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