Tag Archives: Tikkun Olam

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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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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Finding Comfort in an Uncomfortable Time

To say the least, it has been a sad and surreal week here in the Boston area.

As we gathered in the office of Newton Mayor Setti Warren prior to Wednesday evening’s Newton Community Vigil the mayor asked how the assembled clergy how folks in our congregations were reacting.  Several of the clergy gathered responded with different responses.  I remember commenting that my feeling was that “people are in shock.”

Standing on the steps outside Newton City Hall a short while later, as our community gathered for its vigil, there was a noticeable measure of comfort in being with friends, neighbors, and yes even folks we don’t know.  Simply being together as a community brought comfort in a very trying time.

Mayor Tom Menino

Mayor Tom Menino

For me, that feeling was underscored and intensified as I sat in the congregation at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross yesterday for the Healing Our City Interfaith Service.  I had not planned on attending the event.  Guided by advice from leaders in our Jewish community, I planned on watching it, like most of you, on television. Then I awoke yesterday morning to messages from two Christian colleagues informing me that they had included me on a list of folks to attend the service.  I was deeply touched, and hurriedly dressed and headed for the Cathedral. I’m glad I did.

Governor Deval Patrick

Governor Deval Patrick

Sitting in that community, and especially in a part of the assembled in which I sat surrounded by Christian, Muslim and Jewish colleagues, I found myself reminded even more potently of the power of community.  I know that power in my bones. It’s a feeling I often experience in our Temple Shalom community.  However, it’s not often that I have the opportunity to sit in the community, in the congregation, and simply feel that power.

President Barack Obama at Heal Our City Interfaith Service

President Barack Obama
at Heal Our City Interfaith Service

Hearing the words of my clergy colleagues, several of whom are friends; hearing Mayor Tom Menino (and watching him heroically project a strength that his body clearly belies); hearing our Governor and our President – all amounted to a powerful experience that brought a sense of comfort that has been elusive for so many of us this week.

As Jews, we live out our rituals and customs in our families and in the larger context of our communities.  Judaism has never been about solitary activity.  I often speak and write about community.  Indeed, Judaism is most powerful when we experience it in community. Whether it’s study, prayer, tikkun olam, celebration, and yes, gathering to find solace and comfort, we are hopelessly (or should I say hopefully) communal.  Indeed, I often speak of our “Temple Shalom family.”  For me, they are not mere words.  They are an expression of a feeling that was instilled in me as a child growing up in my home congregation.  It is a reality I have tried to recreate in each of the communities in which I have served over the course of my thirty years in the rabbinate.  When I teach children in our Temple Shalom family, I am teaching my children.  When I celebrate – a new child, a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, a wedding or whatever, I am with family.  When we suffer a loss, we share that loss.  This week we have felt that sense of shared loss, uncertainty and shakiness together.

Sitting in the congregation at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross I felt part of a larger family – the Boston clergy family, and the family of Greater Boston.  And indeed, we have all felt part of something larger as friends and other communities have reached out to surround us with their love and concern since Monday’s tragic events.

As I write these words, like many, I am watching the news reports as this very surreal day unfolds with the manhunt that has frozen our greater Boston area in place.  Let us pray that in the coming hours this crisis will come a conclusion without any further loss of innocent life.  Even as it hopefully will end quickly and definitively, the days ahead will still be ones of uncertainty as we take our first shaky steps back to normalcy – or perhaps I should say, to whatever our “new normal” will look like. As we do, let us remember to reach out to those around us – that the steps we take will be easier if taken together.

It is my hope and prayer that we will be able to gather for Shabbat worship this evening, to remember those who have died and pray for those in need of healing.  It is my hope that we will be able to lift our voices together in prayer and song – and to stand together as an affirmation of our commitment to embracing life, and all that is holy as together we walk towards wholeness and healing.

Let me end by echoing the words of my friend and dear colleague, Rabbi Neil Hirsch, “Please let Shabbat come.” And let it bring a sense of Shalom! 

Stay safe everyone – I hope we can gather tonight!

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