Posted on January 30th, 2013 No comments
“I’m spiritual, but not religious.” When I heard that phrase from a student or prospective congregant, I used to suspect they were pushing me away, holding me safely at arm’s length. On January 14, I heard an interview with Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson on Fresh Air, and he gave me something new to consider.
“I think people often come to the synagogue, mosque, the church looking for God, and what we give them is religion. And I think that is a huge mistake, and sometimes we let our … fussing around with the institution get in the way of what people came for, which is help in facilitating their … access and relationship with God,” he said.
My first thought was, Christianity is different. My second thought was to rewrite his words slightly: ”People come to synagogue looking for Torah, and what we give them is religion.” Oh dear: Could it be that while I was hearing rejection, what students were really saying was, “Where’s the good stuff?”
Perhaps that “spiritual but not religious” line is really another version of the rebuke in Isaiah 1:
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.
Your hands are full of blood!
Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.
Has the business (busy-ness) of religious activity gotten in the way of making my institution the home of living Torah?
When a newcomer calls for information, what kind of greeting does he receive? If the contact is by phone, does she talk to a friendly person or to a machine? if the contact is via the Internet, does the website feature human faces or a picture of a building or symbol?
What does the website and the bulletin say about our priorities? How does that statement of our priorities match up with the budget and the reality every day?
When a visitor to the congregation wanders into a service with a bar or bat mitzvah, is he welcomed or treated as an uninvited guest?
When a darker-skinned person visits, is she greeted properly, or immediately assumed to be the employee of a member or an intruder?
Do we walk our talk about Jewish ethics and tikkun olam? Do we pay our humblest employees a decent wage? Do we employ people “part time” but expect unlimited hours and dedication? Is our institution a good citizen in its neighborhood?
The answer to some of these questions may be “not yet.” Human institutions are, well, human. But if our intent, our kavanah, is to be a home of living Torah, then perhaps the answer to “I’m spiritual but not religious,” might become, “You’ve come to the right place.”
This week’s post was written by Rabbi Ruth Adar, known by her alter ego The Coffee Shop Rabbi.
Posted on January 16th, 2013 2 comments
Last week, this article,The Sisterhood’s Christian Bar Mitzvah: Can Jewish Ritual Be Borrowed?, was flying all about the internet, causing quite a bit of commotion among my colleagues. I read it with interest and, quite honestly, some amount of discomfort. Because at first glance, the idea of a non-Jew borrowing such a definitively Jewish ritual caused a near-paralyzing pain in mykishkes.
The motivation behind the article was a clip from the new TLC series, The Sisterhood, a reality show showcasing the lives of five pastors’ wives in Atlanta. In the second episode, Pastors Brian and Tara Lewis reveal that they are “throwing him [their 13-year-old son] a Bar Mitzvah…a Christian Bar Mitzvah.”
Rituals, throughout history, have been borrowed, shared, appropriated, reappropriated, co-opted, and just plain stolen from neighboring cultures, faiths, and ethnicities. The idea of syncretism is, therefore, not a new one. Yet, when someone takes one of “our” rituals, it feels like a personal attack.
My experience with the Rabbis Without Borders program has had a profound influence on my ability to recognize the possibility of multiple truths in other faith communities. In other words, you don’t have to be wrong for me to be right — an idea explored by my teacher, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, in his book by the same name. Prior to my involvement in this cutting-edge think-tank, my views were far more narrow-minded and I lacked a framework in which I could understand much of the current American religious landscape. So while my initial reaction was a visceral one bordering on revulsion, my second reaction was far more reasoned.
The notion of marking the crucial point in a young person’s life when he or she becomes responsible for his or her own religious decisions, beliefs, and behaviours is a wonderful thing. There is no reason why it ought not be universally celebrated in each and every culture and faith community. At age thirteen, or thereabouts, the critical thinking skills evolve to a much greater extent and the teen is beginning the long, though essential, process of establishing an identity separate from the parents. It is the terminology, however, that becomes problematic. To call something a “Bar Mitzvah” has certain societal implications; the first of which being that the individual is Jewish. And in the case of Pastor Brian and Tara Lewis’s son, he isn’t.
On Monday, I participated in a lively, if not frustrating, conversation about this very topic on Huffington Post Live. The panel included Pastors Brian and Tara Lewis, Dr. Julian Baggini (philosopher), Dr. Ron Lindsay (ethicist/secular humanist), and me.
If only we had been discussing the topic with which host, Josh Zepps, had led the program: the decision of which faith traditions to celebrate in marriages between faiths. That would have been an interesting and insightful dialogue. But Pastors Brian and Tara don’t exactly consider themselves an interfaith marriage. They see themselves as “true Jews.” They used their appearance as a platform for their own legitimacy and to witness to others with their understanding of Christianity.
So here is my question for you? What are your thoughts about a Christian Bar Mitzvah in the way I described? As a coming-of-age ritual meant to sanctify one’s reaching the age of religious obligation?
Oh, and one final thing:
The cake doesn’t have to be in the shape of a Torah.
The term ‘bar mitzvah’ is Aramaic, not Hebrew.
And for the record, Pastor Brian, one absolutely does give up being Jewish when accepting Jesus as the Messiah. That Jew is considered an apostate.
Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr’s piece originally appeared on her blog This Messy Life. She is the editor of the CCAR newsletter.
Posted on December 27th, 2012 No comments
The week after Thanksgiving, I was blessed with the most wonderful opportunity. I received a call from the Executive Director of Queens Congregations United for Action (QCUA), the faith-based community organizing group that I work with here in New York. The Nathan Cummings Foundation was organizing a trip down to Washington, D.C. with several different community and socially focused organizations to talk to senior White House officials about the looming fiscal cliff and he wanted me to participate and help represent QCUA that day. I was beyond stunned. But I jumped at the opportunity to be able to help represent my community and to serve as a delegate for the state of New York on such an important issue.
The day did not disappoint. We began at 5:30 in the morning as we boarded a bus bound for D.C. Along with other folks from QCUA (two baptist bishops, a monseigneur, a reverend, a pastor, and various others), I met all of the other participants from New York. They ranged from people in the arts like the Foundry Theater, Arts and Democracy, and Urban Bush Women to Jewish social justice organizations like Uri L’tzedek, Bend the Arc, and Jews for Racial & Economic Justice. I was able to connect with Lila Foldes, the co-director of Just Congregations, as well as Rabbi Jill Jacobs from Rabbis for Human Rights and Nigel Savage from Hazon.
When we first arrived in Washington, we took a tour of the White House. Normally, one is not allowed to photograph inside the White House, but because everything was decorated for Christmas, we were granted permission to snap as many photos as we liked. It was truly magical to see all of the rooms brightly lit and decorated accordingly. While we were touring the rooms, a local youth gospel choir began singing carols in the main open lobby. Their joyous sound filled the rooms and halls as we explored the diversity and the history of one of the most beautiful and notable houses in America.
After the tour, we were escorted to the AFL-CIO building for lunch. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations is a national trade union center and the largest federation of unions in the United States. While we were there, we learned the background on the issues related to the fiscal cliff and how the results could affect our community in the coming years. It was eye-opening to understand these issues on a deeper level, to be briefed on possible outcomes, and to prepare ourselves to think about ways in which these issues could be solved.
After lunch, we spent the majority of the afternoon at the EEOB – the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where the majority of decisions get made in D.C. (outside of the Oval office and Capitol Hill, of course). There, we met with Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President and Michael Strautmanis, Deputy Assistant to the President. We also met with Jon Carson, the Director of Public Engagement for the White House. We shared ideas all afternoon on challenges within our communities and ways to overcome obstacles. We also shared possible ideas and solutions regarding the financial crisis that is looming over our nation. It was incredibly gratifying to see so many organizations and so many people who are focused and determined to help hard working families and individuals survive and succeed in this world. While we didn’t come to any major solutions that day, we managed to get our voices heard and to represent our communities to people in the government. And they really listened.
My group slipped out a little early to go take a private meeting with our local congressman, Gregory Meeks. After the devastation from hurricane Sandy a few months ago, we were eager to see what progress had been made and to lobby for more work to be done. Even now, there are still people without power and heat and we seized the opportunity to make our voices heard even louder than before. All in all, it was a productive day.
But more than that, it was an important day. At the end of it all, I found myself exhausted but buzzing with excitement. I realized that while many of my days are important, I could tangibly feel the difference I made for my community and my country. Social action and social justice have ALWAYS been important to me. As a rabbi, it guides so much of the work I do in my community. But as a citizen, I don’t often get the chance to do the kind of work that I did or contribute to the politics of our nation as I was blessed to do, that day. My voice was heard. And I spoke up – for you, for me, and for everyone. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, she’natan lanu hizdam’nut l’takein et ha-olam.
Blessed are You, most glorious One, who has given us the opportunity to create harmony and repair our world. Amen.
This week’s post was contributed by Rabbi Elizabeth Wood of The Reform Temple of Forest Hills.
Posted on November 18th, 2012 No comments
Since the 1980s, more than 6,000 refugees have made New Hampshire their home, and nearly half have settled in Concord. Concord, New Hampshire is a fairly sleepy New England town, despite being the capital of the Granite State. Still Concord is an unusual place, and the town I have called home for the past two plus years. Temple Beth Jacob, 107 years old, boasts a membership of 210 families and plays an active and visible role in this increasingly diverse community.
One of Concord’s “golden boys” is new American Guor Marial. Guar escaped a Sudanese child labor camp, graduated from Concord High School, and this past summer ran in the Olympics under the Olympic flag. Guor is not yet a U.S. citizen, and holds no passport or official home. Concord High School’s assistant principal has regaled me with Guor stories. Guor is remembered for being as kind and caring as he is fast on his feet.
Refugees have fled their homes because of a well-founded fear of persecution (physical violence, harassment and wrongful arrest, or threats to their lives) for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. They take with them only what they can carry, only what they have time to pack. Sometimes all they have left are their dreams, their hopes and the will to survive.
In the 1990s, the majority of refugees came from Bosnia, Vietnam and the Sudan. As they moved into the town, the mayor sought to celebrate the increasing diversity of the community, despite the fact that certain segments of the community were bemoaning the changes. The Mayor’s Task Force on Racism and Intolerance established an annual mayor’s prayer breakfast to welcome our new residents and express gratitude to the many agencies and volunteers who work with the refugee populations.
Between 2000 and 2007, the refugees came mostly from Bosnia and the Sudan, along with Croatia, Burundi, Liberia, and Somalia. In addition, refugees who identify as Meskhetian Turks settled here. Since 2008, the overwhelming majority of refugees have come from Bhutan and Iraq.
Northern New England is often characterized as lily white and Protestant. One of the many beauties of Concord, and especially south Concord where I live and where our synagogue is located, is the diversity of the residents. All races and religions live side by side, overwhelmingly in harmony. Sadly, however, there have been incidents involving racist and/or religiously intolerant graffiti. Most of it has been directed at Concord’s Somalian Muslims, whom our community has embraced as our New American Africans.
In October of 2011, two new American African families awoke to find their homes vandalized with words of intolerance. Immediately, the interfaith community led the response. On a Thursday afternoon and a Saturday morning, the Greater Concord Interfaith Council (in which our synagogue is actively involved) sponsored “Love Your Neighbor” rallies. The Saturday rally was at the local playground in the neighborhood where many of the refugees live.
The first rally was held on a Thursday so as not to conflict with the Jewish Sabbath. It occurred on the lawn outside the Statehouse. Speakers of diverse backgrounds (including one of our members, originally from Bogota, Columbia) spoke about the beauty that is Concord – in both who we are and how we care for each other. Cantor Shira Nafshi, my partner both professionally and personally, sang an original composition, Power of One, the chorus of which goes: “Get up, get down, get onto your feet; use your voice your hands be the words on the street; don’t just say it be it do it; l’takein et ha-olam, fixing the world starts today, with the power of one.” The song moved the mayor so deeply that he invited Shira to sing it at the 2011 prayer breakfast the following month.
A local printer provided “Love Your Neighbor” signs, many of which still grace windows and doors throughout the town, over a year later. This isn’t a surprise, for loving your neighbor is the sentiment that defines this town.
Most of my adult life I lived in San Francisco, New York City, or northern New Jersey, all places far more diverse than Concord, New Hampshire. And yet, there are times that Concord feels like more of a mixed salad than any of those other places.
The author, Rabbi Robin Nafshi is the rabbi of Temple Beth Jacob in Concord, NH.
Posted on November 11th, 2012 No comments
This week we lost another luminary of Reform Judaism, Cantor William Sharlin. Some of my earliest Jewish memories are of Cantor Sharlin. He was cantor at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles for his whole career.
My parents belonged to Leo Baeck when I was born. Cantor Sharlin officiated at my twin sister’s and my baby naming. (I admit I don’t remember that). We were consecrated there. I have memories of that joyous evening, marking the beginning of my Jewish education and receiving my own mini Torah – which I still have. While soon after that, my parents made the decision to shift their membership to another congregation, they maintained their relationships with the clergy at Leo Baeck through their ongoing and very active involvement in the Los Angeles Jewish community.
Many years later, as a second year student at HUC-JIR I had the honor of studying with Cantor Sharlin. He offered an elective class in Torah chanting. While I am not a very confident singer, I wanted to both learn how to chant more proficiently and to experience learning with him. While I still haven’t become a proficient Torah chanter – I need lots of practice before doing it (unlike Rick who can cite chant from the tikkun) – the memories I have of the stories Cantor Sharlin told, the conversations we had about Jewish music, and the impression he made on me as model member of the Jewish clergy remain with me today.
I am compelled to share one of those memories with you.
It was the first day of our Torah chanting class. Cantor Sharlin was trying to get to know each of the students in the class. He went around the room, asking us to share a bit about ourselves and especially our Hebrew names. Given that it was a class in Torah chanting, he wanted to know and use our Hebrew names when it was our turn to chant.
When it was my turn to share a bit about myself, I didn’t really need to say so much. Cantor Sharlin knew exactly who I was. He remembered me as Mark and Marsha’s daughter. So, I shared a bit about where I had gone to university, what I was hoping to get out of the class. I was about to say, “and my Hebrew name is…” when Cantor Sharlin stopped me.
“I know your Hebrew name. It’s הדסה בתיה, Hadasah Batya. And your sister’s name is דבורה שושנה, Devorah Shoshanah.”
My classmates and I were astounded!
Over 20 years had passed since our baby naming! How many other babies had he named in the two plus decades? How many b’nai mitzvah had he trained? Weddings officiated? How was it possible that he could remember our names?
As a rabbi who has officiated at not nearly as many baby namings as Cantor Sharlin had at that point in his 40+year career, and one who cannot remember the names of all those babies, I am even more inspired by Cantor Sharlin. The attention and focus he must have given to each of these rituals, to make them meaningful and special for each family surely must have contributed to his ability to remember names. In that moment he taught us all what it means to be a member of the clergy.
On a final note, it wouldn’t be right to leave this blog post without some music from Cantor Sharlin. My favorite piece is one that he arranged with Debbie Friedman and can be heard in NFTY albums of days past, Lo Yarei’u combined with Lo Yisa Goy. You can read about it and hear just a piece of it here in this URJ Ten Minutes of Torah by Cantor Kay Greenwald.
May Cantor Sharlin’s memory be a blessing and may his music bring joy and inspiration to us all for many more years to come.
Posted on October 17th, 2012 1 comment
Having grown up in the segregated American South with its “no Jews, no Negroes” (and sometimes adding “no dogs,”) public signage, it was a relatively easy call for me to make about where I should be standing when anti-Muslim paid advertising began appearing in the Washington DC Metro System. These ads (which have appeared in NY and apparently are coming next to Portland, Oregon) read: “In Any War Between the Civilized Man and the Savage, Support the Civilized Man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.” The image includes a Star of David on either side of the phrases which imply that Muslims and the enemies of Israel are savages.
Having also just completed reading the week’s Torah portion from Genesis reminding us that all human beings are created in God’s image, and fearing that the hate-mongers behind these ads might associate Jews and Israel with their bigotry, I felt I had no choice but to stand physically next to the ads and promote a different message. I am proud to say thatRabbis for Human Rights-North America (of which I was the founding Chairperson) has responded vigorously with a profoundly different message, one which has been placed in public places near these disgusting posters. The RHR-NA poster reads “In the choice between love and hate CHOOSE LOVE – Help stop bigotry against our Muslim neighbors.” I stood next to the Metro ad holding a copy of the RHR-NA poster, which has not yet made it to the Metro stops in DC. This also provided me with a challenging opportunity for Rabbinic service in a unique way as I interacted with passersby, fulfilling the mitzvah ofKiddush HaShem (sanctifying God’s name publicly) in the meaning of that obligation as described in the Talmud.
We all presumably know that “savage” is a loaded, stereotypical, and denigrating term that was once used to describe African American, Native Americans and other ethnic minority groups as mentally inferior and culturally primitive with animal-like attributes. It reeks of bigotry which has been directed at religious minorities in this country including Jews and Catholics. The implication that Israel is confronted by “savages” has a provenance and a perspective that is inimical to any amelioration of the tragic conflicts that prevent a peaceful resolution for the beleaguered State of Israel. The misuse of the word “Jihad,” by its linkage with savagery as a summary description of a rich culture virtually all of whose billions of adherents oppose violent extremism, is no more appropriate than the misuse of the word Zionism to signify racism.
The ad not only demeans Islam and links Jewish symbols and Israel to bigotry, but also abuses our American freedom of speech in order to stir hatred of peace loving fellow Americans. I am proud to associate myself with remarks delivered at a press conference in DC on October 15 by Rabbi Batya Steinlauf, Jewish Community Relations Council’s Director of Social Justice and Interfaith Initiatives and President of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington: “The placing of offensive, anti-Muslim, ads in the D.C. Metro system is an important opportunity to affirm our commitment both to free speech and to a society that deplores hate and hate speech. We are all part of one community. The Muslim community is part of our wider community and our neighbors. We live in the same neighborhoods, send our kids to the same schools, and volunteer in the same homeless shelters.”
Posted on June 12th, 2012 No comments
This week we hear from Rabbi Ruth Adar who reminds us why we should all be proud this June. -ed. Ruth Abusch-Magder.
It’s June. I’m feeling the gratitude again.
Flash back to my first Gay Pride Month, in 1988: I had recently come out in a cloud of cluelessness, a single mother. There was a parade over the bay in San Francisco, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
1988 was a different world: AIDS was a mystery disease chewing through the gay male population, rumored in some quarters to be a Punishment from God. Same-sex intimacy was a felony in Georgia, with the blessing of the Supreme Court (Bowers v Hardwicke, 1986). After I came out to the principal at my kids’ Montessori School, I was told our family was unwelcome. An attorney told me it was a good thing my divorce had become final in California, because in my home state the courts would regard me ipso facto an unfit mother.
1988 galvanized me, and by the time the following June rolled around, I was volunteering for the National Center for Lesbian Rights where I had the privilege of meeting some of the people who’d been fighting on my behalf: Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, activists since 1955, and Donna Hitchens and Roberta Achtenberg, who founded NCLR in 1977. I met many other good people with names you won’t find in Wikipedia who had worked hard for many years. I learned what a deep debt I owed to those who had cut the rocky little path I was walking.
Flash forward to another June, in 2002: I emerged from the cheroot from Ben Gurion and walked into the Jerusalem campus of HUC for the first time. One of the questions in my mind was, how was this going to go, really? How much of a problem was it going to be, well, me? Because that’s the thing: being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender is about identity. My orientation is an essential part of who I am that cannot be hidden or closeted or apologized for without twisting the truth.
I am happy to say that while I was at HUC-JIR (2002-08) I never felt that anyone on faculty or in the student body ever consciously slighted me on account of my orientation. I was proud to attend classes in the building that houses the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation, first of its kind in the Jewish world. There is still plenty of work to do in the Reform Jewish world, but at least at school I felt welcome.
I owe my good experience to the pioneers who went before me: men and women who did the heavy lifting, who out of love for Torah and a sense of destiny persisted in pursuing this sacred work during the years when the Movement was not yet ready for us. Some of them suffered the pain of the closet. All persisted in the face of a particular interpretation of passages in Leviticus 18 and the slipperier “ick factor” that makes LGBTQ freedom work so challenging.
To those people, this June, I say todah rabbah. You are a blessing to us all. I know some of you, but by no means all of you. I hope that someday I’ll hear your stories. And just as this year we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of Sally Priesand’s ordination, I hope in some future year, we’ll be celebrating yours: you are my heroes.
Posted on March 8th, 2012 No comments
A brief report by Dr. Michael Marmur:
In honor of International Women’s Day and Purim, a group of about 200 people congregated in Ben Yehuda to hear women read the Megilla (it’s the day before Purim in Jerusalem). The Megillah was read by a group of women including Rabbi Ada Zavidov of Har El Congregation, Rabbi Ma’ayan Turner, and Rabbi Naamah Kelman, Dean of HUC-JIR in Jerusalem, among other Jerusalem women. Men attending were asked to come dressed as women, and some of us obliged.
The background to this is the struggle over the role of women in public spaces in Jerusalem, Bet Shemesh and elsewhere. In recent weeks the question of whether women will be seen and heard in our streets in the spirit of open societies has been raised, following some high-profile examples of intolerance, most of which originate in the Ultra-Orthodox community.
Kol Haneshamah Congregation and other liberal forces in Jerusalem are engaged in a series of symbolic acts designed to emphasize the need to stand up for the kind of society we want our kids to grow up in, and your kids to feel at home in.
Our colleague Rabbi Darah Lerner was spotted in the crowd, along with HUC-JIR students and others.
Posted on February 22nd, 2012 3 comments
“Pride is, in the Jewish tradition, among the most serious of the vices, as humility is among the highest of the virtues. The Talmudic Rabbis, perhaps because of their awareness that scholars are easily tempted to lord it over the ignorant, denigrate pride in the most caustic terms.”
–Rabbi Louis Jacobs The Jewish Religion: A Companion
How ought Jewish leaders think about pride? In Christianity pride is viewed along with wrath, greed, sloth, lust, envy and gluttony to be the seven deadly sins. These sins, stand in a category of their own because, among other reasons, their tendency to cause more sin. True Judaism does not buy into the framework of original sin, but if we take Rabbi Jacobs and the sources he sights, it would seem that we ought to leave pride alone all together.
At first, I was completely comfortable with this approach. My chevruta and I have recently began making our way through Alan Moranis’s Everyday Holiness which uses the traditional Jewish approach to self examination mussar to lead readers to self improvement. The starting point for this work? Humility. The polar opposite of pride.
Getting rid of pride is no easy task, no less a persona than Moses struggled to do so. According to our tradition, his understanding of the divine was greater than anyone before or after him. And yet, when it came to preparing for his death, he was not easy to accept his immiment passing. According to the Midrash Tanchuma VaEtkhanan, upon understanding that the authority of interpreting the Torah and receiving prophecy had passed from him to Joshua, Moses cried out and said “Rather a hundred deaths than a single pang of envy. Master of the universes, until now I sought life. But now my soul is surrendered to You.” And yet, when the angel was sent to bring him to God, Moses fought back claiming greater authority and power.
Pride makes us take up too much space, makes us inflate our importance in comparison to that of other people. As leaders, it can trip us up as we step too far forward, expect too much recognition, or put our own needs ahead of the tasks that need completing. It can cloud our judgment. Pride can lead to a fall sense of importance. As a rabbinic mentor once told me, half the bad stuff they attribute to you is not your fault but at the same time, half the good stuff they attribute to you is not your accomplishment either.
Yet as Moranis points out, false humility is just as bad as pride. We need to own our strengths and capabilities. Real humility demands stepping up and working to accomplish what we are capable of doing.
Nonetheless, I was left wondering whether pride, like other elements of the evil impulse, ought to be managed but not entirely eradicated. Is it wrong to find joy in the hard work we do, in the skills we learn and use well? Sometimes, the desire for recognition pushes us to do the right thing. Sometimes our inflated sense of self gets us through what might otherwise be an impossible situation. Describing Sephardi Jews of Turkey, Rabbi Marc Angel explains that no matter how poor these Jews were, they held on to the memory of having once been part of the prosperous Spanish Jewish community. Generations had passed, still pride helped them cope with what were often difficult lives.
Manage it, contain it. But in my humble opinion, pride is far from entirely negative.
Posted on February 13th, 2012 No comments
There is nothing more perfect than a red ripe tomato, sweet and savory, fleshy and juicy, the tomato is one of nature’s most precious gifts. Yet, the process by which tomatoes come to our tables is often completely rotten. This week Rabbi Jonathan Katz, senior rabbi at Temple Beth Israel of Longboat Key, Florida, writes about his experience visiting with those who pick tomatoes in Florida and the vision for a different future that emerged out of that encounter.
Recently, I joined several other rabbis from around the country in Immokalee, FL (forty minutes northeast of Naples) for a three day program organized by Rabbis for Human Rights-North America designed to acquire greater understanding of the struggle of migrant farm workers to obtain gain fairer wages and more rights. Immokalee is considered ground zero in this push.
What we saw was shocking. The dilapidated trailers that farm workers pay exorbitant rents to live in, stood in the middle of a large parking lot. There were no amenities. At 5:30 a.m. we rose to watch the daily ritual of hundreds of farm workers boarding buses to labor that day for any one of several large growers in the area. We visited a site where a group of farm workers had been held against their will and forced to work fields in 2008, one of several incidents of modern slavery that have taken place in Florida in the last twenty years.
We also learned about the heroic efforts CIW (the Coalition of Immokalee Workers ciw-online.org) has undertaken to end abuse in the fields, ensure safer working conditions and procure higher compensation for the arduous work required to pick tomatoes. Sexual harassment is a fact of life. Work breaks are rare. And when rest is possible, there is no shade from the heat of the sun.
Particularly problematic is the issue of pay. For many years farm workers have received only fifty-cents for every thirty-pound bucket of tomatoes they pick. That same amount of tomatoes is often sold for around seventy dollars in major grocery stores. In an average year, farm workers only make about $10,000.
In 2001 CIW launched a Campaign for Fair Food that sought a one penny per pound increase for each pound of tomatoes farm workers pick and as well more rights in the field. A penny increase may not seem like much but will raise the earnings of the average working by an estimated $7,000. Additionally the campaign hopes to ameliorate the worst aspects of working conditions.
After confronting a boycott and increasing pressure from a wide range of CIW advocates, in 2005 Taco Bell agreed to absorb the one penny per pound increase and to purchase tomatoes only from growers who adhered to a code of conduct that echoed CIW’s Fair Food Principles. In subsequent years McDonalds, Burger King and Subway all followed suit.
In September 2008, the campaign broke new ground with its first agreement in the supermarket industry, as Whole Foods Market agreed to the CIW principles. By August 2010, foodservice industry giants Aramark and Sodexo had also agreed to comply. Fourteen months ago Jon Esformes, Pacific Tomato’s operating partner and chief marketing officer, became the first grower to comply with the new Fair Food Principles. For those who wonder about the power of the rabbinate, it is good to keep in mind that Esformes’ rabbi apparently played a significant role in his decision to join with CIW.
CIW is now vigorously working to bring large grocery store chains like Walmart and Publix to the table and agree to the code. On the last day of our visit to Immokalee, we gathered at Trader Joe’s first Florida store in Naples, which was set open only a few days later. As workmen were completing last minute touches to the building, we affixed (with scotch tape) to the front door post a card detailing the farm workers struggle together with a penny as “mezuzza of justice.” Less than twenty-four hours later and knowing that protest actions were being planned this weekend at forty-one Trader Joe’s stores throughout the country, Trader Joe’s came to an agreement with CIW.
This outcome is a tribute to the power of organizing. As Reform Jews, we know that repairing the world is our responsibility. Often that task seems a never ending one, sometimes working well can make all the difference.