Leaving Mitzrayim in EVERY Generation

“I cannot think of a more striking example of the Exodus in our own day,” concluded Anat Hoffman, Executive Director of the Jerusalem-based IRAC, Israel’s Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. As part of our January Mission to Israel the Northern California Rabbis had assembled to hear an up-to-date briefing on the status of Women of the Wall. We got that – and so much more.

Ms. Hoffman’s comment referred to the hundreds of refugees who make the journey by foot each month from the Sudan, through Egypt and across the southern border into Israel. She told us that in exchange for a brand new pair of New Balance sneakers, a social worker had recently collected one man’s shoes. The shoes were then mounted and preserved in a museum-quality box frame for display and sent to congregation in the US that had donated a sizable sum to support IRACs legal and social work on behalf of asylum-seeking refugees in Israel.

For days after returning from the mission I was haunted by the story and wondered whether it would be even remotely possible to raise the thousands of dollars needed to secure such a remarkable pair of shoes. I wrote to Ms. Hoffman asking where I could learn more about the project and she responded immediately. “We have another pair that made the journey from Darfur, but we are having difficulty interviewing the shoes owner because he works from dawn to midnight every day. We are thinking of offering him a day’s work pay to come tell us his story and also receive a new pair.”

Levinsky Park.  Photo: Rabbi Rosalind Glazer, January 2011.
Levinsky Park. Photo: Rabbi Rosalind Glazer, January 2011.

The impact of hearing this story powerful story was equal to that of seeing the Israeli neighborhood in which many of these refugees live. Our delegation visited BINA, a secular yeshiva in South Tel Aviv where students live and work with the most diverse of Israel’s ethnic populations. Our guide told us that refugees often find work as day laborers; yet their status remains precarious. As he introduced us to a volunteer-run, multi-lingual lending library they had set up in Levinsky Park, we witnessed one refugee taken into custody by a police officer. This is apparently not uncommon.

Refugee Library in Levinsky Park, South Tel Aviv.  Photo: Rabbi Rosalind Glazer, January 2011.
Refugee Library in Levinsky Park, South Tel Aviv. Photo: Rabbi Rosalind Glazer, January 2011.

It is heart breaking to imagine risking everything to begin a new life in Israel only to land in prison and face deportation. Yet many refugees say that they’d rather die in Israel than to be deported back to Africa. Speaking on the refugees’ behalf one social activist remarked emphatically that, “The failure of other countries to treat refugees properly does not give us an excuse to do the same.” Refugees are unlike migrant workers in that they simply have no option other but to flee for their lives.

Levinsky Library: Media are available in Amharic, Arabic, Bengali, English, French, Hebrew, Hindi, Romanian, Spanish, Tagalog and Thai.  Photo:  Rabbi Rosalind Glazer, January 2011.
Levinsky Library: Media are available in Amharic, Arabic, Bengali, English, French, Hebrew, Hindi, Romanian, Spanish, Tagalog and Thai. Photo: Rabbi Rosalind Glazer, January 2011.

These comments reminded me of a scene in “Out of Sight,” a new play by actress and playwright Sara Felder. In it she recounts her mother’s inability to forgive herself for not speaking against the FDR government when it refused entry of the SS St. Louis into the port of Miami thereby sealing the terrible fate of hundreds of Jewish refugees. Yet, in every generation, many courageous individuals do step forward to save the innocent. For example, I recently learned of Nicholas Winton, a righteous gentile from Great Britain who helped 669 Jewish children escape Nazi Germany and who until recently had never told anyone about it! When a youth activist asked him his philosophy of life he stated, “Don’t be content…just to do no wrong. Be prepared everyday to try and do some good.”

At Pesach we recall the Exodus, the Holocaust and all historic persecutions of our people. But remembering history is not enough. To live “as if we had personally gone forth” requires that we name and respond to the Exoduses of our own time; to put ourselves in the shoes of those struggling right now to escape Pharaoh’s death-grip. This Pesach let us refuse to indulge feelings of powerlessness; let us not surrender to paralyzing indifference. Rather, let us courageously step forward together to fight all forms of tyranny and oppression in our day – for the sake of our generation and generations to come.

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Spiritual Community and the Generosity of “Strangers”

Ongoing acts of kindness and generosity literally turn strangers into friends and transform a random group of folks into a real community.

“We can only create and maintain community if we share both the dream and the commitment to work for its realization…Community life needs to offer the affection and support that is normally provided by extended family members living in close proximity. ” – Rabbi David A. Teutsch

After helping someone in need recently, a BIJ member told me that the line between giving and receiving had been so blurred that she did not know who had benefitted more. In response all I could say was that to know this feeling is to be truly blessed. Not long ago, I also learned of an informal gathering of BIJers who assembled spontaneously to offer healing prayers for someone who had received a difficult diagnosis. I was deeply moved at hearing this since it affirmed what I know to be true of BIJ: We are a caring congregation. The peer-led prayer circle affirmed my long-held belief in the importance of spiritual community. It further reminded me that while a leader’s role is to serve as a teacher and mentor, acts of leadership both great and small are initiated all the time by members of our community.

According to the Sages, gemilut hasadim, deeds-of-loving-kindness, is one of three categories of mitzvot that sustain the world. Whether it is by supporting a member whose child is in distress, visiting or delivering food to a fellow congregant who is ill, providing a ride to shul for a synagogue elder, comforting the bereaved, attending a shiva minyan, helping an unemployed congregant find a job, assembling and dropping off mishloach manot on Purim or delivering seder sacks on Passover, hundreds of mitzvot are performed at BIJ every day.

These ongoing acts of kindness and generosity literally turn strangers into friends and transform a random group of folks into a real community.

The list of tasks required to run a congregation far exceeds the number of available staff hours. Whether serving on the Board or a committee, helping with administrative duties in the office, planning and organizing special events and programs, greeting fellow congregants and visitors at services, preparing and serving an oneg Shabbat, kiddush or meal, washing table cloths or kitchen towels, selling coffee and bagels at the Micha Mocha café, chanting Torah or haftarah on Shabbat or holidays, setting and cleaning up before and after shul events, kashering the kitchen for Pesach, planting shrubs and new seedlings in our garden, repairing broken or damaged furniture and fixtures, BIJ depends on our volunteers.

The Torah describes a ‘volunteer’ as one who is nediv lev, moved by the heart. The term first appears in Exodus, parashat Vayakheil, during the building of the mishkan (tabernacle) where a call for contributions is answered to such excess that a moratorium on giving is declared. While BIJ has never faced this happy dilemma, our community exists only because our members are continuously moved to give of their resources, time and talent and by so doing have built a spiritual home that this far greater than our numbers betray. At BIJ members feel a true sense of belonging and our palpable warmth and hospitality is what makes our community attractive to potential members and guests.

Thank you for all you do and give to sustain our spiritual home. The generous offerings of the heart that each of you brings to our congregation are appreciated far more than these words can adequately express.

It’s Not Easy Being Green – But it is a Mitzvah!

We cannot underestimate how powerfully the values and practices we embrace as a community powerfully influence our personal habits and choices.

Succulents in the Rock - Dor Nachsholim Preserve, Israel.  July 2010.  Photo: Rabbi Rosalind Glazer
Succulents in the Rock - Dor Nachsholim Preserve, Israel. July 2010. Photo: Rabbi Rosalind Glazer

The Talmudic rabbis wisely warned their generation, “If we destroy our world, there will be nobody to repair it after us.”  Far more than those who came before us and with all we have learned in the era of globalism, our generation can fully appreciate this message.  We’ve witnessed many environmental disasters in our lifetimes and have come to acknowledge the inconvenient truth of global warming.  We know that ours is a delicate and fragile planet; that it is vulnerable to ignorant, greedy and destructive human actions. Yet individually and collectively we’re still struggling to incorporate pragmatic and effective habits into our daily lives.  The first Earth Day in April 1970 introduced the world to the 3 Rs of caring for the earth; Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Yet in the 40 years that have ensued we’ve witnessed the devastating impact of increased waste and overconsumption.  It’s particularly evident in the US where per capita use of the world’s resources is grossly out of proportion.  

Echoing the Talmudic sages, preeminent scholar, authority on Jewish mysticism and author of the book Radical Judaism, Rabbi Arthur Green regards our need to embrace a sacred relationship with the earth as THE critical spiritual challenge of our time.  While this is a universal spiritual issue, Jews are already called to engage in the mitzvot of tikkun olam (repairing the world), bal tashchit (preventing needless waste and destruction) and tzar ba’alei chayim (protecting living creatures).  Thus it should be no surprise that Jews are at the forefront of the environmental movement.  More than a dozen new Jewish initiatives (and growing) have enthusiastically embraced the issue.

At Beth Israel Judea we’ve also taken up the challenge.  Over a year ago we added an Eco-Kashrut clause to our kitchen and food policy.  When sharing meals at BIJ, we encourage the use of dishes and silverware over disposables and we advise careful conservation of water.  When purchasing single-use items we recommend eco-friendly products.  With the help of Karen Kerner, we recently purchased and now display sets of clearly marked blue bins for recyclables and green bins for compostables.  And we use non-toxic, eco-friendly products for most of our cleaning and custodial needs.  

We cannot underestimate how powerfully the values and practices we embrace as a community influence our personal habits and choices.

After recent screenings of the new environmental documentary, “Bag It,” several BIJers told me they are now making a greater individual effort.  While this pleases me, I hesitate to say dayenu because I know it is possible to do better. Recycling is good, but reducing and reusing should precede it.  And a fourth R – redesign – is more critical than ever.  As consumers we should vocally reject manufacturers ‘planned obsolesce’ and insist that electronics and other big ticket items be built–to-last rather than designed-for-disposal.  We can no longer purchase goods wrapped in heavy plastic packaging and simply assume it will all be recycled.  Like other viewers of the film, I was stunned to learn that the large majority of the items I place in my curbside recycling bin are shipped by barge for sorting by impoverished workers in China!  Other plastic items are incinerated to toxic smoke or dumped into the ocean to become part of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a growing island of plastic larger than the state of Texas. Our relative affluence offers freedom and power, but it requires that we exercise greater responsibility.  Just because we can buy more, doesn’t mean we should. The acquisition of knowledge is far more valuable, but it also increases our obligation to act. 

The “Bag It!” film emphasizes the impossibility of throwing things away.  There simply is no such thing as away!  For the 16th c. Kabbalists, the smallest act or decision had spiritual consequences.  Let us embrace the challenge and do right – for our planet, for ourselves, for one another and for future generations.   Keyn yehi ratzon – So may it be.