CBB Voices Blog2020-06-22T14:35:19-07:00

Rabbi Steve Cohen: Rosh HaShanah Sermon 2020 – Environment

Rabbi Steve Cohen: Rosh HaShanah Sermon 5781/2020 – Environment

And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “my father.” Abraham replied “here I am my son.” And Isaac said “here is the fire, and here is the wood, but where is the lamb for the offering?” Here in California, and throughout the entire western United States, Isaac’s long ago words now have a new resonance. “Hineh ha-esh. Here is the fire.”

Here in Santa Barbara, in the last day or two, our air quality has begun to return to normal and we are breathing a deep sigh of relief. We are also struggling to wrap our minds around year after year of devastating wildfire. California, Oregon and Washington have been on fire for a month now, and it is still just September, beginning of the wildfire season. Last year it was Australia. Two years previously, the fire was in our mountains, and we were forced to stay indoors for weeks by toxic smoke, and then as a direct result of the fire came the Montecito debris flow.

We recognize that wildfires have always been part of nature. But just as this Covid-19 pandemic is a bitter but undeniable reality, so too is the fact that our western states are experiencing longer fire seasons, and bigger, more intense, more destructive, and more lethal wildfires. Our reality has changed, and we know the reason. Id like to speak this morning about the warming of our planet. We should touch briefly upon the science. But today is Rosh Hashanah, and so our attention is primarily upon ourselves and our inner life. Our fears and our hopes, and how we make choices, both as individuals and as a society. This is the season of teshuvah, of turning, and at this time of year more than any other, we are called to ask ourselves: am I living according to my deepest values? As a society, are we living out our deepest values? And if not, are we capable of change?

Here is what we know, and this is direct from NASA’s Global Climate Change website: The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit, or .9 degrees Celsius, since the late 19th century. This change has been driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere.

This rise in temperature is affecting people living in different parts of the world in different ways. In the Southwest United States, which is our region, effects include: increased wildfires, declining water supplies, reduced agricultural yields, health impacts in cities due to heat, and flooding and erosion in coastal areas. Again, this is straight from the NASA website.

There is virtually no dissent among currently publishing climate scientists about:

the fact of global warming,

that it is due to human-made emissions,

and that it is the primary cause of our increasing wildfires.

If you look, you will find that knowledgeable people also agree that we need better forest management, including thinning and controlled burns, which were practiced effectively by the Chumash and other indigenous people for thousands of years. But the increased wildfires are due primarily to heat, to drought and to trees weakened by insect outbreaks, all of which stem from the rising surface temperature of the planet. There is no disagreement about this in the respected scientific community.

Reasonable people can disagree about how we should respond. A reasonable person could certainly say: there is nothing that I can possibly do that would make a difference, so why would I, why should I, make any change in my own life in an attempt to solve a problem that I did not create and which I cannot solve? I understand the logic and the despair behind that point of view. But I cannot embrace it.

At its core, Judaism teaches…and this is the central message of this High Holy Day season… Judaism teaches that we choose. We choose the way we will live. We choose the world that we will leave to our children and our children’s children. Will they have fresh air to breathe? and clean water to drink? and good soil for their crops? I am intensely aware that I have lived a privileged life, thanks in great part to the sacrifices of people who came before me. If I know…and we do know… that the way that we are living now is leaving a legacy of suffering for future generations, how can I in good conscience throw up my hands and say “there’s nothing I can do.”

We are here today, carrying forward the traditions of our ancestors, because our Jewish forbears took responsibility for the choices they made, and for the impact of their choices on the future generations.

The shofar, whose voice we will hear shortly, has been heard in many ways. It is first of all a wake-up call. It is a spiritual call to arms. A call to conscience.

The shofar also returns us to one huge moment in our history, maamad har sinai, the standing at Mount Sinai. There we stood together as a people at the foot of the mountain, with the mountain smoking and trembling, and the cry of a shofar growing louder and louder. In our imaginations, when we hear the shofar today, we return to that early morning in the desert 3,000 years ago, at the foot of the mountain of God.

The standing at Sinai and what it represents is absolutely relevant to our thinking about climate change and our personal decision making. At Sinai an entire people agreed to live together, abiding by certain basic principles. Sinai is our moment of entering the Social Contract. Together, we take upon ourselves fundamental laws of behavior:

We will honor our parents.

We will not steal from each other.

We will not give false testimony in court.

We will not have sex with someone else’s husband or wife.

We will set aside one day per week, one seventh of our lives, for family, for community and for God. Our standing at Sinai and willingly accepting the commandments, represents our human ability to agree upon how we will live together.

The fate of the entire planet, according to one famous ancient midrash, depends upon human beings finding a way to say “yes, we will live by our values.”

Over the past thirty years the nations of the world have come together, repeatedly, to address the problem of climate change. The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was followed and extended by the Kyoto Protocol, with 192 signatory members. The 2015 Paris Agreement within the same Framework Convention, represented a different approach, one which relies on each country to simply do its best.

Can we even conceive of the endless hours of negotiations, the arm-twisting, the cajoling, and the superhuman patience and determination that must have gone into wrangling all the members of those agreements? That is what it means, when you’re talking about living breathing human beings, to get everyone together at the foot of the mountain and all to say “yes, we agree.”

Our country, as you are probably aware, has at times supported and even led these international efforts, and at other times opposed them. Under the terms of the Paris Agreement, the earliest date that the United States can withdraw from the Agreement is November 4, 2020, the day after election day. I hope and pray that our governmental leaders grasp the importance of the Paris Agreement, and begin to act again together with the rest of the human race, with whom we are inextricably connected on this delicate planet.

That is at the level of international climate diplomacy. What about each one of us, in our own personal lives? Is there anything we can do that could make a difference?

We can each begin with our own inner life, today on Rosh Hashanah, renewing our own sense of hope. My own hope was rekindled last February, when Jeff Young brought us to see and meet Professor Katharine Hayhoe speaking at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Dr. Hayhoe is an Evangelical Christian, Director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University and one year ago she was named one of the United Nations Champions of the Earth. She is a brilliant scientist who has made it her life’s work to teach the realities of climate change in a way that the rest of us can understand, and to overcome the polarization and politicization that have taken over our national conversation about the Climate. She is not only brilliant, but warm and funny and passionately committed to communication. She wants us to begin talking at every opportunity about the warming of our planet. Without hatred, without bitterness, and to regain our hope.

Each one of us needs to find a Katharine Hayhoe. A person who restores our faith in humanity and in the possibility of living and working together on this planet. Check her out.

I will mention, as well, my wife Marian. Marian wanted…as I do….to feel as though we are doing something meaningful to be part of the solution to Climate Change. So she put in the hours, and did the research, and got solar panels installed on our roof, and a solar battery in our garage. She shopped around and we are now leasing two electric cars. So we are driving on sunlight, and have not been to a gas station in over three years. OK, once a year, we rent a car to take us into the Sierras where there are no electric charging stations yet. With our solar panels on our roof, and our electric cars and our solar battery in the garage, we are actively participating in the great project of eventually weaning our species off of the burning of fossil fuels for our energy needs. I hope you will consider joining us; Marian and I would be more than happy to share our experience with any of you who are interested.

Within our community here at CBB, I mentioned that our CBB member Jeff Young brought me back in February to meet Katharine Hayhoe. Jeff is working tirelessly in our community to mobilize learning and action, within our congregation and reaching out to other faith communities in Santa Barbara. If you would like to be part of Jeff’s climate change action team, send me an email and I will put you in touch with him.

The shofar we are about to hear is calling out to us, summoning us to align our lives with our core values. Each one of us will hear that voice in our own unique way. We are a diverse community and the human race with whom we share this world, is infinitely diverse. But we share certain core principles. We know that the earth needs our care and protection. We worry about the most vulnerable human beings around the world, whose lives are already and in the future will be most impacted as the planet continues to warm. And we want our children and our children’s children to live, to work and to play, and to find themselves reborn every Rosh Hashanah on the only home we have, this beautiful planet.

2020-09-21T14:53:29-07:00September 19th, 2020|

Rabbi Daniel Brenner: Rosh HaShanah Sermon – Race & Jews of Color

Rabbi Daniel Brenner: Rosh HaShanah Sermon 2020 — Race & Jews of Color

Before I begin my prepared sermon, I want to pause and reflect that my heart breaks tonight over the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. She served this country in the Supreme Court valiantly for 27 years, and dedicated her life to the pursuit of justice in all forms. There was unfortunately not time to create a tribute to Justice Ginsberg and the immense effect she had as a role model for young women, and a champion of rights for all, and regardless of our political views, none could argue her tenacity and poise as a justice was of rare quality. As I already planned to speak tonight on issues of justice, I dedicate my words tonight to her memory. Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet. Blessed are you, the True Judge.

Over the last 6 months, nothing has dominated the American news-space more than Coronavirus. It has been without a doubt the most important world event of 2020. But it would be hard to argue with the assertion that after Coronavirus, racial injustice has been the 2nd loudest voice in the room. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are now household names. American cities like Portland and Seattle have been transformed. Police chiefs, politicians, and presidential candidates have been forced to make statements in response to national unrest.

In my nearly 32 years of life, this has been the largest response to racial injustice I have ever witnessed, and according to statistics, an estimated 15-26 million people took place in protests from the end of May through June, making the George Floyd demonstrations the largest in United States history. Most of these protests and demonstrations were peaceful, but not all. An estimated $500 million in property damage was caused around the country, some by White supremacist antagonizers attempting to discredit and defame Black Lives Matter, and some by the protesters themselves, discrediting their own movement.

It is not entirely clear if the incredible response stems from in a time of quarantine, people had more time available to give, or because the absolutely unconscionable acts of violence perpetrated and caught on camera, followed by a completely lackluster response by authorities sparked outrage not felt to such a degree for decades. Never before have sports leagues postponed games in response to a social justice movement. But the nights following the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha Wisconsin, sports teams from all major leagues refused to play.

Players who had before been told to just “shut up and play”, or in harsher translation “shut up and entertain me” cared more about that point in history than the points on the scoreboard. As sports writer Katie Barnes accurately summarized, the players sent a message that no one should be able to escape the fundamental racist truths of our country. There would be no entertainment. No distraction. No justice, no peace.”


There has been no greater moment in my lifetime to kindle the sparks of change than right now. And I have wondered, what is my role in all of this? The National Jewish institutions have been asking the same question. What work does the Jewish community need to do in response to the tidal wave of passion and energy crashing across our country? The answer has been very clear. Before we can meet with full vigor racial injustice externally, we must address our internal faults. We have been sinning as a community al cheit shechatanu lefanecha and we need to make teshuvah.

Let me introduce you to Chloe. Chloe is black and is a medical resident in Utah. Just last year Chloe came with a friend of hers to Rosh Hashana services here at CBB. Her friend brought her up to the bimah before services to introduce us, and as I try to be with everyone, I was warm and inviting as I welcomed her to Santa Barbara and our community, and said, “WoW….. you must be a good friend to get dragged to a High Holy Day service.”

“Actually,” she said “I’m Jewish.”

What I managed to gracefully, and quickly say, was how happy I was that she was joining us.

But my heart was immediately heavy. And I sat, uncomfortable with myself for the entire evening service, and through my sermon about how we as a community need to do a better job of welcoming young people into our community.

I had automatically assumed she wasn’t Jewish. And it wasn’t a conscious thought. My attempt to be humorous and welcoming subconsciously added an assumption that Chloe just wasn’t Jewish. I assume more often than not that people who come here are Jewish, even when they aren’t, but the young black woman standing across from me couldn’t have been Jewish. But she was.

Just so you know, Chloe and I have since talked about this. She, gracious and understanding, said she didn’t see my comment come across in any way demeaning, and fully accepted my apology.

It should surprise no one that Chloe’s experience is not isolated. Jews of Color are consistently questioned on their Jewishness based on the color of their skin. Take for example Angel AlvarezMapp, a Hispanic Jew and Director of Programs and Operations for the Jews of Color Initiative. In a talk he gave for the Aspen Institute he described his experience as a Jew of Color.

The most surprising comment he made was that he never felt any form of questioning of his identity when he traveled internationally and visited Jewish communities in Europe, or even in American Orthodox settings. It was in the liberal Jewish institutions in the US where we would be asked “So…..what’s your background” which he describes as the subtle way of really asking , are you really Jewish, and if so how?

Angel happens to be a convert to Judaism. And many Jews of Color are converts. But most are not. And even if they were, doesn’t Judaism teach that a person who converts should never be made to feel as though they were at any point not Jewish? That we never call attention to the fact that they are a convert? The subtle question of “tell me about your background” is entirely contrary to that principle.

Perhaps the most public story of Jewish racial aggression this year, (and I don’t say micro aggression because in no way was this story micro) was the experience of author Marra Gad at the URJ Biennial. The Reform gathering of 5000 Jews in Chicago, where Union President Rabbi Rick Jacobs said in his opening speech that part of audacious hospitality means to our fellow Jews of Color, Marra Gad, a black Jew, was first denied her credentials because she was told “The real Marra Gad needs to pick these up,” was confused for hotel staff more than once, and asked to make sure that the room service deliveries speed up, and when after telling someone who asked what she was doing at the convention that she was a featured presenter on Shabbat afternoon, was asked AND I Quote “What could you possibly have to share?” My friends we, the liberal Jewish community that espouses audacious hospitality, welcoming the stranger, tikkun olam, we are failing. I failed Chloe, and our movement is failing all Jews of Color, al cheit shechatanu lefanecha which by the way, make up an estimated 15% of the American Jewish community. 15%! That is almost a million Jews of Color in the US. And where are they? Perhaps not comfortable coming in our doors.

Remember back to Charlottesville, and then to the Tree of Life shooting. On those days, we Jews knew fear. Real fear. Some began to start asking questions, should we take our mezuzah off our front door? This was a real concern in some places in our country. We also began to ask, should we have armed security at our doors? Patrolling our grounds? Many communities seriously struggled with this issue.

Around this time of questions, a voice began to emerge, the voice of Jews of Color, begging Jewish institutions to not add armed security to their campuses, because unlike for many white Jews, armed security made them feel less safe. They were already profiled by the Jews inside the building as being other, how much more would they be profiled by people with guns outside the building? By and large, the national Jewish conversation did not hear these voices, or if they did hear them, ignored them. Al cheit shechatanu lefanecha.

Only now are we starting to recognize the small but important demographic of Jews of Color, and validate their experience in the Jewish community.

Our tradition calls us to do teshuva, and I would suggest 3 responses, 2 locally and 1 nationally to start us along that process.

Right before Martin Luther King addressed the assembled mass at the March on Washington, Rabbi Yoachim Prinz spoke these words. He said “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

The first thing we must do as a community is actively avoid silence. We need to talk more about racial inequality, and the experience of Jews of Color. Race must be a topic of discussion in our homes with family and friends, and also within the walls of our synagogue. In order to accomplish this, we need to be more spiritually honest with certain uncomfortable truths about our Tanach, our Jewish bible.

There is no traditional practice of reading the Tanach in its entirety, so it is common for Jews to skip over parts like in Joshua when the leaders of the Israelite communities place their feet on the necks of the Cannanite rulers before executing them, a scene that my chevrutah suggested reminded her all too much of George Floyd, We don’t recognize the verse in Isaiah chapter 45 which describes human slaves being brought to Israel in chains. Al cheit shechatanu lefanecha. Did we stop reading these sections because we are uncomfortable with how we gained our power in biblical Israel?

We find this in the Torah we read as well, like when Miriam and Aaron insult Moses’s wife because she is a Kushite, often thought to mean “Dark Skinned, And perhaps most importantly, Sarah’s treatment of Hagar, an Egyptian maidservant who gives birth to Abraham’s first son before they are sent away. This story is actually the traditional Rosh Hashanah Torah reading, but the Reform movement moved away from it, opting instead to read the traditional 2nd day reading, the Binding of Isaac, on the first day. The great failure in the otherwise successful Reform innovations of Judaism is that when we are faced with a difficult story, we can choose to ignore it, opt to read something else.

I would suggest that the first response we can do as a community is, starting next year, begin reading the story of Sarah and Hagar as our traditional first day reading again. We must face the sins our ancestors have committed in the same way we must face our own sins. Tzedakah ma’avirin et roa ha’gzera. Justice shall temper the severe decree.

In a less perfunctory and more concrete step, we can support the addition of Ethnic studies to the local district curriculum. Our district has adopted a new curriculum and at the beginning of October will be presenting it to the general parent community. There have been some reservations by Jewish groups to ethnic studies, and with valid concern. Some curriculum have been flawed in their political painting of Israel, and exclusion of the Jewish-American experience, but we nonetheless must in our efforts to rectify these mistakes still support its implementation. The Jewish community cannot afford to be on the wrong side of this. We can either be at the table trying to improve it, or outside the door with no voice at all. I believe we have an responsibility to be allies to our Jewish and non-jewish black and latinx friends and show our support. As we get closer to the date, I will be in constant communication with Dan Meisel of the ADL, and we will be putting together an informational meeting about the new curriculum and encourage you to attend. Tzedakah ma’avirin et roa ha’gzera.

Finally, on a national level, the Jewish community needs to take on the burden of urgency we felt in the earlier parts of the 20th century. We had for decades been in the forefront of agency in bringing about civil rights. In 1908, Henry Moscowitz was one of the conveners of a group who met to respond to racial injustice, eventually becoming the NAACP. Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were killed in the early 60’s for traveling to the south to help register African-Americans to vote. We now remember them in our Martyrology service on Yom Kippur. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the subsequent Voting Rights Act of 1965 were written at the Reform Judaism Religious Action Center as a joint project between Jews and black Americans. We again must take up the mantle of allyship and partnership, even and I would say especially when we are not always in agreement. In recognizing the struggle of Jews of Color, we must also be their allies as fellow Jews in movements such as Black Lives Matter. Tzedakah ma’avirin et roa ha’gzera.

My friends we have teshuvah to do, towards our fellow Jews of Color, and for the entire black American community. We must acknowledge the emergence of the voice of Jews of Color, and more importantly embrace what they have to say. And we must return our focus to the plight of those who need our support and friendship in their struggle for equity and justice. Our sage Rabbi Hillel taught Marbeh tzedakah marbeh shalom. Increase justice and you increase peace. May we strive to increase justice in our community and our country, so that we might know peace in our lives, and in the coming year. L’shana Tovah.
2020-09-22T13:35:19-07:00September 18th, 2020|

Joel Block: The Honest Struggle

Joel Block: The Honest Struggle

All of us, throughout our lives, often have to make choices between what we think we ought to do and what we think is good for us.  This pandemic has only exacerbated that dilemma. 

I am a committed Reform Jew, and that means that I believe that it is incumbent upon me, and all of us, to be deeply involved in social justice.  To that end, I support Black Lives Matter, the current protests happening around our country as they relate to racial inequality issues, and that we live in a land guided by systemic racism. 

By belief and desire, I acknowledge that I should be out there with the protesters and should be active in various social justice movements. 

And yet…I am also guided by the Jewish belief that we should not sacrifice our own lives to help others.  While Pekuach Nefesh is essential to Jewish life, we may not give up our own lives to save another, albeit with very limited exceptions.  According to our sage, Rabbi Akiva, our lives are a gift from God and we do not have the right to make it less important than anothers. (Talmud, Bava Metzia 62(b) 

 Thus, I reach my current dilemma.  I am one of those people that, due to age and other health issues, is considered at risk during this pandemic.  Joining the public protests would significantly add to the level of risk.  Even if all of the protesters are wearing masks, participants do not truly socially distance. I have no idea as to their practices in terms of personal sanitation, hand washing, etc.  Given my own health issues, and the fact that I live with somebody whom I would put at risk by joining the protests, is the basis for my dilemma. 

My solution has been to find other ways to support the causes in which I believe.  I often speak about racial inequality at Santa Barbara School Board meetings sharing my thoughts, my frustration, and my anger at how racial inequality and systemic racism negatively affects the students in our schools.  I also have decided to make it my mission to do everything I can to teach about these issues and help change the system. 

I teach Social Studies to at-risk high school students, many of whom suffer from racial inequality and systemic racism.  Currently I am teaching courses in U.S. History and Government.  This year the focus of my teaching is to expose and inform my students to the values that were used in the founding of our country and government, and how those choices affect our lives today.  While I extol the virtues of America, I do not sugar coat these sensitive issues, and I try to develop my students understanding that their choices, both conscious and unconscious, will determine how they live their lives now and in the future. 

While I am not completely comfortable with my decisions, I can live with and feel confident that I am doing my best to live up to what believe is the proper way for a committed Reform Jew to live.

Joel Block is a 25+ year resident of Santa Barbara, former Dir. of Education at CBB, long time teacher in the SB School District & at UCSB, and an attorney.  He is an active participant in the Shabbat minyan, the Day Yomi group as well as other CBB activities including working in the Hebrew School.  Joel’s greatest claim to fame is that he is married to super teacher and tutor Alisse and is the father of Nathaniel, a graduate of Beit HaYeladim and the religious school.

2020-09-15T15:15:04-07:00September 21st, 2020|

Rabbi Malka Drucker: A Different Four Questions

Rabbi Malka Drucker: A Different Four Questions

My father wasn’t a religious man. I don’t know what he believed, only what he behaved. Along with suggesting that I not take everything so seriously, he advised, “What happens, honey, isn’t important; it’s how you deal with it. When I had a heart attack at 54, it forced me to retire, and I finally got to enjoy my family and my life.” Judaism teaches us to deal, and we have plenty to deal with this High Holidays.

Torah isn’t all milk and cookies. Beginning with fratricide in the second generation, its narrative shows how our ancestors faced the challenges of plague, war, and oppression. No one would have expected our tradition to survive, yet here we are, making history far longer than the great dynasties of Egypt, Greece, and Rome. We walked humbly in our despair, not knowing what would be and hoping for the best. Maybe we’re still here as an example to the world: We never gave up!

Although I haven’t begun writing the great American novel or much of anything in the last six months, I’m doing all right, I hope you are too. Our tradition shows us how to stay patient, grateful, and hopeful. Here is an example of such guidance: The Talmud tells us that the time will come when each of us will be face to face with the One who made us, and there will be four questions to answer. The month of Elul gives us 30 days of grace in which to be ready for the final exam:

One, did you deal fairly in business? This is an especially important time to behave with generosity and trustworthiness. Give tzedakah abundantly. There are so many in need now and you may have surplus money by staying home.

Two, did you set aside time to study each day? For those fortunate enough to be home, this is a remarkable time to brush up your Hebrew or whatever. Living in a pandemic teaches each of us too. Reflecting on its lessons and going forward strengthens us.

Three, did you have children? The question’s deeper meaning may be whether you have connection to the next generation; it goes beyond biological issue. Generations link past and future. If you aim for joy, are grateful, empathic, forgiving, and accepting, you will have fulfilled your life’s purpose: to set an example for the young. Claim every child as yours.

Finally, did you keep hope for the future? No matter what—plague, fires, and all the collective and personal challenges—we are called to behave with kindness and hope. It’s too easy to succumb to grief, anger, and dread. The dark night will end. We will keep hope for a wiser future that the present is teaching us.

Disasters bring out the best and worst in people. If you want to pass the final exam, be ready with the right answers that an unprecedented time reveals. How you deal with 2020 matters.

Rabbi Malka Drucker is rabbi emerita of Ha Makom: The Place for Passionate and Progressive Judaism and Temple Har Shalom, in Santa Fe and Idyllwild; she likes to be at heavenly altitudes. She is the author of 22 books, including Tom Seaver: Portrait of a Pitcher and Embracing Wisdom: Soaring in the Second Half of Life. She is Solomon’s, Lesley’s, Sasha’s, and Olive’s safte.

2020-09-21T13:31:22-07:00September 17th, 2020|
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