Responding to Hate in 5778

Image: Members of the Temple Sinai Community write messages of love and New Year’s wishes on paper covering anti-Semitic graffiti. (Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar)

How was your Rosh Hashanah?

Linda and I watched services at our congregation online for Erev Rosh Hashanah. I knew from experience that the seats would not work well for me, and we had an aliyah to the Torah the next morning. I love the flexibility that the online service gives us for managing such things.

The next morning, I woke to an email from the staff, titled: “Graffiti on our building”:

Shanah Tovah.

We received a call early this morning that someone wrote anti-Semitic slurs on the side of our building. The police have been contacted and we will have security on the premise. The graffiti will be covered when everyone arrives for services this morning.

While this is surely upsetting, this will not define our experience of coming together as a community today. Our strength and resilience will sound through our voices in song and prayer.

The graffiti will be covered with paper. We invite members of the community to write words of love and friendship as guiding lights for the coming year.

May this be the year that peace comes to our world.

Whoa! Not what we wanted for the new year, that’s for sure. Still, I marveled at the creativity of the solution. Instead of allowing the graffiti to stay visible, Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin chose to cover it with paper and then encouraged us to cover it with blessings.

This response was possible in a Reform setting. Cutting paper, hanging paper, and writing would all be problematic in a halakhic setting, but it certainly was a satisfying way for us to “talk back” to the person or persons who had done this. It also gave us a chance to model before our city that we choose love over hate.

Our responses included everything from “Shalom!” in a heart to “Go A’s!” (the local baseball team.) During services, painters came to cover the graffiti, and staff moved the paper indoors to the meeting hall. We painted over the bad and kept the good.

In case you are wondering what was written on the wall: it was ugly, it was obscene, and it was baldly anti-Semitic. Those words were written with the intent of terrifying us, of spoiling our joy in the New Year. We are choosing as a community not to focus on them, not to hold them up, because to do so would be a reward to the person who wrote them. Law enforcement knows what the words said, and an investigation is underway.

I’m happy to report that the police came immediately and stayed watching over us all day. the mayor showed up to support us, and local TV stations broadcast interviews with congregants. We felt loved by the city of Oakland. We did our best, with our graffiti, to love her back.

I teared up multiple times during the service, thinking how many times Jews have said those exact prayers after something dreadful happened. We aren’t the first Jews to pray in a vandalized building. We won’t be the last, alas.

Also, I was aware of the fact that not every religious group gets this treatment. In Charlottesville, the police department rebuffed the Jews who asked for help during the demonstrations this summer. I know that many African Americans have reason to be concerned by a police presence. I know that mosques in the United States face graffiti and much worse on a regular basis.

We are a long way from the ideal still, but I hope for the day when, in the words of President George Washington:

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy. – Washington’s Letter to the Jews of Newport, August, 1790

Washington’s words carry some irony, of course. The enslaved persons on his plantation and elsewhere in the new nation could not “sit in safety” and many of them were “of the stock of Abraham.” Still it is my hope and prayer that just as those words are more true now than they were in 1790, the day will come when they are indeed accomplished.

May the day of peace for all those “of the stock of Abraham” (Jew and Muslim, and spiritually, Christians as well) and for all of every faith community come speedily and soon.  Amen.

Graffiti2
Messages from the Jews of Oakland (Photo by Rabbi Ruth Adar)
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A Refuah for the Rabbi

Image: Rabbis Jacqueline Mates-Muchin and Ruth Adar carry Torahs for Hakafah. Photo by Linda Burnett. All rights reserved. A “Refuah” is a healing.

This past Friday night I had the pleasure of co-leading the Shabbat service at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA. The occasion was our Access Shabbat celebrating Jewish Disability and Inclusion Month. The Access Committee encouraged me to lead the service from my mobility scooter, feeling that it would be a powerful statement for inclusion.

It was, indeed, and a powerful personal experience for me. I am primarily a teaching rabbi; I haven’t regularly led services since 2013. A big part of the reason for that is that standing has caused me excruciating pain for years. As a rabbinical student and then as a “baby” rabbi in my first pulpit, I chose to hide the pain and simply endure it during services which sometimes lasted hours. I’d finish a service drenched in sweat, trembling and barely able to think. As a result, I dreaded leading services and stopped doing it when my body could no longer pretend.

I did not know that Rabbi Mates-Muchin had planned a Hakafah (procession with the Torah) in celebration of a year with our new Torah scroll.  I could hardly believe it when she handed me the sefer Torah; I wept as I carried it around the congregation. I had not held a Torah scroll in years, since I couldn’t climb the stairs to the aron [cabinet] where it is kept and could not lift it down, much less walk with it.

So in addition to a public statement, leading this service was a private healing for me. I hugged the Torah and shared it with the congregation – a physical metaphor for my life’s work. The scooter did not detract from it in any way; instead, it made the moment possible.

There is no rule against leading a service on wheels. In a Reform congregation, the electricity for the scooter is not an issue. I had been my own oppressor, trying to hide my disability because I feared discrimination.

That night, with the Torah in my arms, singing with the congregation, I felt healed and whole.

Coming Attractions: Classes for Fall

A Jewish group studying text together
A Jewish group studying text together

I’m in the final stages of work on my teaching schedule for the fall and winter.

Sunday morning I’ll be teaching at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA:  Exploring Judaism at 9 am, and a text study class (still undefined) at 10:10 am.

Sunday afternoon I will teach a class on the books of Joshua and Judges at Lehrhaus Judaica.  Time still TBD.

Wednesday evening I’ll be teaching at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA: Intro to the Jewish Experience at 7:30pm.

Thursday evening I’ll teach Beyond the Basics, a new class for those who wish to learn more about the Jewish Year, text study, and some concepts that hold Jews worldwide together. Time and location still pending.

And of course, I’ll still be meeting in coffee shops and other places with anyone who wants to learn!

Questions for my readers in the East Bay area of California:

  1. When are the best times for you to attend a class?
  2. What do you want to study?
  3. What are the barriers to study for you?

 

Transition Time

Kiddush Lunch at Temple Sinai
Kiddush Lunch at Temple Sinai

For the past six months, I’ve been helping out at Temple Sinai in Oakland, CA while Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin has been on sabbatical. She and her family have been living in Israel. I filled in on a part-time basis, assisting Rabbi Andrew Straus.

I grew up as a Jew at Temple Sinai. I began the process of formal conversion to Judaism when I knocked on Rabbi Steve Chester’s door in the  early 90’s, and all my first lessons in what it meant to be Jewish happened in and around that big old wedding cake of a building. Later on, they sent me out into the big Jewish world, first doing committee work for the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay, and then as a regional board member for what was then called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now the URJ. I went on to work at URJ, and eventually decided that I would be happiest as a rabbi. I applied to Hebrew Union College, and was ordained in 2008. All the way through, I could feel the folks back at Sinai encouraging me.

I never thought I’d be back in Oakland, much less on staff at Sinai. The hardest part of the decision to become a rabbi was the fact that it was unlikely I’d ever live here, or be a regular at Sinai again. Then in the middle of my student years, one of my sons was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and it was clear to me that with or without employment, my family needed me in Oakland. I bounced back and forth between Oakland and L.A. until ordination, and then I headed home for good after ordination.

Since then I’ve worked at a variety of positions and served a lot of people in California and over in Henderson, NV. Coffee Shop Rabbi came into being in 2010 when I decided to quit “looking for a job” and do the work I saw before me, reaching out to unaffiliated Jews and meeting them in convenient places near their work or home. I did that, and taught classes, and provided funerals and grief support for the unaffiliated.  I found the rabbinate for which I was born, best described by Hillel in Avot 1.12: Be like the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace. [Be] one who loves one’s fellow creatures and brings them close to the Torah. 

And then last fall I got the call from Rabbi MM, and had the chance to serve for a while at the congregation I have loved for all my Jewish life. It was a joy to give back, to serve the people who had been so good to me. It has been a pleasure to work with both Rabbi Straus and Cantor Ilene Keys, and to learn with them as I did so. I have enjoyed the day-to-day company of the office staff, something that the “Coffee Shop Rabbi” doesn’t have.  I got to know people at Sinai that had been there all along, but we hadn’t met; old friends trusted me with new sides of them.

But this week Rabbi MM is returning, and while I’ll miss some things, I’m glad she’s back. I kept my teaching schedule during the past six months, but the work with unaffiliated Jews had to go on hold; there just wasn’t time for it. Now I’m chomping at the bit to go back. I’ll go back to advertising my services, and Lehrhaus Judaica has expanded my teaching schedule for the fall.

Will I miss Temple Sinai? Nope – I’ll still be there as a Jew in the pew! And I’ll still be doing work that I love, teaching Torah and hanging out with the Jews.

l’shalom [towards peace],

Rabbi Adar, the Coffee Shop Rabbi

P.S. My son is doing very well, by the way – he’s stable now, and is an artist-fabricator running the shop at an outfit called the Department of Spontaneous Combustion. (If you are curious, follow this link and watch the video. He’s the guy in the white tee shirt.)

Why I Belong to a Congregation

English: Exterior of Temple Sinai - First Hebr...
English: Temple Sinai – Photo credit: Wikipedia

Today I was reminded again why I belong to a congregation.

My partner is out of town, enjoying a long-planned trip with friends. The friends with her are good friends of mine, too — but the three of them are doing something that I wouldn’t enjoy. So I don’t begrudge her being gone, nor do I begrudge them. Truly, it’s all good.

Only I’ve been lonesome. It’s been a stressful week, for a lot of reasons that are not for a public blog, and I was a bit sad and a bit lonely.  I’ve been following my instincts when lonesome and stressed-out, which is to watch more TV than is good for me, and to work more than is really necessary. In other words, I’ve been hiding.

But today I had a commitment to keep: I had promised to read the haftarah for services this morning. This morning, as I got dressed up to go, I wished I didn’t have the commitment. I wished I could just hide some more. But I got up, dressed up, and went to services at Temple Sinai.

As soon as I walked in the door, most things were familiar. I noticed that the prayer books and chumashim (books with the Torah and haftarah in them) were jumbled on the shelf, so I tidied them up. I chatted with a acquaintance, and met a couple of new people. I reconnected with a recently widowed person with whom I hadn’t really talked in years.

The service was nice. Some of the words blew past me, but others reminded me of the person I would like to be, the person I intend to be.  We learned a little  Torah, and the chair of the Green committee told us what that committee does (encourage recycling and improve water use around the shul.)  The music was excellent, although I was a trifle annoyed that I didn’t know all of it.

At kiddush (the Shabbat meal) afterwards: more friends, more little conversations.  Nothing earthshaking, just a reminder that I’m part of a community. I’m needed, if I will just step up and straighten the books, or volunteer for something. I’m needed to pay attention, too. Other people have troubles, bigger troubles than mine: I heard about recovery from surgery, and new widowhood, and disappointments in business.  I heard a few jokes, applauded a couple of impending birthdays, complimented someone’s Torah reading. I resolved, as I left, that I need to be more present in this place, because it connects me to other Jews, to people with Jewish values.

This is the real reason I belong to a congregation.  I came home reconnected to the Jewish people.  That is almost always what happens to me when I go to shul (synagogue). Some of it was good, some of it was boring, some of it was trivial, but it was centered on Torah. I am reminded of who I am, what I want to do in the world.

I am a Jew.  I am part of a People. I remember that best when I can touch base with other Jews, and the best way I know to do that is with my congregation.

Thank you, Temple Sinai.  I love you.