Sermons

Rabbi Denise L. Eger's sermon on our 25th Anniversary Shabbat Celebration

 

Striking at Holy Rocks: On Chicago and Israel

Shabbat Shalom

Tonight I had a different sermon.  A sermon to celebrate our 25 years of our Congregation and to imagine together the next 25 years.  But that will wait for another Shabbat because the events of the past week cry out to us. Affect us.  Right in our kishkes—at our core.  Two pivotal events one in Chicago and one in Israel speak to the nature of our communal identities and also to the core of what our congregation values are all about.

For 25 years Kol Ami has given voice to values of inclusion and diversity. Long before it was fashionable. Before even Macy’s changed their logo for June to a rainbow.  Long before any other synagogues marched in pride events, Kol Ami stood for LGBTQ Equality.  Our original vision of our congregation was to be a place truly where gay and straight people together could create a dynamic Jewish home. 25 years ago most synagogues had no real place for Gay people –even Temple Israel up the street—wouldn’t let gay people have a commitment ceremony in their sanctuary.  I know I officiated at the first one there for our temple members.  Same thing at Steven S. Wise synagogue.  I officiated there for two of our members.  The rabbis didn’t or wouldn’t back then.  Many day schools were not prepared to handle the children of Lesbian and Gay parents. And the larger Jewish world, Federation, AJC, Jewish National Fund wouldn’t touch gay equality issues.

Even in our own Reform Movement 25 years ago- better than Conservative Judaism and of course Orthodox Judaism each who were anti-gay at the time, our own Reform Movement wasn’t always so embracing.

But this congregation and our work together helped make that change.

Lots of change. Quickly. Because we together imagined a synagogue where we could let all the different parts of who we were come together.  Gay and Jewish. Straight Ally, Lover of Israel, Lesbian parent, Person with HIV, intermarried husband and wife, Single parent, single person, married, long term relationships, whatever your status in the safety of Kol Ami we created a synagogue a Jewish place of meeting, study, spiritual celebration, arts and social justice that helped us bring all of the parts of our identity together under one banner.—The Kol Ami banner.

And we have had a false sense of security in some ways.  But this week was a wake- up call.

First in the Midwest- when Jews went to celebrate Pride.  Nothing remarkable in 2017 that a Jewish lesbian should want to march in the Dyke March in Chicago.  Nothing remarkable that they should march with a pride flag with a Magen David in the middle.  Simply a lesbian Jew displaying her pride at bringing all of her identities together.  And evidently something that she has done in previous years.  But this year prior to the parade a woman who works for the organization A Wider Bridge—which brings together the gay community in the US and the Israeli gay community (and who we have hosted and worked closely with at Kol Ami) was asked to leave and remove her flag because it was making others uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable because it was a symbol of “Zionist oppression”.  “The star of David was a Zionist symbol,” they say –“like the Israeli flag.”

Make no mistake this is a familiar trope.  Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israeli hatred all wrapped into one.   The Magen David, yes appears on the Israeli flag—but as you and I know was a symbol of Jews and Judaism long before the creation of the modern state of Israel.  The Yellow Star was the ultimate symbol of oppression by the Nazi of the Jews. The organizers were striking out at the Rock identity, the Jewish foundation of their core.

The Organizers of the Dyke March believe they acted justly.  After all their official position supposedly is anti-Israel anti-Zionist.  They claim they are pro-Palestinian.   But not anti- Jewish.

They like many gay organizations are being held ransom by the far left.  By those who so believe in an idea called intersectionality that they have lost their ability to think.

Intersectionality is an idea invented by Kimberle Williams Crenshaw an important civil rights advocate to describe overlapping or intersecting social identities and related systems of oppression.  This can include gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, nationality, sexual orientation among others. And asks that a person is linked with all the other oppressions throughout society.

Thus the difficulties the Palestinians experience become the same oppression that Gay people suffer.  But here is the problem with that thinking and in the Chicago case in particular—they believe Jews aren’t oppressed but rather do the oppressing.  Israel is described as the white, European power mongers- which I might add is an old Anti-Semitic canard—of Jews and power.  In some places this is expressed as Jews controlling money and media.  And it confuses things in the world of identity politics.

The actions of the Chicago Dyke March are inexcusable essentially denying a person legitimate right to express all of their identity.  Let alone the fact that dykes marching down the streets of Ramallah would be murdered. There is no free expression of LGBTQ identity in Palestine or anywhere else in the Arab world.  Iran throws us off of roofs.Egypt gay men are rounded up and shot. Saudi Arabia lesbians are raped; Turkey we are imprisoned.  Yes, Dyke March Chicago-you have lost your minds.  The ability to think.  And the only place in the Middle East where LGBT people can celebrate, and have their marriages recognized—yes-Israel. One of the largest Pride celebrations in the world.  But when we mention things like this… we are all accused of Pink washing—meaning trying to negate Israel’s evil status as colonial oppressor by uplifting the safety and security of the LGBTQ community in Israel.  This is another problem with intersectionality.

But this isn’t new in the LGBT world.  It was only last year at Creating Change—the signature conference of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force that a riot ensued when a group of far left anti-Israel queer people shut down a Shabbat oneg reception hosted by A Wider Bridge. Again under the so called banner of anti-Zionism the rioters chanted “Death to the Jews”.  “From the River to the Sea Set Palestine Free”,—which of course means destroying Israel.

This is common in the LGBT world in San Francisco, New York and other places that it is no longer safe to be pro-Israel and gay.  And we have seen it in Chicago now.  (A place where there no longer is a gay synagogue I might add)

Here in Los Angeles we have avoided this by the work of our synagogue. I have built strong relationships with our LGBT leaders and elected officials Our synagogue and you our members have in your work in other parts of the community proudly shown your love of Israel.  We as a congregation in our mission statement say that we love and are committed to Israel.  And we work toward and support an Israel that we dream of –a strong and democratic Jewish state. We believe that An that we don’t have to turn a deaf ear to the pleas of the Palestinian people either. We together with others can be proud of Israel’s achievements while holding in tension the parts of Israel we saddened by. And we can work to support and change our homeland –through the organizations we support—working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

But the far left can’t seem to hold two complex thoughts together. Hence a Jewish Dyke is asked to not march with her Jewish pride flag.  Because someone might mistake the symbolism.  Excuse the treifa comment, this is hog wash.

The problem with any idea that becomes so rigid is that you lose your ability to discern reasonably or to exert judgement and as a result you oppress others.  And that is what the Dyke March did-oppress Jews from expressing their true selves.

Empathy is what we all need. The ability to see the human being across from us.  That is how we know racism is wrong.  That is how we know Islamaphobia should be stamped out.  And yes we need to work for the day when Israelis and Palestinians can live side by side in peace.  But the dangers of Intersectionality is that it can be just as intolerant. And that is as bad as the oppression it seeks to mitigate.

Which leads me to the second problem this week—and that was from Israel itself.  From the Prime Minister and the Cabinet who voted to quash the compromise deal that was negotiated to create egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel, the Western Wall.  The Prime Minister gave this bone to the Charedim, the black hats to keep them in his government and to stay in power as they have threated to withdraw from the very fragile coalition that is the current government of Israel.

Even as we love Israel and work to defend her right to exist we also see that it isn’t all roses.  Our identities as Reform Jews were attacked again. The compromise plan negotiated over 5 years, was reached between the Israeli government, the Reform and Conservative movements and the group the Women of the Wall which for more than 20 years has sought to have women’s public prayer at the Kotel.  The compromise reached last year was to build out a section of the Kotel near the Robinson’s arch area—which would connect to the current Kotel Plaza which has become an Orthodox synagogue.  But most importantly and this is the main sticking point, where the PM is backtracking in his bow to the Charedi right wing, is that it scrapped a commission that would oversee the newly built area that included representatives from our movement and Conservative Judaism and Women of the Wall.  And this is really what the Charedim objected to.  Because in their minds it means de facto recognition by the Israeli government of other streams of Judaism.  Never mind that this was court ordered.  The Israeli Supreme Court ordered the government to find a solution.  Never mind that the deadline was approaching because the Netanyahu government has literally dragged its feet and purposely delayed over the last year so he can keep his grip on power and the PM’s office.

 

There is a fundamental problem.  The betrayal of the PM to Diaspora Jewry with this decision is of crisis proportions.  And here is why.  The Kotel is not just Israeli—it is Jewish.  It was for generations the symbol of our longing to return to the land—an expression of our Jewish yearning. It is why it used to be called the Wailing Wall because we still mourn the destruction of the Temple and our sovereignty as a nation. And in 1967 when Israel unified Jerusalem and captured the Old City and the Temple Moun and the cry came – “Har Ha Bayit b’yadenu-the Temple Mount is in our hands”,  the whole Jewish world rejoiced. Jerusalem was one and the Kotel—the place of our collective longing. symbol of our people was in Jewish hands for the first time since the year 70.

Yes, you heard that—since the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in the year 70.

Reform and Conservative Judaism are second class citizens in Israel.  The corrupt Chief Rabbinate in Israel excludes Reform and Conservative rabbis from marrying people, converting people, burying people. Our synagogues receive no state funding in Israel as do Orthodox ones. Our schools do not receive funding as do orthodox schools.

And for decades we have worked to change the status quo-growing our movement without the government.  Suing in the courts when necessary.  Seeking change through the political system. And the Kotel compromise was a significant and symbolic change.

In February 2016 at the CCAR convention in Israel during my presidency we held the first service at the site of the egalitarian prayer space.  It was the first service following the agreement. 350 Reform rabbis davened the morning service and we read Torah there.  I will admit most of the time the Kotel has left me cold.  I was always uncomfortable in the women’s section. Trying to pray. It felt unfamiliar when I was separated from other members of my family.  It felt inauthentic when the guards would look at me in pants with a disapproving eye.  But that service with my colleagues brought tears to my eyes and joy to my heart-to pray our melodies, aloud, men and women together next to the Kotel—next to the symbol of our people’s journey and history was a spiritual highlight I will cherish.  This is what should be available to anyone who comes to the Kotel; To pray as a Jew with their authentic identity.
Whether from the Right or left of the political spectrum—orthodoxies and rigidity create problems because human beings smother if held too tightly.  Judaism knows this. It is unfortunate the Israeli Orthodox rabbinate doesn’t.  It instead, like the PM, is desperate to hold on to power in a changing world.

The outrage in the Diaspora world has been swift.  Our own Rabbi Rick Jacobs and the Conservative movement leaders were on the ground in Israel.  For the first time in 30 years AIPAC leaders went to Israel to meet with the PM in an emergency meeting to tell him the fallout from this was too much and to reverse course.  American Jewish Committee condemned the PM’s action as well as the powerful Jewish Federations of North America.   The Orthodox former chief rabbi of England condemned it,Lord Jonathan Sacks. Even a group of 200 Modern Orthodox rabbis here in the US condemned this.  The holy rocks of the Kotel carved and placed so long ago must continue to be a place of gathering for ALL THE JEWISH PEOPLE  to pray, not just some.

Symbols do matter. They speak to us of who we are and what we stand for as individuals and the community. The Pride flag, the Magen David, The Kotel, Kol Ami, not the building but our congregation. Each of you -the people are the symbol of a set of values that we cherish.

Those values include being all of who we are-Jewish and proud of all our identities.  Comfortable in our own shoes.  Gay and Straight, Queer and Bi and Trans, Jewish, Lovers of Israel, lovers of our non-Jewish family and friends, committed to erasing, racism, and Islamophobia, and most of all doing what we Jews believe—Seeing everyone as created in God’s image.  B’tzelem Elohim.

This week’s Torah portion is Chukat in the book of numbers. Moses has encounter with a different set of holy rocks.  He is to speak to the rock to quench the thirst of the Israelites in the desert.  In his frustration he strikes the rock.  Waters come gushing forth—but as the Torah describes it—they are like flood waters—overwhelming.  The PM is no Moses, but he too has struck out at the holy rocks of the Kotel.  And he will not be able to stop the copious waters of outrage, and protest around the world from his action. Already he is backtracking. And the brief filed in the Israeli Supreme Court will be heard July 30.  But striking out at holy rocks doesn’t work.  And in fact it didn’t end well for Moses who as a result of his actions, disobeying God’s request that he speak to the rock—not hit it, he is not allowed to finish his mission to cross over into the Promised land.  Perhaps the PM should have paid attention.

I hope that soon-we together as a congregation can stand at the Kotel together—in the newly refurbished egalitarian prayer space and sing out together just as we do here on Shabbat. And sing of our joy and love of being Jewish. And sing of our joy and love of being all of who we are.

Then we will know a taste of that true freedom that God has given to each of us.  Ken Yehi Ratzon.

Rabbi Denise Eger's Speech at the #WeAreOlando Candlelit Vigil at L.A. City Hall

 

Dear friends, we've heard lots of speeches but let us not forget that it's time to mourn. There will be a time for action. There will be a time for voting. There will be a time for rising up. But tonight, we must mourn our loss. We must mourn those amazing, precious souls in Orlando who can never be replaced.

I want to share with you words of Rev. Troy Perry who was so upset and distraught he couldn't be here. For those of you that don't know, Rev. Perry founded the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Churches, right here in Los Angeles, in 1968. Rev. Perry was one of the people that helped found the Christopher Street West parade - the first march to commemorate Stonewall in this country.

And these are his words tonight: "Today, all I can do is pray and cry. 46 years ago I helped plan, with two other men, the first GLBT Pride parade in world history. I planned to attend the parade yesterday, but all I can do is pray and cry. Today we are, in our community -- our friends, our families -- we who are going to celebrate, but many of us can only cry. I pray for all the martyrs of this tragedy in Orlando, Florida: those murdered in this terrorist act, those injured in the hospital, all their families and friends, we pray for you. This is not the first time that our community has felt despair, and sadly, it probably won't be the last. None of us are going back into the closet. We will stand for our rights." Rev. Elder Troy Perry concludes, "But please forgive me, I am still crying."

Yes, our hearts are broken. And it is time to mourn our dead. So let us take a moment - a moment of silent prayer, meditation, to your Higher Power, to your God, to your Source, to no Source at all, but to the Planet itself:

Bless these precious souls. These 50 precious souls whose lives were broken and cut short all too soon. We ask for their souls to be at peace. For their families and their friends and their lovers to be healed of their broken hearts. Let their murder not be in vain. Let it be a lesson to each of us, and to our nation, that the fight for LGBT equality is not over. Let us not be complacent, thinking we have won the day, for there is much work left to do.

Bless those who need healing from their wounds - a healing of spirit, and a healing of body. And teach us, O Source of the Universe, to be Your messengers in this world of justice, of truth, of love, of love, of love, of love, of love, of love.

And together, let us all say, Amen

 

The Tohu Vavohu of Gun Violence: A Sermon by Jeremy Gimbel

 

Given at Congregation Kol Ami on October 10th, 2015

In the beginning, there were swirling masses of chaos that were, tohu vavohu, unformed and void. In the days of creation that followed, God created light and darkness, water and sky, land and vegetation, celestial bodies, animals, humanity, and Shabbat. In short, in the beginning there was chaos, and the story of creation brings about order.

Wouldn’t it be great if that was the end, if that was the only thing we needed to learn from this story?

In fact, we are just at a beginning.

B’reishit bara Elohim, begins the Torah, “In the beginning God created” … or so we think. The “bet” at the beginning tells us “in,” and “reishit” tells us “beginning,” but what is unclear is what comes between “in” and “beginning.” But the grammar tells us that we cannot think of b’reishit bara Elohim as “in the beginning.” Instead, the vowels want us to read this as “in a beginning,” implying that there are lots of beginnings. And before you think that this is just my idea, this is actually an interpretation that has great Kabbalistic and rabbinic backing.

B’reishit bara Elohim, “In a beginning of God’s acts of creation…”

Moses Maimonides reads the story of creation as a parable, understanding that we, as creatures created in the “image of God,” are commanded to develop an ability to understand the world and how we, as Godly messengers, function in the world. Our job is to take the chaos of the world, the injustices of the world, the tohu vavohu of the world, and bring about order through justice.

B’reishit bara Elohim, “In a beginning of doing divine work…”

As we begin to read the Torah again, and as we begin this new year, we are compelled to acknowledge that there is a narrative out there that says that our country was unformed and void, and the second amendment gave us order. There is a narrative out there that says that if the government does something about guns in this country, we will move from order to chaos.

That narrative is harmful, dangerous, and factually wrong.

According to the FBI’s recently released “Crime in the US, 2014” report, a report that includes all incidents of gun violence known to law enforcement (except for Florida and Alabama), nearly 1800 people were killed by a gun due to an argument not during the commission of a felony. Not as a result of gang violence nor drug trafficking – just arguments that escalated. In fact, the number of gun homicides due to those two categories I mentioned, gang violence and drug trafficking, was HALF of the gun deaths due to an argument not during the commission of a felony.

And in the aftermath of the most recent high-profile shooting in Oregon, the NRA tweeted, “It’ll take a lot more than one disturbed individual to intimidate or silence Americans who believe in the #2A!” (twitter.com/NRA) One astute respondent asked, “How many more?”

There is a narrative out there that says that this is not a gun issue, but a mental health issue. Yes, mental health is an issue in this country. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 4 Americans are impacted by mental illness. (http://nami.org) As an aside, I encourage you to do your part to help by taking this three-word pledge: “I will listen.”

But the narrative that tries to connect mental health and gun homicides is just factually inaccurate. According to an article in the Annals of Epidemiology, the large majority of mentally ill people are non-violent. And the vast majority of gun violence is committed by non-mentally ill people. The American Journal of Public Health reports that “fewer than 5% of the 120,000 gun-related killings [studied] were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness.”

Mark Follman, reporting for Mother Jones, cites a member of an FBI program that is seeking to stop the proverbial next mass shooter. He argues that mass shootings are predictable and preventable, and not usually the result of psychosis. Quoting the agent, “When the next shooting happens, the question will again be asked, ‘What made him snap?’ But mass murder is not an impulsive crime. Virtually every one of these attacks, forensic investigations show, is a predatory crime, methodically planned and executed.” These people are sick, but they’re not sick.

There is also a narrative that we need more good guys with guns. Except that, according to a Politico analysis of school shootings, “no armed civilian has ever actually stopped a school shooting.”

All of these narratives are not just factually inaccurate, they go against our Jewish values and the Jewish tradition. Throughout time, Judaism has focused on the sanctity of human life. The Ten Commandments tell us, “You are not to murder.” (Ex. 20:13, Fox) The Prophet Isaiah tells us to “beat [our] swords into plowshares, and [our] spears into pruning hooks.” (Isaiah 2:4, JPS) The Rabbis tell us in Mishnah Sanhedrin that “the one who takes one life it is as though that person has destroyed the universe.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

The Reform Movement has been at the forefront of leading the charge for combatting the curse of gun violence, passing resolutions as early as 1975 calling for legislation “that would limit and control the sale and use of firearms.” (URJ 1975) The Central Conference of American Rabbis just this August reaffirmed their commitment to gun control by urging “the members of the congregations and communities [they] serve to demand that their Representatives and Senators enact effective gun violence prevention legislation.” They also encouraged government bodies — such as the military and police forces, which account for 40% of the guns sold each year — to use their purchasing power to demand certain safety features from gun manufacturers.

It is our time to flip the script and change the narrative. As we begin to reread the Torah, it is time for us to realize that we are at a beginning. We are at a beginning where gun violence in this country is tohu vavohu — chaotic and harmful. We are at a beginning where we can stand up and say: We will do whatever we can to bring order to this chaos.

“Does [it] make any sense that we should put rifles and guns in the hands of people who have long criminal records, or people who are insane, or people who are mentally incompetent, or people who are so young that they don’t know how to handle rifles and guns?” Do you know who said that? Bobby Kennedy in May, 1968, just a month before he was shot. How right he was.

The time has come for common sense gun regulations. This includes, but is by no means limited to preventing those convicted of domestic abuse from buying guns, closing the “gun show” loopholes, and repeal the law that helps gun manufacturers avoid legal consequences from the criminal use of their products.

And don’t even get me started about Australia, where after introducing common sense gun regulations in response to a mass shooting in 1996 and in concert with social and economic trends, there have been ZERO mass shootings. None. (McPhedran, Samara and Baker, Jeanine, Mass Shootings in Australia and New Zealand: A Descriptive Study of Incidence (2008). (Justice Policy Journal, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring 2011. Available at SSRN)

Why am I speaking about this? It’s not specifically because of Oregon, Charleston, Lafayette, or Virginia or any of the other mass shootings that have happened this year. It’s not specifically because of Sandy Hook or Columbine. It’s not specifically because in the first 274 days of 2015, there have been 294 mass shootings. Not 294 dead from mass shootings, 294 incidents where there were 4 or more victims.

I’m speaking about this specifically because I could not even finish editing this sermon before another mass shooting senselessly took innocent lives. I’m speaking about this specifically because these shootings are not, as Northern Arizona University President Rita Cheng called it today, “isolated” nor “unprecedented.”

And I’m speaking about this specifically because there’s an emergency phone on the bimah. And I hope that at some point in my rabbinate, I will be able to leave it upstairs.

For now, though, it is time, at this beginning of doing God’s work, for us to pick up our phones and contact our legislators. Yesterday, Senators Schumer and Stabenow introduced plans for gun control reforms that would close background check loopholes, expand the background check database, and tighten regulations on illegal gun purchases. In the scheme of things, it’s not a lot; but it will make a difference.

We are living in a chaotic world. And complacently is not an option when it comes to gun violence in this country.

B’reishit bara Elohim – in this beginning of doing God’s work, “Let the old year and its curses come to an end. Let the new year and its blessings begin.” (Kitov, “The Book of our Heritage,” Vol. 3, p. 332)

Mi shebeirach avoteinu v’imoteinu, God of our ancestors, let us recognize that we are at a beginning of doing Your work. May we see the light in the darkness. May we bring about order in the chaos of gun violence. May we inspire humanity to, in the words of Rabbi Menachem Creditor, “rebuild Your World by saving each other.” (rabbicreditor.blogspot.com)

Yir’eh Elohim, ki tov – God will see, and it will be good.

Sermons on Important and Noteworthy Subjects

 

Multi-Faith Prayer Service in Washington, DC on Sunday, April 26 for Unite for Marriage

Feguson, Missouri

The Tsunami in Indonesia

Gun Control

Hurricane Katrina

Teri Schaivo's Death

Gay Pride

The Environment

Harvey Milk

Stem Cell Reseach

 

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