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Awakening to simple joys

09/04/2019 03:05:19 PM



My heart jumps as I hear a loud screech coming from the general direction where last I saw my 6-year-old.  It’s enough like a human cry that my mother instincts send me into motion before the more rational parts of my brain kick in.


By the time I get to the living room to see my son, red in the face, blowing into an animal horn, I have already remembered that I brought home the shofar and probably left it out on the table.


Now I’m somewhere between relief, annoyance, and pride, enduring the discomfort of the raw ancient call as I near my child practicing his shofar blasts way too early in the morning.  I stop myself from stopping him.  He needs the practice.  And I probably need to be more awake.

The month of Elul began this year on September 1st.  Elul, the moon-cycle preceding Rosh Hashanah, during which it is customary to hear the shofar blast every single day (except Shabbat).  By the time we get to the New Year, we have theoretically been in the process of awakening for quite a while, hitting snooze, as it were, on that shofar alarm clock, till finally on Rosh Hashanah we take in a full 100 blasts and find ourselves unable to slip back into our spiritual sleep.

What do you need to awaken to?  You know best.

For me, I feel already brutally awake to the dangers of our moment – the climate disaster unfolding in slow motion, the decay of Democracies world-wide, the revitalization of anti-Semitism.  Those alarms have been blasting for a few years running.  I don’t want to start ignoring them, but nor can I sustain a continual state of emergency.  The awakening I need right now is not about realizing our world is at risk.  That shofar blast I have already heard loud and clear.

This summer I experienced a different kind of awakening.  My husband had a health scare, and I had thankfully had already booked several weeks of rest at home. Our summer became a time to awaken to the simple blessings of home and family, wholesome food, reading books, and gardening.  So many mornings, lazy and slow, cuddling with my kids, I wished I could engrave the experience into my soul, knowing more than ever the preciousness of life, love, and health.

As the year begins to accelerate with school and the holiday season, I pray that I can stay awake to the small blessings that sustain me moment to moment.  Even as I hear the blasts calling me to transform the world and myself with every fiber of my being, I hope that I can also remember to stay awake and make time for the joy and delights which are what make that effort worthwhile.

After Israeli election, what do I mean by ‘next year in Jerusalem’?

04/18/2019 01:26:43 PM


Rabbi Katie Mizrahi

Originally posted in The J Weekly

L'shanah haba’ah biYerushalayim – Next year in Jerusalem.

This last line of the traditional haggadah challenges me this year more than ever. What does it mean to say these words in San Francisco in 2019, after the most recent Israeli elections?

First I wonder, what did these words mean to my ancestors?

When Jews said “next year in Jerusalem” in medieval European ghettos or the faraway corners of Asian trade routes, they were not making pledges about their travel plans. They were expressing hope, exercising the redemptive imagination. Next year in Jerusalem — next year may we be safe at home, next year may we have the freedom to travel to our most sacred place.

Even as the phrase names Jerusalem and forges strong attachment to a real place in the physical world, it has never been intended on a purely literal level. For thousands of years, Jerusalem has been both a physical place and a mythological symbol in the collective Jewish imagination. The classical Jewish way to name this duality is to say there is a Yerushalayim shel mala, a heavenly Jerusalem, and a Yerushalayim shel mata, an earthly Jerusalem.

Good things happen when the heavenly and earthly Jerusalem align. Bad things happen when they don’t.

Classically, the Jewish story of Jerusalem is that we lost the city because we could not bring the ideals of the heavenly Jerusalem down to earth when we had the chance. Jeremiah and Ezekiel, contemporaries of the destruction of the Temple and the exile, believed that these tragedies were Divine punishments for our sins and that our suffering was a call to repent. Likewise, rabbinic interpretation assigns responsibility not to ancient geopolitics, but to us. The destruction of both temples and the exile are understood to come out of our own moral failings — idolatry, immorality, bloodshed and hatred (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9b).

In Jeremiah we read: “The word which came to Jeremiah from Hashem said: Stand at the gate of the House of Hashem and proclaim there this word…Thus says the Lord of Hosts, God of Israel, mend your ways and your actions, and I will let you dwell in this place… if you do justice between one person and another, not oppressing the stranger, the orphan and the widow, and if you do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place, if you do not follow other gods to your own hurt. Then, only then, will I let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers for all time” (Jeremiah 7:1-7).

A few years ago, I was living in the earthly Jerusalem, walking its footpaths on my way from buying fresh challah on a Friday afternoon. In my mind, I was in the heavenly Jerusalem, feeling deep joy to live by the Jewish ritual rhythm in a place where the community around me was doing the same, a place with such depth and meaning to my people.

Jerusalem has been both a physical place and a mythological symbol.

Suddenly, in the midst of my reverie, Jeremiah popped into my head and yelled: “You may love fresh challah from the local bakery, and you may love the glowing Jerusalem stone catching the light of sunset as Hebrew prayers quiet your neighborhood on a peaceful Friday night — but you know, just beyond your neighborhood are other neighborhoods: Jabba Mukabel, Issawiya. Places where the roads are not paved and the trash is not collected. Places where homes have been destroyed and lives have been ruined. In your name! These villages are also Jerusalem. East Jerusalem. And they cry out to God from behind that winding concrete barrier. … Mend your ways! Do justice! Do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, the widow! … Only then will I let you dwell in this place …”

And now, April 2019, Jerusalem staggers further to the right. An alliance is forged between those who see only the heavenly Jerusalem and those who care only about controlling the earthly Jerusalem. The chances of Jerusalem on earth living up to its heavenly potential seem smaller than ever.

To some progressive American Jews this means it’s time to stop saying “next year in Jerusalem” at the seder, time to stop participating in a myth gone bad.

I understand the issue — how can I say “next year in Jerusalem” after an Israeli election full of fearmongering and hate? An election many say has buried the prospect of peace and democracy if not the long-term viability of a Jewish or a Palestinian state? Would I really want to live in today’s Jerusalem, where the religious right declares me not to be a rabbi, because they do not like rabbis to come in female bodies? In 2019, can I still say “next year in Jerusalem”?

For me, the answer is yes. I do still want to be part of it, broken though it may be. I refuse to relinquish the sacred symbolic language or ideals of my people to those who would corrupt them with narrow, fear-based politics. I refuse to let religious extremists “own” Jerusalem or define Judaism. And still I hold out hope that the heavenly Jerusalem can yet manifest in that earthly city I hold so dear.

But when I say, “next year in Jerusalem” on Pesach, I will also have Jeremiah in my heart. And I will be praying, with all my soul, that the Jewish people can yet mend our ways and prove ourselves worthy of the great gift and responsibility of sovereignty with which our generation has been entrusted.

When I say these words at my seder this week, this is what I will mean:

Next year in Jerusalem, may there be peace and justice for all who dwell there.

Next year in Jerusalem, may there be hope, may there be love.

Next year in Jerusalem, may there be freedom — for Jews, for Muslims, for Christians, for people of all faiths.

Next year, may my small life in some real way, move the earthly Jerusalem closer to its heavenly potential.

Walling in, walling out...

02/12/2019 09:15:01 AM


“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” So says Robert Frost in his famous poem, Mending Wall. “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know – what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offense.”

There are those who imagine walling in all of the wealth of the Northern Hemisphere.  Maybe sharing it out in trickles, charitable donations from the pockets of kind donors to the less fortunate, but keeping the dam high and making sure that most of the water stays on our side.

There are those who like to imagine walling out the bad guys, their drugs and weapons and crimes, their poverty … As if, on our side, we have no home-grown terror.  As if we weren’t the ones making the guns and buying the drugs.  As if, caravans of women and children seeking asylum are a military threat…

Stadiums of rally-goers these past few years have learned to chant, “build that wall!” as they are told tales of Illegal Alien Beings from Elsewhere Invading to take their share of the crumbs.  Somehow, these same people seem not to mind golden toilets and tax cuts to the rich and other grotesqueries – only the thought of poor foreign-born children sucking stolen shares of food, education and healthcare from their scant provisions…

In case you can’t tell, there’s definitely something in me that doesn’t love a wall.  And I find myself unconvinced about the need to spend billions more walling in and walling out at our Southern Border.

As I’ve witnessed the national debate, the government shut down, I keep thinking – there must be something symbolic going on here.  Something archetypal.  We can’t just be debating about concrete and security. Why is there such passion?  What is it in my political opponents that loves that wall even as I side with Robert Frost?

This week’s Parashah, Terumah, is devoted to detailing a different ambitious building project, the mishkan or Tabernacle.   Not a wall, but a traveling sanctuary, whose boundaries are curtains, whose guardians are priests.  A mobile sacred space which will accompany the Israelites in their wilderness wanderings and even into the Promised Land.

You could say that the tabernacle is made in some sense to contain the very Presence of God, and yet, its edges are not made of rock or metal, but fine embroidered linen.  It’s flexible, movable, beautiful, some might even say flimsy.

And I wonder… if it was strong enough to contain the Holy One Blessed be She … what could we learn here that we might apply to the boundary between Mexico and the Southern United States?

Lest I be accused of advocating “open borders” I want for a moment to explain that I do very much see the need for boundaries.  Even my kindergartner can tell you about respecting personal boundaries. It’s one of those kindergarten rules, you know.  And a good one.  And if it weren’t for cell walls, and skin, and the walls of our houses, and the firewalls protecting our computers we’d all be freezing from exposure, plagued with viruses, and leaking life blood and data.  We do need to wall in our blood and our bones and to wall out parasites and harmful bacteria.  It’s a matter of survival…

I can see why a person might want to build a wall.  If she was feeling under threat.  If he was feeling so insecure that it seemed he might lose the means to thrive…

Trump was right when he named the class issue that drives the people to love the wall.  In one of the most striking lines of his State of the Union, he pointed out that the people who love the wall are the ones who can’t afford their own private protections and privileges.  Yes.

What he didn’t say was that his political power has been built on their backs — setting up the White American Working Class in a battle against immigrants.  What he didn’t say is that as long as the poor people in this country are busy fighting Outsider Boogymen at the Southern Border, they will fail to unite with their working class immigrant counterparts and demand an end to the income inequality which actually drives their misery.  And as long as all eyes are focused on that wall, we are not looking hard enough at the exploitation and neglect that leave poor people of all backgrounds without the education, healthcare, jobs and safety that government could provide if it wasn’t so busy building walls and the weapons we use to defend them.

In the end, it’s not what you’re walling in and walling out.  It’s how you behave wherever you are.  Even the highest, strongest wall can’t keep out crime or poverty or mortality – the root of all fear. And you can’t wall in health and happiness any more than you can wall in God.

You see it’s actually a mistake to think that the mishkan was all about getting God to come down and set up shop in the Holy of Holies.  When the Israelites made the tabernacle, and even when they later built the Temple, they weren’t making a house for the Holy One Blessed Be He.

When we talk about making a place for God in our world, we aren’t talking about the physical relocation of God from UP THERE to DOWN HERE.  Rabbi Ishmael in the Talmud, Baba Batra 25a explains that “the Shekhina, God’s Presence, is everywhere.”  Or in the words of Rabbi Yosi ben Halafta in the midrash, “The Holy One is the place of the universe, but the universe is not God’s place,” (Gen. Rabbah 68:9).  Or as the Kotzker Rebbe put it, God is where you let God in.  Making a place for God in the world is more about opening our own hearts than about building something Out There in the physical world.

So then why the Tabernacle?  If God is actually everywhere and the Israelites are not trying to entice God to physically move down to Earth, then what is going on?

I think it’s more accurate to say: it’s not about moving God, it’s about moving US.  Us limited humans.  Who need physical boundaries to remind us about holiness.  Who come together with a whole community to designate certain times and places for the sacred dimension of life.

In truth, all of life and every moment is infused with God and holiness.  But it’s hard for us to see it.  We need the conventions of the ritual calendar and beautiful sanctuaries to remind us.  To change, not where God is in the physical universe, but HOW we behave.  What we DO in order that WE may Perceive God’s Presence.

We set up boundaries in time and space with the explicit intention of lifting up the holy dimension of life.  Those lines are in some ultimate sense arbitrary.  Shabbat could just as well be Tuesday as Saturday, but it helps for us all to align our practice and do it together.  The Holy of Holies in the middle of the tabernacle traveled around in the desert for 40 years in many different locations.  What made it holy was not inherent in a particular plot of land, but what the Israelites did in that place.

And I ask again — what would it be to consider our national boundaries more like that?

To remember that what makes our nation good and desirable and prosperous is not which military power is in control of which plot of land.  It’s not about keeping the right people in and the wrong people out.

What makes our nation good and desirable and prosperous, and maybe even holy, is about how we behave, and the degree to which we embody the vision of our founding: that all human beings were created equal, endowed by their Creator with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The boundaries we need to defend right now are the boundaries defined by the human rights and freedoms at the heart of the American project.  And if, in our attempt to defend the physical boundaries of America, we violate the best of what America stands for, then what have we become?  Surely not the Sacred Society that we aspire to be, and that we can create, if only we remember the potential for Holiness in every place, and the spark of Divinity in every human being.

Why I Spoke and Will March at the SF Women’s March

01/18/2019 12:08:18 PM


Rabbi Katie Mizrahi


Almost exactly a year ago, I had the honor of being invited to speak as the sole clergy voice at the second Women’s March in San Francisco.  That moment, and others like it since the fall of 2016, gave millions of us nationwide strength, inspiration and the joyful power of collective action to fuel a transformational 2018 election.

Backstage that day, I met Zahra Billoo, the Executive Director of the Center for American Islamic Relations- SF Bay Area, who spoke right before me.  As we embraced on the podium before tens of thousands, she in her hijab, me in my tallit and pussyhat, we were not just two people in that moment.  We were, in that embrace, embodying a symbolic aspiration that is powerful and important that I gave voice to in my opening words:

“There are those who would prefer to divide us, race by race, religion by religion – but we are not going to let that happen!  We are here to celebrate and strengthen one another in all of our beautiful diversity!”

Even then, some voices in the Jewish community were objecting.  After the march, rather than write about how a rabbi was the only religious speaker at the SF March, our local Jewish newspaper instead published a piece from a woman who attended the march in Oakland and complained (probably rightly) that the speakers singled out Israel for critique and made many Jews feel unwelcome.  Falling into a familiar media trap, our local Jewish press amplified the drama of negativity and conflict and ignored a joyful positive moment of good news. Instead of lifting up a story about positive Jewish leadership in a multi-cultural movement, the story of Jews being “othered” was given far more attention.

Now, in the weeks leading up to the 3rd Women’s March, waves of critique batter the national leaders and demand that Jews and their allies boycott the marches.  In NYC and other cities, simultaneous separate marches will ask demonstrators to choose between marches that align with the original Women’s March or marches that emphasize welcoming Jewish women.

Meanwhile, the official statements of the Women’s March nationally and locally condemn Antisemitism and hatred in all of its forms.  Linda Sarsour, one of the organizers for the national Women’s March who has been accused of Antisemitism, has written an eloquent piece denouncing Antisemitism and apologizing for a slow and clumsy response.    Yet many are still deeply disappointed in Tamika Mallory, one of the top leaders, for failing to properly denounce Louis Farrakhan. Stories circulate about how one of the original organizers, a white Jewish woman, was pushed out of leadership after the first march.

So what is a white Jewish rabbi to do?  Despite the mess, I’m glad I didn’t sit it out last year and I don’t plan to sit it out this year – for reasons both selfish and strategic, practical and principled.

The stakes in this moment are as high as they have ever been in my lifetime.  After the 2016 election, I awoke to realize that the basic institutions of American Democracy I have taken for granted will not automatically continue.  If we do not activate citizen participation, if we do not stand together with allies who believe in the rights and freedoms that are the bedrock of our nation, then even America could fall into the kind of authoritarian nightmare that is now sweeping many once-liberal Democracies world-wide.

This is not the time for the Left to splinter itself over the purity of our identity politics.

And yes.  I am disappointed in Tamika Mallory and others like her.  I am angry to see Antisemitism on the Left that is real and that we have ignored for far too long.

I also am pained to admit that there is real racism within some Jewish communities.  I am ashamed to see prominent Jewish leaders champion some of the worst xenophobic rhetoric and policies spewing from the Trump Whitehouse.  I am heart-broken that the State of Israel falls so far short of my own Jewish ideals for justice as it creates untold suffering for so many Palestinians.  Without excusing them, I can understand why some of our allies might have swallowed anti-Semitic poison in the absence of real cross-cultural relationships.

I do not believe that the way to heal these problems is to walk away from the table of diversity and solidarity back to our tribal groups and shout accusations from the other side of the room.

The Women’s March is not best defined by the politics of a small leadership circle.  The Women’s March is part of a worldwide movement for the liberation of all human beings with women at the forefront.  Boycotting the entire enterprise is self-defeating, short-sighted and unlikely to change the problem.

Jewish ideas and voices have a lot to offer in the struggle for justice, from the template of the Exodus in the Torah and our long tradition of critical thought, to the historical experiences of oppression and struggles against it, to the power we do hold in today’s context of relative Jewish acceptance.  The movement will suffer if we are not at the table.

AND – for our own sake, selfishly, if we want to protect the rights and well being of our own tiny group, the best way is to stand in coalition with others and lift up the rights and freedoms of the most vulnerable among us.

Ultimately, hanging in there with our imperfect partners is a smarter strategy than letting our own justifiable feelings of hurt break our bonds.  If we want Tamika Malory and others like her to face and transform Antisemitism, it will not happen through public shaming.  It will happen through hard, loving long-term relationships where all parties hold one another accountable even as we stay connected.

I was proud to speak at last year’s Women’s March in SF.  I am proud to march tomorrow.  I have faith in the ability of my sisters to grow and embrace a more loving and open-minded approach, and until they do, I refuse to believe that I must choose between my Jewish and Feminist loyalties.  I hope to see you there and may our presence strengthen a movement for freedom and justice that can transcend and overpower the forces that would seek to divide us.

Plagues and miracles, suffering and songs

01/04/2019 12:34:47 PM


We, readers of Torah in 2019, jump in and out of the Exodus story in different moments, ourselves becoming different characters:

an Israelite slave, toiling in despair, 

a midwife, resisting immoral commands, 

a hard-hearted Pharaoh, fearful to lose power, 

a reluctant prophet, trembling and amazed by the call of a fire that burns without destroying…

Lately, we all know what it is to live through plagues. The plague of gun violence. The plague of corruption. Rising seas and super storms.  The pestilence of xenophobia. The darkness of spreading normalized lies, manipulated masses turning away from the light of Truth.

From inside the story, no one knew when, or IF the Happy Ending would come. Living through plagues was just terrifying and painful. Birth-pang, rock bottom suffering, increasing till no one left could stay asleep.

And then the moment came. And everyone got clear — from the prisoner in the pit to Pharaoh up on high — it was time for change.

By then the people were ready. Ready to sprint. Before Pharaoh’s heart could spasm itself shut again.

And they ran. To the edge of the impossible sea. And then God met them with an impossible unexpected miracle. 

The sages ask — when did they sing and dance? Was it after they were safely across? Or was it AS they crossed, still not knowing, chariots behind them, walls of water around them? Did they, Could they, dance through the uncertainty of the sea?

If there is any trace of Miriam within me, I ask her, and she tells me…


They sang and they danced along the way. They did not wait for joy. They did not wait for some assurance of security first. Even before they crossed — AS they crossed. Right there in the middle of the story, before that Happy Ending. Even while they were on their way and it was still dangerous and they still didn’t know it would all turn out alright, and they still had a long long way to go – there in the middle of the struggle – they sang and they danced and were free…

Joseph, Structural Evil, and Karmic Retribution

12/19/2018 09:37:10 AM



If you read too quickly, Parashat Vayigash (Genesis 44:18-47:27) looks like the Torah portion of happy endings.  Judah demonstrates his repentance for the mistakes of the past, Joseph forgives his brothers, Jacob is reunited with his long lost son, the family survives the famine by moving down to Egypt where Joseph is the second-most powerful man in the government … What could go wrong?

But if you’ve ever read the book of Exodus, you know – we should be worried.  We know what’s coming, even if Joseph has no inkling. We know that the Children of Israel won’t return to the Promised Land when the famine ends.  We know that only after 400 years of slavery, a series of supernatural disasters, and the miraculous parting of the Sea of Reeds will they even begin their journey back to Canaan.

This week, the seeds of that story are planted.  And not just for the reason you might think.  You see the problem wasn’t just that the Israelites came to Egypt.  The problem, hiding in chapter 47 of Genesis, is that during this week’s parashah, widespread slavery came to Egypt.

And I have more bad news I’m afraid.  It seems that one of the primary architects of the Egyptian slavery system was Joseph.

You see after his family came down and settled, the famine continued for several more years.  At first, the people brought money to procure rations. And Joseph gathered all the money for Pharaoh.  When the money ran out, they brought all of their livestock.  And then, when they had sold all of their possessions, in desperation they said, “Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we will be serfs to Pharaoh, that we may live and not die and that the land may not become a waste.”  So Joseph gained possession of all the farmland and all of the people of Egypt for Pharaoh (excepting the priestly class).  He gave them seed to plant, but he passed a law that forever after, Pharaoh would own the land and the people and take one fifth of the harvest.

Yes.  The difficult truth seems to be that Joseph used his position to enrich his boss and institute a powerful system of exploitation.  When his descendants generations later find themselves trapped and toiling in anguish, they are the victims of a structural injustice that their own forefather instituted in a moment when he had power and the rest of the world was on its knees.  Little did Joseph imagine, the system of inequality he cemented while he was on top would come to crush his great great grandchildren when they had their turn at the bottom.

I was telling my Dad this story a couple of days ago and I watched as his face fell and a thick quiet filled the space.  “But wasn’t he supposed to be some kind of hero?” He asked.

Yes.  And he was a hero.  He opened his heart and forgave the sins of his brothers.  He helped the whole region survive a devastating famine!

But it’s complicated.  Joseph may have seen the future – the years of plenty and the years of drought.  But he could not see beyond the limitations of his own tribal worldview.  Raised and educated in a time when slavery was commonplace, he could not imagine an alternative.  Even though he himself had been a slave — when he had power, our hero Joseph re-enforced a devastating legacy of injustice that came back to haunt his own descendants.

The AMAZING thing is that the Torah includes this story at all.  And painful as it is, I believe that if we can face the heartbreak of seeing Joseph’s mistake, WE can learn the lesson, instead of repeating it.

Let me be clear. It’s not that Joseph was a bad person.  If we limit our analysis to his personal gifts and flaws, we miss something much more important.

The problem is that when he had power, he used that power to strengthen a structure of injustice instead of dismantling it when he had the chance.  At the time, he surely told himself that he was protecting his own tribe.

But the karmic arc of the Torah suggests that Joseph made a huge mistake when he thought this way.  The system of injustice proved to be more powerful than Joseph’s intentions, or his personal relationship with the Pharaoh.

This becomes a cautionary tale for anyone in our moment who may find themselves in positions of power or influence.  Don’t imagine that your connection to the man at the top will protect you or your people forever.

For the Steve Millers and the Jared Kushners of the world – when you champion xenophobic immigration policies and fan the flames of hatred against other religious groups – beware.  It won’t be long before those policies and that hate will come back to bite you – and us.  They already have.

And for those of us who are watching the media discuss whether or not particular people are anti-Semitic or racist – I’m going to say something that might be a little controversial.  It actually doesn’t really matter.  That line of thought is a distraction.  Was Joseph an anti-Semite?  No.  Was the Pharaoh at his time personally anti-Semitic? Maybe so, maybe not.

The Israelites who suffered centuries of slavery were not enslaved by the personal opinions of Joseph and Pharaoh, they were enslaved by laws, policies, economic structures and system of enforcement that the two of them set into motion.  Slavery does not work because of a lot of evil individuals.  Slavery is better understood as a structural evil.

I wish I could claim credit for this idea but I can’t.  I admit – I took it from the Catholics.

Several years ago I was traveling in El Salvador with the American Jewish World Service, learning about the difficult history of the country, the role of the US in supporting and training a brutal military dictatorship who terrorized citizens there.  (In fact, you could say that the stream of refugees and asylum seekers from El Salvador, Guatemala and other Latin American countries are in some ways the legacy of US foreign policy of the 70s and 80s – but that’s another story).

So while I was in El Salvador, I also learned about an inspiring religious leader who was recently made into a saint: Arch Bishop Oscar Romero.  He was influenced by a stream of thought called “liberation theology” which has a lot to say about injustice.  And one insight that has stuck with me is this concept of “structural evil.”

The idea is this – when we talk about evil in the world, it is not enough to recognize problems on the level of particular people.  All of us swim within a stream of culture, legal structures, economic structures, and so on.  Those structures themselves can create suffering or healing, justice or tragedy.

So when you hear the news of the 7 year old girl who died last week from dehydration in US custody – it is devastating.  I have a 7 year old.  And if I open my heart to really let that story in – it is too painful for words.  Too painful.  Even just one child suffering or God forbid dying in our care is too much.  One child.

This tragedy did not happen because of one father’s bad judgment, as the Department of Homeland Security has implied.  Nor is it the fault of any particular guard who should have seen the warning signs.

If we want to understand how this happened and prevent it from happening again, we have to look beyond the individuals in this story and their small decisions.  As long as we do not address the immigration system on a structural level, tragedies will only keep happening.

You could make the same argument for gun control, political corruption, healthcare, housing.  In our American individualistic culture, we focus too much on the single people caught in these stories – the White Supremacist crazy with a gun, the crooked politician, the incompetent bureaucrat, the drug addict who lives on the streets.  But all of those bad actors and all of their victims are actually entrapped within structures that perpetuate bad outcomes over and over again.  If we are going to fix the problems, we have to do something about the structures that are bigger than any particular people.

So — if Joseph lived within structures of injustice and if we too are swimming in a stream of structural, historical, and cultural injustice almost beyond visibility, if individual interpersonal racism or open heartedness do not really impact those enormous societal forces… what can we do?  How can we ever hope to do better than Joseph, the very deputy of Pharaoh?

Well we do have one thing that Joseph didn’t have. We have the stories of Joseph and the Exodus.  And that is no small advantage.  I believe that if we can bear the pain of reading honestly, we can awaken to his mistakes and make different choices when we too have power.

And not only do we have the story of Joseph’s mistake.  We also have the story of how his descendants one day threw off their bonds and found a way to imagine and live their freedom EVEN THOUGH they had endured 400 years of structural evil.  We have the examples of real historical movements – abolition, women’s suffrage, civil rights – that show us how with vision, patience, solidarity and strategic collective action we CAN and one day WILL overcome the structures of injustice that persist.  May the stories of our ancestors’ mistakes and triumphs give us the vision to wield our power wisely, and the courage to believe in the possibility of freedom and justice even when we have a long way to go before we get to that Promised Land.


11/25/2018 09:32:10 AM


Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely YHVH is in this place and i, I did not know it. And he was amazed and said, Mah Norah Hamakom Hazeh, “How awesome is this Place! This is none other than the House of God, and the very gateway to heaven.”

Genesis 28:16-17

God was in this place but I, I didn’t know it.  Love.  Yes. Blessing. There unseen all along.

But also, darker things.  Dangerous things.

Hatred and Antisemitism were in this place and i, I didn’t (really) know it.

Mass media spewing lies into dark digital corners and until 2016 I wasn’t paying attention.

Downward-spiraling white people struggling and seething, and i, I haven’t cared enough.

Slavery’s legacy ripping through a broken criminal justice system this place.  And i, I’ve been white enough not to have to worry too urgently.

Immigrant children imprisoned (not just now but for years), and though my own father arrived here seeking asylum, a Spanish-speaking teen without his parents – i, I have been unaware.

America’s freedoms are fragile and vulnerable, and i, I didn’t know it.  I took them for granted.

America, America, so beautiful and free, oh you could be the House of God — but we have been asleep.

“These truths may be self evident, but they are not self replicating,”

Dan Rather reminds us, “Each generation must renew these vows.”

…that all human beings are created equal. Endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…

So Awake, and stay awake – to the suffering and the corruption and the abuses that fester and grow when they are ignored.

But Awaken also — to our power.

To the light and the good right in front of us.

To the beauty of a sunrise reflected on water’s surface, radiant maple leaves in autumn, whatever nature offers near home.

Awaken to love in our families and friendship in our communities.

Awaken to the transformation possible we have when we make effort for what we value – a power we have yet to fully exercise or appreciate.  All along these have been here too.

Waking up, we overflow.  It’s too much.  But we can strengthen one another to stay present to it all.  Somehow we will find a way to swim without drowning through waves of headlines,

awake to what’s important, without exhausting our capacity to care,

Awake to the people right in front of us, un-moderated by screens and sound bites.

Awake to daily moments that remind us – people are good.

People can be fooled.  Fear can lead us into darkness.

But we can also wake up and find — we are made out of light.

It is there deep inside. It has always been there.  Mah norah hamakom hazeh – how awesome is this place.  This moment.   How amazing, what a gift, to be awake.

The Power of the Tongue

11/01/2018 03:25:58 PM


Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”

So it is written in Proverbs, 18:21. And it’s true. Speech has the power to create and to destroy, to heal and to hurt, to incite, to convince, to deceive, to ruin a reputation, to inspire and to shape the future.  With words we bless and with words we curse, with words we condemn and defend.  Words can outlive generations of human lifetimes.  Language is a power both human and Divine.  What we say matters.

This past Sunday evening as we gathered to find comfort and strength in the wake of the Pittsburgh tragedy, words helped us to heal.   We turned to words from our most ancient sources. Ner Adonai Nishmat Adam, God’s lamp is the human soul, Proverbs 20:27 greeted us in the lobby as those entering lit candles.  We passed around a stone carved with the word, “ometz,” courage in Hebrew, that I brought home from Jerusalem a couple of years ago.   People spoke and heard spontaneous words from the heart.  The words of Kol Ha’Olam Kulo, Eli Eli and Esa Einai have never resonated more deeply.

Words can heal, but words can also hurt.

For this reason, both American and Jewish traditions have extensive laws and norms about language – a topic I have been thinking about with a sense of urgency in the past two years.

The First Amendment States:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Jews have a unique relationship to the first amendment in this moment.  On the one hand, the first amendment protects our freedom of religion.  It is the foundation upon which American Jewry has built a relatively safe and prosperous life for centuries in this place.  Laws stemming from the first amendment are among those violated by the Pittsburgh shooter.

On the other hand, all too often in recent years, the first amendment has been used as a shield for hate speech and incitement.  Activists who claim to be defending the first amendment, have used its protection to create enclaves for false conspiracy theories, and platforms to spread fear and xenophobia.  The President has made incitement to violence a cornerstone of his rallies and his rhetoric – calling for the crowd to beat up outliers and naming his political critics “enemies of the people.”

The freedom of speech is a right designed to protect journalists who expose unflattering truths about those in power.  It is designed to nurture an educated citizenry who can think critically with access to multiple sources of information.  The first amendment was never meant to enable leaders to lie with impunity.  It was never meant to foster social and digital spaces where bigots and fanatics can validate one another and spread false conspiracy theories that lead to murder.  The first amendment was never intended to provide a path for our leaders to call others to violence and then deny responsibility.

As a Jew, I would never want to weaken the first amendment.  Its protection is essential to my religious freedom.  But nor do I accept that the first amendment is itself a guide to ethical speech. Those who use the first amendment as a shield for hate claim a false moral high ground.  In America’s rights-based system, the first amendment protects sacred freedoms, but it also protects morally repugnant and dangerous language.  In the absence of some other moral or ethical code, we are left with a system that allows the abuse of language in the name of protecting language.  That’s where I turn to the Jewish teachings on the ethics of speech.

Judaism has always recognized the profound power of language.  For that reason, the first chapter of Genesis imagines God creating the entire cosmos with nothing but words.  In practical terms, Jewish tradition has an enormous set of guidelines for the proper use of speech.  Through careful analysis and case study over centuries, our ancestors have considered many values with which to guide our speech – for example, Truth and Kindness. They have thought about what to do when these values come in to tension. The best known work on Jewish speech ethics, the Chofetz Chayim, written by Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, synthesizes it all and concludes that the ultimate test for ethical speech is the potential for harm.  For speech (or silence) to be ethical, it should ideally be truthful and kind, but most of all, it must not cause harm.

As we head into the final few days before a fateful election, I pray that our leaders and pundits can learn from the painful week that has passed and finally stop the inflammatory rhetoric and the spread of false conspiracy theories which have caused immeasurable harm.  For those who are not capable or willing, I pray that their supporters will awaken and stop their support.  But most of all, I pray that the good people who have been opting out of our Democracy will see that we need them to stand up and speak in a very important way right now — through the ballot box.  Just as words can do harm, so can silence. Right now, voting is the most important way we can use language to transform our world for the better.  May our words be words of peace bringing hope and healing to a world in need.  Ken Yehi Ratzon – May it be so.

Shmini Atzeret and Political Anguish

10/05/2018 10:00:29 AM


Around 1 in the morning Monday night, I awoke to the sounds of it.  The soft pattering quiet I had not heard for a season.  Unmistakable.  Rain.  The first rain of the season soaking the bamboo roof of my Sukkah.

The timing seemed supernatural.  The next day was Shmini Atzeret, the little-known holiday at the tail end of Sukkot whose primary ritual act is to pray for rain.  Twice a year, the liturgical calendar asks us to switch out a tiny phrase in the Amidah prayer, traditionally said three times a day.  Usually for me the line is a semi-conscious blip in the course of a service.  Sometimes it lifts me up into an awareness of seasons and the preciousness of water.  Twice a year, it expands into a beautiful poem of hope and vulnerability as we acknowledge the Earth’s cycles and our human dependence on rain and dew to feed our bodies.

Eloheynu v’Elohei Avoteynu v’Imoteynu – Our God and God of our ancestors: 

B’gishmei orah ta’ir adamah — With raindrops of light, illuminate the Earth,

B’gishmei bracha, t’varech adamah — With raindrops of blessing, bless the Earth,

B’gishmei gilah tagil adamah — With raindrops of rejoicing, give joy to the Earth…

The prayer is an acrostic, moving through the Hebrew letters and praying for every kind of goodness to wash over us as the rains begin.  Then it introduces the phrase which will be said in the midst of the Amidah until the end of Pesach as the season shifts again.

She’atah hu Adonai Eloheynu rav lehoshiah, mashiv haruach u’morid hagashem – for You are Adonai our God, whose power to save is great, the One who makes the wind blow and the rains fall.

This morning, a few days after Shmini Atzeret, as I obsessively checked for news, I had all but forgotten the Earth and its seasons shifting around me, the powers of the planet and its rains and winds.  Caught up in the pain of the moment, the outrage and disillusionment happening on our human scale, I had completely given in and cut myself off – running my life by the cycles of headlines and scandal rather than the cycles of prayer, water and sun.

Painful as it is – I am glad to be awake.  I know that for the sake of my children, and God willing their children’s children, I need to pay attention to the politics of our moment.  I need to remember what I committed to on Yom Kippur for the sake of the world.  I need to do more than I did in 2016 when that consequential election loomed. Actions like making calls, giving to campaigns and getting out the vote not only make a difference in the world, they also (more selfishly) make a difference to my distressed inner state.

I also know that all of our human structures of government, technology and community are built on a foundation of Earth.  In Hebrew, the first human beings are called Adam – from the word Adamah, Earth, that features so much in the prayer for rain above. We are formatively and linguistically — creatures of the Earth.  And that quality reminds me that there is a frame here beyond the momentary dramas on the political scale.

I find myself longing for grounding.  For perspective.  Yesterday I sat with a family who was planning to bring a 101 year old great grandmother to attend a Bar Mitzvah service.  I mused about how I would love to ask her how she sees our moment.  I wondered if she feels it is as unusual and troubling as it seems to me – or if it is just another cycle, far less worrisome than others she has lived through.

Not all of us have access to clear-minded elders who have lived through a century of human craziness.  But all of us do have access to the Earth and the Sky and our own community gatherings.  In our part of the world, we even have access to the ocean.

As these next weeks of political intensity unfold, we will all no doubt be tempted to cut ourselves off from our Earthliness, and our fellows humans, losing ourselves in hours of screen-time, reading every update.  But I hope in the midst of this tumult, we can all find times to connect with our spirits, with one another, and with our Earthliness.

I trust in that. I do.  It’s not just that I run to a shabbat service or the outdoors as an escape.  It’s that I know good things come when I take time to ground myself in the prayers of community and the natural world.  Clarity, peace, insight, inspiration: these are not just luxuries to seek in the redwoods or a room of singing voices when the fight is won — they are qualities we can find and bring to the struggle as we go.  May our voices joined together and our beautiful Earth remind us of who we are and what it’s all for, and may this season bring us much needed raindrops of hope and transformation.

Prayer Thoughts from a Rabbi Mom on her son’s prayer book dedication sticker…

06/21/2018 09:59:19 AM


Prayer is …

More than the words in this book,

though these words will guide you, and teach you,

if you let them.

Prayer is …

Time out of time — to notice

in the silence, in the distracting thoughts, in the still small voice within,

Change and stillness,

Knowing, and heartbreak

Remorse and forgiveness

Hope and resolve

Gratitude and compassion

Prayer is not …

a spectator sport.

It is not passive,

though it can be effortless.

The recitation of words can be rote, thoughtless and unconscious –

or it can be Practice — inscribing words on your heart.

Sometimes, a phrase suddenly jumps out of the stream and glimmers in new light.

This happens especially, as you learn to understand Hebrew.

[Oy, and then there are more challenges — when the Hebrew is not just a                                 meaningless mantra, and the words are not ones you would choose to say –                         curses on enemies, songs of victory, endless strings of lavish praise upon a                           God you don’t believe requires or desires those particular phrases                                           — that kind of thing.

Don’t get confused.  Still you can pray in your own words, or in silence.

Just keep rising, level after level.]


Be careful not to dismiss, judge, or otherwise miss the value of where you are and what has been given to you from your people.

Be careful not to become spiritually complacent, arrogant, stubborn, stuck.

Don’t give up when it’s hard.

Music is important.

Singing with others together,

lifting voices,

generating joy,


holding silence,

finding harmonies,

creating beautiful sound.

Words are important.

Moving the heart.

Teaching across time and generations.

Silence is important.

Making space to listen, to receive.

Prayer is…

interactive and solitary

Paradoxical — Revolutionary

Prayer is a gift you give to your soul.


From Rabbi Katie on Israel’s 70th anniversary

04/18/2018 03:41:17 PM


What should a rabbi say as we greet Israel’s 70th birthday this week? Some will stay silent because it’s too divisive to speak about the topic at all. Some may toe the line of one narrative or another -- Praise for a Modern Miracle!, or Condemnation of a so-called Apartheid State. To me, neither of these approaches is complicated or careful enough to be true to the place I know and what it means to the Jewish and Palestinian people. It’s a tough time to find hope for peace and justice in Israel and Palestine. Heck -- it’s a hard time to find hope for the future of Democracy, even in our own United States! And yet, if you go beyond headlines and start meeting real people, you cannot deny the tremendous goodness and resilience you find, face by face, conversation after conversation. I have not given up hope for either the US or Israel to transform for the good in my lifetime. I do not believe it will be easy, but I owe it to my children and their children to try really hard. And I also owe it to them here and now to remember gratitude and joy and to stop the dark hard push for justice from time to time and to revel in the freedoms and abundance we do have now, to celebrate what we can, even while we commit to spreading that abundance to others.

I hope that you will join me in exploring Israel and Palestine in the years ahead. Next year we will be creating many opportunities to learn about this complicated place with depth and nuance and in June of 2019, we will be taking our first ever Or Shalom trip to Israel and Palestine! There is no better way to understand a place or to find hope about its future than to go in person and meet the real people who are doing good work there. I hope that you will hold the second half of June 2019 on your calendars and come to our informational meeting Wednesday evening May 23rd to learn more about our trip. In the meantime, I offer some words that I found inspiring from my friend and colleague, Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, who sent this message on behalf of Rabbis for Human Rights this week…


From Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman writing on behalf of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel

I write this on the eve of Israel’s 70th birthday. This is super-charged period in the Israeli calendar. Days after Passover we observe Yom Ha-shoah Ve-ha-Gevura (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and a week later Yom Ha-Zikaron (Memorial Day) for our fallen soldiers and victims of terror. Then it is a breathtaking turn around to Yom Ha-Atzmaut (Israeli Memorial Day).

So much of the national ethos is captured by having these days of memorial lead up to Independence Day. It reinforces the precarious nature of our national identity.
interwoven with a terrible sense of victimhood and sacrifice. It should be no surprise that we Israelis are a little crazy. We live with a constant sense of power and powerlessness. On Yom Ha-Atzmaut I celebrate, and I invite you to celebrate, the messy miracle we call Israel. Yes, it is a miracle. Who could have imagined that a little more than seventy years after the Holocaust the greatest challenge facing the Jewish people would be how to handle the enormous military power we possess? Oy! We make so many mistakes- but I would not prefer the alternative of being powerless.

It sounds strange but I believe that to choose powerlessness would be immoral in its own way.
So on Yom 
I will celebrate this wonderful, complicated, tragic, exhilarating and messy miracle – the State of Israel. None of these complications absolve us of the responsibility for making this the most moral and just Jewish state possible. … to continue to teach our young people the connection between human rights and Judaism, to pursue justice for the poor and marginalized among us, and to protect the rights of the most vulnerable peoples in our midst, including Palestinians who continue to live under military occupation. We will not apologize for the need for a national Jewish homeland, nor we will we shirk from trying to make it worthy of the most enlightened and holy Jewish values.



OS Blog

03/20/2018 04:48:48 PM


Welcome to the Or Shalom Blog!  We have so many wonderful things on the horizon, starting with Rabbi Katie's Mussar Series - a 7 week class on your 'soul curriculum'.   After that we have our Community Seder, our Member Meeting and Retreat.  

The office is very excited to bring the full power of Shulcloud to its members.  With it, you have full access to your member account and payments.  Please take some time to update your contact information or other details.  Coming soon will be an Or Shalom App which will allow you to access the calendar, membership directory and other features directly from your phone.  

As always, let the office know if there is anything you need.



Administrator, Or Shalom


Sun, October 20 2019 21 Tishrei 5780