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

by Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

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

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

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

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

And here is the teaser for another episode:

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

Or maybe you could be enticed to watch this episode:

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s see what the data say.

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In short, our participation matters.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

L'shanah tovah!


[1] Rabbinic webinar August 29, 2019



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

by Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

But it should not have to be this way today.

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

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

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

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

But it should not have to be like this today.

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

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

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

Never forget the past.

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

Be optimistic – and cautious – about the future.

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

But it should not have to be this way today.

* * * *

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

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

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

But it should not have to be this way today.

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And those were not the only such noises.

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

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

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

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

“I breathed, and relaxed back into my seat…

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

“Too few Jews can say the same.

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

“I'm just so tired.”

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

It shouldn’t have to be this way today.

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

L’shanah tovah!


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

[2] Bari Weiss in

[3] Exodus 1:10


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

by Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

L’shanah tovah.

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

The opening of Chapter Five of Genesis reads:

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

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

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

that we include a myriad of genders;

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

My friends,

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] Genesis 5:1-2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Rabbi Jonathan Biatch

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

“Dear Amy,

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Signed, Youngest of two.”[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

“Dear Amy,

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

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

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

“Signed, still pregnant and not happy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

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

“Dear Amy,

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

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

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

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

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

“Signed, Jake who’s not so jake.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

And further:

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

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

* * * *

“Dear Amy,

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

“Thank you for your good advice!

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

L’shanah tovah!


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

[2] Avot d’Rabbi Natan, 12:3

[3] Genesis 37:14-16

Ten Ways You Can Help Fight Climate Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a synopsis of the play:

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

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

Educational Programs in Our Community

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

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

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

Volunteer opportunities

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

Catholic Multicultural Center  dinner Sign up 

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

Emerson tutors for reading and math

Dane Sanctuary Coalition volunteer driver project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serving Meals at the Catholic Multicultural Center

by Sue Levy

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

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

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

Who: 6-8 volunteers each day of service

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

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

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

Urgency of Now Update

by Marcia Vandercook


The TBE Board has agreed that going forward, leadership of the Urgency of Now immigration and racial justice action teams will be provided by the Social Action Committee.

The Urgency of Now initiative grew out of TBE’s participation in the 2017 URJ Consultation on Conscience, which seven of our members attended. At the Consultation on Conscience, the URJ urged congregations to pursue tikkun olam through greater involvement in public policy issues, as long as their positions are grounded in Jewish values and the efforts are nonpartisan. In 2017 the TBE board unanimously agreed to participate and formed action teams to focus on three priority areas: immigration, racial justice, and the rights of transgender or gender non-conforming individuals, with a coordinating committee to oversee activities.

At TBE, the initiative has seen a number of successes:

The immigration action team works closely with local partners and sponsors educational programs and service projects. TBE has joined the Dane Sanctuary Coalition and monitors both local and national developments.

The racial justice action team focuses on how racial disparities affect the criminal justice system. It has presented a series of educational discussions and offered a simulation into the challenges experienced by people returning home from prison. This year’s Social Action Shabbat will focus on racial justice.

The transgender action team has focused on in-house efforts to make TBE a more welcoming and inclusive place. It has worked on relabeling the restrooms, changing registration forms, hosting Pride Shabbats, providing education for congregants and staff, and working with the youth groups.

Finding separate leadership for all these efforts is an ongoing challenge. It has also been hard to distinguish between the work of the Social Action Committee and the Urgency of Now action teams due to significant overlap in active members.

Going forward, the Social Action Committee will provide oversight for the immigration and racial justice action teams, without continuing to identify them as Urgency of Now issues. We plan to update the TBE policy for when and how to seek board approval before taking a new public policy position. Efforts to address transgender and LGBTQ issues will continue separately.

At the 2019 Consultation on Conscience, the URJ identified five priority areas where it offers strong support for congregations: immigration, racial justice, environment, gun violence prevention, and reproductive justice. Additional support will be provided in 2020 for civic engagement and voting.

The Social Action Committee plans to be active on immigration, racial justice, and civic engagement, and we welcome all members to join us as we carry on this important work.

Healing House Opens and TBE Provides Meals

TBE volunteers provided a week of evening meals for families at the Healing House, a medical respite facility for families experiencing homelessness. Cathy Rotter called into action many of the same volunteers who made our shelter program for The Road Home such a success. During this rotation, we helped provide meals for the families of three new babies!

Pride Weekend: A Colorful Celebration

In August, the Madison community celebrated its ongoing commitment to equity and quality of life for all LGBTQ+ people.

On Friday, August 16, TBE started the weekend with our annual Pride Shabbat. The Weinstein Community Court and the sanctuary were decorated with rainbow colors, and there were family-friendly activities, pronoun stickers, informational handouts, and lots of rainbow-colored food.

Sue Center attended the Shabbat services and was impressed by the warm and welcoming atmosphere. “The service was beautiful, reaffirming, spiritual and relevant to the theme. As always, Rabbi Biatch was outstanding in his remarks and special readings throughout, and Cantor Niemi did a great job with the musical interludes. It was a wonderful and very special Shabbat.”

Paul Grossberg said, “For me, the most moving moment was when everyone sang ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow.’ Listening to it as a song about inclusion was spiritual and meaningful. I told some East Coast friends about the rainbow-colored challah and they were impressed—it’s something we have that they don’t!”

On Sunday, August 18, the broader Madison community celebrated Pride Week with the OutReach Magic Festival at Warner Park. The festival recognized the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising and the 30th anniversary of Madison’s first Pride parade. There were activities for all ages, entertainment, food and merchant vendors, and information booths representing a huge array of organizations. Jewish Congregations for Social Justice sponsored a booth together and received praise from passers-by for doing so.

According to Erica Serlin, “The vibe was incredibly welcoming, friendly, and inclusive…with some fabulous costumes and talented performers on display! It was especially enjoyable to mingle with representatives of the other Jewish congregations, and we were pleased to have representatives of the U.S. Armed Forces from California stop by to chat and check out our materials.”

If you’re interested in reading more, check out “Seven Values for an Inclusive Jewish Community” and “Pronouns: Our Communal Responsibility.”

High Holy Day Food Drive

On Rosh Hashanah every year, our congregation remembers those in our community who do not have enough to eat. We will distribute donation envelopes after all services on Rosh Hashanah and collect them filled with your generous donations (make checks payable to Temple Beth El) on Yom Kippur, or they can be returned to the Temple office. During the holiday season, through Sukkot, you can also donate online at

Read more about our High Holy Day Food Drive and hunger-relief initiatives at

Becoming Better Allies: Our Role in the Fight for Racial Justice  

On November 22, the Social Action Committee will host a Shabbat service focused on the struggle for racial justice and what we can do to support real progress. We will reaffirm why racial justice is important to us as Jews and learn about meaningful actions we can take in our own community.

Please join us for any or all of the evening:
6:30 Dinner from Banzo.
7:30 Shabbat service
Oneg Shabbat to follow, including items from Just Bakery

Information about volunteer opportunities will be available before and after the service.

Your Voice Matters: World Zionist Congress Election in 2020

by Jane Taves

We are entering election season! No, not (quite yet) the US presidential election. Another important election happens in early 2020: the election for delegates to the World Zionist Congress (WZC) of the World Zionist Organization (WZO).


This election takes place every five years. You may remember seeing laptops set up in our Weinstein Community Court in 2015 and being asked to vote for the ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists of America) slate. But you may not have understood exactly what you were voting for or why this election is so important to Reform Jews in North America.


Here’s why it matters: The World Zionist Organization was established in 1897 by the Zionist movement to help bring about the founding of a Jewish state. When the state was founded in 1948, this organization continued for a new purpose: More than 50 percent of all Jews still lived outside of the state of Israel, and it gave Diaspora Jews a political voice in the state.


Today, the WZO is still a place where our voices can have direct influence and power in Israel. If you are feeling frustrated with the policies of the Israeli administration, this election is the only way that North American Jews can weigh in democratically about these issues. Don’t miss your opportunity to do that!


Why do the World Zionist Congress elections matter for our Reform movement and for us at Temple Beth El?

  • Funding: Based on the elections of 2015, the Reform movement in Israel now receives over $4 million US dollars annually from the WZO. These funds are critical to support our Reform Jewish communities.
  • Political power: A strong delegation to the WZO means we can appoint key professionals who share our Reform Jewish values to leadership positions within the national institutions in Israel.
  • Influence: A strong showing in this election lets us influence Israeli society in matters of conversion, marriage and divorce, religious pluralism, gender rights, settlements, and combating racism.


How do these elections accomplish this?

  • The United States has a total of 145 delegates to the WZO. This is by far the largest number of delegates from any country outside of Israel, so we can greatly influence the overall makeup of the Congress. Your vote determines how many of those 145 delegates represent the Reform movement.
  • Today the Reform movement worldwide holds 36 percent of the seats in the WZO. This strong bloc has allowed us to have influence in critical Israeli issues. As an example, the head of the Jewish Agency, Isaac Herzog, is from this faction. But this bloc is not large enough to impact decisions as strongly as we would like. We must increase this number in the next election.


A Personal Note


In 2015, Kendra Sager and I had the privilege of attending the last World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem. We saw the passion of Reform Jews from around the world to keep Israel both a Jewish and a democratic state, one that reflects our values of inclusiveness and pluralism and acknowledges more than one way to be Jewish in Israel.


We also saw the passion of those who would like to marginalize Reform Judaism in Israel, who embrace the ultra-Orthodox hold on matters involving worship, conversion, marriage, who is considered a rabbi, and who is considered a Jew.


For the North American Reform Jewish community, this election is by far the most important tool for weighing in on matters of funding, political power, and influence in Israel.


What You Can Do


  • Make a promise to yourself that you will vote for the ARZA Reform slate when the elections open on January 21, 2020.
  • Share this message with your family and friends and encourage them to vote. Every Jew who is at least 18 years old is qualified to vote. You do not need to be a member of a congregation.

The Temple Beth El campaign team, headed by Kendra Sager, will let you know about opportunities between now and January 21 to learn more about the impact of this election and how you can help. Please connect with us if you have questions and ideas about this campaign and how to engage our congregation.


Please join us to spread the word about the WZC election and make Reform Jewish voices heard in Israel.  


How Do We Measure a Year? Reflections on S’lichot

by Cantor Jacob Niemi

“How do we measure a year?” This question posed by Jonathan Larson in his signature musical Rent seeps into our consciousness, as we find ourselves in a transition between seasons, summer fading away into autumn. And for Jews, preparing for the upcoming Days of Awe, the question looms even more prominently.

In anticipation of the Jewish New Year, we will observe the service of S’lichot at Temple Beth El on Saturday, September 21, at 6:30 p.m. Our service will include stories from sacred texts, as well as inspirational liturgy, all intended to help direct our focus to the tasks of penitence and the spiritual work of the Days of Awe. We will also ceremonially change the covers on our Torah scrolls from the multicolor covers that they wear throughout the year to their white High Holy Day vestments.

In preparation for this powerful ritual, I offer some reflections on S’lichot, including two narratives from the Torah that illuminate its significance.

As we’re called upon to measure our days, to look inward, and to consider our relationships with one another and with the divine, it can be beneficial to have ways to mark time and to orient ourselves. Fortunately, our calendar is full of rituals and liturgy that function like signposts, helping to give us a sense of where we are in the year and guiding us through journeys of emotional and spiritual growth.

Some of these signposts are subtle, a change of words in a particular prayer in the liturgy, or a special Torah portion whose selection for that time of year may or may not immediately resonate with us. Others are intentionally jarring, stirring us out of complacency, preparing us for the spiritual work that the upcoming cycle will demand of us (perhaps the best example of this is the sounding of the shofar).

In this time leading up to the Days of Awe, all these signs, whether subtle or striking, become explicit and tangible in the observance of S’lichot. The shofar is sounded once more, the Torah vestments are changed to white, and the liturgy introduces themes that will recur throughout the holiday season, even containing text that will return on Yom Kippur.

But what are these themes? What exactly is the message that the composers of the S’lichot liturgy hoped would carry throughout the days that follow?

To answer this, at least in part, we can start by looking at two biblical narratives that form a theological bedrock for the S’lichot and High Holy Day liturgy, each recounting an instance in which the Israelites sinned against God, faced punishment, repented, and were ultimately forgiven. The first of these is perhaps among the most famous sins in the Torah, the sin of the golden calf.

Many are familiar with the first part of this story. Frustrated with the amount of time that Moses had spent up on Mount Sinai, supposedly receiving the commandments from God, the Israelites began to worry that Moses might not ever return. They insisted that Aaron, Moses’s brother, make them a new god. And so, they gathered up all their gold, melted it down, and fashioned it into the form of a calf, which they then began to worship.

But rather than focus on the punishment they received for this sin, I want to direct our attention to what happened after they repented, and after Moses interceded on their behalf. Moses pleaded to be able to behold God’s presence. But, according to God, one cannot see God’s face and live. So, God instructed Moses to stand in the cleft of a rock, where God would pass before him, so that Moses could see God’s back:

The Eternal came down in a cloud; He stood with him there, and proclaimed the name Eternal. The Eternal passed before him and proclaimed: “The Eternal! The Eternal! A God gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness and faithfulness, extending lovingkindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34:5-7; source pronouns retained intentionally)


One might notice ambiguity in the pronouns in this passage. Who is standing with whom? Before whom is the Eternal passing? The rabbinic sages of the Talmud noted this ambiguity and offered the following interpretation:

The verse states: “The Eternal passed before him and proclaimed” (Exodus 34:6). Rabbi Yochanan said: Were it not written in the verse, it would be impossible to say this. The verse teaches that the Holy One, Blessed be He, wrapped Himself (lit. “passed before himself”) like a prayer leader (i.e. with a prayer shawl) and showed Moses an order of prayer. He said to him: Whenever the Jewish people sin, let them act before Me in accordance with this order, and I will forgive them. (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 17b)


This “order of prayer” that Rabbi Yochanan mentions is what has become our liturgy of S’lichot, a liturgy that is built around those very attributes that God proclaimed. Our sages have come to refer to these as the Thirteen Attributes of God’s Mercy: “(1) The Eternal! (2) The Eternal! (3) A God (4) gracious (5) and compassionate, (6) slow to anger, (7) abounding in lovingkindness (8) and [abounding in] faithfulness (9) extending lovingkindness to the thousandth generation (10) forgiving iniquity, (11) [forgiving] transgression, (12) and [forgiving] sin,” and (13) remitting punishment (note that this last attribute changes the biblical text, which is an interesting conversation for another time).

Another name for the service of S’lichot is actually Seder B’rit Sh’losh Esrei, “The Order of the Covenant of Thirteen.” And this is the covenant, as laid out in that Talmudic text, that whenever we sin, whenever we miss the mark with our actions, or with the ways in which we relate to one another and to God, we can recall these attributes of compassion and mercy.

We can remind ourselves that God is gracious and compassionate, and that we are all called upon to strive to be gracious and compassionate as well. And knowing this, we can remind ourselves that the work of sincere repentance is both worthy and worthwhile.

The second passage that informs the theology of S’lichot comes from the book of Numbers. It recounts what is sometimes referred to as “the sin of the twelve spies.” Without going into detail (join us in our S’lichot worship at Temple Beth El to hear the full story), the most outstanding moment occurs when Moses shows a bit of chutzpah, reminding God of the attributes God had previously proclaimed. God then responds by saying, “I forgive, as you have said” (Numbers 14:20).

As we enter this season of the Days of Awe, let us do so with gracious chutzpah, with an expectation of lovingkindness from God to us, from one another, and from ourselves.

Elementary School Tutors Needed 

“Mentoring is so much fun—I look forward to it each week.”
“Math mentoring is my best volunteer experience ever!”
“Emerson School is full of positive energy from the kids.”

If you can spare an hour each week during the school day, you can make a positive difference in a child’s education.

Seven years ago, Jewish Congregations for Social Justice “adopted” Emerson School on Madison’s east side, and we have been supporting their academics and family programming ever since.

We would love to have you join us for the 2019–20 school year. We are currently recruiting for adults who want to work with elementary-age children on reading and math skills:

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

For both kinds of mentors, the teachers will provide instructions and materials, and the school will provide training.

Pairing will begin in October. You need to be able to commit to an hour each week, usually at the same day and time, at the school (2421 E. Johnson St.). You suggest some available times, and the school will try to find a match that will work for you.

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

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

80th anniversary

Our 80th anniversary is being celebrated philanthropically and by coming together as a community. We are proud to say that 100 percent of our executive team and active board members have committed their financial support with 80th anniversary celebration sponsorships totaling more than $10,000, which surpasses the Torah Level of giving. You can learn more about the benefits of sponsorship and make your commitment at

Please join us for these fun, community-building events:

Trivia Night and Havdalah, Saturday, October 26, 2019, 6:00–9:00 pm (RSVP at

Temple Beth El Haggadah Debut and Art Show, Saturday, March 7, 2020, 7:00–9:00 pm

Taste of Wisconsin, Saturday, June 27, 2020, 7:00–10:00 pm

Your Donations: Honor, Remember, Sustain 

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

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

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

Thank you for upholding our values through your kind contributions.

Fundraising Matters

Cultivating a culture of philanthropy at TBE represents a way to reach two critical goals: to create new avenues of revenue needed for our annual operating budget, and to build long-term revenue solutions that will sustain TBE for the future.

We have seen a decrease in the revenue from membership contributions as the primary source of income for sustaining the annual operating budget. Over recent years, two capital campaigns and endowments have been created and used to supplement the budget. Revenue from milestone events (such as the rabbi’s “bar mitzvah” celebration, the celebration for Marj Tobias, and the upcoming 80th anniversary events) also help bridge the gap between revenue and expenditures.

The Dorot Society, established in the past year, is a planned-giving initiative, honoring individuals who want to guarantee that TBE continues to provide its programs and services for many years to come. By establishing a legacy through a retirement plan, life insurance policy, bequest, planned gift, or other means, these individuals help to ensure the continuity of Jewish life in Madison into the future.

Fundraising takes many shapes, and there are many points of entry for Temple members. Please contact Stefanie Kushner, executive director, to learn about the options that best fit your situation and interests.

Why the Giving Spotlight?

Welcome to the first edition of the Giving Spotlight, dedicated to philanthropy at Temple Beth El. As we approach the beginning of 5780 and the start of Temple Beth El’s 80th anniversary year, this newsletter offers a wonderful opportunity to share information about the financial health of TBE and our plans for remaining strong and vibrant for generations to come.

You are a vital partner in sustaining the foundation that we build upon to make our Temple a cherished place. The Development Committee is eager to educate Temple members about topics such as our operating expenses, the cost of educating our students, and the revenue that offsets the expenses of staffing and running TBE. We hope that this information will allow you to better understand the many budget decisions we make with great care. This knowledge will strengthen our partnership, leading to a healthy financial position for years to come.

But beyond the nuts and bolts, this newsletter will offer stories about all of you: the TBE members who are the reason we do our work, the experiences and talents that make us a rich and vibrant congregation, and the ways we touch the lives of others. There are countless ways to have an impact as we find and share meaning as part of the TBE community. Being certain that we can continue to tell these stories is at the heart of our philanthropic goals.

Thank you for reading this inaugural edition. Please share your thoughts or ideas with executive director Stefanie Kushner.

Adult Biblical Hebrew Class Now Forming

Did you know that biblical Hebrew (also known as classical Hebrew) and modern spoken Hebrew are not the same?

Biblical Hebrew is an ancient language that emerged in the 10th century BCE. It was used by the Hebrews to communicate and to record the history, religion, poetry, philosophy, and culture. The language evolved beyond recognition during the Roman period but lived on in religious contexts.

Why take a Biblical Hebrew class? You might be motivated by any of the following reasons:

  • To understand the original language of the Jewish people
  • To be able to read and understand the Torah
  • To read the prayers in our siddur (prayer book) in their original language
  • To begin the journey toward becoming b'nai mitzvah, even as an adult


An adult Beginning Biblical Hebrew class is now forming. All beginning levels are welcome! To learn more or express interest, contact Linda Reivitz at or Nicole A. Jahr, RJE, director of lifelong learning, at

Volunteer Opportunities

  • Porchlight Men’s Shelter needs cooks, bakers, and servers October 30: Our next Porchlight meal is Wednesday, October 30. We need shoppers, cooks, cookie bakers, kitchen minders, delivery people, and servers. This is a fun way to get to know your fellow volunteers! Sign up here.
  • Help with the social justice bulletin board: Any time, at your convenience: Scrapbookers wanted! Are you good with design and decoration? Able to post the occasional poster or photo? The Social Action Committee bulletin board by the office is sadly neglected and needs some love. Contact Marcia Vandercook at—you will be surprised at the level of heartfelt appreciation you receive!
  • Dane Sanctuary Coalition needs drivers to take immigrants to ICE appointments and court hearings: The Dane Sanctuary Coalition provides volunteer drivers to transport immigrants to important events like court hearings in Chicago and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services appointments in Milwaukee. The project gives volunteers a hands-on opportunity to get involved in immigration work as they provide a needed service. This is a very practical, immediate thing that people can do to help. According to Rabbi Bonnie Margulis of Wisconsin Faith Voices for Justice, “our drivers don’t just drop people off. They provide community support and friendship so the person in need does not feel so alone.” Training is provided, and volunteers can request reimbursement for gas, tolls, and parking. For more information, see here. If you are interested in providing this important service, please contact Rabbi Margulis at
  • Emerson Elementary School needs reading and math tutors for the school year: If you can spare an hour each week during the school year, you can make a positive difference in a child’s education. We have two kinds of volunteer opportunities during the school day and another type of activity in the early evening. All activities occur at the school on East Johnson Street.
    • Reading and math mentors: We’re looking for adults who want to work with elementary-age children on reading and math skills. You don’t have to be a math whiz—many kids need support with very basic math facts and strategies. The teachers will provide instructions and materials each day, and the school will provide training.
    • Family programs: We also help with special events at the school on two Tuesday evenings during the year. We help with pumpkin carving on harvest night (October 29) and serving food for the international dinner in May. These events are fun and a great opportunity for teenagers looking for volunteer hours.

If you are interested, please contact Marcia Vandercook at

Climate Action Is a Jewish Issue

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

In 2017, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) issued a resolution on the need for all congregations and institutions to take action to protect our environment from the emerging threat of climate change through local actions and advocacy. The URJ resolved to:

Encourage congregations to advocate that all levels of government uphold or go beyond the commitments of the Paris Climate Agreement;

Encourage congregations to prepare themselves and their neighbors for the adverse impacts of climate change and to work with local organizations to provide relief to those affected by these events.

Continue to advocate for legislative, regulatory, and judicial action to protect all communities from the damaging impacts of climate change;

Continue to advocate for the Canadian and U.S. governments to uphold our international responsibilities to decrease the human impacts of climate change; and

Encourage congregations to work with interfaith and other partners within their communities to advocate for and work to implement climate change solutions.

Responding to climate change is an urgent moral and spiritual issue, and it has never been more critical to make the faith community’s voice heard. For more information on the URJ’s position and what you can do to help put our world on the path to a sustainable future, see here.

Upcoming Educational Sessions on Racial Justice and Imprisonment

Do you have questions or concerns about racial disparities in the criminal justice system and how they play out in our courts and prisons? This fall is a great time for you to learn more!

Several upcoming programs will be of special interest to those who have participated in our forums on racial disparities in the criminal justice system, our Urgency of Now action team, and the court observer program, but all are welcome to attend.

These events are being offered at Fountain of Life Church on Madison’s south side. Fountain of Life and the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership are community leaders on this topic, and many TBE members have taken advantage of their illuminating programs.

Lessons from the Court Observer Program So Far
Tuesday, September 17, 6:30–8:00 pm at Fountain of Life, 633 W. Badger Rd.
Leaders will present and discuss aggregate information from the almost 350 submitted observations in the court observer program. What have we learned? Where do we go from here? Please respond to if you plan to attend.

Race, Politics, and Punitiveness: Trends in the Racial Patterns of Mass Incarceration
Sunday, September 29, 2:00–3:00 pm, Pyle Center Auditorium, UW Campus
This is a free lecture by Pam Oliver, UW professor emeritus of sociology and a well-known researcher in this area. No registration needed.

Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System
Tuesdays, October 8, 15, and 22, 6:000–8:00 pm at Fountain of Life, 633 W. Badger Rd.
These three 2-hour workshops, led by Dr. Karen Reece of the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership, are designed to educate the general public on mass incarceration and the criminal justice system in general.

With over 2 million prisoners, the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. The U.S. prison population has quintupled since 1980. Although African Americans are about 12 percent of the U.S. population, they make up approximately 40 percent of the prison population. Wisconsin is widely known for incarcerating more African Americans per capita than any other state.

Still, maybe you ask yourself: Is this something I should worry about? These people did the crime, they are doing the time—what's the problem? How does this affect my community? Join us for one or all of these sessions as we address these questions.

  • Mass Incarceration Defined: What's the Problem? We will provide an overview of incarceration in the United States and what it means for our communities.
  • The Prison System: Purpose & Programming. We will describe the Wisconsin prison system, its purpose, and what an inmate might experience.
  • Community Corrections: Life after Prison. We will explain the ins and outs of Wisconsin's community corrections system, which encompasses probation, parole, and extended supervision.

Podcast on the Court Observer Program
If podcasts are more your style, you’ll be interested in the Reverend Alex Gee’s interviews with three members of the court observer program’s steering committee. Listen to this recent episode of his podcast Black Like Me at


Jews Should Support Our Local NAACP

Rabbi Bonnie Margulis

During rabbinic school, I was privileged to be a legislative assistant at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) in Washington, DC. At our orientation, we were given a tour of the RAC building. The highlight of the tour was the RAC conference room, where we were told that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted at that very conference room table, as the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights was a tenant of the RAC building.

As it turned out, practically every person who walked into the RAC was given this same information. It became something of a joke among us legislative assistants, as we started repeating this information in chorus every time one of us had to give the tour. But as much as we joked, we were all very proud to know of our movement’s part in the struggle for civil rights.

Jews and African Americans have a long history of shared struggles for equality and an end to racism and antisemitism. The NAACP's first two presidents, Joel and Arthur Spingarn, were Jewish. Jewish philanthropist Julius  Rosenwald helped found over 2000 schools and 20 colleges for black students. At their height, more than 40 percent of black students in the South were educated at “Rosenwald” schools. The Urban League also had Jews among its founders.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua  Heschel marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., famously saying he felt he was “praying with his feet.” Perhaps less well-known is Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who helped organize the 1963 March on Washington and gave the last speech just before Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream’ speech.

The summer I worked at the RAC, in 1989, marked the 25th anniversary of the murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman—an African American young man and two young Jewish men. One of my fellow legislative assistants worked on an event to commemorate their sacrifice for civil rights. I’m ashamed to say I had not heard of them before, but I learned that Jews were disproportionately represented among the young people who went to the South during the Freedom Summer of 1964, making up about half the volunteers.

Today the fight against systemic racism continues, and Jews continue to be on the forefront as allies of people of color, as well as women, people with disabilities, and the LGBTQ+ communities. We recognize that Dr. King’s words, written so long ago, are still so true today: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Maintaining the connection between the Jewish and African American communities is a goal we need to pursue, especially in these days when national figures and “leaders” use racist language to divide us.

Accordingly, I would like to extend an invitation to each of you, as Jews who care about justice and equality for all, to show your support for Dane County’s communities of color by joining the Dane County NAACP ( and attending the annual NAACP Freedom Fund Dinner on Saturday, September 28—one day before erev Rosh Hashanah. What better way to enter the Days of Repentance than by committing yourself to work for racial justice and equality?

As a member of the Dane County NAACP Executive Committee, I look forward to welcoming you to our branch and seeing you at the Freedom Fund Dinner!

Working with an Undocumented Family

Bobbie Malone

Marta and Glenn Karlov moved to Madison from Appleton, where they had lived for 12 years and raised a family. As a relatively new member of TBE, Marta spoke with Betsy Abramson about the immigrant action team the congregation had recently formed.

Marta thought it would be a perfect match for her experience. She is an immigrant herself, having come to the United States from Colombia, where, in 1984, she met and married her American husband, Glenn. At the time, it was much easier to immigrate, and she received a green card the day her plane landed. She had no difficulty in becoming a citizen, a process that took her no more than six months.

While Marta understood that many immigrants in this country had stories that were not as straightforward and fortunate as hers, she had not previously become an activist on their behalf. Joining the immigrant action team transformed the trajectory of her interest and passion. Knowing that people seek to be in the United States to improve their circumstances and provide for their families, she wanted to become more involved in helping others negotiate and navigate the tremendous web of obstacles facing them and their children.

More than many of us, Marta realizes what families are facing in countries in Central America. Living in Ecuador and Colombia for many years, she saw firsthand the difficulties people faced in making a living and caring for their children. Sometimes the violence and other unmanageable situations confronting them are truly horrendous.

She became co-chair of the immigrant action team with Erica Serlin and Lynn Silverman, and through them became aware of what organizations like Madison’s Community Immigration Law Center (CILC) are doing. Because of this involvement, she was asked to help Spanish speakers with intake interviews before meeting with attorneys to help them to prepare their cases for asylum.

Marta works for American Family Insurance and is unable to make daytime commitments, but she learned from a non-Spanish-speaking attorney on the board of CILC that a family from Honduras here in Madison needed her assistance. Another Boston-based organization, Together and Free, was trying to help families separated at the border, including this one, with a 15-year-old separated from her father at the border. This young woman had just been released from detention and came here to live with her uncle. Another of her father’s sisters is also here, with her four-year-old.

Marta learned that the grandfather had been killed in Honduras, and then the same gang went after the father and his daughter, because he was a policeman. ICE separated them, deporting the father and placing the daughter in detention.

The social worker in Boston wanted Marta to help this extended family deal with language barriers and other needs. Not long after Marta became involved, the father finally was released from detention after crossing the border again with his pregnant partner, and made his way here with the help of a third organization. Another 17-year-old brother was also detained and deported. The entire family is seeking asylum.

With the help of many volunteers, the father and his partner, the baby born in May, and the 15-year-old were able to get an apartment near their uncle.

Marta also learned that the family member who was deported back to Honduras was sent on a plane with feet and hands bound, traveling all day without food, water, or bathroom privileges: “three hundred people on the plane, all tied like animals.” As Marta aptly expressed the situation: “It just breaks your heart.” Where is the humanity? Where is the justice?

Marta has been helping the family in a variety of ways: making attorney visits with the sister to help her apply for asylum, bringing donations of goods that the family needs, spending time with the 15-year-old to monitor her adjustment. Although some family members have also been helped by Catholic charities, when they called upon Centro Hispano to try to get the daughter psychological help, they were not so fortunate, since the center seems to be overwhelmed with requests for help.

Still, interventions by volunteers within dedicated community organizations have helped the family get much-needed services. Members of TBE have also been very generous with necessities, gift cards, and cash donations.

As for the undocumented brave uncle of this family, whose sister was denied asylum, he has put himself at great risk by helping other family members, because of his own precarious status. Each depressing encounter, such as his brother’s deportation, only deepens his anxiety.

Yet every small act of kindness makes a difference. Marta especially enjoys the way the children light up when she visits with small gifts, such as craft supplies that give them a way to express themselves.

What can others at TBE do to help this family get established? For options to get involved, you can contact Marta, Lynn, or Erica to find how to advocate for immigration reform or to volunteer to assist if and when an undocumented individual or family requests sanctuary.

Through Fabiola Hamdan, immigration affairs specialist at the Dane County Department of Human Services, who works closely with Rabbi Bonnie Margulis, we have since learned that there are at least 12 other families seeking asylum here in Madison.

When we realize how many hoops just one family has to jump through to try to gain asylum, and we multiply that by the needs of many thousands of others, the work can feel overwhelming, but every action we take can make a difference.

Please join us in the long fight for a more just immigration policy and procedure.

Healing House is Open and Welcomes Its First Families

Cathy Rotter

The Healing House, a program of Madison-Area Urban Ministry (MUM), officially opened on July 8, 2019. Located at 303 Lathrop Street in Madison, this eight-bed facility provides 24/7 recuperative care by medically trained staff and volunteers for up to 28 days. It is the first program of its kind in Wisconsin and provides medical respite care to families who are homeless and have an immediate family member in need of ongoing medical care during recovery.

The Healing House provides clients meals, childcare assistance, and case management to end the cycle of homelessness. It is a cost-effective alternative for hospitals and the community, promoting wellness for homeless families in Dane County. Nationwide, there are 63 facilities offering medical respite, a proven model of care.

As an interfaith organization, MUM is responding to the call across faith traditions to care for the sick. In Judaism, the mitzvah of bikur cholim (Hebrew for “visiting the sick”) includes a wide range of activities that include providing comfort and support for people who are ill.

The Healing House is partnering with The Road Home for case management and volunteer assistance. Temple Beth El has partnered with both MUM and The Road Home in the past, and therefore it seemed natural for us to continue that partnership by volunteering with the Healing House. Volunteers are being asked to assist with dinner by cooking and dropping off meals or by serving and cleaning up after dinner at the house.

Two families have moved into permanent housing since the Healing House opened on July 8, a testament to the excellent case management provided by The Road Home staff. The families have been so appreciative of having a safe place to recuperate along with delicious meals to enjoy every night.

Temple Beth El volunteers will be providing meals and helping to serve the week of August 25–31 and in future weeks to be determined. If you are interested in helping out, please contact Cathy Rotter at

Pronouns: Our Communal Responsibility

Gwen Costa Jacobsohn

Have you noticed people including a line about pronouns at the bottom of their email messages and wondered to yourself, “Why on earth are they telling us that?”

Maybe you have been to a meeting where someone has included their pronouns when making introductions, or you’ve filled out a registration form that asks what pronoun you use.

You may have wondered why people feel the need to make bold announcements about something as small and simple as a pronoun.

If you have ever asked yourself these questions, it is likely that the language people use to describe you matches the gender that you perceive yourself to be (i.e., your gender identity).

Not everyone, however, has the privilege of taking pronouns for granted.

For some, including people in our own Jewish community, being referred to by the correct pronouns is a daily struggle.

It may be because the gender others believe they are, or what it says on their birth certificate, does not match who they know they are inside. It may be because we live in a society that divides people into binary male and female categories, while they see themselves as being something other than one of those mutually exclusive options.

Perhaps they are questioning what words best describe them, only knowing that “he” or “she” doesn’t quite seem right.

When we use pronouns to describe someone, we rely on a whole host of assumptions about their gender identity.

It may not be something you are conscious of, but using a pronoun that does not match a person’s authentic gender identity (whether you are talking to that person or about that person) chips away at their sense of self and communicates that you do not recognize them for who they are.

In 2015, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) passed the “Resolution on the Rights of Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming People,” which in part “affirms the right of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals to be referred to by their name, gender, and pronoun of preference in our congregations, camps, schools, and other Reform affiliated organizations.”

Jewish organizations like Keshet have worked closely with congregations, camps, and social service agencies to create programs and policies that help move us to full LGBTQ+ inclusion. The URJ, through its Audacious Hospitality initiatives, has created guidelines for congregations to follow in this effort—including the need to use and honor the pronouns with which each person identifies.

The Jewish value of kavod (honor) is instrumental here: By using the correct pronouns, we honor individuals and what they bring to our communities.

If we truly believe that b’tzelem Elohim (we are all made in the image of God), then we have a moral and spiritual obligation to actively affirm all individuals by using their pronouns. Otherwise, we are neither honoring God nor upholding other Jewish values, like g’milut chasadim (doing acts of loving-kindness) and kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh (taking communal responsibility).

Now you might be asking yourself, “What about all these pronouns I see on registration forms and online that aren’t ‘he’ or ‘she’? Why do we need to be concerned with those?”

Judaism has long embraced nonbinary or shifting gender identities. With over 1,600 references to nonbinary identities across Jewish texts (e.g., Talmud, Mishnah, Midrash, Kabbalah), Judaic scholars have demonstrated there are at minimum six different genders (including what we refer to as androgynous and intersex), all of which could not possibly be described using only male and female pronouns. With such a strong tradition of using different words to refer to different types of gender identities, how could we possibly restrict modern-day Jews (or anyone else) to using only two?

Even if you recognize the strong Jewish foundation for honoring people by using correct pronouns, you may be still be thinking that plural or gender-neutral pronouns are just a fad or are not “grammatically correct.” In fact, using pronouns other than the binary he/him/his or she/her/hers is not a new idea!

In English writing, use of the singular “they” (referring to one person) can be traced back to the late 1300s and only fell out of favor in the early 1900s. Grammarians have been actively suggesting and debating the adoption of alternative or nonbinary pronouns since at least the late 18th century.

In real life, we use the singular “they” all the time without even realizing it, particularly when speaking about a hypothetical individual whose gender designation is unknown or irrelevant. Don’t believe me? Reread this post from the beginning. I bet you didn’t even notice my choice of pronouns the first time around, even in an article about pronouns!

This usage is both common and accepted in practice today. Most major English dictionaries and style guides now formally endorse the use of singular they/them/their pronouns. (For more historical information, I encourage you to read this recent NPR story.)

Your next question might be, “So how am I supposed to know what pronouns to use?”

The short answer is, you don’t—not unless you ask or someone tells you what their pronouns are. Right now, these exchanges are not a regular part of our culture and could lead to awkward or uncomfortable moments (especially if someone isn’t quite ready to share, or is currently questioning, their gender identity).

To start making pronoun use a normal part of our community at TBE, we are going to follow the URJ’s (and the Reform youth movement’s) lead by offering pronoun stickers that individuals can add to their name badges. These stickers will say things like “My pronouns are he/him/his,” or “she/her/hers,” or “they/them/theirs.” Some will have space to write other pronouns (see examples and grammar usage here), and some will say, “Ask me about my pronouns.”

These stickers will be made available for everyone, not just people who identify as transgender or a nonbinary gender. The more people who add stickers to their badges, the more normal the practice will become, and the more inclusive our synagogue will be.

These stickers will be available starting at this Friday’s Pride Shabbat, and they will be located by the nametag holders in the coatroom.

I hope that many of you will join me in creating a welcoming and supportive environment by adding a sticker to your name badge before High Holy Day services this fall.

I am very happy to answer any questions you have or provide additional resources, either in person or via email ( You may also call the TBE office to talk with one of our clergy or staff members.


Gwen Costa Jacobsohn

1st Vice President, Temple Beth El Board of Trustees

January 19, 2020 22 Tevet 5780