Tag Archives: social action

My Social Justice Story

During my time in high school, a group known the Fellowship for Christian Athletes was active. I went to a public school, so their presence was controversial, at least to me. They sponsored a moment of silence at the start of each day, a veiled version of school prayer. They had Bible study sessions. They were active in other ways, too. One day, I happened to mention the Fellowship to my rabbi, and he became incensed. For him, their presence was a clear church/state violation. By the end of the day, the rabbi was on the phone with the local ADL chapter and with my father. As things began to roll, and as it became clear that I would be a player in this fight, my father said to my rabbi, “We are going to leave Neil out of this.”

I was furious. I wanted to fight. I wanted to say, “Put me in, coach! I’m ready to play!” My father and I discussed it, and his punch line was simple, “I do not want you going to school in the middle of a fire. Go become a rabbi, and then you can take on this fight for some other kid.”

I heeded my father’s advice. I sat that one out. They made some phone calls, and they called a few meetings between school officials and community leaders. As a result, the Fellowship lost its footing in my high school, though they did not go away. I went off to become rabbi.

I first told that story to Rabbi Jonah Pesner. At the time, he was the founder and director of Just Congregations, and he went ahead and put me into the fight. I was one of his rabbinic interns. That story for me, was the foundational experience out of which my sense of justice was born. Rabbi Pesner helped me identify this story, and taught me how it was fuel for my work in social justice.

This last month, after 40 years under the leadership of Rabbi David Saperstein, Rabbi Pesner has been appointed as the new director of the Religious Action Center (the RAC) in Washington D.C.

For more than 50 years, the RAC has served as the hub of Jewish social justice and legislative activity. Each year, Ellie Goldman and I travel with our 9th Graders to the RAC to participate in their L’taken seminar. The RAC awards the Fain Award for excellence in congregational social action programming. Temple Shalom has won the award a couple of times. We are a congregation who holds Tikkun Olam as a core value, and we have kept a relationship alive with the RAC that has helped us to live out that value.

When you come into our synagogue building, the opportunity to do justice is always present. We can bring cans of tuna fish or tomato products, which are then donated to Family Table, serving a large population of hungry in our broad community. At Yom Kippur we fill a truck that supplies the Newton Food Pantry for months. We have countless drives for clothing, glasses, and other goods that make the lives of others a little easier. This year, we were a Fifth Night site—families were invited to bring presents to Birthday Wishes, instead of receiving gifts that night. We continue to be involved in the conversation to bring more affordable housing to Newton. And we are a part of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, fighting for a more just Boston. We are an active community in the world of social justice. This work requires many volunteers, and I thank each and every one of you who have taken part in some social action or social justice program or initiative this year. You are living out the values that we espouse.

“For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Eternal God by doing what is just and right.” Israel’s specialness is linked to its mission: to walk b’derekh Adonai, on God’s path, la-asot tzedek u’mishpat, to do what is just and right. May we, as a sacred community, travel that path from strength to strength, always one step closer toward a world more whole.

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Music Is All Around

By Joanna Grill
Joanna is an active participant in our High School Youth programs, MA’ARIV, SHAFTY and NFTY-NE. This summer, Joanna was a participant in the URJ’s Urban Mitzvah Corps New Jersey. This post originally appeared on the UMC Blog.

On the Urban Mitzvah Corps (UMC) packing list, I was ecstatic when I saw that “musical instruments” was listed. When I play my guitar here at the Phi Sigma Sigma house, people will walk downstairs and gravitate towards the music in the living room, whether it is a pop song or a Jewish song. I find that the best feeling is to start playing guitar for a group of people, and to end the song with everyone singing along and smiling with me. I led sing-alongs with a large group downstairs, with just girls in the Girls’ Lounge on the third floor, with my three roommates, and with just the music master himself –our own Shawn Fogel. I stepped out of my comfort zone last week and tried song leading for the first Friday night Shabbat service of the session – and I loved it.

Joanna with Kayla, UMC 2014 Student Coordinator, at A Better World Market, one of Elijah’s Promise’s sites.
Joanna (right) at A Better World Market, one of Elijah’s Promise’s sites.
Music is all around. We sang along on the van ride to my job site and took turns “DJ-ing”. My job site, Elijah’s Promise, is a soup kitchen on the other side of New Brunswick. We work 3 days a week at Elijah’s Promise soup kitchen, one day at its pay-as-you-can-café, and one day at its market. We arrive at 10am and prepare food and clean the kitchen until 11am. Then, we serve lunch. As volunteers, we have the opportunity to look a person in the eye and directly hand them a meal that is potentially their only meal of the day. I used to avoid eye contact and judge homeless people on the street. Now, when I’m walking around New Brunswick, I see many of the people I have served. When I look into a client’s eyes and talk to them, I get a glimpse of his or her life. Often they tell jokes or make me laugh while I’m handing them food. Other times, they tell me how their days are going and ask me about myself. People often ask for more servings than what is allowed, and it’s a challenge to say no, once you begin to sympathize and hear their stories. The experience at Elijah’s is both eye-opening and humbling; I never used to think twice about where my next meal was coming from.

Today, all four volunteers from UMC got to serve in front. We met some hilarious clients and had a blast. Out of all the days I have spent here in New Brunswick, today was by far the best. After our lunch break, we made pickles and chopped up several different kinds of vegetables for a huge soup. Hey, remember when I said I loved music? It was a bit quiet today chopping, so I asked Chef Pam if we could bring in our speakers and plug my phone in. All of us from Mitzvah Corps had an incredibly fun sing along while making a tremendous amount of food. I spilled pickle juice down my shirt, but I was having too much fun at the soup kitchen to care. Chef Pam, who is filled with unbelievable spirit and energy, walked in and out of the room as we were chopping. Pam smiled and sang along with us. During one song, Pam jumped in the room, pulled me away from my cutting board and had me teach her the dance to the Cupid Shuffle. Meanwhile, we were chopping onions and were all in tears and having the time of our lives singing with each other. Chef Pam, a complete stranger to us at the beginning of the day, was brought closer to us through serving clients, preparing food, and especially through dancing to music.

Music has been my connection to all of the communities I have interacted with here at UMC, from the house, to my job site. Tonight, UMC participants are leading a service at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple, a temple in New Brunswick. I will be standing with my guitar along with all my friends in front of the congregants, all complete strangers. But by the end of the night, I know that the beautiful songs that we will share will bring us together as a community.

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Between Last Year and the Next

The writer Henry Ward Beecher once noted that “We should so live and labor in our time that what came to us as seed may go to the next generation as blossom, and what came to us as blossom may go to them as fruit. This is what we mean by progress.”

As Reform Jews, we know what it means to strive forward. The early Reformers made prayer and religious involvement relevant in the lives of those in their communities by evolving practices to be in line with their times. They introduced prayer in the vernacular, seeing that not everyone in the pews had a grasp of the Hebrew. They included women as members of the minyan. And they introduced the popular instruments of the time, beautifying the sacred music that was a part of the worship experience. As Leonard Fine entitled his study of Reform Judaism several decades ago, “Reform is a Verb…. The process of Reform is an ongoing, dynamic one, not a static process that has reformed and is finished becoming.”

With summer close by and with the anticipation of warm sun on our faces, we are looking back at this past year.  We see all that we have done as a community. This has been a year of evolution and reform for Temple Shalom, and it is quite remarkable.

This year was a year of change for the youth within our congregation. The year began with a celebration and the launch of MINCHA, our new 7th and 8th grade program. Each Tuesday throughout the year, our students have gathered together to build community with one another, and to learn and live the value of G’milut Chasadim, loving-kindness. Throughout the year, our students traveled to various organizations to volunteer and give back. When the students were here at the Temple, under the leadership of our Director of Youth Engagement, Ellie Goldman they were learning what it means to be a part of a sacred congregation, to be responsible to and for one another. With each week in MINCHA, we noticed a remarkable growing in how our young people treated one another. Respect and honor to one another were always present in a MINCHA session.

This coming year, we are looking forward to the launch of SHACHARIT, our new K-6 learning program, and MA’ARIV, our re-visioned High School initiative. Each, we hope, will be a new blossom in bloom for our congregation.

5774 was also a time to expand our horizons, and to better understand Jewish peoplehood and our own spiritual lives. 35 individuals within our congregation traveled to Cuba, to experience the Jewish community there. What they found was not only a beautiful country and fascinating chapter in the story of our Jewish people, but a reflection of our own story and a deeper understanding of our own Jewish journeys. 30 learners gathered this year to continue their studies through the Shalom Hartman Institute to explore the concept of the Tribes of Israel, and how they are still alive and well in Israeli and Diaspora life. 40 people tried out Shira Yoga–a new Shabbat yoga experience we piloted this Spring. With each of these different opportunities to engage in Jewish living, we found that we were enriched as a congregation, and we pray that each individual who participated experienced growth in themselves.

5774 will surely merge smoothly into 5775 with ongoing initiatives. Our Worship Task Force is hard at work examining how we worship and celebrate Shabbat and other sacred times together.  Shalom Y’all – our outreach efforts to 20s-30s has brought a growing number of young adults into relationship in and around Temple Shalom.  Bonim has expanded its Lunch With the Pros series, and our Sisterhood and Brotherhood continue to build community through a diverse range of activities. Our Family With Young Children Task Force has expanded our offerings and begun to reach out more broadly into the community around us.  Our Adult Learning Task Force is exploring new ways to draw more of us into the journey of Life-long Jewish Learning.  The coming year will see another Temple Shalom Trip to Israel in December and come next June, our first –ever Jewish Heritage Trip to Eastern Europe.  Put simply, this year, Temple Shalom has been a hub of activity.

On Kol Nidrei night, our President, Jo-Ann Suna, presented the new vision for our congregation. A team of leaders gathered this year to create and implement a new strategic plan for the congregation. The hope is to be personal, to be welcoming, to find new and different ways to engage in Jewish life.

As we look to 5775, we look forward to the evolutions and growth that is bound to happen on that front. The Jewish tradition has a concept of Shalshelet HaKabbalah, the sacred chain of transmission. We take Torah and pass it on to the next generation. In each generation, we determine how to make Torah for ourselves. We are in that process, and we are seeing that process take root. We have enjoyed seeing what has come from our evolutions and growth, and we cannot wait to see what blossoms next.

We wish you a relaxing and restorative summer.  We look forward to gathering to welcome not only the New Year, but one another as we continue to build on this year’s accomplishments and continue to go “from strength to strength.”


Rabbi Eric Gurvis and Rabbi Neil Hirsch

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Seeing our Contributions

Just before Thanksgiving, Temple Shalom held its annual Pie & Tie Drive. We’ve had a Pie Drive for many, many years–sending out pies to homebound individuals as part of Thanksgiving meals. It’s been a wonderful tradition within our community.

Just a couple of years ago, we added in the ties. They go to Year Up, and organization dedicated to providing “urban young adults with the skills, experience, and support that will empower them to reach their potential through professional careers and higher education.” Earlier today, I received an email from one of their organizers, with photos of their Dress for Success class. Many of the participants learned how to tie their ties that day, remarking things like “This tie matches my shirt perfectly. It’s like it was made for me!” and “I look sharp in this tie.”

It’s so great to be able to draw connections between ourselves and other organizations around town. I am so grateful and proud that we can be a part of a broader community. Thank you to everyone from our Social Action team who made the Pie & Tie Drive a success this year.

Here are some photos from their Dress for Success day:


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Slow, Cold Anger

The following is the text from my Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon.


This past August, over my summer vacation, I was in New York City visiting some friends. My first afternoon in town, I made sure to go for a run in Central Park, one of my favorite spots to be. The weather was perfect, like something out of a Woodie Allen film, with small puffy clouds and perfect temperatures. It seemed like everyone was making excuses to be outside.

Within Central Park, there is a wonderful 6-mile road that is a runner’s delight; it is a perfect route. As I got into the second mile of my run, I was heading toward the southern bend in the road. This area, which goes near Columbus Circle, along Central Park South, and turns up on the East Side near the Apple Store, brings in a lot of tourists. Mix those people with other runners, other bikers, walkers, and dogs, and you have created a veritable mine field.

To this point I had always made it out of this corner of the park unscathed. On this occasion, my winning streak ended. As I came around the corner, I was finally hitting my stride, able to pick up my pace. All of a sudden, I sensed something behind me, and my legs began to buckle underneath me. Before I could process what was going on, I was knocked to the pavement, landing hard on my shoulder. As I fell, the guy who crashed into me came tumbling down, too, along with his bicycle. The bike dug into my hip and all six feet, five inches and 220 pounds of him came down on top of that. From underneath this pile up, I heard something metal and plastic hit the ground too, and shatter.

Fairly quickly, the other guy was up, and another person had lifted the bike off me. I was able to get up, and I checked to see if I was okay. A few scrapes, and I knew there would be some bruising, but I was okay.

I spun around looking for the guy who hit me. He was on the ground picking up the pieces of what I had heard shatter–his camcorder.

The man, still crouching, picking up his broken camera, had not even stopped to ask if I was alright. His first priority was that camera. Well, I was not going to wait for him. I saw red, and I went ballistic. I yelled and I screamed. I shook off the dust, tapped into a buried, Hulk-like New Yorker that I somehow picked up along the way, and shared with him every single four-letter word I had within me. I detonated verbal nukes that I am embarrassed to say I knew.

As I gave into this flash of anger, I noticed standing next to the man, on anther bicycle was his seven-year-old son. I went from seeing red to feeling red. My anger transformed into embarrassment. I was angry this man had run over me with his bike, and rightfully so, I still believe. Anger is anger; we feel it when, we feel it. And, I now realize, having been hot under the collar then, I did not react in the most appropriate fashion. For that, I am profoundly sorry. But, missteps are wonderful teachers.

In that moment, standing there a little scraped up in Central Park, but mostly okay, my anger abated. As I stood there, trying to figure out what to do next, I imagined Moses standing beside the rock with water flowing, holding onto his staff, having just disobeyed God, yet still having met the Israelite’s thirst.

Moses and the Israelites had been wandering through the Wilderness for a generation.

The community was aging, and Moses led them from Egypt to this place, but not yet to the Promised Land, that place that flows with milk and honey. God guided the way by smoke and by fire, and as the generation who knew Egypt came to a close, a second generation of Israelite was coming of age in the Wilderness.

The Israelites knew about loss. At this particular moment in the Israelite’s story, Miriam, Moses & Aaron’s sister, died. The community watched and grieved as Moses, the Prophet, and his brother, the Priest, sought out a gravesite and laid their sister’s body to rest. At the same time, another problem presented itself along with the grief the community felt: with Miriam’s death, the wells that were the Israelites’ source of water dried up, and thirst began to set in.


Because of their thirst, the Israelites showed up on Moses doorstep, pleading with him to find water. Otherwise, they were the ones who would surely meet death, not just Miriam. Moses, in his grief, must have been thinking: G’valt, I have to deal with this now, too?

Moses and Aaron took themselves before God, and they lowered their faces. God speaks up with a plan: Take you staff, go over to the rock, and speak to it, and it will give you water for the Israelites.

Talk to the rock? … Can’t we get something a little bit bigger? Something more Red-Sea?  Something more… miraculous? Moses looked down at the staff in his hand, hot anger welled up from within, and he felt the weight of it. The staff did so much for him before. It helped him free the Israelites from Pharaoh’s grasp. He had extended that very staff over the Red Sea to make it part. He held it up over the Israelites as they vanquished the Amalakites in war.

Suddenly, like Abraham about to slay his beloved Isaac, Moses lifted up his staff again over his head. But unlike Abraham in the Akeidah, no angel appeared to stop him. Moses brought the staff down, striking the rock with such anger and force, that the rock cleaved open. Water flowed out, and the Israelites’ thirst was quenched. But Moses failed in his relationship with God. Moses struck out in hot anger and in faithlessness against God, letting his human qualities flow out, and in doing so, he fell short.

We get angry; we’ve all been there. Anger is a hard-wired emotion. In response to some sort of wrong that we feel, anger–hot or cold, fast or slow–can well up within us.

When the lightning fast flash of rage is there, we are subject to a violent, destructive force. That is fast, hot anger.

Still, we know another type of anger, one that burns slowly. In this anger exists power and energy. When anger burns as a low flame, we keep it far from becoming an explosive moment. Still, its heat is recognizable. This type of anger–slow, cold anger–is a transformative gift. When we allow it to become an engulfment of rage, we squander its power. But, when we slow it down, we harness its power.

We find the lessons of slow anger throughout the liturgy in our High Holidays. Many times in our services over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we will pray: “Adonai, Adonai El rachum v’chanun, erech apayaim v’rav chesed; Eternal God, Eternal God, merciful and gracious God, You are slow to anger and abounding in kindness.” This is Avinu Malkeinu, the parental and ruling God whom we meet in these days. Not a vengeful and wrathful God, who is far from us. But a real presence who–even with all of our failings in this past year–models slow anger as balanced best in the company of kindness.

In the God of the High Holy Days lives an example for how we can approach the anger we feel. We too can be slow to anger, and we too can abound in kindness. Maybe it is a particular relationship that sets us on edge, or maybe it is a particular issue that fires us up. With erech apayim v’rav chesed as our mantra, there is a fuel within us that–this time–can transform that anger, that can transform it into something else, into something better. In slow anger, we have a medicine for brokenness, and we find a path toward wholeness. We know that “hot anger and rage are wrong. Apathy and resignation are wrong. [Yet] There is an in-between–a cold anger–this is right on.”

I say it is right on, because when we look at examples within our history, we see moments that slow, cold anger was harnessed to bring about lasting change for the better in our community. We know it from our own people’s story as we established ourselves here in the States.

In the early 1900’s, as young Jews settled in the Lower East Side, they sought out work and opportunity. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was a large factory that gave easy employment, but maintained miserable working conditions. They were not alone in these practices, and a labor movement was already underway.

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, many of these young Jewish immigrants went to work at the Triangle factor. Late in the afternoon, a discarded cigarette butt lit up scraps of unused fabric, and a fire broke out. Workers tried to put out the fire, but they were unsuccessful, and people tried to evacuate. Except they could not; the door to the stairway had  been locked from the outside, a tactic to deter workers from taking unapproved breaks or from leaving early from their shift. In the end, 146 individuals lost their lives in that fire, most of whom were just at the start of their adult lives.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was one example of many in the early 20th Century of big fires that had led to senseless death. After each fire, there would be heated speeches and impassioned pleas to fix the communal wrongs that the fires exposed, to address the callousness that permitted such disasters. Slow anger built over time, because of these various events, and because of the awareness building that writers like Upton Sinclair and photographers like Lewis Hine did. Out of the Triangle factory fire, a resolution was drafted to demand action in Albany. Legislation was quickly created and passed, only three months after the fire. Out of this fire, survivors  and activists harnessed meaningful, slow anger, and created something called the “Fire Escape,” which has saved how many countless lives since then?

Hot and cold anger were to be found in the community who organized after that fire, and we can point to other moments in our community’s narrative in which slow, cold anger led to significant moments for our community. Having just commemorated the 50th anniversary of the march on Washington, we are reminded that it began because of anger over racial inequality in the workplace. This past year, supporters flooded the State Capitol Building in Texas as State Senator Wendy Davis filibustered against a resolution that would limit a woman’s reproductive rights. At the start of each month Women of the Wall gather at the base of the kotel in anger that prayer there cannot be expressed a personal freedom. All of these are manifestations of communal anger over status quo. They represent watershed moments in fights for various rights and equality. In many respects these are all fires sparked of the same flint: a group’s slow, cold anger at perceived communal brokenness, which fuels a want to see something better in the world.

Friends, anger that is focused, deep, slow, and cold is a key element in actively pursuing justice and tikkun olam, in actively working to leave this world a little bit more whole than it was the day before.

On this Rosh Hashanah, as we begin to engage in the process of Cheshbon Hanefesh, the appraisal of our beings, identify within ourselves a slow, cold anger upon which we would like to act? Personally, I stay up at night wondering if I will ever be able to get out from underneath my own burden of student debt. I find myself to be angry about the status of college financing. How many of us wring our hands when we learn that health care costs will go up, and wonder what that will do to our take-home pay? I had a conversation with a friend recently who grew up here in Newton, and even as he makes a comfortable living, finds himself struggling to find an apartment in the Boston area whose rent is affordable. After the shooting at Newtown and the bombings in Back Bay, were we not scared about our children’s and our own safety on any given day? Opening up the news to see what’s going on in Israel, hearing friends who live there talk about how they had to head over to the Post Office to pick up new gas masks–does that not wake something up deep within us? Do the words SYRIA and IRAN not stir us?

Real problems and challenges exist in our world. And I believe, based out of anger and also hope, I fervently believe that we–as a community– are poised to do something meaningful and impactful, to shake off the feelings that the problems are too large, and to make some change for the better, by being proactive. We can begin to feel the pistons of slow anger churn us in a direction that make us feel like we can win in the challenge to better our community, our city, our corner of the world.

On Sunday, September 22 at 11:30, our congregation will gather to kick off the new year. As part of that, our Social Action committee–the vehicle by which we engage in bettering our community–will present countless ways to do something in 5774. We talk about the various ways that we as a congregation can be dedicated to tikkun olam. I know that many of us are already deeply engaged in this sort of work either here at Temple Shalom or with other wonderful non-profit organizations. Im lo akshav eimatai? If not now, when? Now–at the start of this New Year–is the time to acknowledge, embrace, and get angry about the fact that we live in a fractured world. And then, we get to work. On September 22, we are going to offer many ways to jump on in.

Let me end with a prayer, one that we will hear over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: Adonai, Adonai El rachum v’chanun, Erech apayim v’rav chesed. Eternal God, Eternal God, merciful and kind God, You are slow to anger and abounding in kindness. Teach us the gift of slow anger. Allow us to feel it, to embrace it, to be energized by it. Guide us with good counsel toward ma-asim tovim, good, righteous, and sacred acts that bring about tikkun olam, the meaningful repair of Your fractured world. For we pray that one day, our children, and our children’s children can experience Your ideal–a world that is whole and complete, a world that filled with shalom.

AmenShanah Tova.

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