals, and case management services. They collaborate with the VA on a 24-bed single-occupancy transitional facility for vets who are homeless or at risk for homelessness.

In addition to fundraising support, TBE provides dinner four times a year for the Porchlight emergency shelter. If you would enjoy either cooking or serving, please contact Pam Robbins. Dates for 2019 will be January 30, May 29, July 31, and October 30. TBE has been providing meals for the past 10 years. A big thank-you to all the Porchlight volunteers over the years!

Porchlight food products are available at various grocery stores and restaurants in the area. You can find the list of locations at Thank you to those who purchased Porchlight products at our Hanukkah Farmer’s Market on December 9.

Temple Beth El works to address food insecurity

Members of Temple Beth El continued their significant contributions to fighting hunger in our communities through two successful food drives this fall. Because of the High Holy Day Food Drive, Temple Beth El ranks number 4 overall in Second Harvest Foodbank’s annual Food & Fund Drives list. Temple members donated enough money to provide 28,758 meals!

In November, the Religious School held its annual contest to see which grade could bring the most food to fill Thanksgiving baskets for the Goodman Community Center. Our families almost filled up the coatroom with cans and boxes of cranberries, stuffing, and vegetables. The winners were the 4K and 5K classes, who together brought 96 boxes of macaroni and cheese! With these and other contributions, the Goodman Community Center was able to provide full Thanksgiving dinners for 3,900 families. Thanks to the families who brought food and all the kids who helped.

Sign up for May 2019 Consultation on Conscience

The Consultation on Conscience conference is put on by the Religious Action Center (RAC), the social justice arm of the Reform movement. Every other year the RAC puts together an awesome program to help inspire and empower us to become more effective and engaged community leaders. When seven Temple Beth El members attended in 2017, they came home energized to begin the Urgency of Now initiative, helping to move TBE toward greater advocacy efforts on social justice issues.

We would like to put together another delegation to go again in 2019. The conference will take place on May 19–21 in Washington, DC, and Women of Reform Judaism will offer additional speakers and practical workshops on May 18–19. The conference registration rate will be $349 until January 30; attendees arrange their own transportation and hotel. Please contact Aleeza Hoffert or Jane Taves for a discount code before you register. Click here for a detailed description.

“The Consultation on Conscience is a fabulous opportunity and a wonderful chance to get to know some terrific social activists at TBE better! I would definitely go again.” – Erica Serlin
“The Consultation on Conscience is the premier social justice conference for the Reform Movement. Bringing in speakers from Congress, world leaders, experts from social justice organizations large and small, the conference is always enlightening and inspiring.” – Rabbi Bonnie Margulis

TBE volunteers spend many hours to help others vote

The City of Madison and Dane County both saw record high turnout for the most recent midterm election. The City Clerk of Madison estimated that almost 93 percent of registered voters turned out for the election. Temple Beth El members played an important part by facilitating voter registration and early voting. Some members received training offered by Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, and volunteers were on hand to register voters on Yom Kippur morning and at other Temple events.

A few members went above and beyond, devoting dozens of hours to registering voters and training voter registrars.

Sue and Vic Levy have served as elections officials for many years. This last election they helped at least 200 people register at Thoreau School. Sue also volunteered with the League of Women Voters to register university students who were voting early on campus. In addition, Sue volunteered to train canvassers to get out the vote. These canvassers made sure that potential voters knew how to register and when and where to vote.

Sue is enthusiastic about the experience: “There is nothing that can give you more hope for the future of our democracy than registering a student or a new citizen to register to vote for the first time. I was lucky enough to do both this year!”

Jim and Nan Youngerman also spent many hours registering voters and helping with early voting. They focused their efforts on University of Wisconsin student registrations at various locations across the Madison campus. During the 10-day early voting period on campus, Jim registered students at Union South for six hours every day. A total of 2,591 early votes were processed there, almost half of which were same-day registrations. Jim personally registered over 700 student voters during that time!

For people who would like to help with the spring elections, Jim suggests signing up through the office of the City Clerk or through the League of Women Voters. These organizations offer training, provide support at registration and polling locations, and send emails each week w specific times and locations where volunteers are needed. Sue notes that the need for help with early voting will be even greater in future elections, since the Legislature has recently shortened the early voting period.

The URJ Religious Action Coalition Civic Engagement Campaign encourages URJ members to vote, work with their legislators, and make their voices heard in the public arena. Looking forward to the 2020 elections, we hope our members will continue to provide voter registration and advocate for improved voting opportunities and access.

“We both feel so grateful to live in a community where the City Clerk invests heavily in educating volunteers such as ourselves, where the League of Women Voters offers tremendous leadership for volunteer opportunities, and where together our community strives to maximize voting opportunities for all people.” – Nan and Jim Youngerman

Words of Worth: Letters to The Border

Erica Serlin, Lynn Silverman, and Marta Karlov Co-Chairs, Immigrant Action Team

The Urgency of Now Immigration Action Team invites you to join us on Tuesday, January 29, 7:00–9:00 pm in the Frank Adult Lounge at Temple Beth El for an engaging and inspiring evening with the Community Immigration Law Clinic, including a letter writing campaign to those detained and working on behalf of those families at the border. Light refreshments and letter-writing supplies will be provided.

On October 29, 2018, several members of the TBE Urgency of Now Immigration Action Team attended a wonderful program at the Community Immigration Law Clinic (CILC) titled “Words of Worth: Letters to the Border.” We attended with about 50 representatives from a variety of nonprofit agencies and faith communities.

The evening began with an introduction to the crisis on our southern border. We heard from volunteer attorneys and interns who provided support and legal assistance at detention centers in Artesia, New Mexico, in 2014 and Dilly, Texas, in the summer of 2018. These volunteers shared their experiences witnessing the terrible conditions in which men, women, and children are being detained, and why outside support is so important to the well-being of our immigrant community.

After this introduction, we were provided with letter-writing supplies, including sample English and Spanish letters and phrases we could incorporate. We completed 200 cards and letters to current detainees, immigrants awaiting court hearings, and staff and volunteers at the border. We were told that reading our encouraging words and knowing that we and others care about their plight has instilled hope in the recipients and will continue to be important to them!

We are replicating this program at TBE with the involvement of CILC’s staff immigration attorney, Aissa Olivarez; volunteer attorney Kris Rasmussen; Leah Durst-Lee, CILC’s volunteer coordinator; Karen Perz-Wilson, a student who helped at the border; and Marin Smith, the fundraising and development intern for CILC. In addition to the letter-writing campaign, we will hear about the range of services provided at CILC as well as volunteer opportunities, including providing intake services to assist the immigration attorneys. Letters can be written in English, Spanish, or some combination with the help of the samples provided.

We would also like to thank Howard Rosen for his excellent work as our Immigration Action Team co-chair. He recently stepped down due to other commitments and will be missed! Please welcome Lynn Silverman and Marta Karlov as our new co-chairs!

We hope to see you on January 29!

Jewish support for refugee families continues

Good news from Jewish Social Services (JSS)

Although the federal government is limiting the number of refugees accepted into the United States, JSS refugee resettlement efforts will continue to be funded for 2019. Its national partner, HIAS, had its grant renewed by the Department of State, allowing this vital work to continue through Jewish immigration assistance agencies across the country.

Shabbat services focused on refugees

During October, each of the three Madison synagogues and UW Hillel offered a Shabbat focused on refugees. At TBE, Professor Scott Straus spoke eloquently about the growing number of refugees and displaced persons around the world, and Rabbi Renee Bauer talked about JSS’s local refugee resettlement work. The moving and well-attended service was planned by the rabbi and cantor with the assistance of Sue and Vic Levy. An article about the services appeared in the December 2018 Madison Jewish News.

Documentary about refugee life

“This Is Home” is an award-winning documentary offering an intimate look at four Syrian refugee families as they try to adapt to life in the United States. A number of local organizations, including JSS, Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, Jewish Congregations for Social Justice, UW Hillel, and Lutheran Social Services, sponsored a showing of the film and led a thoughtful discussion afterward. The film examines the strengths and limitations of what refugee resettlement agencies can do to help families become self-sufficient. In case you missed it, the movie is available through several streaming video services.

Values, Meditations, and Questions for Each Night of Hanukkah

Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

1 – Owning Courage – In the year 170 before the Common era (BCE), the Syrian-Greek ruler Antiochus took control of the land of Israel. Antiochus hated the Jews because of their love of the one God of Heaven and Earth, and their refusal to worship the Greek gods. In his outrage, he overthrew the High Priest in the Jerusalem Temple, plundered the sacred vessels used there, and closed the Temple to Jewish worship and sacrifice. The Torah was figuratively and literally ripped to shreds.

In the village of Modi’in, one priest, Mattathias, held his ground. Brave and proud, he and his family stood fast against the pagan soldiers and defied their commands. His followers rose to battle, and the enemy of vast numbers was overcome by a small but dedicated faithful Jewish fighting force.

  • How have we shown courage in the year gone by? How might we anticipate demonstrating courage in the year to come?

2 – Providing light and love – As we light the Hanukkah candles, the stars fill the winter skies around us. The light reflected in the glow of the candles is a sign of the warmth in our hearts, and the love that should surround us. As we drink in the fountain of love and affection that others give forth to us, so, too, can we offer to others the sweetness of our own hearts, and make their lives complete.

  • Is there one special person whom we can bring into the light of our loving influence? What do I need to learn and do in order to bear light to others?

3 – Utilizing the gifts of creation – Humanity was created in God’s image. This means that we are to imitate the ways of God whenever possible. We cannot perform miracles that fill the sky with stars or reverse the orbit of the earth, but we can fill someone’s heart with love, and we can reverse the cycle of poverty that ensnares the less fortunate in endless searches for shelter and sustenance.

  • How can I imitate God in my everyday life? What can I bring to others when they search for humanity’s divine qualities?

4 – Accepting our differences – The holiday of Hanukkah teaches the importance of accepting differences among all the people of the world. Matters of religion, nation, race, gender, or gender orientation must not be used by others to divide us. Rather we must seek out ways of bridging the valleys of separation that prevent one human being from sharing love with another.

What is the one single act I can perform to bring the message of tolerance to those around me? Who would be my allies in such a mission?

5 - Pursuing knowledge – May we, in our pursuit of increased and deeper knowledge, always elevate humanity. May we bear in mind that it is the heightened value of human life and creativity – and not the craving for fame and monetary reward – that should drive us toward new achievements and new discoveries. May our passion for knowledge bring us toward one another, as we constantly strive to make humanity better than it is.

  • How can I help others to elevate the human intellect above the less-than-human emotions we exhibit?

6 – Achieving joy and happiness – The masters of Jewish hasidism remind us that joy is an accomplishment that strengthens the bonds between people, elevates the heart, and enlivens the soul. As humans, we experience the full range of emotion, from joy to sorrow, and from anxiety to contentment. May we discover where joy lives in our hearts, and may we learn how to spread that joy to all those whom we encounter.

  • In what ways can I bring joy and happiness to others in my sphere of influence? How best can I bring gentle joy and avoid deprecating humor?

7 – Finding the freedom of worship – Not only as Americans, but also as Jews, we treasure our tradition of freedom of worship, and we strive to share that freedom with all peoples of the earth. In lands of persecution, and indeed in all lands, may the voice of reason guide those who would wield power over the powerless, and may we all live with the freedom of conscience to believe as we like, to worship – or not to worship – as we please.

  • How can we rightly petition those in government to show the greatest respect for all religions and creeds? How can I honor the religions and religious communities that surround me in our diverse society?

8 – Searching for peace – Our Rabbis remind us that the highest value is seeking peace and pursuing it. Indeed, the pursuit of peace is the only mitzvah in which we must actively engage at all times. May God grant us the strength to bring peace between all men and women in the world, and may God give us the strength to find peace wherever we look.

  • How can I be the most effective instrument of peace, for the community, for the nation, and for the world? How can I serve as a living example to those around me?

What does it mean to welcome the stranger?

By Sue Levy

As Jews we are directed to welcome the stranger for several reasons: because we were strangers in Egypt; because we bear witness to the Holocaust; because we are commanded to build a better world. In practical terms, this means we must support the legal framework that provides safe harbor for refugees and immigrants, and we must help to build and maintain the social structures that welcome those in need. Today both the legal framework for refugee protection and the social fabric which unites us are under attack.

While worldwide refugee populations are greater than they have ever been, refugee arrival numbers for U.S. resettlement have been capped at the lowest levels since passage of the Refugee Act of 1980. The rate of denial for requests for asylum for people in the United States has risen to 62%, and asylum applicants have been brutally separated from their children. These cutbacks threaten the lives of the millions of refugees throughout the world who are unable to return to their homelands. They also threaten the existence of programs such as the JSS resettlement unit, reducing our capacity to resettle refugees now and in the future.

You can welcome the stranger by:

  • Educating yourself and others about refugees and immigrants:
  • Come to the Refugee Crisis Shabbat on October 26
  • UW-Madison Professor Scott Straus will discuss worldwide and U.S. refugee issues, while Rabbi Bauer and Rabbi Biatch will address what Jewish Social Services and Temple Beth El are doing to provide welcome to refugees.
  • Read some of the materials at the HIAS Resource Center or at the Immigrant Learning Center
  • Watch the film This is Home, featuring four Syrian refugee families. The film will be shown at 1:30 pm on December 2 at the Fitchburg library, with a discussion hosted by JSS and the Jewish Congregations for Social Justice Coalition.
  • Watch the documentary Inside the Trauma of Family Separation at Christ Presbyterian Church, December 4, from 7:00-9:00 pm.
  • Speak up when refugees and immigrants are vilified.


  • Contact Becca Schwartz at JSS (608-442-4086) to get information on volunteering. Opportunities include driving new families to appointments; teaching them to ride the bus; collecting furniture and household goods; and helping with homework.
  • Assist the Community Immigration Law Center (608-257-4845) to provide legal assistance to undocumented aliens, applicants for asylum and refugees. Assist with interviewing clients and with transportation to immigration interviews. Training for those interested in conducting intake interviews will be provided periodically.


  • Speak out for a robust refugee resettlement program with annual admissions of at least 75,000.
  • Work to end the separation of families seeking asylum and the indefinite detention of children.
  • Write or call your members of Congress: Call Senator Tammy Baldwin (Madison Office 608-264-5338; Washington Office 202-224-5653) and Senator Ron Johnson (Madison Office 608-240-9629; Washington Office 202-224-5323) and Representative Mark Pocan (202-225-2906), or email them through their websites.
  • Join a letter-writing group to support detained immigrants at an event at Christ Presbyterian Church; Words of Worth—Letters to the Border October 29, 7:00-9:00 pm.


  • On November 6, vote for candidates who support a strong refugee program and humane treatment of immigrants.

Understanding The Global Refugee Crisis, Friday, October 26

By Marcia Vandercook

On Friday night, October 26, Temple Beth El will join with congregations around the country to create a Shabbat experience dedicated to refugees. There will be similar services throughout the month at Beth Israel Center, Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, and University of Wisconsin Hillel.

At Temple Beth El, our Shabbat speaker will be Professor Scott Straus, professor and associate chair in the Department of Political Science and professor of international studies. Professor Straus’s work focuses on violence, human rights, and African politics. Professor Straus’s talk will deepen our understanding of today’s global refugee crisis, as more than 65 million people have now fled their homes due to persecution and violence.

We will also hear from Rabbi Renee Bauer, who will talk about our community’s achievements and future efforts in working with refugees alongside Jewish Social Services, HIAS, Open Doors for Refugees, and other partners. Through this work, we give voice to our values as Jews and as Americans and stand up for the safety and the lives of people around the world.

Election Day: Tuesday, November 6

By Marcia Vandercook

As we look forward to Food-a-Rama, we think of corned beef and chicken soup, but let’s not forget that November is the time to VOTE!

Temple Beth El is joining with other national and local Jewish organizations to make sure we all exercise our right to vote. This is a completely nonpartisan effort, to ensure that all Jewish voices are present in the public square, regardless of party or politics. Our goal is ambitious but not impossible – 100% congregational participation in this year’s midterm elections.

You may have already seen our volunteers providing voter information and voter registration after Yom Kippur morning services and at other Temple events. You might also have filled out a card pledging to vote.

If you are not yet registered to vote, it is not too late; you can register on election day. Please see for details.

If you will be out of town or busy on Election Day, you can take advantage of Wisconsin’s option for early/absentee voting. You can request an absentee ballot for any reason, or you can vote in person at any municipal clerk’s office. For more information, see

Whatever the case, make sure you get out to vote, and bring a friend or relative with you to the polls. Then stop by Food-a-Rama and enjoy the corned beef!

Join Us in Washington D.C. for Consultation on Conscience

By Jane Taves

Join TBE members in Washington D.C. on May 19-21, 2019, for the Consultation on Conscience, the premier social justice conference for the Reform Movement and flagship event of the Religious Action Center (RAC) of the Union for Reform Judaism.

“I have gone to the Consultation on Conscience whenever possible over the last thirty years. Bringing in speakers from Congress, world leaders, experts from social justice organizations large and small, the conference is always enlightening and inspiring,” shared Rabbi Bonnie Margulis. Consultation is dedicated to training and empowering Jewish leaders like us to make real, lasting change at the national, state, and local levels. We’ll return home better prepared to participate in meaningful social justice work.

This conference takes place every two years. In 2017, we had a wonderful delegation of seven TBE members who attended together and returned inspired. Our Urgency of Now campaign grew out of this experience. At Consultation, we will hear from elected officials and thought leaders about many social justice issues. We will learn advocacy skills, and we will go to Capitol Hill together and lobby our senators and/or representatives.

Rabbi Margulis went on to say, “The opportunity to meet other social justice activists from Reform congregations around the country, to share ideas, successes, and challenges, and to build networks and form friendships is invaluable. Workshops allow you to delve into specific topics in-depth and to gain skills and get tools to be more effective advocates in your home congregation and community. The opportunity to be in a room with 600 other Reform Jewish advocates raising our collective voice in song and prayer for morning worship is an experience not to be missed! “

Consultation is for everyone who has an interest in social justice, advocacy, or policy issues. You do not need to be a member of the Social Action Committee or on the temple board to attend. New this year is a dedicated experience for teen leaders. We will come away with the knowledge that we are part of a larger movement beyond our congregations’ walls.

And, women of TBE: give yourself the gift of attending the WRJ Social Justice Conference which immediately precedes the Consultation, on May 18-19. This companion conference will include practical workshops for everyone: those who are dipping their toes into advocacy for the first time as well as seasoned activists. Enjoy the inspiring speakers, a Shabbat morning service with Rabbi David Saperstein, and a social justice concert on Saturday evening, to which all Consultation participants are invited.

Registration for both the Consultation and the WRJ Social Justice Conference will open around November 1. By bringing a delegation, each of us will receive a discount on our registration fee. Please be in touch with Aleeza Hoffert or Jane Taves for the discount codes before you register.

Mark your calendars! Join our delegation! See you in Washington D.C.!

Call to Action Regarding Child and Family Detentions

By Erica Serlin

As a member of the Dane Sanctuary Coalition, we recently received the following action alert from the Wisconsin Lutheran Office of Public Policy regarding the length of time undocumented immigrant children are kept in federal detention. Please review the following information and consider taking action by the November 6th deadline.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services has provided more information at the following link: Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services

In summary, Reno v Flores, also known as “The Flores Settlement,” was a 1997 Supreme Court ruling that set standards for immigrant minors when going through the court system. It ruled that detained children must be released to parents, a legal guardian, another relative, or a vetted entity willing to take legal custody of the child within 20 days. If the Flores Settlement is overturned, the result could be indefinite family detention and separation.

The Flores Settlement also binds the government to adhere to a number of minimum standards in its treatment and processing of children. By seeking to overturn Flores, the government hopes to eliminate these protections. As a result, children and families would lose standard rights within the immigration system, such as the length of stay in a detention facility, the conditions of the facility, the options for release, a person’s right to a bond hearing, the legal protections for unaccompanied children and more.

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services is opposed to any form of detention of children and families and vehemently opposes indefinite detention, which poses a clear violation of human dignity and due process. LIRS has and will continue to advocate against changes to Flores.

If you are also opposed to the government’s proposed rulemaking change overturning the Flores Settlement, please consider making a comment by accessing this link by Nov. 6th.

Thanks for your support of undocumented immigrant children and families!

Erica Serlin and Howard Rosen, Co-Chairs UON Immigrant Action Team

Temple Beth El’s Immigrant Action Team: Where We’ve Been and Where We Are

By Erica Serlin and Howard Rosen

In 2017, the URJ’s Religious Action Center (RAC) launched the Urgency of Now (UON) initiative to support the sacred work of tikkun olam in three areas: criminal justice, transgender rights, and immigrant justice. Temple Beth El has agreed to support all three initiatives and is doing so via the creation of three separate committees. The UON Immigrant Action Team  is committed to working toward comprehensive reform of our immigration system, needed now more than ever.

Even though the policy of separating families at the border has officially ended, several hundred children remain separated from their parents. Some parents who have already been deported have been impossible to find to reunite with their children. In other cases, officials have been unable to locate the children. Some parents left the U.S. under the impression it would expedite reunification, but that is not the case.

In addition, in September ICE arrested 88 undocumented immigrants throughout Wisconsin, including 20 in Dane County. The trust of local law enforcement officials was eroded because that action broke a previous agreement to provide notice in advance of the time, location, and date of planned arrests as well as information regarding the charges. ICE claimed that 44 of those arrested had serious criminal convictions, but without providing evidence, a frightening and false narrative about our immigrant neighbors was raised. Also, once again, parents were separated from their children in the process.

As co-chairs of the UON Immigrant Action Team, we seek to provide TBE members access to resources and opportunities in support of immigrant rights. In addition, we facilitate coordination with community organizations working to assist and advocate for undocumented immigrants.

We held several educational meetings at TBE, with presentations by our own Rabbi Bonnie Margulis along with speakers from the Dane Sanctuary Coalition (DSC), Voces de La Frontera, the ACLU, and a local immigration attorney to inform our Temple community about the tremendous challenges facing undocumented immigrants and advocacy efforts at the local, state, and national level.

In February 2018 the TBE Board voted unanimously to join the DSC as a supporting congregation. In May of 2018, we held a planning meeting to hear about a wide range of volunteer opportunities with the DSC. In addition, we have attended regular meetings of the DSC Community Resources Team and assisted in the development of a multi-congregation volunteer data base.

We created a listserv to be able to quickly inform Temple members of events and opportunities to help support immigrant rights. Along with other TBE congregants, we have attended rallies and press conferences supporting undocumented immigrants, proudly carrying our Jews for Justice banner!

In addition, Erica has spoken publicly about the traumatic impact of family separation and detention and written a letter to the editor, published in the Capital Times and Wisconsin State Journal, on behalf of TBE supporting two law-abiding Wisconsin undocumented immigrants facing possible deportation.

Read the Letter to the Editor.

Read Erica’s speech here.

Erica also attended an excellent advocacy training on refugee rights jointly sponsored by HIAS and JSS and learned about the commonalities between refugees seeking resettlement and undocumented immigrants seeking asylum at the border.

In our next article, we will outline the next potential directions and actions to take as a congregation, and we are looking for input from you, as we learn more about interest and priorities from TBE members.

An important event is coming up at the Community Immigrant Legal Clinic. Don’t miss screening the documentary, Inside the Trauma of Family Separation and Q & A with Attorney Jodi Goodwin Tuesday. December 4, 7:00-9:00 pm.

Please feel free to contact either of us with questions, comments, or other ideas. We welcome your feedback.

Click here for an Immigrant Rights Resource Guide

Erica Serlin ( ) & Howard Rosen (

Co-Chairs UON Immigrant Rights Team


Kesher Israel Committee Social Justice Update: Two Actions to Take Today!

Joanna Berke

The Kesher Israel Committee of TBE has drafted a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu and the ministers of the Knesset (the legislative branch of the Israeli government). Summarized, the letter reminds them that an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel (Western Wall) was promised to all Jews in 2017, and that work on the prayer space has not yet begun. The letter requests that work commence now.

We are collecting signatures with the intention of sending the letter to the prime minister and the ministers. At last count we have 222 signatures.

For another meaningful project, we are collecting Halloween costumes to be worn during Purim by underprivileged children in one of our sister congregations in Israel, Kehilat Shir Chadash. We’re looking for folks traveling to Israel sometime between December 16 and March 1st who might deliver the costumes to the Rabbi of Kehilat Shir Chadash. Temple will cover the cost of the additional luggage. If you are traveling at that time, or know of others who might be, please contact Nicole A. Jahr, RJE, Director of Lifelong Learning at To donate costumes, please place them in the rabbi's tzedakah bin located in the foyer.

The Kesher Israel Committee is always welcoming new committee members, and we are in search of a co-chair as well. Kesher means “connection”, and that is our priority. We engage in projects similar to the ones described above, we bring in speakers from/about Israel, show Israeli films monthly, and attempt to keep congregants abreast of the latest news from the region.

If you are interested in our efforts and would like to be involved, please contact Joanna Berke at, or 608-298-7493.

This is Home - Screening and Discussion

Sherie Sondel

Settlement of refugees has become an urgent project for Jewish Social Services and for local synagogues including Temple Beth El, Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, and Beth Israel Center. Passionate volunteers have worked many long hours, donating and collecting necessities, setting up apartments, and assisting families in adjusting to new lives here--families from Afghanistan, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Pakistan, Rwanda, and Syria.

Along with this activism, we need to try to better understand the experiences of people forced from their homes and newly arrived in our community.

To that end, Jewish Congregations for Social Justice and Jewish Social Services, in collaboration with additional sponsors, will co-host a free public showing of This Is Home, winner of the Sundance 2018 Audience Award: World Cinema Documentary. The film captures the experience of four families, refugees from Syria, as they struggle to adjust to new lives in Baltimore. The screening will take place on Sunday, December 2, 1:30 pm, at the Fitchburg Library, 5530 Lacy Road. After the 90-minute film, participants can join local experts in a discussion of current U.S. refugee policy and local refugee experiences. For more information, contact JSS at

Thanks for Participating in the High Holy Day Food Drive

Sherie Sondel

A big thank you to our congregants who donated a total of $9,176 to the Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin in this year's High Holy Day Food Drive. Second Harvest is a hunger-relief charity organization whose goal is to make sure everyone in southwestern Wisconsin has enough of the right kinds of food to live a happy and healthy life. Second Harvest distributes millions of pounds of food each year through their network of partner agencies and programs. Each dollar donated provides three meals, which means that this year our congregation provided 27,528 meals to fellow citizens in need.

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

February 18, 2019 13 Adar I 5779