Guest Post – The Sleeping Children

Image: A Syrian refugee mother and her newborn infant at a clinic near Ramtha, Jordan. Photo: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development/Wikimedia some rights reserved. 

This post was written by Emmett Koehler. Emmett is a member of the Board of Trustees of Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA, a leader in their young adults group, and I am proud to say that he’s a graduate of my Intro to the Jewish Experience class. He wrote this as a meditation on the prayer Emet v’Emunah (Truth and Faith) from the evening service, for the Community Shabbat Service.

The sleeping children are awakened by their mothers’ trembling hands.

The same weathered hands that clutched these children the night before, praying the angel of death would pass over them.

The mothers’ hands are busy making bread that won’t be baked, packing only what can be carried, and bolting the doors and windows of homes they will never see again.

Some hands are confident, moving strong and sure with the certainty of freedom; while others are hesitant, slick with fear.

These mothers’ hands, old and young, weak and strong, once held sons and brothers and husbands who left, but never returned.

In vain, their hands shield children from the sights of sorrow, women holding lifeless sons who were not passed over by the angel of death.

The mothers point fingers east, into the desert, but cannot fathom the pain and sorrow and toil that await their tired and broken hands.

But these selfless hands will raise the children who one day pick up stones and plows and bows to build a nation these mothers will never see

GOD stretched out a hand over Egypt to deliver the people of Israel from slavery, sending plagues and performing miracles. And in this time, a thousand hands of a thousand mothers carried their children out of Egypt, to freedom.

– Emmett Koehler


10 Things We Can Do To Fight Hate

Image: Sign with “Violence” and “Hate Speech” with “No” symbols over them. Photo by John S. Quartermansome rights reserved. Cropped for use here. 

It seems like the news, and especially social media, are full of hateful speech and actions: hate and violence against immigrants, against women, against LGBTQ folks, against Muslims, against Jews, and against people of color. The recent passage of the AHCA by the House of Representatives seemed to say that our elected officials do not value the lives of sick, fat or disabled people.

Some of us are shocked by the hate; others are less surprised.

The question remains: What can I personally do about it? Am I helpless in the face of this, or are there things I can do?

Here are some suggestions for action against hate:

  1. We can support organizations that track hate and report hate. That includes the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League. Both those institutions have been doing this work for years, tracking hate groups, hate speech, and hate crimes, and they are good at what they do.
  2. Read this Sally Kohn articles in the Washington Post: This is what white people can do to support #BlackLivesMatter. See what applies to you and run with it.
  3. Support the National Immigration Law Center (NILC). It is one of the leading organizations in the U.S. dedicated to defending and advancing the rights of low-income immigrants. Again, visit the website, read their materials, and donate if you can and if their goals sound right to you. If you can’t donate, help spread their message.
  4. Subscribe to your local newspaper and to publications that don’t preach anyone’s party line. The “Fourth Estate” is an essential part of a healthy democracy, and our has been sadly weakened by the advent of “free” online news sources. When you pay for your newspaper, online or offline, you are paying journalists to ask questions and dig for answers. The good ones annoy politicians of ALL stripes. Personally I subscribe to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and SFGate, the news source for the SF Bay Area. Supporting ethical journalism is one of the most important things we can do to keep democracy healthy.
  5. If newspaper subscriptions and donations are not in the budget, we can still support those who do good work. Journalists receive endless harassment and even death threats; they appreciate friendly emails and tweets. We can spread the messages of organizations that fight hate and support the oppressed.
  6. Volunteer and/or give financial support to Planned Parenthood. It serves women from all walks of life, but especially low-income women.
  7. Join with like-minded people to fight hate. Join a synagogue, a church, a mosque, or secular organization. Ask about their social justice programming. Combining our energy with that of others makes for more effective activism. If disability or other factors keep us from some activities, we can still encourage those who are able to be more active.
  8. We can educate ourselves. Listen to minority voices online, in print, and in person. If we are not members of a group, we cannot know what’s best for African-Americans, Muslims, women, poor people, Native Americans, incarcerated persons, LGBTQI, or disabled persons. They aren’t stupid, even though institutionalized racism/sexism/homophobia/etc has taught those of us with privilege to think they are. Don’t assume that your minority status makes you an expert on someone else’s needs. In short, don’t talk – LISTEN.
  9. Help clean up Twitter and other social media. Block people who spout hate messages – block them immediately and without any discussion. They thrive on argument and discussion – deny them that luxury! If you have accidentally misjudged someone, you aren’t hurting them by blocking them, and you haven’t engaged in lashon hara, evil speech by slandering them. Instead, spread information from reputable sources and resist the urge to retweet things that may or may not be true.
  10. When someone points out that we have said something hurtful or hateful, we can listen instead of becoming defensive. This is the most difficult thing on this list, but it may well be the most important. All of us have something to learn about the way our language impacts others, and usually it is unpleasant to learn about it. I have a script I try to use to keep my defensiveness from kicking in: “I am so sorry! I will try to learn better!” I accept that I will never know all about the experiences of others, just as they won’t know all about me. It costs me nothing to express sorrow about my ignorance, and the good thing is, it is an opportunity to learn.

How are you fighting hate in America? What strategies have I failed to list here? If you are a member of a minority, what have you seen that worked? What do you wish people outside your group would understand?

Prevent Conversion Therapy Fraud!

Image: A demonstrator carrying a sign: “Self-Hatred is NOT Therapy.” Photo by Daniel Tobias via Wikimedia Commons.

How about some good news, and something good to support?

On Tuesday, April 25, 2017, Congressman Ted Lieu and 68 Members of Congress, as well as Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act of 2017 to stop so-called “conversion therapy.” Conversion therapy – treatment to persuade an LGBTQ youth that they are actually straight – is both dangerous and utterly ineffective, yet frauds fleece families of thousands of dollars for these quack and often brutal “treatments.”

Read the text of the bill online.

Here is something we can SUPPORT in a call to our members of Congress!

A script, if you want one:

I’m calling to ask that Congressperson (or Senator) X vote FOR the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act of 2017.  My name is Y, I live at Z, and I vote! My thanks to Congressperson or Senator X for for their time and attention to this important matter.

Jewish law demands demands that parents care for and protect their children. Conversion therapy has damaged the physical and mental health of countless young people; this quackery should not be permitted.

A father is obligated with regard to his son to circumcise him, and to redeem him if he is a firstborn son who must be redeemed by payment to a priest, and to teach him Torah, and to marry him to a woman, and to teach him a trade. And some say: A father is also obligated to teach his son to swim. – Kiddushin 29a

If you strike a child, strike them only with a shoelace. – Bava Batra, 21a

The Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act of 2017 has been endorsed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, American Academy of Pediatrics, National Association of School Psychologists, School Social Work Association of America, American Counseling Association, National Association of Secondary School Principals, American Psychoanalytic Association, American School Counselor Association, Human Rights Campaign, National Center for Lesbian Rights, PFLAG National, National Center for Transgender Equality, and GLSEN.

A Glimpse of the World-to-Come

Image: Feral cats and chickens share a handout on the Big Island of Hawaii. Photo: Ruth Adar

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.” — Isaiah 11:6

Things We Can Do For Democracy

Image: Wooden Ballot Box, c. 1870. By National Museum of American History [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

  1. Vote. Nothing you do matters nearly as much as this one thing. Vote in ALL elections, from the very big to the very small. The smaller the election the more your vote counts. The larger the election the larger the stakes. Either way, it’s important.
  2. Register others to vote. The more of us vote, the more fair our democracy can be. Volunteer to sign up others to vote. Check with the League of Women Voters for opportunities to carry out this democratic deed.
  3. Learn before you vote. Where do the candidates for dog-catcher stand on the issues where their opinions count? To whom are they beholden? What experience or training do they bring to the job? Watch for smokescreens, like the potential dog-catcher who wants to tell you what they’ll do about school vouchers, (They can’t do anything about school vouchers.)  Notice who endorses them, and who doesn’t.
  4. Don’t spread rumors. The difference between “news” and “rumor” is the sourcing. “Jones Kicks Kittens!” is a headline. “According to whom” are the sources. If a story isn’t adequately sourced, it’s a rumor, nothing more. Don’t be one of those people who passes around rumors online. Link to stories from reputable journalists who care about and list their sources.
  5. Support reputable journalism. Subscribe to publications that adhere to journalistic ethics: they get multiple sources for stories, they admit it and retract when they are wrong, and their stories come not straight from a journalist, but have to pass by an editor. I have digital subscriptions to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times, and the East Bay Times (my local paper, formerly the Oakland Tribune.) Yes, that’s a lot. No, I don’t read it all every day. My subscriptions support an important part of our democracy even when I don’t have time to read the papers.
  6. Treat biased news coverage as what it is: junk food. Everyone knows that Fox tilts right and MSNBC tilts left. It’s pleasant to listen to people who share our biases and instincts. However, news reported along with snarky comments or opinionated discussion is not really news – it’s opinion. Make sure that you spend at least as much time with news sources that report facts and keep opinions in the opinion section.
  7. Communicate with your elected officials. They work for us. How will they know what we think if we don’t tell them? Phone calls are good. Emails are good. Postcards are good. Letters in envelopes get delayed by security screenings. If something is really heavy on your heart, go see them or their aides at their local offices. Politicians pay attention to people who are willing to show up.
  8. Attend the functioning of local government. Have you ever been to a city council meeting or a school board meeting? It is a highly educational activity (and sometimes good theater, too.) See how your government actually works – then go home and communicate with those elected officials! Let them know that you are watching and paying attention. Let them see you watching at least occasionally.


Can you think of other ways to support democracy in your home country or state?  Please share them in the comments!

Jacob and Esau: A Cautionary Tale

Image:The Meeting of Esau and Jacob, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902), gouache on board, 7 1/16 x 10 3/4 in. (18.1 x 27.4 cm), at the Jewish Museum, New York (Public Domain)

In the book of Genesis, Jacob and Esau were twin brothers who had great differences. Jacob wronged Esau more than once, manipulating their parents so that Esau lost his birthright and their father’s blessing. When they met again:

And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept. – Genesis 33:4

This sounds good, doesn’t it? But one midrash tells us that actually, the word וַיִּשָּׁקֵהוּ, “and kissed him” was actually a euphemism. What really happened (again, according to midrash) was that Esau bit Jacob! The next verses say that Esau refused Jacob’s gifts, so it is in keeping with the negative understanding of the verse, and later on his descendants were some of the bitterest enemies of the descendants of Jacob: the Amalekites.

Jacob and Esau are a cautionary tale about the serious consequences when we allow bitterness to fester.

I had an immediate, strong gut response to a post circulating on Facebook recently. Perhaps you have seen it. It begins:

There are those who have said that we should “work together” with the president and the Republican majority because they won the election and Trump is “everyone’s president.” This is my response:

•I will not forget how badly he and so many others treated former President Barack Obama for 8 years…
•I will not “work together” to privatize Medicare, cut Social Security and Medicaid.
•I will not “work together” to build a wall.
•I will not “work together” to persecute Muslims.
•I will not “work together” to shut out refugees from other countries.
•I will not “work together” to lower taxes on the 1% and increase taxes on the middle class and poor… [continues with more of the same]

I agreed with it so strongly that I copied it, signed it, and pasted it onto my own wall. There are things I’m simply not willing to do or to passively allow. The current administration has engaged in many of those things and declared its intention to engage in others, and I will not stand by and let them happen.

But then, someone I love and respect very much left a message on my wall in reply:

I did not vote for Obama but I prayed for his success every day. Now I pray for the current president and for those who are unable to deal with their anger. I felt Clinton had been a danger to our country and lied about it, so I could not vote for her. We deplorables did what we thought was best.

My reply to her:

As far as I’m concerned, you are no “deplorable.” I know you’d never support an act of cruelty, that there isn’t a nihilist bone in your body. While we disagree on the right way to get there, I like to think we want the same things for America: peace, safety, fairness for all.

I pray for the country. I pray for Mr Trump, who looks to me like he’s in a lot of pain.


I decided that if I was going to say what I would not “work together” on, I should also be clear what goals I could pursue with Republican friends.  Here’s what I was able to come up with after a little thought:

Things I would be glad to “work together” on with the current administration or any other:

• Investment in the infrastructure of this country, with the construction and other jobs that would bring.
• Training for American citizens for 21st century jobs. Heck, even if everything is going to run on robots, someone has to maintain the robots!
• A health care system that would include the maximum number of Americans, not just the fortunate.
• Figure out how we as a people are going to pay the debt we owe to our Veterans of all races, including those with physical and mental disabilities.
• Figure out a new way to meet the challenge of rampant drug and alcohol addiction. The “War on Drugs” is an utter waste. It’s been going on most of my life and the situation is now worse than when Nixon declared it. It’s time for a reset.
• Search out ways to lower the number of deaths by gunshot without engaging the merry-go-round of 2nd Amendment disagreements. What CAN we agree upon? Why not start there?
• A national movement to end name-calling and insults in public discourse. They do not add anything to our public life. Call our elected officials by their titles, not by disrespectful nicknames. Call out policies, not personalities.

Those are the things I can think of off the top of my head. Some part of each of them has been mentioned by at least one Republican elected official or voter in my acquaintance.

There are things that I will #resist with all my heart and soul: racism, baseless hatred, mistreatment of people of every age, race, religion, orientation, gender, and nationality. But I refuse to believe that I can’t work with half the country on at least some of the things I’ve listed above.

I absolutely agree that Torah, even basic morality, demand that we resist certain things (e.g. racism, including institutional racism) no matter what. At the same time, I don’t want to get so caught up in opposition to anything and everything that movement of any kind is impossible. I do not want my anger to cut me off from possibilities for good.

I don’t want to be Esau.



“Positive Parsha” – Beshalach

Image: An early narcissus.

Positive Parsha is another blog I follow for divrei Torah. It takes a more psychological approach to the search for onsights into the portion.

While it is often timely, the writers keep their focus fairly diffuse, making the “shelf life” of these pieces fairly long. This week’s drashot is a good example. It is hard to imagine a more timely topic than “Healthy Optimism,” but is a good topic in all times:

Beshalach: How to Optimalize Your Optimism