Monday, September 19, 2022

Dorshei Derekh Allocates 10% of Our Surplus for Tsedakah: Elul 2022

We have accumulated a surplus, a nice challenge for a small group like ours. We've decided that in Elul, we will donate 10% of our surplus. This initiative was hatched and shepherded by Lynne Jacobs. Thanks, Lynne! Jennifer Paget and myself, Betsy Teutsch, joined the group. It's an experiment; the minyan will revisit in the future.

Here are our five tsedakah allocations for Elul 2022:

Family Promise of Philadelphia   in honor of Rachel Falkove's retirement, formerly the Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network.  

The Welcoming Center  in support of Afghan refugees. We are so wowed by the work that our members Naomi Klayman and Debbie Stern are doing GJC-wide. The Welcoming Center is the fiscal sponsor for the GJC initiative helping resettle our Afghan family.

Donors Choose in support of Philadelphia schools in need - this funds specific teacher requests.

Female Hebrew Benevolent Society  in support of emergency financial aid for Jewish women in crisis. The FHBS is over 200 years old!

Jerusalem African Community Center in support of African asylum seekers in Israel in Jerusalem, where our alum Ari Brochin works.

                                                                         

Sunday, August 7, 2022

On Pinchas - D’var Torah for Dorshei Derekh

 

by Jane F. Century

Thank you for the opportunity to mine some of the many nuggets of wisdom that today’s parshat Pinchas has to offer us. 

In the interests of full disclosure, I need to preface my comments by saying that prior to this moment, I have given exactly one d’var Torah in my entire life, at the start of last month’s quarterly minyan meeting -- so I hope you will allow me some additional latitude with this one.   I also confess I am something of a spiritual omnivore, so you may find me referencing things outside the pale of the usual Jewish commentaries.

By way of additional background, I am the middle child in a family with a sister one year older than me and a brother three and half years younger than me. 

We grew up in suburban Minneapolis, where all three of us got bussed to after-school Hebrew school for five years from 3rd grade to 7th grade, to a place that was very broadly satirized by the Cohen brothers, who grew up there as well, in their movie A Serious Man.

My family was firmly middle class.  After my parents undertook the expense of celebrating a bat mitzvah and luncheon for my older sister when she turned 13 and knowing that my brother’s bar mitzvah would be coming around the bend in a few short years, my mother came to me privately when the time for my own bat mitzvah was approaching and asked me if I really wanted one.

I didn’t need a flash card to know what the right answer to that was. 

If I agreed to take one for the team, my mom promised they would throw me a lavish Sweet 16 party when the time came instead. 

I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for another d’var to find out how that went.

Back to Pinchas, which brings together four seemingly disparate stories with one common theme having to do with legacy. For me, this parsha speaks to two profound concepts: the legacies we hope to pass along to those who survive us, and the ways in which all of us leave unfinished business in our wake.

The first example of legacy in this parsha is the legacy granted by God to Pinchas, the grandson of Mose’s elder brother Aaron, after he slays a high-ranking Israelite official and the Midianite princess with whom he was publicly consorting. 

Pinchas kills them both, and by this act, he simultaneously atones for and halts a period of rampant idol worship and the terrible plague that arose in the wake of it

In gratitude, God grants Pinchas a covenant of peace, and the eternal covenant of kehunah for his zeal in atoning for the children of Israel.  In doing so, he elevates Pinchas - along with all his descendants to the role of priest.

Before that moment, only Aaron and his descendants where designated by God as Kohanim.  By blessing Pinchas in this way, God extends the number of those who will inherit the honor and weight of a priestly connection to the divine.  

This is special legacy has continued to be passed down through the millennia from fathers to sons to this very day, indeed to this very room in which we sit.

The second legacy noted in this parsha is the one that results when God commands Moses to undertake yet another census, the aim of which will be to allocate future shares of the promised land in perpetuity in proportion to the total number of men aged 20 and older in each of their fathers’ tribes.

While all this counting and divvying is taking place, the action moves to a third story related to legacy in the parsha – one that marks something of radical step for its time, in which the five orphaned daughters of Tzelophehad realize that in the wake of their father’s death, they have no way to claim their own fair share of the inherited wealth that property ownership would confer upon the men of their generation when they reach the promised land. 

 

At this time, women without brothers were excluded from inheriting property when their father died, a system that continues in many places in the world where women still struggle to be counted as equals. We can also see its echoes in the racist practices of redlining that not only denied certain categories of citizens the right to own their own homes but the chance to build and pass on the wealth that such home ownership could generate for their descendants. 

 

At the time of Moses, women were effectively prevented from inheriting their own family land, with all that implied for their own financial autonomy and freedom to enter into marriage agreements. These five brave women stood before Moses, Eleazer and the chieftains at the Tent of Meeting, and basically asked to be counted. 

 

Moses brought their case before God who promptly agreed that Tzelophehad's daughters have “indeed spoken justly” and instructed Moses that in future, “If a man dies and has no son, you shall transfer his inheritance to his daughter.”

 

This brings us to the fourth and for me the most powerful example of legacy in the parsha as the people draw close to the Promised Land, in which God abruptly informs Moses he will not be allowed to enter.  The reason for this, we learn earlier, is that after the death of Moses’ older sister Miriam and the disappearance of Miriam’s well that had quenched the thirst of the Hebrew people throughout their wanderings in the desert, God instructed Moses to gather all the people crying out for water and bring forth water as he had done once before, this time by speaking to the rock.  Instead, Moses grows angry at the people for their ingratitude and hits the rock with his staff in frustration, unleashing not only water - but God’s ire.  Clearly, this was not the demonstration of a faith that God had in mind, and he makes Moses take the fall for it.

When we reflect on all that Moses experienced in one lifetime, it is hard to fathom what emotions must have passed through him on hearing that in one moment of anger he had forfeited his long-sought dream of entering the land of milk and honey.

That after a life that began with floating up to Pharoah’s daughter in a reed basket, being raised among royalty only to flee for his life after killing an Egyptian soldier he saw beating an enslaved fellow Jew, settling elsewhere to create a family for 40 years, speaking to God via a burning bush that he needs to prepare for the Exodus from Egypt, after repeated pleadings with Pharoah, after frogs, lice, vermin, etc, after the parting of the Red Sea and getting to the other side, after reminding people again and again that, unlike toilet paper, the supply chain of manna is infinite, so there is no need to hoard it, after carrying down Tablets 1.0, only to be greeted by the sight of a Golden Calf, and going back for Tablets 2.0, after beating back hordes of poisonous snakes with his own healing snake that becomes a symbol of healing to this day, and after responding again and again to the people’s seemingly endless doubts, misgivings and complaints, after all of this ardor and tzuris, it seems hard to conceive that Moses himself would be granted nothing more than a sneak peek from the top of Mount Abarim at the legacy others would inherit by dint of all his efforts on their behalf. 

Of all the people we meet in the Torah, Moses has the most direct, intimate experience with the Divine Presence across his long lifetime. He never serves as king.  Although he is the youngest in his family, I see him as the ultimate middle child between God and the people Israel and a skillful cajoler of both. He is also a prophet, a teacher and a devoted leader - of followers who do not always follow, who are mostly loyal, until they are not.

There are so many lessons to his legacy, we can barely count them.  And yet after everything he had done, after running the final lap of a grueling 40-year marathon of Biblical proportions, Moses suddenly learns - not only will he be prevented from crossing the finish line, but he won’t even live to set foot on the other side of it.  Instead, he will soon be gathered up with his siblings in the world to come and buried by God in an unmarked grave.

Moses later begs God in vain to give him a second chance to experience the “good land on the other side of the Jordan” when this same moment is recapitulated in Deuteronomy. But in this earlier parsha, when he is confronted with the chilling finality of God’s words, to his credit, he doesn’t hesitate.  He immediately opts to take one for the team.  His heart steps right up -- yet again -- to a place of compassion for his people, to urging God to replace him in a timely fashion, lest the people wander about like sheep without a shepherd.  And it is Joshua who will step into his shoes, rather than either of his own two sons. 

Beyond the themes of legacy, this parsha also speaks to two notions of time.  One is cyclical and the other linear.  The Jewish calendar binds us to countless cycles of recurring days and prayers rejoicing in everything from waking up in the morning to vanquishing our ancient enemies, days for grieving the loss of a loved one and for atoning for the prior year’s transgressions. Days in which we savor the miracle of each returning season of planting, flourishing and harvesting. 

We reconnect with all these recurring touchstones throughout the year like those cylindrical prayer wheels that hang in Tibetan monasteries that the monks reach out and spin as they pass while reciting their prayers.  Around and around we go through Rosh Hashana to Purim to Pesach to Shavuous and back.

But Mose’s life was a linear story.  For Moses, time stretched out like a Torah scroll that would only be unrolled – and never wound back to the beginning and repeated anew - except by all of us who inherited his legacy.

And tragically, for me at least, I feel we are witnessing in this present moment a foreshadowing of an age of non-recurrence that is unfolding before our very eyes, the legacy of humanity’s profound and shameful degradation and dismantling of the living web of land, sea and sky, which is already bringing an end to certain familiar cycles of migrations and seasons that our planet has witnessed over eons.

In the face of obvious signs of glacial melt and mass species extinction, we can no longer delude ourselves that the natural cycles and rhythms of recurrence we once relied upon as children will continue in our lifetimes. 

And here is where I’d like to take a big step sideways for a moment and take you on an imaginative journey by way of the ancient book of divination, the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Change, that some say dates back more than 5000 years, the source of which is said to be a divine oracle.  It is a book that fascinated the psychotherapist Carl Jung throughout his life. It is intended to be used as way of characterizing the essential nature of this very moment in time in which the person consulting it finds themselves. Consulting the I Ching can yield one or more of 64 possible responses or hexagrams.  Each has a name.  Interestingly Number 63 is called “After the End,” but the very last chapter, Number 64 is called “Before the End.”

I was struck recently by how closely the language of “Before the End” mirrors the literal and psychological moment of Moses reaching Mount Abarim and resonates powerfully with how we understand ourselves as we approach the completion of a long sought goal. 

I ask your indulgence in letting me read this passage and ask you to imagine Moses standing reading this to himself:

BEFORE THE END

“The accomplishment of a goal is in sight. It appears that long-impending matters may be brought to fruition with an acceptable amount of effort. Increasing clarity surrounds the meaning of situations once thought to be obscure. At the time of BEFORE THE END there is great promise for the future. A unique and sage viewpoint is present in human affairs. Order can be brought to chaotic situations.

“Because you are now unusually familiar with the elements involved in the object of your inquiry, you can evaluate and arrange them in whatever way necessary to achieve your aim. It should be a relatively simple matter to bring together groups of people in social or public-minded situations. By penetrating the psyche of each individual involved, you can arrange to gratify their needs within the group mechanism and thereby gain their co-operation.

“Yet, it would be a mistake to imagine that by achieving your aim you will bring matters to a close, that good judgment and order will prevail.

“The time BEFORE THE END can be compared to a lengthy trek over a high mountain. At some point, before reaching the peak, you can see in detail exactly how much farther you must travel.

“You will know what is involved in reaching the top because of your experience in the climb so far. However, when you do reach the peak, which has been in your sight for many long days of effort, you will have done only that.

“You will have acquired little information and no experience whatsoever about descending the other side. To rush up and over the top in an overly confident manner could bring disaster.

“In this passage The Book of Change warns at some length, of the dangers of proceeding without caution immediately BEFORE THE END. You must prepare yourself with wariness and reserve. The coming situation will be strange to you in every way, unlike any that you have experienced. In the near future you will not be able to draw upon the wealth of your acquired experience, for in many ways the time will be nothing short of a rebirth. The idea of rebirth here is a key to the meaning of the I Ching as a whole. The book ends with a new beginning, cycling back to the first hexagram, CREATIVE POWER, forever and ever into eternity.”  [Source:  The I Ching Workbook by R.L. Wing, December 19, 1979]

In this parsha, we stand as witnesses with Moses as he reaches both the pinnacle of his life and its end, calling us to imagine how we might feel if we stood in his shoes on Mount Abarim. The word Abarim means “passage.”  Is this moment a tragedy or a passage to a new era?  

Or as Mitch Albom, author of Tuesdays with Morrie, might say “All endings are also beginnings. We just don't know it at the time.”

My questions for you:

1.     How do you yourself feel about the legacy of Moses and the way his journey ends?  Do you see it as tragic, as appropriate, as a necessary evil or as creating space for a rebirth?

 

2.     How much of your own identity and life pursuit is wrapped up in what you hope to leave behind as a legacy?

 

3.     In what ways, if any, have you prepared yourself for the massive changes in our environmental, political, and economic lives that signal things may never cycle back in our lifetimes to where they were before?

Monday, July 4, 2022

Who Counts? Why Count? Who Cares? - Irene McHenry on Parshat BeMidbar

Yasher Koach to Irene on her first Davar Torah at Dorshei Derekh, June 2022

Today, as we examine parashat BeMidbar - in the wilderness – the first portion in the book of Numbers, we’ll also ponder literal numbers, and then we’ll close with a reflection on preparing for Shavuot.

So, just for fun, let’s look at where we are today by the numbers -

5th day of Sivan 5782
4th day of June 2022
Day 49 of counting the Omer
The 34th weekly Torah portion and the 1st portion of the 4th book of Moses
The Israelites are in the 2nd month of the 2nd year following the Exodus from Egypt,
This parashah is made up of 7,393 Hebrew letters, 1,823 Hebrew words, 159 verses, and 263 lines in a Torah Scroll

In the 1st portion of the book of Numbers, God directs Moses to take a census of the Israelite men, age 20 years and up, who are able to bear arms, and to count them by tribe. This first census did not count the women, the children, the disabled, the elderly.

Later, we learn the result of that the census by tribe with the numbers of suitable warriors ranging from 32,200 in the tribe of Manasseh to 74,600 in the tribe of Judah, with all 12 tribes totaling 603,550.

So, what do we make of all these numbers?

This parashat raises three questions: Who Counts? Why Count? Who Cares?

Who counts?

First, I want to share a moment in my personal journey toward converting to Judaism. It’s a moment when I realized that I had moved from wondering “Do I count?” to knowing “I want to count,” and then taking action “to count” by joining the Jewish people.

Growing up as a Lutheran, I learned from the teachings of a world-famous Jew from Nazareth known as Jesus that where two or three are gathered together in God’s name, God is also present.

So, in my practice of Judaism, I was curious to understand the rationale for the number 10 for a minyan. Researching this, I discovered several different explanations as to why the number 10 was chosen:

God agreed to save the cities of Sodom and Gomorrrah if there were 10 righteous people.

When 10 spies returned from scouting the land of Canaan, Moses described them as an “assembly” and the same Hebrew word (eh-DAH) is used in Psalm 82, which says that G0d presides in the assembly.

These explanations didn’t satisfy me.

What led me to grock the rule of 10 for a minyan was my experience attending morning minyan and kabbalat shabbat on zoom, during the two years of the pandemic. There were numerous times when there where 10 of us on the screen, but the mourners couldn’t say Kaddish because I didn’t “count” as a Jew. At first, I felt mad about not counting when I had, in fact, shown up over and over again. The mad feeling quickly turned to sadness for myself, and especially for the persons who came to the zoom service to say Kaddish for a beloved with the support of a community.

My surprising experience of prayer in a zoom group brought connection and a sense of closeness to the others on my screen, and brought a feeling of comfort in the tradition of saying Kaddish with a community. I realized that I wanted to count! After 30+ years of exploration as a fellow traveler (I understand the new term is JBA, Jew By Association), I took action to convert.

Counting can lead to action. How do you want to count in the world today, where do you want to count?

When the 10th person shows up for a minyan, a transformation takes place. Each individual in that group of 10 transforms the group to make it complete in order to energize the power of communal prayer.

Then, I learned that the term synagogue is of Greek origin with meaning as a verb - “to bring together” or as a noun - “a place of assembly, a place to come together.” The synagogue is a place to count.

And then, I became curious about the history of women in Judaism - When did they begin to count?

Jewish women began to count in the U.S. in the mid-1950s with the adoption of mixed seating by most movement synagogues. In 1973, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of Conservative Judaism voted to count women and men equally as members of a minyan and women to be eligible to be called to the Torah. We women have counted for 49 years!

When could women count as rabbis? In 1972 in Reform Judaism, in 1974 in Reconstructionist Judaism, and in 1985 in Conservative Judaism.

I’d like us to note and honor the date of the 50th anniversary, yesterday, June 3rd, of a giant step for women counting in American Judaism, the first ordination of a female rabbi in Reform Judaism, Sally Priesand. In 1972 her ordination by Hebrew Union College opened the doors to over 1,000 women rabbis today who are transforming the dynamic life of American Judaism.

Why count?

Counting in itself is a neutral activity. Counting is used to gather data. We can also
attribute meaning to counting, and take action inspired by counting.

We can count for joy, as in counting to make a morning minyan for prayer, counting the days in the miracle of Hannukah, counting the days after birth for a bris or a baby naming, counting the Omer on the way to Shavuot.

We can count in sorrow and remembrance, as in burying our dead within 24 hours, the 7 days of sitting shiva, the 30-day period of shloshim.

We count as individuals, as communities, as a country, as a world in order to gather data for taking action, such as daily tracking the numbers of those hospitalized and dying from Covid-19 (now over 1 million deaths in America), as in counting the effects of war in this one hundred days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as in counting mass shootings in our country (232 so far this year including 21 since the shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas)

We measure the days of our lives by counting and honoring significant dates in our individual lives and in Jewish community life.

Counting provides definition to a space and gives a structure to formlessness.

Counting provides data for meaning making and decision making.

I find it ironic that the original counting in today’s Parshah was to prepare for war, and now we gather together in numbers to pray communally for peace and to take communal action for peace, justice, and a sustainable world.

One benefit of counting is to raise awareness of those groups that did not count throughout history and often don’t count currently. These groups include the elderly, people with disabilities, women, LGBTQ persons, Black lives. Each of these “left out” groups has its own history of beginning to count. How can we make it possible for each person in each of these groups to count?

Today’s issues for counting –

  • How many deaths by gun violence in the past month?
  • How many children dying from hunger in Philadelphia this year?
  • How many new cases of Covid in the past week?
  • How many tons of carbon do humans emit into the atmosphere each day?
  • How many refugee families can GJC host?
  • Does a fetus count more than the pregnant mother counts?
  • How many books have been banned in Texas?
How does “counting” answer these questions and move us toward action for change to repair the world?

Who Cares?

In parashat Bemidbar, when God instructs Moses to count the Israelites, God is counting those most precious to God at that time, the children of Israel.

In any census, every individual counts equally, no one more or less than any other one. The concept of everyone counting equally relates the question of why would God be giving the Torah to the Israelites in the wilderness?

The Babylonian rabbi Rava, often cited in the Talmud, says that when people open themselves to everyone in the way that a wilderness is wide open to everyone, then God can give them the Torah.

The Sages inferred from the book of Numbers that the Torah was given in the wilderness to show that as the wilderness is free to all people, so are the words of the Torah.

Another Midrash teaches that God gave the Torah in the wilderness, so that all should have an equal claim to it.

Shavuot tells the story of God counting on the Jewish nation by giving responsibilities and obligations set forth in the 10 commandments and those laws that follow for every one to follow. Through the commandments, God counts us, cares for us, and counts on us to care for one another. The commandments are obligations that we count on each other to uphold in community.

Transition to preparation for Shavuot

The Hebrew word Shavuot translates to the English word weeks. In Leviticus, we are commanded to count the Omer each day of seven days of seven weeks from the second day of Passover, and to celebrate the fiftieth day as a holiday. We’ve been counting each special day for 49 days.

Let’s take time now to prepare for Shavuot by making space, big space in our hearts and minds for receiving Torah, to receive the mystery as we stand together, each one of us counting equally as part of the community, with humility, openness, and awe.

Questions for discussion:

1. Think about how and where you want to count. What responsibility or obligation will you take up for this year to help repair the world?

2. Think about how and where we can count as Minyan Dorshei Derekh, seekers of the way. What responsibility or obligation could we as take up for this year to help repair the world, making it a better place?

Closing (after discussion) - an exerpt from R. Yael Levy’s Journey through the Wilderness –

Each of us is uniquely formed
so as to bring forth a particular aspect of the Mystery.
We give thanks for all of who we are.
We give thanks for our places in the mysterious unfolding of all creation.
We ask that our hands be open and our hearts be pure
so that our lives can be of service
and, together with all beings, we will bring forth blessing.




Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Guide To Welcoming Guests: from Dorshei Derekh's Anti-Racism Taskforce


Haknassat Orchim (Welcoming Guests): Creating a 
Welcoming Community at Minyan Dorshei Derekh

An introductory message from the Dorshei Derekh Antiracism Task Force, November 2021

All of us like to present our best selves to others. We like to strengthen relationships with people we know and create new ones with those we meet. Chances are, we usually succeed. But sometimes, despite our good intentions, we all miss the mark; sometimes our words and behaviors have consequences we do not intend. That is especially so as we seek to embrace the full diversity within the Jewish community and reckon with the pernicious racism that’s been a part of American, and thus also American Jewish, culture and law for 400 years. The willingness of marginalized communities and individuals to expect recognition of what they have often dealt with in silence has created exciting possibilities as well as a level of discomfort among those who, often unconsciously, have grown accustomed to being at the top of the social ladder and in power.

Following important presentations as part of the December 2019 Presser Shabbat programming on dynamics of racism within our own minyan (which itself followed up on previous looks at racial implications of Mass Incarceration, Climate Justice, Immigration, and Education), Dorshei Derekh embarked on a concerted process to become an antiracist minyan. Many quickly realized that becoming more welcoming would require a careful look at our communal practices and our individual behaviors.

We created the Dorshei Derekh Antiracism Task Force, which set up reading groups to explore racism and early in 2021 shared a draft welcoming document with our members. That draft document raised some important questions and concerns. Some members felt overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of phrases to use and not to use; they wondered how they could possibly remember it all. Some found the tone accusatory. Several were worried that the list could actually shut down, rather than encourage, conversation.

The primary goal of the Welcoming Guide--presented here in a revised version--is to raise awareness about the often unintentional impact of statements we make to others, create accountability, and offer guidance to folks who may be struggling for the right words. No one is perfect; try as we might, we make mistakes. We cannot easily erase phrases from our minds and memorize others. We can hope, however, that these guidelines can, as they become second nature over time, help us prevent unintended insults and make us more welcoming.

Secondarily, we hope that the very existence of this document will reassure Jews of Color, Sephardic Jews, differently-abled Jews, Jews by Choice, queer and gender-expansive Jews, non-Jews -- all who join us, whether once or permanently -- that we truly want to welcome each other with open hearts and minds, fulfill the mitzvot of haknassat orchim (welcoming guests) and kavod habriot (honoring all of God’s creation), and build what Martin Luther King, Jr., called “Beloved Community.”

We suggest that you peruse this document, set it aside, then reread it a few more times. If you deem some of the suggestions here unhelpful, don’t use them, or substitute what makes sense to you. And don’t forget: we all make mistakes, and we all know how to forgive.

We acknowledge with much appreciation the organizations whose welcoming guides served as models for ours: Friends General Conference, Unitarian Universalist Association, and Congregation Kol Tzedek.

-- Dorshei Derekh Antiracism Task Force: Tamara Cohen, Andrea Jacobs, Beth Janus, Malkah Binah Klein, David Mosenkis, Jennifer Paget, Dina Pinsky, Atenea Rosado, George Stern, Elyse Wechterman. November 2021

Here are our suggestions for ways to reach out, introduce yourself, and show interest -- all while respecting boundaries.

 Engaging with a person whose name you don’t remember, or whom you don’t recognize...





























 ALWAYS REMEMBER: Don’t be afraid to reach out, introduce yourself, and show interest. It’s the only way to be welcoming!

 

Parshat Bo: David Mosenkis Presents the Monthly Anti-Racism Davar Torah, 2021

צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף 

D’var Torah – Parashat Bo - 5782/2022

First, a quick summary of this momentous parashah.  It opens with the 8th and 9th plagues, locusts and darkness. Pharaoh continues to refuse to let the Israelites go and worship God in the wilderness.  God then tells Moses, and Moses tells Pharaoh, that there will be one more plague, the killing of the firstborn. There is then a pause in the drama while God gives instructions for the Passover lamb sacrifice that the Israelites are to offer that evening, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, and the commandment for the seven-day holiday of Passover. The Israelites are then instructed to mark their doorposts with blood to indicate their homes should be spared from the last plague. In the middle of the night, God kills all Egyptian firstborns, human and cattle. The Israelites request and receive objects of silver and gold from the Egyptians, as God had told them to. And they leave Egypt, baking unleavened cakes on their way out. Moses repeats the rituals of the Passover holiday for the people to follow when God leads them into the land God promised to their ancestors, along with the redemption of firstborn children and animals.

Looking at this week’s parashah through an anti-racism lens, it is not hard to find teachings that can inform and inspire our present-day quest for racial justice.

First, the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt has been a powerful inspiration for liberation movements over the generations, and has been especially potent for the African American struggle for liberation, first from slavery, and subsequently from continuing oppression. We can find in today’s parashah a precedent for the layers of oppression that Black Americans have faced in their quest for liberation. Moses starts by asking for the Israelites to be able to go and worship God in the wilderness. At first Pharaoh says no, then is persuaded by the plagues to say: OK, worship your God, but here in Egpyt, not in the wilderness. Then he says OK, go to the wilderness but only men, no children. Then he says OK all the people, but no cattle, before he is finally convinced to allow all the people and their animals to leave. Even after the Exodus, Pharaoh changes his mind and tries to recapture the Israelites. 

These reluctant insufficient steps toward liberation are echoed in the Black American liberation experience. The United States’ Pharaoh, the white power structure, eventually and reluctantly ended chattel slavery, but soon replaced it with the practices of Jim Crow: OK, you can be technically “free”, but you can’t vote, can’t receive an education, can’t own property, etc.  Eventually the U.S. Pharaoh said OK, we’ll eliminate explicitly racist laws, but maintain racial segregation and discrimination through practices like redlining and restrictive covenants, and restricting economic opportunity. In the next phase, commonly termed the “New Jim Crow”, Blacks were and continue to be targeted with differential law enforcement, resulting in mass incarceration and ongoing disparities in access to education, economic opportunity, and power.

Secondly, also in today’s parashah is the precedent for reparations for slavery.  It is first commanded in Exodus 11:2-3:

Tell the people to borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.


The LORD disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people. Moreover, Moses himself was much esteemed in the land of Egypt, among Pharaoh’s courtiers and among the people.


And then it is carried out in Exodus 12:35-36:


The Israelites had done Moses’ bidding and borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing.

And the LORD had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians.

The word “borrow” can alternatively be translated as “ask for”. 

The Book of Jubilees (an ancient Hebrew text that did not make it into the Bible) says: “This asking was in order to despoil the Egyptians in return for the bondage in which they had forced them to serve.”

The medieval commentator Sforno says: In Moses' honor the Egyptians gave generously to the Israelites.

It is fascinating how the Plaut Torah commentary, published by the Reform movement in 1981, tersely comments on these verses: “Note also the demands for restitution made by the black revolutionary movement in the United States.”

Thirdly, there are different models of bringing about justice.  How does God bring Pharaoh around to the right point of view?  From the opening verses of today’s parashah:


You may recount in the hearing of your child and of your child’s child how I made a mockery of the Egyptians . . . How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me?

This is a model of total domination and humiliation, which was deemed necessary in the face of Pharaoh’s arrogant and repeated hard-hearted refusal to let the Israelites go. Is there another model for opening people to a just perspective?

There is a classical midrash in which Pharaoh is spared at the Red Sea, and ends up leading his people in repenting. In the Midrash, Pharoah became king of Nineveh, where, hundreds of years later, Jonah came and brought word from God that in three days Nineveh would be destroyed because of its wickedness. Pharaoh remembered when Moses brought God's word that Egypt was doomed. So this time, he listened and led the people of Nineveh in repentance. The wording in the book of Jonah, “The people of Ninveveh believed in God”, mimics that in Exodus right before the Song of the Sea: “They believed in God”. The people of Nineveh were brought to belief in God by none other than Pharaoh, when he told them of the wonders that occurred in Egypt and the Red Sea. The fact that someone like Pharaoh, who time and again refused to recognize the power of God, could repent and teach a whole city about the truth of God, is a remarkable lesson in the strength of repentance.

I want to invite us to explore how we approach our anti-racism efforts. Do we emulate God’s approach in Egypt of blaming and humbling those who perpetuate racism? Or do we emulate God’s and the king of Nineveh’s approach of inviting people into repentance? While there may be times in the struggle for racial justice that require strong public rebuke, for the work we are doing inside our own GJC community, I invite us to proceed with compassion, love, and respect. 

All of us grew up in a society steeped in racism, whether or not we were aware of it. None of us asked for this, but none of us could avoid messages of white supremacy and Black inferiority from seeping into our conscious and unconscious minds. It was the air that we breathed, and we are not to blame for having those attitudes and thoughts lurking somewhere inside us. As I see it, our challenge is to uncover any unconscious racial bias we harbor, strive not to let it influence our thoughts and actions, and work to dismantle the oppressive systems that centuries of racism have built up.

How can we approach our anti-racism journey as a cooperative venture? As a way to help each other liberate ourselves from the dehumanizing effects of racism? All of us have blind spots, and we need each other to help see them. I believe that is best done with compassion rather than blame, shame, or guilt. With a loving approach, we can support each other to overcome our defensive reactions, and maybe even celebrate anytime an artifact of our racist conditioning comes to light.

The big sign on the GJC lawn near Emlen Street says “Black Lives Matter” on one side.  The other side sometime reads “Tzedek tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice – pursue it.”. Why does this verse from Deuteronomy repeat the word justice?  To teach us to pursue justice in a just way.  I believe the just way to fulfill our goal to be an antiracist community is to approach each other with compassion.

 

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Stefan Presser z"l Social Justice Retropsective: 15 Years!


Last night we gathered on Zoom for Havadalah and to hear from four of our leading Tikkun Olam activists: Donald Joseph, David Mosenkis, Tamara Cohen, and Seth Lieberman.

Betsy Teutsch shared this history of the Stefan Presser Memorial Social Justice Shabbat programing.

Stefan’s presence in our minyan intensified along with his illness. He was a husband to Sandy and father of their three young kids [adults, and all present tonight!], in his late 40s, when diagnosed with a brain tumor. His prognosis was not great. He had been a member of Dorshei Derekh for several years, but once ill, he came to Dorshei Derekh most every shabbat, often sharing where he was on this distressing journey. When he had to stop working, and his world became smaller, the times he spent with us became increasingly precious. He radiated love, and we all beamed it back at him. Many of our members regularly went to visit with him as he became more frail.

He died on Shabbat Shuvah, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in 2005. A few of us organized a program on his 2nd yahrzeit. His dear friend Professor Seth Kreimer spoke on legal issues issues of the day.

My memory is hazy on how we decided to repeat this annually, but I recall meeting up with David Mosenkis at High Point to kick around ideas. Stefan had been the Legal Director of the Pennsylvania ACLU and many Minyan teens interned for him. Inviting them to speak was a way for us all to process both the loss of Stefan, and nurture his legacy. We got to hear what work Ari Spicehandler Brochin, Josh Marcus, Frances Kreimer, and our son Zach Teutsch, were up to. They are all active in social justice work as adults.

By 2010 our planning group included Donald Joseph. In Stefan’s memory we  planned an annual program on a specific social justice topic in the late fall/early winter. While the GJC community was always invited, it has primarily been an internal Dorshei Derekh event.

Our formula was to choose an issue we wanted to learn more about, invite an expert activist to speak, and pair them with someone with substantial Jewish insight on the topic. Adding a lunch or, as we called it, lunchy kiddush, encouraged people to stick around. This was our approach for the ensuing decade, pulled off on a shoestring, funded by our minyan treasury.

In the ‘0s, Germantown Jewish Centre’s social justice portfolio resided in the Social Action Committee. This committee was tasked with the annual MLK program done in conjunction with local churches, through the Neighbourhood Interfaith Movement. They also planned the annual Granger Shabbat focusing on local social justice issues. Additionally, the committee focused on direct service, organizing volunteers for tutoring and Story Times at our neighborhood’s Henry and Houston Schools. GJC’s program for housing and feeding homeless families, the Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network, began in 1996, a complex undertaking with its own team of in-house volunteers. It became a major focus of direct service GJC mitzvah activity.

What was missing at GJC was a way for members with a passion around a particular cause to organize and build support for shared activism. We have always had many members involved in a myriad of issues. In our minyan Stefan brought his ACLU background; Mike Masch z”l was our pipeline to city politics, as well as to Harrisburg and Pennsylvania state government policy and budget. It’s not every minyan that offers a misheberach when the State Budget passes!

Many of our Stefan Presser program topics were proposed by Dorshei Derekh members wanting a platform for causes in which they were  already immersed. Malkah Binah Klein became our committee chair, and brought some specific programs, including the one on Gun Violence and another on Returning Citizens. On some level, we used this Social Justice annual program as an incubator; quite a few of the topics grew into synagogue-wide concerns. 

In 2016 the GJC Social Action Committee was restructured as the Tikkun Olam Coordinating Team. One of those working to bring about this change is our own Abby Weinberg. The mission is now very different, supporting members to advocate and organize for the causes they care about, and running programs where congregants can get involved. Tikkun Olam means Repairing the World; clearly we have continued providing direct services to but have expanded to working for systemic changes.

And we will be hearing Donald Joseph’s update on the Pennsylvania School Funding Trial, the culmination of decades of work by the Public Interest Law Center.

David Mosenkis will be talking in a few minutes about the synagogue’s deepening commitment to POWER, a state-wide multi-faith multi-racial movement advocating for systemic change in a number of arenas.

We will be hearing from Seth Lieberman, the chair of the synagogue-wide Refugee Committee. 

We will be hearing from Tamara Cohen, on the minyan’s antiracism task force, along with hearing about the synagogue’s.

These are all topics that we featured at specific Social Justice shabbatot, and are now woven into our synagogue’s work.

Personal activism and community organizing have taken off exponentially since the beginning of our Presser Shabbatot in 2008. The language around this work has changed. We have moved from Social Action to Social Justice to Tikkun Olam. We are now more nuanced about justice: we speak of racial justice, environmental and climate justice, reproductive justice, education justice, disability justice, and gender justice. Kol Tzedek, the Reconstructionist Congregation in West Philly where many GJC Gen Xers are active, including Josh Marcus, named itself Kol Tzedek, A Voice for Justice - right there, front and center. There are many similar synagogues around the country that have sprung up with a primary focus on Tikkun Olam.

Obviously, the 4 years of the previous administration raised the pursuit of social justice to a crisis level. And 2 years of a pandemic have reset most everything.

The Jewish community has generated ever more justice-oriented organizations. Keeping track of all of them is challenging!

Tonight we are reflecting on how social justice/Tikkun Olam moved from the periphery of Dorshei Derekh - something some of our members were devoted to - to becoming a central focus of our community.  And how Dorshei’s Derekh commitment to these values connects to GJC, our larger home.

We cannot claim that our Stefan Presser Social Justice programs brought this about, but we immodestly perhaps, do think they have helped to galvanize Dorshei Derekh, and motivated many of us to get more involved in initiatives we learned about at these programs. Indeed, we are better together. Pursuing justice is more effective, and more satisfying, when it’s a shared effort.

    - Betsy Teutsch, January 29, 2022