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At the Kotel with Women of the Wall: A Firsthand Account

Jane Taves

Photo by Hila Shiloni

It was pre-dawn in Jerusalem on Friday, March 8.

I was in Israel with a small group of leaders from Women of Reform Judaism. We had timed our trip to participate in the Women of the Wall (WOW) 30th anniversary celebration. And now we were on our way to the WOW monthly Rosh Chodesh service at the Kotel—the Western Wall.

We had been warned that this would not be a typical Rosh Chodesh service. Knowing that the 30th anniversary would bring women from around the country and around the world, the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) leadership had mounted a campaign to undermine and ultimately disrupt this celebration. We knew that Haredi students were being transported to the Kotel, to arrive ahead of our 7:00 am service, to fill the women’s section and prevent us from praying.

But nothing could have prepared us for the reality.

That early morning, four of us arrived together at the Kotel and found the women’s section packed with Haredi high school girls. As we approached, a WOW supporter on the periphery told us there was no room—it was impossible to reach the service in the middle of the crowd. But we joined hands, made a human chain, and began pushing through the crowd. Haredi girls blocked our way, tried to pull us apart, and did all they could to prevent us from joining our group.

It was one of most frightening short walks I have ever made.

We reached the service location, but it became immediately clear that there would be no joyful praying that morning. I never even took my WOW siddur from my backpack.

Our women had formed a circle around our prayer leaders to try to protect them from hands reaching for their tallitot, their kippot, and their siddurim. The Haredi girls around us were shoving, kicking, shouting. It seemed very possible that someone would be pushed to the ground and trampled.

During all of this, the police were absent.

As we had approached the Torah service, we learned that it was too dangerous to bring out the Torah that had been smuggled in for this purpose. The violence was escalating, and the WOW leaders decided that we would relocate to the rudimentary egalitarian worship space at Robinson’s Arch. As soon as this decision was made, dozens of police appeared and made a path to escort us out of the mob. At Robinson’s Arch, our heartbeats finally began to return to normal. We were able to draw the first deep breath in over an hour.

We finished our service with joy, singing, and dancing. Unbelievably.

What might be the impact of our experience? Might this level of violence finally goad the Israeli government into honoring their agreement to create an appropriate egalitarian worship space, one that is not under the jurisdiction of the ultra-Orthodox rabbinate?

Traumatic as it was, some feel that this could be a turning point in the struggle.

To be clear: the struggle is not just about the Western Wall. The struggle is about who controls marriages, divorces, conversions. It is about who is considered to be a rabbi in Israel, who is to be considered a Jew. It is about being able to live an authentic, non-Orthodox life in the Holy Land, something we take for granted in North America. And someday—yes—we may be able to pray as a women’s community at the Western Wall.

Ken Y’hi ratzon.

Update from the Urgency of Now Immigrant Action Team


Along with the Words of Worth and letter-writing campaign, we hope to pursue several initiatives in the near future. Potential actions include an educational presentation for Religious School students regarding the Green Card Youth Voices: Immigrant Stories project as well as supporting our new governor’s agenda to legalize drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants and provide in-state tuition for college students who were brought to the United States illegally as children.

If you are interested in getting involved with the Urgency of Now Immigrant Action Team, please contact one of our co-chairs, Erica Serlin at, Lynn Silverman at, or Marta Karlov at

Refugee Resettlement


Our Temple Beth El community has continued to support the family from the Congo that we helped Jewish Social Services resettle in May 2018. It is inspiring to see what this amazing, hardworking, appreciative family has accomplished in less than a year, and we are honored to assist them. TBE members Linda Reivitz, Deb Giesfeldt, Nancy Brower, Suzanne Wolf, Lynn Silverman, and Erica Serlin have been tutoring the three older girls in reading, writing, and English at their school. This would not have been possible without the incredibly helpful books donated by the Field family business, Books 4 School. Cathy Rotter and Mary Fulton have been delivering household goods that the family cannot purchase with FoodShare vouchers. If you are interested in participating or helping with any of these efforts, please contact Sherie Sondel.

Prisoner Re-entry Simulation Scheduled for June 2


Have you ever wondered why so many people released from prison are unable to succeed and end up back in the criminal justice system? If so, you will want to save the afternoon of June 2 for the acclaimed “Returning Prisoner Simulation” developed by Madison Urban Ministry. This simulation offers a close-up view of what it’s like to come home from prison, inserting participants into realistic scenarios and lifelike struggles that released prisoners are likely to encounter.

This workshop begins with an introduction to the principles of restorative justice and explains the basic needs of returning prisoners. Each participant receives a mock profile that describes the life of a former prisoner and they take on the role of that character during a brief role-play. They must complete fundamental life tasks, such as finding housing and a job or simply cashing a check. This experience offers a glimpse into the sense of overwhelming frustration that a newly released prisoner may feel. The simulation concludes with a panel of formerly incarcerated people who each share their own re-entry journey and then answer questions from participants.

Please mark your calendars for this eye-opening program, and watch for more information later this spring. This program is sponsored by the Urgency of Now action team on Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System.

Sisterhood Support for Emerson School Health Office


As part of the Sisterhood Shabbat on January 25, a call went out for donation of graham crackers and juice boxes to stock the health office at Emerson School. The Emerson School nurses say that when children feel unwell and come to the nurse’s office, their discomfort is often magnified by the fact that they’re hungry.

Sisterhood responded with its usual generosity, collecting an entire carload of snacks! These supplies are enough to provide comfort for children through the end of the school year.

Support for Emerson School is part of an ongoing collaboration of the three Madison Jewish congregations, Temple Beth El, Beth Israel Center, and Congregation Shaarei Shamayim. The three congregations also provide academic support through reading and math tutors. If you are interested in helping, please contact Marcia Vandercook at

Blockstein Lecture Focused on Racism in the Criminal Justice System


At the Liesl M. Blockstein Memorial Lecture on February 10, attorney Carousel Bayrd got right to the point with her first slide: “Our criminal justice system is racist.” She then showed through examples and statistics how the criminal justice system is structured in a way that produces racially disparate results in incarceration, even when there is no difference in the rates at which crimes are committed.

Bayrd has been on the Dane County Board of Supervisors since 2006 and has worked on issues affecting the jail, the mental health system, and housing policy. Although she spoke highly of the many judges and law enforcement officers that she has worked with, she maintained that racism is baked into the assumptions underlying the criminal justice system. Because of that, the system will produce the same results regardless of how well-meaning the participants might be or how facially neutral the policies might appear.

She pointed out how criminalization of addiction, bail criteria, public defender underfunding, and revocation policies all contribute to the problem. She noted that the City of Madison, Dane County, and Wisconsin all have some of the worst disparities in the country, despite years of concern about the issue. At the same time, she gave examples of the progress that has been made in recognizing these structural impediments and the promise of new initiatives under discussion. The program ended with a lively question-and-answer session.

This year’s Blockstein lecture topic dovetails with the work being done by the Urgency of Now action team on Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System, co-chaired by Mary Fulton and Jim Mackman. If you are interested in helping to address these issues, please contact Aleeza Hoffert at for more information.

Rescheduled “Words of Worth” Will Offer Support to Detainees at the Border


The Urgency of Now Immigrant Action Team invites you to join us on Tuesday, April 3, for an engaging and inspiring evening called “Words of Worth: Letters to the Border.”

We will begin with an introduction to the crisis on our southern border by staff and volunteers from the Community Immigration Law Clinic, including staff immigration attorney Aissa Olivarez, volunteer attorney Kris Rasmussen, volunteer coordinator Leah Durst-Lee, student volunteer Karen Perez-Wilson, and Marin Smith, fundraising and development intern. They will share 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 detainees and immigrants.

The talk will be followed by the opportunity to respond in a helpful and immediate way. We will provide participants with letter-writing supplies, including sample English and Spanish letters and phrases to incorporate. Letters can be written in English, Spanish, or some combination with the help of the samples provided. The cards and letters will be sent to current detainees, immigrants awaiting court hearings, and staff and volunteers at the border. From similar programs around the country, we understand that reading these encouraging words and knowing that we care about their plight will instill hope in the recipients.

Light refreshments and letter-writing supplies will be provided. The program will run from 7:00 to 9:00 pm in the Frank Adult Lounge at Temple Beth El. If you can join us, please

RSVP here.

If you are interested in getting involved with the UON Immigrant Action Team, please contact one of our co-chairs, Erica Serlin at, Lynn Silverman at, or Marta Karlov at

Porchlight Volunteers Provide Warm Meal During Polar Vortex


January 30 was the coldest night of the polar vortex, when Madison temperatures reached −48° with windchill. Our wonderful Porchlight volunteers served a hot meal for about 100 men that night at Grace Episcopal Church.

Thanks to our grocery shopper, Staci Rieder, and our cookie bakers, Art and Jeannie Waldman and Lynn Silverman. Thanks to our cooks, Lori Edelstein, Wonah Ross, Julie Swedarsky, and Liz Whitesel. And thanks to our servers, Debbie and Scott Kennedy, Julie Swedarsky, and Josh, Sammy, and Jayden Ross. We thank all of our volunteers who braved the cold to provide this essential meal!

Our next Porchlight meal will be Wednesday, May 29. Sign up here. If you have questions, please call Pam Robbins at 608-334-1883 or email

Social Action Shabbat Will Welcome Sagashus Levingston, Author of "Infamous Mothers"


On Friday, April 12, 2019, the Social Action Committee is honored to host a special Shabbat featuring Madison author Sagashus Levingston, author of the book Infamous Mothers. In the program, she will share stories of marginalized mothers, reflecting the humanity and value of women who have overcome incredible challenges, “women who’ve gone through the belly of hell and brought something good back.” Join us as we learn more these mothers and the context around their narratives, with the goal of building community and new alliances.

This program is part of TBE’s yearlong collective focus on principles of derech eretz, where we consider the way we conduct ourselves in this world and the need for mutual respect with other people. This Shabbat program focuses on the humanity of people often marginalized by our society and highlights the strength and dignity they bring to raising their children.

The evening will begin with a 6:00 pm service including the Temple Beth El choir. At 7:00 pm there will be a delicious dinner catered by Banzo, followed by the program and Oneg Shabbat at 7:40 pm. You are welcome to join us for any part of the evening.

Please RSVP by April 3.

A Wealth of Opportunities for Lifelong Learners

Carole Kantor, TBE Adult Education Committee Chair

TBE’s Adult Education Committee meetings overflow with ideas – some suggested by groups outside our congregation and some suggested by our own members. The committee, in addition to its role in planning the Swarsensky Weekend, discusses all these ideas and often we are excited at the possibilities for new events. But we take action only when we see something that is both feasible and of interest to enough people in our congregation to make it worthwhile as a TBE program. That leaves many learning opportunities for us to participate in as individuals, not as TBE members. We would like to share information about the outstanding educational resources that we learn about with you. Below is a list that we will update as we hear of new resources.

LECTURE: “Israel through a Colored Lens: African-American Perspectives on Mizrahi Israelis by Dr. Bryan Roby.Tuesday, March 5, 2019 (4:00 pm), Pyle Center, AT&T Lounge, UW Madison.

LECTURE: “The Jews of Shanghai” by Susan Stamberg. Thursday, April 11, 2019 (4:00 pm), Pyle Center, Room 325/326, UW Madison.

GREENFIELD SUMMER INSTITUTE: “Business, Labor, and Social Justice: Jewish Perspective, Jewish Traditions” July 14-18, 2019, UW Madison.

LEVY LECTURE SERIES: Six summer lunchtime programs with outstanding speakers on topics of Jewish interest.  2019 dates and speakers to be announced. Nakoma Country Club

ONLINE COURSE: Daniel Matt is a teacher of Jewish spirituality and one of the world’s leading authorities on Kabbalah and the Zohar. He is offering an online course on the Zohar for people seeking an in-depth exploration of this classic work of Jewish mysticism. There is no requirement for fluency in Hebrew or Aramaic or any extensive background in Jewish sources.

ONLINE VIDEO LIBRARY: From a literary panel about Philip Roth’s writing to The Song of Songs in Concert to Jews in Space the YIVO institute for Jewish research produces a wide-ranging array of programs about Jewish individuals and the Jewish people.  A video archive covering the years 2011 to the present, is available at

. . . To be updated and expanded . . .

If you have any comments about this list, please write to

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

It’s not too late to sign up for the Consultation on Conscience conference of the Religious Action Center, the social justice arm of the Reform movement. The conference will take place on May 19–21 in Washington, DC. Women of Reform Judaism will offer additional speakers and practical workshops on May 18–19. These awesome programs are designed to help inspire and empower us to become more effective and engaged community leaders.

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.

April 20, 2019 15 Nisan 5779