In COVID-19, Criminal Justice, Education, Immigration, Maryland State, MD Renters' Rights, Montgomery County, MD, Racial Equity Montgomery

Shavuot Learning: Reflections from JUFJ leaders in Montgomery County

It has been said that the entire Torah exists to establish justice. Thus, through the study of Torah and other Jewish texts, Shavuot offers us an opportunity to re-commit to tikkun olam (repairing the world). – Rabbis Marla J. Feldman and Leah Doberne-Schor

Shavuot is the Jewish holiday celebrating the harvest and the day the Jewish people received the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Shavuot is traditionally celebrated with a tikkun leil, or a night of learning, during which communities stay up all night studying.

This year, Montgomery County leaders and staff have put together past Divrei Torah, or Torah commentary, to share as a resource for learning this Shavuot.

Click on the tabs below to read the Divrei Torah of JUFJ’s Montgomery County leaders and staff. If you would like to share a learning or reflection at a future JUFJ meeting or add one to this page, please email devorah@jufj.org.

Two important quotes to help us think about the concept of Power: 

From Rabbi Donniel Hartmann, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel:

 “When you have power, you have the ability to take a risk for the sake of your values.

Power gives us the opportunity to say: We can do better than who we are.”  

From Rav Kook, first Ashkenazic chief rabbi in pre-state Israel: “I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent”.

The conversation about the power dynamic was one of the most interesting we had during the Don’t Kvetch, Organize! (DKO), the Join for Justice course on how to organize.

We often think of power with regard to domination, abuse, corruption and control, but for to be successful in our social justice work, as Jews we need to rethink this words that frame what power means.

These quotes are very helpful in this process.  Power for us needs to mean agency, ability, and organization.  At JUFJ, we take Rav Kook’s words to heart and help those who are powerless.  When we organize people and organize money, we know that these two things together are the real sources of power and doing this can make change towards a common goal and can lead to success.  Power isn’t something you have, but it is something you do to make change.  The best example of this is when we work with legislators on shared values.  If we are successful, our shared power allows us to negotiate and work together using our relational power to pass laws that help others.  

Carol Stern at the 2020 Maryland Legislative Kickoff

Carol Stern is a Co-Chair of the Montgomery County Leadership Council and Co-Chair of the Maryland Statewide Justice System Reform and Immigrant Rights team.

Moses disappears into the clouds covering Mount Sinai to commune with the Almighty and will not be seen by humans for another forty days.   And what does the Almighty say?  Build me a tabernacle, a place where My Spirit can abide with you.  And secure donations to build it from every man “as his heart may urge him.”

Why?  To me this means the community must contribute as a whole to its wellbeing, to the effort to bring a spiritual presence down from the clouds, where only one person, Moses, can access it, into the community.  All of us, working together, engaged in charitable actions, enable the true spirit of Judaism to reside on the earth.

Some have noted also that the term, adanim, or sockets, which hold the Tabernacle together, have the same root as Adonai.  And, for us doing social change work, we try with our partners to hold our works and our different communities together.

So let us continue to strive to carry the true spirit of Judaism with us in our work as we link with others to promote equal justice, economic justice, and peace within our community.

Anita Lampel is a Co-Chair of the Montgomery County Leadership Council, Co-Chair of the Montgomery County Community Building and Education Team, and member of the SRO Removal Working Group.

Physical Distancing and Social Solidarity

I’d like to suggest some words of wisdom from Adat Shalom’s founding Rabbi, Sid Schwartz. He suggested an important re-framing of what we are getting from public officials and the media. He said that our objective should not be “social distancing”. Rather we should seek to maximize “physical distancing” so as to insure our health and the health of so many others. And, as we commit to physical distancing, we should re-double our commitment to social solidarity and acts of hesed (lovingkindness).

What I wanted to read to you tonight is another comment on social distancing that I think elaborates a little more on the point of expressing hesed but focuses more on not distancing ourselves from God. It’s from the Aish website, from Rabbi Efrem Goldberg.

In the same vein, while many of you may have already seen this poem, Pandemic, on social media, it expresses similar sentiments so I would like to read it. It was written by a minister in CA:

Pandemic

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?

Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)

Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

–Lynn Ungar 3/11/20

Click Here to read the reflection on God and Quarantine from AISH

Wrestling with Our Past

This weeks parasha was Parashat Vayishlach which follows Jacob as he wrestles with an angel and reconciles with Esau. We all know the story of Jacob but I’ll give a brief recap. Jacob had basically tricked his twin brother Esau out of his birthright and now was going to be meeting up with him and was frightened, particularly since Esau was coming to the meeting with 400 of his men. That night, he wrestles with an angel until dawn and he prevails, but in the process wrenches his hip and therafter walks with a limp. Also of great significance, the angel renames him from “Jacob,” which means “heel” or “to follow, to be behind” – as Jacob wrestled with Esau in the womb and came out 2nd grabbing onto Esau’s heel, to the name “Israel,” which I did some research on and got the answer of either struggles or fights with God or rules like a prince or God is just or God shall fight. That’s a discussion for another day but either way it indicates a big transformation for Jacob. 

There is quite a lot in this parasha. I’d like to share some of the insights from the powerful dvar torah Rabbi Sid gave at Adat this past Shabbat. One interpretation is that Jacob wrestled with self-doubt at this crossroads in his life – am I worthy? Was Esau the rightful heir? He had never come to terms with his original sin – deceit, and was now forced to confront it on the eve of the meeting with his brother. 

Perhaps in the dream Jacob is wrestling face-to-face with Esau and confronting a hard truth about himself and his treachery face-to-face. 

Perhaps Jacob is wrestling with his own demons – suffering from feelings of self-loathing. Torn between the inclination to do good (yetzer ha tov) and the inclination to do evil (yetzer hara) he knows that he has fallen short and what he must do is to make amends. 

Our past mistakes are never erased – scars remain – Jacob, now Israel, carries his limp with him. But it is there to show us our vulnerability and it is a sign of moral courage and strength to persevere and make amends. 

Pivoting now to the upcoming Chanukah holiday, Chanukah is a time of bringing light into darkness and the lessons from this parasha can help to guide us. We can bring light into our lives in many ways  – one of them is by seeking to confront our demons and make amends, as Judaism stresses of course in many ways and during many holidays. 

It is also by seeking to understand ourselves better and unflinchingly, and one of these ways may be through our dreams. In Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s book, The River of Light, he writes: 

“And then we awake to discover that the dreams we have dreamed are none other than the lives we live. In the words of the prophet Nathan (scolding David, the king-who has just been told an allegory of his life): “Thou are the man!” The story is not about someone else. It is not even about you. It is you. The one who “lives” in the dream is the one who dreams. “The dreamer,” wrote philosopher Herbert Fingarette,” . . . must  . . . experience the reality of his secret life….” We must live in and through and out our dreams. What we witnessed last night may be a truth we are trying to tell ourselves about ourselves, but are yet afraid to utter in the morning.”

Melissa Goemann headshot

Melissa Goemann is a Co-Chair of the Montgomery County Racial Equity and Policing Team. 

I want to talk for a few minutes about Psalm 114.

It’s a psalm that we read yesterday for Hallel, as it was Rosh Kodesh, and we also do so for all holiday services.

It’s also extremely timely for the season, as it’s a favorite part of our Seder Services. It’s almost impossible to recite the words without singing. B’zeit Yisroel m’mitzrayim, beit yaacov, me’am loaz.

When Israel went forth from Egypt, the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech, Judah became his holy one, Israel his dominion.

So clearly, this is a Psalm celebrating the end of slavery of the Jewish people, who leave Egypt. End of story.

But the next line is a little unclear: The sea saw them and fled, Jordan ran backward. OK, the Red Sea parts, but what does the Jordan have to do with this? That’s not until 40 years later when Joshua leads them into the Promised Land.

And then it says: mountains, that skipped like rams; hills, like sheep. Tremble, O earth.

Nowhere that I know of in the Exodus accounting does it describe pulsating mountains and trembling earth. But there is such “earth-shaking” in another section of the Torah. In Bereshit, the beginning, the creation of our world.

Ex.1:9: Let the water below the sky be gathered into one area, that the dry land may appear. God called the dry land Earth and the gathering of waters He called Seas.

So, this Psalm 114, in one fell swoop, relates the two seminal events in Jewish history: Creation and Exodus. The act of the Jewish people leaving Egypt is also a second recounting of Genesis.

How can we learn from the Psalmist? I think in our work, like in the Psalm, when we bring our brothers and sisters out of their own mitzrayim, their own narrow place, we are also performing our own act of creation. When we help release prisoners from unjust sentences, ensure living wages for workers who survive barely above subsistence, advocate for sick and family leave so everyone can care for their families, we are also offering the possibilities of new beginnings.

At a time of difficulty for all of us, we can also remain hopeful that we will leave this narrow place of Covid-19 for our own new beginnings.

bob barkin head shot

Bob Barkin is a member of the JUFJ Montgomery County Leadership Team.

Dear JUFJ Leaders, 

Today is my last day on staff at JUFJ. I’ve spent the past few weeks preparing for today. I’ve been wrapping up final projects, planning my move to New York, and helping onboard Shira, the next Montgomery County Avodahnik. 

All the while I’ve been thinking about the Talmud’s instructions for building a Sukkah. The Talmud teaches that homes are keva, meaning permanent or fixed, but a Sukkah needs to be arai, meaning temporary or movable. The Talmud always comes back to the keva and arai distinction. A treehouse Sukkah, a Sukkah on a boat, a Sukkah with super high walls — is it keva, or is it arai? 

Before I started at JUFJ, justice work often felt arai. It was the movable part of my life, something I tried to fit into the “fixed” parts of my schedule. This wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Life is full of different responsibilities, to others and oneself. 

In contrast, working at JUFJ has given me the privilege to be part of a community where working for justice is keva. It is the fixed part of who we are and what we do. 

If JUFJ is a keva home of justice, it’s a home built by all of you, JUFJ’s leaders. Your commitment to our work has always inspired me, and it will continue to do so in the years to come. I feel so lucky to be part of the JUFJ story. Please know that I will be closely following our next chapter from afar. 

This fall I am starting rabbinical school in New York, where I’ll be studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Please feel free to keep in touch

Thank you all for an incredible year. 

With gratitude, 

Emmanuel

Emmanuel Cantor Headshot

Emmanuel Cantor is a former JUFJ Avodah fellow. Emmanuel currently studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary. 

As we, individually and as a community, struggle to grapple with the health and economic effects of the health crisis which envelopes our world, and inevitably exacerbates the tenuous situation of those among us who have the least material wealth, it is incumbent on us to tap into our Jewish values to respond.

Members of Jewish Community Action (JCA) of Minnesota, were inspired to advocate for relief of housing debt (rent and/or mortgage) based on the biblical tradition of Shmita. Although the next shmita year will not begin until Rosh Hashana 5782 (September 2021), this concept might appropriately be applied to our participation in the MD statewide and national movement to “CanceltheRent”.

Shmita means “release” and unlike many mitzvoth which are based on individual participation, shmita relies on both personal and communal participation. 

Shmita is first referred to in Exodus and again in Leviticus in reference to the agricultural practice of leaving the land to lie fallow in the seventh year as a sabbath year.  

In fact, this was read in the Torah portion, Behar-Bechukotai, this past Shabbat:

“The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is min; for you are strangers and live as foreigners with me.

In all the land of your possession you shall grant a redemption for the land.”
Leviticus 25:23-24

Sabrina Sojourner, in a d’var Torah published in the Washington Jewish Week this week, notes that this concept of “G_d’s ownership of the land and we as its tenants is the underpinning of the……” concept of shmita and yovel. She also describes how these laws consider poverty; the treatment of the poor, workers, widows, and orphans.

In Deuteronomy 15:1-2 we are told that at the end of every seventh year that every creditor shall release the debt that he holds for his/her neighbor.All of those who bear debt must release their hold.” And the Rambam in the Mishne Torah notes that although the debts were to be released at the end of the shmita year, the hope would be that the borrower would eventually find a way to return the debt.

How might the concept of shmita be applied to the cancellation or deferral of rent and mortgage? Shmita is implemented for the common good, to replenish the fertility of the land and to equalize economic inequalities.  

    • The landowners, farmers, wealth holders need to be planning for the year of shmita by storing up resources in year 6, prior to the sabbatical year so that there is plenty for all during year 7 and year 8 until the land is once again productive.  We, as a community, should be setting aside resources to support the whole community for the fallow times.
    • Those who have lost income due to illness, closing of businesses and other related fallout, have essentially sacrificed for the common good, e.g., to protect the health of the greater community from the spread of the virus. It is our obligation to protect them by releasing them from debt and poverty.
    • The purpose then, of Shmita, is to set apart a period of time that will slow down the personal pursuit of property  and foster care, compassion and partnership between all of those who share the earth (from Yedidia Stern, Shmita: Rest, Share, Release; The Israel Democracy Institute, Sept., 22, 2014)
    • Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi in British Palestine, wrote of the shmita year of 1909-1910, “The Sabbatical year comes to correct the situation of inequality and societal rifts, by removing a major source of power of the elite: debts owed to them……….What the Sabbath achieves for the individual, the Shmita achieves with regard to the nation as a whole.”
Anna Levy Shmita

Anna Levy is a Co-Chair of Montgomery County’s Housing and Renter Protection Team. 

The title of my D’var is The Evolution of a Moral World. It’s a lofty, perhaps esoteric title, but I hope to convince you that the subject has relevance for our social justice advocacy work. The idea comes from a book I recently read by Robert Wright, called The Evolution of God. Wright has taught philosophy at Princeton and religion at the University of Pennsylvania. In this book, he traces the concept of god in a wide range of societies, from hunter-gatherer groups to sophisticated empires. He primarily focuses on the Abrahamic faiths:  Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He combines a scholarly, scientific analysis of their respective scriptures with an examination of the corresponding geopolitical context in which the religions developed. He contends that the moral character imputed to God depends on the geopolitical realities on the ground; it reflects and reinforces the extent to which tolerance and peaceful coexistence prevail in society.

Just as natural selection is the driving force of biological evolution, Wright believes that the driving force of moral evolution is a manifestation of game theory:  the non-zero sum game. Let me explain:  a zero sum game is a contest that ends with precisely opposing outcomes, one party is the winner and the other party is the loser. In a non-zero sum game, the outcome is either win-win or lose-lose. Wright argues compellingly that seeing the world as a non-zero sum game provides incentive for people to find ways to co-exist amicably; it is a calculation rooted in self-interest. The potential for mutual benefit, the risk of mutual demise prompts people to go along and get along. For a society as a whole, the reward for such behavior often comes in the form of positive economic returns from expanded opportunities for trade. Such favorable returns can foster a willingness to accommodate trading partners, despite differences in ethnic background, nationality and religion. There are imperfections in this rosy scenario:  the benefits of the amicable relationship are not shared equally within the society.  And mutual accommodation is not always the case. History is full of examples in which such accommodation is subverted and violence ensues. Wright is not naïve about the future outlook. Indeed, this book was published in 2010 in part as an effort to show how followers of the three Abrahamic faiths have at times exhibited a non-zero sum worldview and he urges a return to such thinking. He emphatically argues that the survival of our world depends on it.

Why is this relevant to our advocacy work?

JUFJ grounds its work in Jewish values that reflect a well-developed moral tradition. We wholeheartedly believe that the actions we take are the right thing to do. We urge fellow Jews and others in general to be motivated by these enduring moral precepts as we strive to achieve our goals.

While this emphasis on moral precepts is valuable, it has its limitations. The approach will fall on the deaf ears of people who are not motivated by moral arguments. It is important to remember that much of human behavior is based on perceived self-interest. To convince people who are not moved by our moral arguments that our priorities merit their support, I suggest we have to show them how they will benefit from the changes that we seek. We have to frame the situation as a non-zero sum game. We should view these folks as potential partners, rather than implacable adversaries.

How could this work? Here’s a current example:

Landlords are beginning to come out in support of government action to make up for the inability of tenants to pay rent during the covid pandemic. In this instance, they recognize that the needs of landlords and renters are aligned, and the remedy must come from the government.

In truth, we often do make arguments that appeal to the self-interest of others, and unfortunately, all too frequently they also appear to fall on deaf ears. Nonetheless, I still believe that engaging in this strategy is important. Finding ways to present our policy goals as “win-win” propositions for as many people as possible may be crucial to our ultimate success. Ironically, if we were successful, this focus on self-interest would result in the evolution of a more advanced moral world.

Jeff Rubin is a member of JUFJ’s Montgomery County Leadership Council and  Co-Chair of the Maryland Statewide Labor and Housing Justice team.

Commemorating Tisha B’Av

I’d like to dedicate this d’var to John Lewis, may his soul rest in peace.

We are nearing Tisha B’Av (Wednesday, the 29th) About 8 years ago I picked up Alan Lew’s This is Real And You Are Completely Unprepared; The Days of Awe As a Journey Of Transformation for the first time. I’ve re-read it several times and each time I do something else hits me. It’s an amazing book and a most powerful way to begin personal preparation for the High Holiday period. In his book he is tracking the depths of despair we experience during Tisha B’Av through the process of introspection, tshevua and forgiveness to the joy of Sukkot.

Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of both Temples, the expulsion from Spain and a myriad of other tragedies that befell our people. So one way to look at this day is as a day of mourning for all the tragedies, all the losses that we’ve experienced. Clearly this is reasonable and useful. We have so many losses — personal and communal right now. We don’t need to look far — we mourn the loss of John Lewis, an extraordinary man who has inspired me and countless others; we mourn the loss of life, employment,  and a sense of security that we can attribute to the pandemic. And, of course, we can mourn the loss of being together, sharing a pot-luck dinner and savoring the different flavors and textures of the various dishes we each bring to the table. 

Communal mourning rituals are potentially healing and quite useful. It is important to acknowledge these losses. Our tradition is masterful when it comes to dealing with grief. We have exquisite mourning rituals that provide a healing pathway for grieving people. These rituals include sitting shiva which provides an opportunity for sharing stories about the deceased and an annual remembrance marking the day the person died. Acknowledging and remembering; both extremely important and necessary for healing.

And there is another piece to Tisha B’Av. Rabbi Lew points me in a different direction.

Rabbi Alan Lew z”l wrote: 

…we can regard the ninth of Av as a time when we are reminded that catastrophes will keep recurring in our lives until we get things right, until we learn what we need to learn from them. (p41)

and later he says:

Tisha b’Av is the day on which we are reminded of the calamity that keeps 

repeating itself in the life of our people. And against all reason — against the overwhelming evidence of history — Moses and the rabbis insist that we are not powerless in the face of that calamity. Moses and the rabbis insist that we take responsibility for what is happening to us. Moses and the rabbis insist that we acknowledge our complicity in the things that keep happening to us over and over again. (p. 46)

This is not, as some might say, blaming the victim. This is truly noticing what is happening and looking deeply at the patterns that keep repeating.

I take this to mean that I need to look at what keeps repeating in my life and look at my responsibility in perpetuating the pattern. I can and must do this on a personal level. That leads to personal growth. When I am able to identify a pattern that isn’t working well for me or my relationships I need to figure out my part — what lesson do I need to learn, how do I need to make tshuvah?

Then I also need to look at the patterns in my larger community — it could be aspects of the personal communities that I’m a part of and also the larger society. What are the patterns that keep repeating and if I think they are not worthy patterns I need to ask how am I complicit?

We are so aware of some patterns that keep repeating — police brutality, educational inequities, budgets that strip money from safety net programs and I could go on. We are looking at these issues and using our collective wisdom to work at changing them. We, as individuals and as an organization are trying not to be complicit in perpetuating the racism that John Lewis fought so valiantly to dismantle. I’m proud to be part of this group that takes personal responsibility so seriously. 

I want to close with 2 quotes — the first from This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared

Lew also reminds us “that decline and destruction necessarily precede renewal; tearing down is necessary before rebuilding is possible.” (p. 53)

Creating Our Mishkan

In this week’s parsha, Terumah, the Israelites are given instructions, very detailed instructions, for building the Mishkan, which is a movable sanctuary that they are to carry throughout their journey in the wilderness.

To set the scene let me remind you that God took us out of Egypt — that narrow, constricted place — to freedom. I see Egypt/mitzryem in a personal way; as constriction and tightening physically and mentally — maybe a narrowed perception.

Freedom is the opposite — it is the open-hearted willingness to mull over new information; it is the “Beginner’s Mind” that allows for expanded perception. 

The Torah teaches that God brought the Israelites out of Egypt with the intention of being with the people.

The parsha includes fine details of what the mishkan should be made of, its furnishing and adornments, including 2 golden cherubs.

  • 25:2 — Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved.
  • 25:8 — And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.
  • 25:22 — There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you — from above the cover, from between the two cherubim

So, according to this part of the parsha, God is explaining to Moses that God will speak to Moses, and thus the people, from the mishkan, specifically between the 2 cherubs.

Although God is theoretically everywhere, the Israelites needed assurance of God’s constant accessibility and availability. They accomplished this…by constructing an earthly residence for God … With God in their midst in an earthly shrine, God’s power to protect the people and provide for their wellbeing would be guaranteed. …It is helpful to remember that behind the mass of arcane details [in this parsha] lies a yearning for God’s presence and an attempt to establish a relationship between divine immanence and transcendence, in other words, between God’s abilities to be “right here” and “everywhere” at the same time. (Women’s Commentary, P. 451)

In essence I think what is really being said in this parsha is “Make a holy place so I can dwell inside you. Let’s have a relationship.” I think we are being encouraged to see if we can create a space in our hearts that can be a mishkan for us. A place of true freedom — where we can confront our fears, be realistic and enjoy expansive thinking. 

I learned from R. Josh Feigelson that the Maggid of Kozhnitz* offers a beautiful interpretation of God’s words in the parasha: “When you serve Me purely according to My essence that flows through you, then My dwelling place will be literally within you.”

Fran Zamore is a co-chair of the Montgomery County Racial Equity and Policing Team. 

In the Talmud Sanhedrin, the Rabbis have a discussion about who deserves to be on the Sanhedrin – the high court. Essentially they’re asking, who do we consider to be the greatest of rabbis, of leaders, of judges, of legal scholars? Who is worthy of establishing and reviewing and perfecting our systems of justice?

One rabbi answers that only those with high stature, great wisdom, good looks, and those who speak all seventy languages are fit to serve.

And then there’s one answer that I’m fascinated by:

“Rav Yehuda said that Rav said, ‘We place on the Sanhedrin only one who knows how to render a sheretz pure by Torah law.’”

What’s a sheretz? A creepy crawly thing – which the Torah says is inherently, and irreversibly, impure. If we broaden or reframe that, a sheretz can be what we have been taught to be afraid of, or what we as a society have continually cast aside. We, both as individuals and collectively, have built systems, legal and otherwise, to keep sheratzim far away from us, and to keep sheratzim subjugated.

And according to Rav, a Rabbi is only worthy of placement on the Sanhedrin if they can use the Torah itself to render a sheretz pure.

As Laynie Solomon, a teacher at Svara, the Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, puts it, “to be a rabbi is, in short, to be able to overturn the Torah itself—even, or perhaps especially, where the Torah seems least able to be overturned.”

This strikes me as an incredible articulation of both moral leadership and a call for radical systemic change.

First, it’s a reminder that what we are most afraid of, what we have been taught to avoid, or taught is inherently bad and impure, isn’t necessarily so. It’s also a reminder that our systems are, and should be, adaptable.

So what does it mean to be able to purify sheratzim? It means fixing the system that rendered or labeled them impure to begin with. It means actively examining, deconstructing, and unlearning our own perceptions of sheratzim. It means centering the experience of sheratzim themselves in the rebuilding of a system that could render them pure.

And, that is the standard we should hold our leaders and changemakers to, and hold ourselves to as we strive to build a more just world.

Rosh Chodesh Elul was just a few days ago, and we ushered in a month of introspection, reflection, and goal setting. We turn inwards to do a cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our souls, both for ourselves and for our communities. As we think about making systems that are more just, and a world that is more whole and more pure, may we start by allowing ourselves to think about overturning what we think of as set in stone. May we turn inwards to what scares us, to the flawed and entrenched systems we have been a part of and to the harm we have both perpetrated and perpetuated. And in this coming month, and the following year, may we seek to elevate the sheratzim to a place of liberation.

head shot of shira wolkenfeld

Shira Wolkenfeld is a former JUFJ Avodah fellow. Shira currently studies at the Pardes Yeshiva in Jerusalem. 

I asked an old family friend, who is a Rabbi, what I should speak about.  And he said, “Think about your audience, offer inspiration based on Jewish text, and show how it applies to the world today.”

When I think about JUFJ and its mission, I think of the phrase “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof:,” Justice, justice you shall pursue, Deuteronomy 16:20.  Tzedek is traditionally translated as “justice.”  Tzedakah, a derivative of Tzedek, is traditionally translated as “charity.”  But taken together, Tzedek and Tzedakah mean “…justice, charity, righteousness, integrity, equity, fairness, and innocence…” according to Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of London.  Why does the phrase use the word justice twice?  My friend the Rabbi said, “maybe because we are compelled to pursue justice, but only if the means that we use are also just.”

The United States was founded based upon a set of rules and institutions that sought to be more just than the British society against which it rebelled.  Of course, the U.S.  was not just in many ways: 

  • Indigenous peoples’ land was stolen from them, and they were slain by both settlers and soldiers.
  • Africans were enslaved and brought here against their will to work as chattel and were beaten, tortured, or lynched for minor offenses.
  • Women were seen as incapable and therefore were not allowed to own property, so they were denied the vote.  

Through the decades since our founding, we have been moving toward a more just society, albeit very slowly.  

  • Slavery was abolished by the states’ ratification of the 13th amendment in 1865, except as a punishment for crime.  So many southern States passed Black Laws, also known as Black Codes, which restricted the freedom of Blacks and created broad vagrancy laws under which Blacks could be convicted, incarcerated, and thereby be leased out as slave labor.  Additionally, of course, there continued to be different forms of racial discrimination, including school segregation, redlining of neighborhoods, and more recently, drug laws that led to the mass incarceration of Black people.
  • In August of 1920, the 19th amendment was ratified, and the women’s suffrage movement secured for women the right to vote.  However, the individual southern States enacted laws requiring poll taxes and literacy, so that many Black women continued to be disenfranchised for several more decades. 

Systemic racism, racism that is baked into the American way of life, is the reason why Jews United for Justice must continue its work.

Jo Shifrin at a rally

Jo Shifrin is a member of the Montgomery County Leadership Council. 

Many of you might be familiar with what I first heard Shira call a Laura breath. It sounds like a very, very deep breath. For me, this sounds like expansion. Not just of breath — but of my ability to think clearly, be present, and get to work. This week’s Torah portion, Parsha Vaera, is centered around Moses’ demands that Pharaoh lets his people go and it’s a timely portion as we near Martin Luther King Day. This parsha opens with a reminder that we cannot work towards liberation from systems of oppression without this steady expansion.

Parsha Vaera opens with an ask from God to Moses — for Moses to tell the Jews, who have lived through generations of slavery, that they will be brought out from Egypt by God. But the Israelites don’t listen to Moses. The parsha states “they did not hearken to Moses because of [their] shortness of breath and because of [their] hard labor.”

Rashi, the French Medieval commentator, explains this wording of “out of breath.” ‘Whoever is under stress,’ Rashi explains, ‘his wind and his breath are short, and he cannot take a deep breath.’

Modern-day trauma studies confirm Rashi’s explanation — Dr. Bessel Van Der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score, explains that the most elementary body functions, of which the breath is fundamental, go awry when we are terrified.

But there’s another layer of interruption that takes place in the face of trauma. The Hebrew translation of the Jews’ shortness of breath is kotzer ruach — a shortness not just of ‘breath,’ but also of ‘spirit.’

Rabbi Sarah Bassin explains that ‘there’s something to this spiritual element of ruach that factors into the Israelites’ inability to hear. Fear of the unknown spins the Israelites into paralysis. They keep their own world small because they are too traumatized to imagine anything else.”

I keep reflecting on the relevance of Rabbi Bassin’s commentary to how I felt, stuck-to-the-screen, breathless, doom-scrolling through the attempted insurgency of January 6th. I was, and still am, scared of what’s to come between now and January 20th. But paralysis is not the only option.

Rabbi Sarah Bassin asks us, In this moment of heightened fear, what are we not hearing because of our own kotzer ruach — because of our own shortness of spirit? What have we internalized so intensely that it renders us incapable of hearing anything but what’s not possible?

When I think about this question, I think of how internalized my reliance on criminalizing wrong is to my understanding of justice. I also think of how I’ve internalized messages of individualism, of seeing leadership only as eloquent, well-spoken demands. Before sending Moses off to call for his people’s freedom, God advises moses to ‘lead the Israelites gently and patiently,’ an approach which requires us to meet the people most impacted by oppression where they are, and make change through our commitment to caring for each other.

As JUFJ leaders, as community community members who care deeply about our neighbors, expand our collective vision of what’s possible — of a world where prisons, violence, and policing hold less power than community accountability and restorative justice, where policies exist to support instead of criminalize the most vulnerable in our community — I invite us to ask ourselves, ‘How can we expand our own ruach?’

May we enter this new week with an eye towards holding ourselves accountable for the expansion of our ruach. And before we move onto the rest of our meeting, I invite us one last time to take a deep, relaxing, Laura breath. Shavua tov.

Devorah Stavisky is a Community Organizer with JUFJ’s Montgomery County Team. 

The Following call to action comes from the The National Jewish Network on Criminal Justice Reform, which JUFJ leader Bruce Turnbull shared as his D’var.

We, the members of the National Jewish Network on Criminal Justice Reform, believe in a United States  that lives up to its ideals of justice, equity, and dignity for all. We remain committed to actualizing those  ideals, which are at the very core of Judaism. We are proud of the American Jewish community’s history  of fighting for civil rights and an end to racism, but the work is unfinished.  

The suffering of millions at the hands of our unjust criminal legal system is one of the most pressing civil  rights crises of our time. The United States has become the leading incarcerator in the world and our  criminal justice system disproportionately targets and impacts people of color – Black people are five  times as likely as whites to be incarcerated. Our punitive system ensnares and disenfranchises many individuals for their entire lives, compounding racial disparities and challenging our country’s identity as a  multiracial democracy. Mass incarceration harms individuals, the social fabric of communities, and the  well-being of democratic society at large

As American Jews, we are called to action at this critical juncture in American history to confront mass  incarceration and mass criminalization. Our Jewish commitments to empathy, mercy, and restorative  justice demand that we join in solidarity with our most impacted neighbors to transform our criminal justice  system, end systemic racism, and ensure universal access to a life lived in dignity.  

We must build upon our legacy by ending today’s injustices, including racial injustice, not just in principle  but in action.  

We must address the systemic racism and racial disparities that manifest in rates of incarceration and all  aspects of our criminal justice system. 

We must reorient our society toward a preventive, rehabilitative, and restorative justice approach to public  safety that respects and protects the humanity of all people.  

We must stop criminalizing race, poverty, mental illness, and substance abuse.  

We must make our communities safer and more equitable by investing in non-carceral programs and  social services, including education, housing, employment, health care, and other public benefits.  

We believe that reimagining public safety is essential to creating a just society. 

Our Advocacy is Based on Jewish Values  

We are guided by our Jewish values and history to center the ethic of restorative justice in matters of  wrongdoing and its response, as well as in the governance of a society more broadly. Our Jewish  advocacy to advance criminal justice reform is built upon the following principles: 

  • Teshuva: Return, Repentance, and Restorative Justice: Teshuva is the process of redemption  by which a person who has committed a wrong returns to the path of righteousness. This process  guides us to seek the best solution for everyone involved through the restoration of the individual,  meaningful reparation for wrongdoing, and the return of the individual to the community, itself made stronger in the process.
  • B’tzelem Elohim: Everyone is made in the Divine image (Genesis 1:26–27): Approaches to  justice must reflect the Biblical principle that each of us emerged from a common root and a  common creator.
  • Destroying a life destroys a world: “When we destroy one person, we destroy an entire  universe” (Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5): Destroying even a single life through the overly punitive  criminal justice system as it exists today diminishes a spark of the Divine in our world, and it  diminishes the humanity both of those who administer punishment and those who stand idly by.  Punishment that destroys life, either literally or through the degradation of human dignity,  destroys not just one world, but the worlds of all those whose lives they touched. No human being  is disposable.
  • Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof: “Justice, justice you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20): The term  “justice” (tzedek) is repeated to remind us to pursue justice in a just manner. True “justice” cannot  be achieved without compassion, mercy, and empathy.
  • Hesed: Balancing justice with kindness: (Micah 6:8): Generosity of spirit or empathic kindness  guides our pursuit of justice. Rather than impose long sentences, and even death penalties, we  must remember that walking humbly and ensuring that every human is treated with compassion  undergirds our call, as Jews, for justice.
  • V’ahavta L’re’echa Kamocha: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18): Our  society must be built on fairness, justice, love, and respect for not just ourselves but for all  people. All aspects of our society and criminal justice system should be based on human dignity.
  • Shtika K’hod’a’ah Dami: “Silence is akin to complicity” (Talmud Yevamot 87b): Silence in the  face of injustice is an active choicea tacit consent. Allowing injustice to continue unchallenged  is, in essence, committing an injustice as well

We cannot be silent as these values we hold dear are threatened by the inhumanity of mass incarceration  and criminalization. As a Jewish community, we must act in accordance with our history, teachings, and  traditions to transform our criminal justice systems. Now is the time to act! 

bruce turnbull head shot

Bruce Turnbull is a former Heschel honoree and a member of the Montgomery County Leadership Council. 

Thank you to all of the leaders and staff who have shared their wisdom with us! If you’re interested in sharing a learning at a future JUFJ meeting or event or would like to submit one for this page, please email devorah@jufj.org.

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