Tonight across the country, reform and conservative synagogues are commemorating Refugee Shabbat, a Project of the Hebrew immigrant aid society. And this weekend in Santa Barbara, many faith communities are participating in Love your neighbor weekend, a celebration of our immigrant populations. How fortunate that these two weekends coincided.
As serious as this topic is, and as important as it is to the Jewish community, I’d actually like to start with a short comedy clip, a famous sketch from the 1970’s in Israel. , I’ll play about 4-5 minutes of it, but I think it is a great example of the societal reaction to immigration.
Every group of new arrivals become the established community when the next wave comes. And eventually, the anger grows to hate any notion of a new immigrant or refugee. How similar it is here in the US. How many generations did it take for us to cast off the identity of outsider? Our families who came over 2, 3, 4 generations ago, fleeing persecution from Europe or other countries of conflict, how many of us still feel the unease of being an immigrant in this country? I think most of us would answer that we don’t. And I worry that in our comfort, we have become complacent.
According to the most recent UN counts, there are currently 80 million people displaced due to violence and persecution. 80 million. That is equivalent to every American west of the Rockies. Of those 80 million, 30-35 million are children.
The count of displaced persons in the world are separated into two groups. The larger group, about 54 million, are called Internally displaced, meaning that they have been forced to flee their homes, but have not left their country of origin. The smaller 26 million are known as refugees, those who have left the borders of their country and fled elsewhere.
America has a history of being a refuge to those fleeing persecution. For decades, the US resettled more refugees than the rest of the world combined, at times taking on 200-300% more. Former President Trump was not wrong when he demanded the world needs to step up their numbers, and when he cut American admittance of refugees from 97,000 in 2016 to 33,000 in 2017 and down to 23,000 in 2018, the rest of the world miraculously stepped up. After averaging between 30-40,000 a year, in 2017 and 2018 the world accepted an average of 80,000 refugees a year. Now that President Biden has recommitted American acceptance to its previous numbers, the world could be finding new homes for around 200,000 refugees a year. Unfortunately, at that rate, it will take 125 years to resettle all current refugees. It is hard to imagine the correct solution to this problem. It feels daunting and insurmountable. The Torah provides a glimpse at a solution, but unfortunately it is so radical, so contrary to who we are, we may not be able to admit or accept that it is there.
In this week’s Torah portion we find the infamous story of the golden calf. The Israelites, scared at the long absence of Moses, rush to Aaron crying “build us something to worship!” Aaron collects gold from the community and melts it into a calf which the people offer sacrifices to. The Israelites were too afraid to see the bigger picture, and too impatient to find out what would be next, so they threw their gold, their most precious resource at a false solution.
Holiness and community are not built by throwing resources at a problem.
Contrastingly the Torah introduces the half shekel tax in this parasha. Each person, no matter how rich, how poor, old, or just 20 years old, would be required to give one half-shekel of silver toward the building of the tabernacle and the maintenance of the holy objects. This is a meticulous process that is slowly achieved through the counting of each individual in the community. And the equitable nature of the gift implies that in the eyes of God and religious ritual, all are equal no matter their status.
In a dvar on this story, Rachel Travis writes that the half-shekel of silver holds specific symbolism. Why not a whole shekel she asks? Because by only giving half, the Israelites are meant to recognize their gift alone is not complete. They require each other to fulfill the completion of their gift.
This is the radical notion of Torah. What if we recognized we need each other? What if we could look past our selfish DESIRES, our efforts for gain and for superiority, our quick fixes where long solutions are necessary? How would that change the way we treat refugees, asylum seekers? If the whole world got behind this idea, would there even be refugees?
The tension of equity, of reliance on community, are not felt exclusively on a grand scale.
We are seeing this tension play out in this community right now around the Covid Vaccine.
I have seen and heard much anger about who gets the vaccine and when, despite the fact that we agree that the more people who have it the better for all of us, and it is something anyone who wants it should inevitably have access to. But at the moment, when I listen to people angry about the decision to increase supply to communities with a higher percentage Latinx population because it is taking away from others, I hear a community of golden calf worshippers, unable to see the bigger picture, impatient.
It is proven fact that immigrant communities have been more negatively affected by Covid, partially because they make up a larger percentage of the work force that could not work from home, partially because the lower economic status of those communities have more people living in closer proximity, and partially because the language barrier and distrust of government. Major societal factors are at play here. I spoke last week with 2 members of the Santa Barbara Foundation who wanted to know more about how we had been getting information out to our community about vaccinations, because they had heard word that CBB was going above and beyond to make sure their members knew about vaccination opportunities, and wanted to repeat those efforts in the Mixteca and latinX communities in our county.
I told them that we have an incredible team of volunteers helping get people signed up, but that we were limited to the people within our circle of communication. If only our circle of communication were wider, we could help more. After Charlottesville 4 years ago we started The Human Family Project because we knew we needed to be better connected with other communities. And after Covid, we will continue that work because it is clear that the more connected we are, the more people we can help, and potentially the more lives we can save.
Whether the resource is vaccines, food, or a safe place to live, it is not us or them. To love your neighbor is to know it is us and them. We are all in this together. I am made safer by your being vaccinated.
Rabbi Jack Reimer’s words in our prayerbook echo this sentiment. We already have the resources to feed, to clothe, to shelter, the entire world, if we would only use them wisely, and with love.
To love one’s neighbor and the stranger are central components of the Torah’s message. 4 times in torah we read love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You have known suffering, so alleviate the suffering of others. As we approach Passover, where we re-live the exodus from Egypt, our escape from persecution, we should be mindful of those trying to do the same, and open to the radical possibility that we need them as much as they need us.
When I first was contacted by Jill Feldman and Ashley Goldstein to participate in the CBB Irving and Marlyn Berstein Leadership Institute (LI) via Zoom, I was hesitant for a variety of reasons. You know the excuses: time commitment, not being able to meet in person, concerns about future requests to participate on committees and events, being one of the older ( ok, I will be honest – the oldest) participants, not feeling like I was “leadership” material, etc.
However, I was also worried that I would be the only Republican in the group and how would that play out? I didn’t want my political view to define me yet I wanted to be open and honest. After speaking to Deborah Naish who helped facilitate the course along with Aaron Ettenberg, I felt reassured that this would not be a barrier, it could actually be a growing opportunity for myself as well as my fellow LI attendees.
From delving into the history of CBB, interviewing past CBB leaders, listening, and learning from our board president, rabbis, cantor, administrator/staff it truly gave me an appreciation of how much effort goes into running a vibrant, living, growing Jewish community.
I gained a perspective and respect for my other LI attendees. We were given assignments, discussed Jewish ethics (what would Moses do?), and learned about our own innate biases which can impact decisions on crucial board/synagogue issues. My fellow LI participants are smart, hard-working, multi-tasking, passionate young “up and coming” leaders of CBB. We are fortunate to have them not only in our synagogue but also as representatives of our Santa Barbara community.
I am grateful for the opportunity to have participated in the LI with the professional, insightful, probing, and supportive guidance of Deborah Naish and Aaron Ettenberg.
When the Jewish people join hands in collective responsibility they become a formidable force for good. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Bechukotei 5774)
Some of you may have seen that I was asked by the Santa Barbara News Press to comment on the Supreme Court decision to allow CA houses of worship to hold indoor services. I told the author of the article that we would not be coming back to in-person services as a result of the ruling. She seems a bit surprised. I told her the same words I wrote back in May as restrictions on public worship first lifted: Just because we can be together, doesn’t mean we should. I believe that the decision our synagogue has made, and houses of worship all across CA have made as well, is out of an effort to put Moral leadership before popular leadership.
This is, in a way, the beauty and challenge of the American judicial system. The rulings of the courts do not dictate any sort of moral code. There are plenty of things that are legal but still immoral. But we are given the flexibility to make a moral choice within a legal system. This is what separates a secular law code from a religious one. Torah law attempts to combine law and morality based on the desire of a God for creation. The Torah portion this week is a perfect example. Mishpatim, literally meaning Laws, or statutes, contains legal ramifications for breaking the law such as paying restitution when accidentally damaging another’s property, and moral acts of returning a lost animal to its owner.
Torah law, at its inception, was a departure from other ancient codes. In the Mesopotamian legal system, people were often assigned a monetary value, and in the case of murder, the victim’s family would extract a payment from the murderer as recompense. In the Torah on the other hand, where human life could not automatically be converted to dollar, punishment for murder was death. Murder was not just a crime against a person, it was a crime against God.
It is good in my opinion that the judicial system is not meant to impose what is or is not moral, only what is or is not legal according to our Constitution. However, that openness allows our legislatures to make those choices for us. What is our recourse when legislators take that freedom of morality and create laws that they are within their purview to make, but are immoral according to our values?
This conflict is particularly present in our country’s ongoing struggle around abortion and reproductive rights. There is an ongoing tug of war between the judicial and legislative branch around issues of contraceptive access, pregnancy planning, and funding for clinics like Planned Parenthood. In the landmark Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, the supreme court ruled that a state could not make abortions illegal, that the medical procedure chosen in one out of every six pregnancies was a woman’s right. There has never been a time where this right has been in such danger as now. Since 2011, more than 400 state laws have been passed attempting to restrict access to this right, and right now, there are 17 cases only 1 step away from the Supreme Court. It is highly likely that we will see this court take on the issue once again, and its decision could have dire consequences.
This Shabbat nationally is Reproduction Shabbat, a program of the National Council of Jewish Women, and co-sponsored by dozens of national Jewish organizations from the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Humanistic movements. In dozens of synagogues across the country tonight, rabbis are reaffirming the Jewish commitment to contraceptive access, and the right to choose. I am joining with my colleagues in this call at a time when that right has never been in more danger.
This Shabbat was chosen based on a passage, a painful and problematic passage, from this week’s Torah portion. It reads, “When two people fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning.
But if other damage ensues [in other words if the woman also dies], the penalty shall be life for life.” As gruesome and painful as this passage is to hear, it also serves as the basis for numerous talmudic rulings on the legality of abortion. The passage suggests that a fetus, while precious and valuable, does not equate to human life. If the fetus is lost, a monetary fee is paid, but if the mother’s life is lost, the penalty is death. According to the Talmud, life starts at birth, not at conception. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is no concept of viability in Talmud. Medical research had not progressed that far at that time.
Jewish law is clear that in the case of threat of health of the pregnant individual, abortion is not only an option, it is a commandment, an obligation. Judaism commands that we save a life no matter what. But noted Orthodox legal scholar from this century, Rabbi AharonLichtenstein, zichono livracha, wrote that Pikuach nefesh [where a life is at stake] is not the only reason one might terminate a pregnancy. Other factors are allowed to be taken into account as well, including sh’lom bayit, peace in the home, tza’ar, pain and suffering both physically and mentally, and kavod ha’briyot, the dignity of an individual.
It should be made clear that Judaism does not advocate for abortions as a positive thing. Our most basic commandment as Jews is to be fruitful and multiply. Bringing children into the world, and caring for those who are already here, is of utmost significance. But it is also clear that Judaism, even in Orthodox circles, accepts the necessity of such a procedure.
We live in California, a progressive state, for better or worse, but a state that has committed to providing access to contraceptive health care and abortion facilities, at least on paper. But according to a 2020 report from Powertodecide, two and a half million Californians live in a county with limited to no access to appropriate health options. Those two and a half million Californians join an additional 17 million across the US with little to no access. A Supreme Court Decision to overturn, or change the ruling of Roe v. Wade will cause that number to significantly increase, and we Jews have a moral responsibility to ensure that access for others, even if it is a choice we would not make for ourselves.
This Torah portion also calls on us to not oppress the stranger, and to protect the vulnerable in our community. If the Supreme Court makes the legal decision to remove state restrictions on abortions, responsibility will fall to individuals to advocate for moral leadership to be upheld at the legislative level. Laws restricting access to abortion do not stop abortion, they just prevents safe, legal abortion.
On Yom Kippur I spoke of the miscarriage my wife and I suffered in our first pregnancy, and the taboo nature of speaking about such personal life moments. Abortion, even more than miscarriage, is a topic not often spoken about in Jewish circles. Those who have made this choice for themselves often feel they must make it without any friend support or knowledge to avoid embarrassment. And as one in four people who can become pregnant will chose at some point in their lives to have this procedure (including within the Jewish community), WE Testify founder Renee Bracey Sherman is correct when she says, “all of us love someone who has had an abortion, whether we know it or not.” I have spoken with some who have made this choice, and spoken of the physical and mental pain they personally endured. They expressed fear of how others would react if they found out. We as a welcoming and warm Jewish community need to be willing to open ourselves up to those who maybe make different personal choices than we might, but are still in need of loveand support.
And we as a Jewish community should look past labels of liberal or conservative, and see the ability for one to forego a pregnancy for what it is, a moral necessity of Jewish law for the protection of life, the honoring of individual choice, and the separation of one’s personal religious views from public law.
A very psychic friend had posted something about Nevada, right when I was wondering if and where to go. I took that as a sign. My destination: Carson City, the Capitol of Nevada. (I had to look up where the Capitol of Nevada was). As I was leaving the house, I said a prayer, and set these intentions: 1) get the images and stories that will best serve the public, 2) stay safe, and 3) have an adventure I could write home about. (In that order).
On my way, I arrived at the Sacramento Capitol around 8:00 pm on January 16th, the night before the potential terrorist attacks that the FBI was anticipating. There was a formidable fence around the entire building, which has the radius of several blocks. Inside and outside were members of the US National Guard, and police vehicles. It was not nearly the show of force I had seen in some cities, like Louisville, KY, during some of the BLM protests, yet it was impressive. The next morning, security was beefed up even more: now hundreds of law enforcement could be seen standing or patrolling the grounds and neighborhood.
But where was the insurgents? The rioters? How about the peaceful Pro-Trump supporters?
There was one young man standing in front of the fence in a suit, holding an American Flag. The fact that he was alone, with the massive and stately California Capitol building and US military behind him, made for quite the dramatic and uncanny scene. A couple dozen reporters and as many National Guardsmen were milling around, tension as thick as the humid breeze off the river. A formal suit was not quite what I had imagined a Neo-Nazi insurgent wearing, but what did I know? I went to interview him.
Turns out he wasn’t a Trump supporter, or a terrorist. He was a college student in Computer Science who had come with a message of unity and love, for the lawmakers, police and everyone in the universe.
So where were the Trump supporters? The Insurgents? The rebels?
No where! Not a single one!
Later in the day, two giant, steel-colored pickup trucks with Dakota plates, scull and cross bone decals and confederate flags drove by, and a woman, smiling, leaned out the window as she sped past the Capitol. She screamed a war cry out of the window.
That was it.
This was a good lesson. My fear began to lessen. Without a leader egging them on, and with such a show of force by law enforcement, they were too chicken to take a stand. This is why leadership need be held accountable.
Then, I thought of all the people who had come out to protest police brutality in 2019– how many tens of thousands of black citizens had lined the streets and stood nose-to-nose with police and Federal Agents, the very people and institutions most likely to be hostile to their cause; the very people they were protesting! The courage for the unprivileged to act and to use their voices when they knew all too well there would be no Presidential pardons or house arrests for them. The contrast between the courage of those Black-Lives-Matter protestors, and the people who had swarmed the Capitol because they believed the lies they were told, and had believed themselves to be heroes, under the wing of the most powerful man in the world— was immeasurable. My eyes teared up thinking about what true courage is, and how when the truth really is on our side; when a people are truly righteous, they can stand up to the police or the government or anyone, and protest peacefully. This is what the insurgents and their leaders in mayhem didn’t get: “The truth— and only the truth— will set us free”.
Then I drove from Sacramento to Carson City later that day, a two hour drive, and entered the grounds of the Nevada State Capitol. I could not believe my eyes. I didn’t know what to believe! I felt like I was in Bizarro-land; the Twilight Zone. I walked the entire congressional campus, in a state of bafflement. There were no protestors there either, but neither were there policemen. Nobody. Not even one overweight, semi-retired security guard half asleep on a metal folding chair. I walked up to the front door and looked in the thinly plated, glass windows. Not a soul to be seen.
I glanced at my iPhone: the news stories had listed this Capitol as one of the top five targets on the FBI’s watch list for this day, and the day of the Inauguration. I had read that one of the law makers in the state supported a coup, and had tweeted that on this day he knew the Emergency Broadcast system would be activated, and Trump would declare Martial Law, and the US military would be called forth to assure the Republican take-over. Was this part of how it was going to happen? By letting anyone who wanted walk right into the state Capitol, and legislature and Supreme Court buildings — all which were unguarded, as far as any eye could see? Or, did they know something I didn’t? Was there really not a threat, as long as no one was leading them inside?
I took several videos and photos — of nothing.
About an hour later, when still I could not spy a single officer or protestor (but thought I saw a form passing across the foyer deep inside the Capitol building— if it was Guard, or Ghost, I cannot tell you), I went to find a hotel. I started driving away, when I was stopped in my tracks. Not by domestic terrorists … but by a herd of deer.
I jumped out of my car — as silently as one can jump— and took their photograph. I recalled a dream someone had shared with me once, of Deer being buried underground. And I thought to myself, “Ah, the deer have risen!” And, “if only they were in front of the Capitol: what a miracle that would be!”
Then, something stunning happened. One by one, the deer began to cross the street, toward the Capitol. But not without pausing, first, under the street sign that would show I was actually in Carson City— a photojournalist’s dream! They crossed the road, one-by-one, and wandered on to the Capitol lawn. Then, every time I thought, “if only you would move a little over there— that would be an even better shot”… they did!
They were so sweet. So docile. So TRUSTING. So loving. Carson City is still a bit of the Wild West: it is a place of gun lovers and avid hunters. Yet the Deer were tame: they came up to me, and would have eaten out of my hand, had I had some food to offer them.
Their sweet and gentle presence made me weep.
Then, it dawned on me. I remembered my “intention”, and New Year’s Resolution. THESE were the photos I was meant to get and share! Awareness of the rhizome level of reality: where all living beings essentially share the same animal body; where all of us are essentially trees, sharing the same root system deep within the Earth, drinking from the same underground rivers…
This is my gift: going with the flow to manifest this kind of synchronicity, to show the world what the “Shema” really means— in action. My camera, like my fingers on this iPhone, are merely tools in the story-making that underscores this cosmic reality.
Which brings me back again, and finally, to Elie Weisel, in the later part of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:
“Yes, I have faith. Faith in God and even in His creation. Without it no action would be possible. And action is the only remedy to indifference: the most insidious danger of all.”
We can contrast this with President Trump’s speech on June 6th, where he was turning the people against the man who had been most loyal to him: “I just spoke to [Vice President] Mike. I said, “Mike, that doesn’t take courage. What takes courage is to do nothing. That takes courage.”
No, Mr. Trump. No!
As Weisel said, “There is much to be done, there is much that can be done. One person – a Raoul Wallenberg, an Albert Schweitzer, one person of integrity, can make a difference, a difference of life and death.”
Indeed, there is still time to speak out, and to act, in accordance with each of our unique skill-sets, abilities and sensibilities.
Let us let the Deer be our guides!
Amy Katzis a photojournalist and member of CBB. She has been travelling and covering the protests across the country.
First mentioned in 1238, one of the oldest Jewish settlements in the Czech lands.
In 1568 the Jews were expelled from the town. Historical sources refer to their number at the time as “sizeable.”
In 1853 the first Jewish family moved back, in 1880 there were 332 Jewish citizens, in 1900 there were 415 and in 1930, 215 people claimed their Jewish heritage.
The Jews in Pribram enjoyed a rich social life; there was a chevra kadisha, a Sisterhood, and charity and youth organizations. Before WWI there was even a kosher restaurant.
During the Nazi occupation, 171 Pribram Jews were killed in the camps, including 18 children under 15. The youngest was Pavel Schling, he was four years old.
In 1873 the building of the synagogue (in the then-popular Moorish style) began and in 1875 it was finished and the first Torah scroll was placed in the synagogue.
In the 1960s many Torah scrolls were sold to Western Jewish organizations all over the world.
The last Pribram rabbi, Dr. Emil Friedman, was killed in Auschwitz in 1943, along with 543 Jewish people from Pribram and the surrounding area.
During WWII, the synagogue was used as a warehouse and from 1946 to 1957 it housed collections of the town museum.
In 1966, due to only a very small number of Jewish people in Pribram, the congregation donated the synagogue to the town of Pribram.
The magistrate accepted the donation, only to tear the synagogue down in 1969.
The location of the medieval Jewish cemetery in unknown.
The new Jewish cemetery was founded in 1879. There are currently 150 beautifully preserved grave stones and a monument to the 543 Nazi victims, unveiled in 1954. The last Jewish burial took place in 1958. The cemetery is very well preserved and taken care of.