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The Omicron Surge - a message from Rabbi Katie

01/12/2022 03:29:38 PM


When I spoke to you this past Yom Kippur about the feeling of being like the Talmudic Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai sent “back to the cave” with Delta, I had no idea what was in store for us just a few months later. Yet the possibility was foreseeable to those ready to face it: the world might just be stuck in this pandemic till we muster the resources and will to provide vaccinations and combat misinformation worldwide. And here we are.

The past few weeks, for the first time in the pandemic, I have been hearing about many of our own community members and their families who are testing positive for COVID. Thank God to this point I am not hearing of anyone falling seriously ill.  But to those of you who are grappling with COVID in your households, please let me or our chesed committee know if you find yourselves in need – whether it’s a trip to the grocery store or moral support:

This current surge makes me thankful for so much, including the wisdom that has led Or Shalom to greet the pandemic cautiously. At this time, we have moved almost all of our programs back to an online format with the exception of lifecycle events such as our B'nai Mitzvah services. We even just got word that the outdoor MLK march Monday morning has been canceled this year. When we do gather, we are taking many precautions, asking for sign ups and requiring masks, social distancing and vaccination for those who are eligible, as well as testing for those who have roles on the bima.

We hope that soon we can emerge again to gather in person for services and more, but meanwhile, I encourage you to stay connected by showing up for some of our regular online gatherings like kvetch, kvell, and kandicraft, our Thursday morning study sessions, a Friday evening service, or our upcoming Tu B’Shvat online seder with the Southside Collaborative.

It’s not an easy moment, and there is much to tempt us all into anger and despair.  But things really are better than they were a year ago with the pandemic. For those who are vaccinated and boosted, the worst case scenario is much improved. And with all of our hard experience behind us, we actually know what to do and what not to do to minimize our exposure.

If you have not come down with COVID during this surge, I urge you to stay vigilant and take extra precautions at this time. While Omicron may be milder for those who have been vaccinated, our healthcare system is under tremendous strain and needs us all to do our part to slow the spread. The effects of long COVID are still unknown, and there are still children under 5 and those with medical vulnerabilities who are not yet protected. They depend on all of us to do what we can for their sake.  

Since the beginning of this pandemic, we have been guided by the Jewish wisdom that values human life above all else, as it is written in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 37a): Whoever saves a single life is considered by scripture to have saved the whole world. By continuing to choose a path of caution and responsibility, we may well be saving lives in this moment, whether that means waiting a little longer to be in crowded indoor public spaces or taking our social lives outdoors.

As we continue our path through these troubled times, I pray that all of us will find moments of gratitude each day to sustain us. May we all find the strength to practice patience, knowing that this will not last forever, and may we remember that we are not alone.  
Rabbi Katie

Responding to the verdict

04/22/2021 11:32:26 AM


Photo from Rabbi Debra Rappaport in Minneapolis the day of the verdict

For the Floyd family, we hope that this week’s verdict will provide a measure of solace in the face of unimaginable, tragic loss. Even for those of us at a greater distance, the verdict gives us a chance to breathe a little more freely, to hope that we might yet manifest a more just and compassionate world. A world where Black lives are valued and we can find healing from the profound wounds of our history of slavery and ongoing systemic racism.

One verdict is not enough, just as one Black President was not enough, to undo centuries of harm. Or Shalom will continue to commit ourselves to the work of dismantling racism and white supremacy, and we pray that this moment can be a significant turning point for the good. I am proud to share that the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association recently passed a resolution in support of pursing reparations. You can read the full text here.

I also wanted to share with you some words adapted from my friend and colleague, Rabbi Shawn Zevit:

As a Jewish people of many colors, cultures and backgrounds we know we cannot wait for justice to arrive on it’s own accord. “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof: Justice, Justice shall you pursue!”, declares our Torah. (And our Or Shalom T-shirts!)  For so many of us, being Jewish means actively pursuing and co-creating a just, inclusive and equitable world. That means working to eliminate racial injustice, systemic white supremacy and privilege in our own backyards and throughout this nation. We must also be willing to be present to and stand in solidarity with the grief, lament and rage of countless people of color in our country whose lives are at risk daily. We are grateful for and welcome the healing that this just verdict may provide- however, as the Mishnah Sanhedrin states, “Whoever destroys a life, it is as if they destroyed an entire world.” Until racially motivated killing, police misuse of power and gun violence are addressed- no true justice can be found in our gates.

May this moment bring us the strength, hope, and healing we need to continue the work of manifesting a world where every human being is treated with dignity and love.

Pandemic Torah - Beginning to Reflect after a year in lock down

03/17/2021 04:11:03 PM


What has this time wrought?  What does this world-wide human experience of the pandemic mean and how will it change us?  

The answers to these questions will surely evolve and reveal themselves over time.  Right now, we’re still in the storm. The sheer volume and intensity of what is yet unfolding prevents us from distilling lessons learned as wisely as we would like, though the sky is beginning to clear.  

It will take years to heal, years to understand.  In time, we will surely see more clearly, the Before, and the After.  A generation will understand themselves in reference to this time - swapping stories of losses mourned and celebrations delayed.  We will see clear lines of cause and effect in our economic systems, our personal and political history.  

But now – we are still in the jumble of unsorted relentless crisis, blind to what lies just a few months ahead.  Given that state, the questions, rather than answers, may be the most valuable and authentic place to reflect.  So here I offer, not a catalogue of lessons, but some thoughts about a few of the questions that the pandemic has raised for me over the past year.

What is important?

For some, the interruption of the pre-pandemic rat race has helped us to see the important parts of life we were mindlessly sacrificing before: regular family meals, time to exercise, hours wasted in rush hour traffic or work travel, time outside in the natural world.  

For each of us in different ways, our deprivation has helped us to appreciate anew the value of the things we once took for granted – hugs from family and friends, shared song, communal meals, celebrations, rituals of mourning, live, in-person music, worship, theater and sports.  Restaurants.  Toilet paper.  Play dates.  School.  

The pandemic has begun national conversations about subjects which were always important but never before so visible -- “essential workers,” racial justice, and our broken healthcare system.  It has painfully demonstrated the importance of truth-based policy and politics. It has reminded us of the importance of child care and the relative un-importance of so much we have done without.   

Fancy weddings and Bar Mitzvah parties have given way to tiny modest ceremonies. Travel plans and summer camps have given way to stay-cations.  Each disruption has asked us to discern again and again – what is important?  

And through it all, families who lost loved ones have been reminded through heart-rending grief that the time we have with one another is, of course, the most important thing of all.

What is Possible?

If you had asked me in 2019 whether I thought I could ever lead a decent service on zoom, I would have rated my chances 0 out of 10.  How small was my pre-pandemic sense of possibility!

The pandemic has forced us to adapt, finding connection through a screen, and sacred space in our living rooms, conducting our social lives in masks, and our work in crowded homes with tots and cats wandering through board meetings.  We’ve learned to cut our own hair, bake our own bread, and plant our own vegetables.

It’s been a year of testing, shaking hard-baked assumptions of how we must work and travel, of democracy’s inevitability.  As a massive socio-economic disruption, the pandemic has given us a rare peek at ourselves.  It has shown us that we can change more than we realized.  Statues can come down and people can awaken.  Global networks of scientists and manufacturers can cooperate to achieve miracles.  Neighbors can give each other hope with nothing more than simple, coordinated, public noise-making.   

The same volatility and uncertainty that make this moment so excruciating open a powerful window for transformation.  As George Packer wrote this year in The Atlantic, this could be America’s “plastic hour,” a “crucial moment” when deep transformation is suddenly possible. The pandemic is a painful disruption no one would choose, but now that it’s here, it may be giving us a chance, maybe a once in a century chance, to make big changes for the good – if only we can remember what’s important and believe in what is possible.

How will we emerge?

Throughout this year you may have heard me teach about the story of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the sage who spent 12 years in a cave.  When he first emerged, he was so full of judgement for his fellow human beings that his eyes shot fire and burned them to a crisp.  At that point, a heavenly voice proclaimed – “Have you come out to destroy my world?  Back to the cave!”  He then had to spend another full year in isolation, learning patience and compassion.  When he emerged a second time, his question was no longer, “What is wrong with these people?!” but rather, “How can I make things better?” With that kind of question, God let him live out the rest of his days without sending him back to the cave.

How will we emerge from this time?  Will we be brave enough and wise enough to let our experience change us for the better?  Will we remember what’s important and believe in what’s possible?  Or will we come out with wounds and anger asking the wrong questions and destroying our world?

I pray we will all find our ways to be better for this difficult time.  To let our suffering give rise to compassion, to let our losses give rise to generosity and gratitude.  

What and Who Sustains Us?

I am thankful beyond measure for the people in my family and in this community who have been there for me and for one another.  For the leaders making difficult decisions and offering inspiration.  For the givers who have been generous to Or Shalom in a time of tremendous uncertainty.  For the worker bees behind the scenes running the office, delivering gifts and meals, running tech for services, editing blurbs and packing boxes.  I am thankful for those who have stepped up to lead services, who have found ways to transform social justice in a time of virtual gatherings.  I am moved to see our educators connecting with our children even across impossible circumstances.

As we look back on this year, I hope that we can catalogue not only what we have lost but also how we have survived.  Who have been our guiding lights and our strength?  What practices and people have kept us going?  What have we learned about our own resilience? 

About a week ago, I had the blessing of receiving my first vaccine dose alongside my medically-vulnerable husband.  As we sat in the waiting area afterwards, I leaned over and weeped silently on his shoulder, feeling so aware of our mortality, so aware of our privilege, so aware of every blessing.  It was one of the most potent “shehecheyanu moments” of my life.  Even as I felt tremendous relief, I became aware of the magnitude of healing we all have yet ahead of us to integrate what we have lived through.  I pray that we can all be gentle and patient with one another as we walk that road of healing ahead.  

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheynu Melech ha’olam, shehecheyanu, vekiyemanu, vehigeyanu lazman hazeh – Blessed are You Adonai our God, beyond within and surrounding us, who has given us life, sustained us and brought us to this very moment.


Goodbye 2020

01/07/2021 12:57:05 PM


Rabbi Katie

This past July in what I now think of as my pandemic journal, I wrote:

Instead of searching for the cause or reason for this (or any) unwelcome experience, I find it more constructive to ask – what can I learn?  There is so much to say, and the lessons deepen as we move through this time.  The longer we pause, the more we can see with clear vision…

This time out of time has taken so much and taught us so much.  The world asks us to learn what endures and what is fragile, what is trivial and what is truly essential.  An invisible virus travelling in the air we share, demonstrates how we are all so deeply interconnected, beyond our human ability to comprehend. 

2020 ends, but we have yet to answer the central question of our moment — will we let this experience change us collectively for the better? We will begin to ‘live our way into the answer’ in the year to come.

As the year turns, we are still in the midst of being tested.  Now, as hope beckons, the wait is even more difficult to bear.  Selfishness and exhaustion tempt us to give up.  More will die before we get through this.

Yet there is hope.  And healing.  And light.  And love.  A new administration is on its way, and Spring, and even a vaccine.

We have reason to believe that in 2021 we will dance and sing together.   And if nothing else, 2020 has taught us how precious that will be. 

Still Repenting for 2016: Regret, Learning, Action

10/12/2020 10:16:53 AM



As we emerge from the High Holy Day season, I confess, I still carry guilt from the past, mistakes that have yet to be fully corrected, as deeply as I regret them and as hard as I have prayed.

Perhaps this is because, as Maimonides teaches, complete teshuvah* is not achieved in the synagogue when we recite the Yom Kippur liturgy.  Complete teshuvah is a matter of greeting a parallel situation and doing something different than what we did before.  

In a few short weeks, Americans will have a chance to enact our teshuvah for the colossal mistakes of 2016. And not just those who will change their votes or get to the ballot box for the first time.  To succeed, we must all do something different.

I may not have the power on my own to change the outcome of the election, but I owe it to myself and my children to do MUCH MORE than I did in 2016.  I have resolved to greet this parallel situation and behave differently.

With a pandemic raging, it’s a challenge.  Some of us are writing post cards.  Some are making calls. Some are getting involved in local ballot measures.  Some are reaching out to change hearts and minds.  I know I’ll be giving more political contributions than I ever have in my life.

This time, however things turn out, and especially if they don’t go the way I hope, I want to know I did everything I could.  I hope that you will too. 

It’s not too late.  Give now.  Speak up now.  Volunteer now.  The future depends on it.

In these critical weeks, I pray that our regret and our suffering might be redeemed by this chance to enact real teshuvah.  May each of us move into far more action than we did the last time we faced such a crossroads.

*Teshuvah, often translated as repentance, is the work of turning away from mistakes and bad behavior, righting our wrongs, and becoming a better person.

High Holy Days at Home 2020

08/07/2020 10:47:58 AM


Nine years ago I spent Yom Kippur at home.  I was a new mom. Adam just 10 months old.  And I was sick.  Lost my voice so much I didn’t even have the option of somehow powering through.  I remember Stuart Schillinger, President at the time, saying it was like losing the star quarterback on the eve of the Superbowl.  And I also remember him saying, well, Yom Kippur will happen whether or not you are there on the bima.  It’s bigger than that. 

And it was!  (And it went better than my ego would like to admit, as a team of leaders stepped up on that sacred day so I could stay home healing.)  

I remember my grief, sitting on the floor of my living room, nursing my baby, wrapped in a tallit, heart broken not to be with my community, but somehow still feeling them with me, singing to me through the words on the pages of my Machzor.  And not just my Or Shalom community, the community of souls who had written and sung and studied those words through every human circumstance Jews have known through our centuries of search and practice.  

I was alone and yet not alone.  

It was one of the most memorable Yom Kippur days I have ever experienced.  I didn’t know it at the time, but I was learning that day some of the most important spiritual lessons I needed.  About surrender.  About love.  About the value of community and practice.  About vulnerability and its implications.

And I think this year is going to be like that for all of us.

Memorable.  Difficult. Full of grief and broken-heartedness.  And in its peculiarity, uniquely positioned to impact us all more deeply than any other Yom Kippur in our lifetimes.

We cannot “save” the High Holy Day services from covid-19.  We do not have the power to ensure that a gathering in person would be safe.  And so we surrender, yielding to what is beyond our control.  

As you have either heard or guessed, Or Shalom, like almost every other community in our area, will be choosing life, protecting health, and holding our High Holy Day services online this year.  

Then again, maybe the call is not to “save” anything of what has been.  

This year does not call us to resist the change around us or to preserve some nostalgic version of the familiar past.  

2020 calls us instead to “save” the future.  To use this unchosen stillness to see more clearly who we are and what we are doing and where our choices lie.  This year, while layers of disruption interrupt our personal and collective routines, we can lift the gaze to see possibilities, dark and radiant, of what we might live into.  

Transformation is upon us.  

Will we move through it with skill and wisdom, or with fear? Will we cling to what has been? Will we turn toward what is holy?

These are the questions of the High Holy Day season 2020.  They are questions that will accompany us through Elul, the month leading up to the Holy Days, and all the way through Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah.  

Not even a pandemic can take away the flow of sacred time around us.  Not even a pandemic can break the bonds of friendship, tradition and community which are about so much more than gathering in a physical building.  We will greet these sacred days alone and together, grieving and discovering, online, in our homes, and in the natural world.  And it will be powerful.

Stay tuned to hear about the opportunities Or Shalom is creating to learn, sing, connect and search in solitude and with one another as we move through this sacred and awesome time.  

If you would take a few minutes to give us some feedback, please fill out this SHORT survey that we will use to guide us as we create services and other offerings in this season.  Thank you in advance for taking the time to tell us about your experience and ideas.  

I send my blessing for strength and health, patience and peace, hope and vision.  

L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu, may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a year of positive transformation.


Rabbi Katie 


Our new Torah Table!

07/08/2020 01:35:45 PM


Nitza Agam

Several years ago, Or Shalom member and master carpenter, Ken Seidman, came to Rabbi Katie with a passion to create something sacred and useful for the life of our community.  It didn’t take long to decide that the offering should be a Torah reading table, but the actual journey to get from idea to reality has taken considerable time and effort. After years of planning, drawing, meeting, overcoming setbacks and skillful carpentry, we are delighted to announce that the vision is now a gorgeous custom-made wood table waiting for us in the sanctuary!

The table is simple and elegant, with a single abbreviated quotation inlaid on its main surface.  The words, written in an original font created by Vavi Toran, come from the liturgy sung at the close of the Torah service and originally found in Proverbs (3:17-18), “Etz Chayim He….vechol netivoteha shalom….” “She (the torah) is a tree of life … and all of her pathways are peace.”  

Rabbi Katie describes the metaphor of Torah as tree: “It has roots and a stable, enduring core, but also foliage that changes by the season and fruits that nourish us. Each generation is entrusted not just to pass on the same Torah that they receive, but to cultivate the living tree, and encourage fresh growth that guides and sustains us in new circumstances.”

Our new table embodies the living tree idea first of all because of its wooden structure. The wood, from the Hackberry tree, is sustainably sourced from Evan Shively of Arborica, in Marshall. Evan gathers fallen trees from all over California and cuts them into thick slabs the full width of the trunk. It is actually the imperfections that make Hackberry wood so interesting, with its smooth, creamy yellow coloring. 

Adorning the table are images of an olive branch, created by Gary Hauser, that represent the changing foliage of the tree of life. The underside of the tabletop contains twelve brass fittings, reflecting the twelve tribes. The hooks are designed to hold a “skirt” of fabric that changes by the season and with the different generations of Or Shalom. Those fabric skirts will be created in the table’s future, just like the living tree of life that is the Torah and evolves over time. 

Just as the ancient Hebrews carried their holy ark in their desert wanderings, Or Shalom wanted a table that could accompany us wherever we gather to create sacred experience.  Ken Seidman describes the breakthrough that enabled him to design a table to come easily apart and back together. In his research, he came upon an old furniture design--the hutch bench.  Rabbi Katie was inspired by this design and suggested including two long spindles that congregants could hold onto as if holding the poles that held the ark of the covenant.

This Torah table is now part of the promise of Or Shalom for the time that we will emerge from isolation to the joy of gathering in person again. Like the ancient Israelites, Or Shalom’s community continues to learn, to change, to reflect, to find meaning in our traditions to pass on and to create new ways to carry them.


See the Torah Table creation in action.

George Floyd Calls us to National Teshuvah

06/03/2020 08:39:36 AM



George Floyd Calls us to National Teshuvah


There are not enough words to properly respond to the tragedy of George Floyd’s murder.  I pray that his loved ones, and every family and community who has been afflicted with police violence find comfort and healing.  I pray that our nation will awaken to the depth of our structural racism and find the will to do transformative work on every level.

But prayers feel insufficient.

For days I have been watching and feeling helpless.  Afraid for the health of my family and community in this pandemic, I felt I should not march or call for marching.  So instead I, like so many, have been relating (again) to our moment through the screen, watching and wondering if this unrest would turn out to be a long overdue awakening, or just the next predictable chapter in the unfolding authoritarian playbook.

Yesterday felt like an opening.  Or perhaps more precisely, it felt like a taunt.

When the President decided to use tear gas and rubber bullets to clear non-violent protestors so that he could have a photo-op brandishing a bible, I felt, as a member of the clergy, uniquely called to respond. Any God-fearing person who believes in freedom should have been horrified to see this display; the President waving around the sacred scriptures as he violated the rights of free political speech at the heart of our democracy.

The Bible is not meant to be a weapon used for shallow divisive political purposes. It is meant to guide us to be better people in pursuit of creating a sacred society.  If he had but opened the book to read the teachings at its heart, he would have been confronted with sacred principles he desecrates every day.

Love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)

You shall not lie.  (Leviticus 19:11)

If the stranger sojourns in your land, you shall not wrong him. Like a citizen among you shall be the stranger who dwells with you, and you shall love him as yourself. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

You shall not pervert justice. (Deuteronomy 16:19)

Whoever causes the righteous to go astray … he shall fall himself into his own pit; but the upright shall have a goodly inheritance. (Proverbs 28:10)

These ideas belong not only to people of a particular faith.  Every religious and spiritual path has similar teachings.  Every free and legitimate secular society begins with a premise of fundamental human worth.  Genesis 1:27 expresses it this way: “God created humanity in the Divine image. In the image of the Divine God created him, male and female God created them.”

George Floyd was a reflection of God.  His murder, any murder, is a tragedy that desecrates God.  But it is a particularly egregious sin when the murderer wears a uniform and therefore acts in the name of the society as a whole.  It is a sin damaging not only to the victim and his or her loved ones, but to justice and the rule of law itself. Civilization works only in as much as we entrust our courts and police to keep us all safe and mediate our conflicts without vigilante vengeance.  Our police are entrusted with permission to use force in order to protect our safety.

Are we safer now that George Floyd is dead?  Are we safer now, as our cities rage, and the President threatens peaceful demonstrators with military force?  Are we safer now, as despair and desperation boil over after decades, no, centuries, of state-sanctioned violence against black and brown skinned people?

There is a deep sickness in America that we must no longer ignore.

Yesterday the New Yorker published an interview with Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of Just Mercy(recently made into a feature film which is available for free this month in honor of black out Tuesday).  He says, “We have never honestly addressed all the damage that was done during the two and a half centuries that we enslaved black people…that is why I have argued that slavery didn’t end in 1865, it evolved…”

America needs to reckon with the deep injustices baked into our economic and political structures, our criminal justice system, our education and health systems and beyond.  In the Jewish paradigm, we would say we need to do massive collective teshuvah (repentance).  Our tradition offers wisdom about the key elements: facing and naming the sin, apologizing to the parties harmed, making restitution, and most important, changing behavior to ensure that the sin is not repeated ever again.

What would this kind of teshuvah look like on a collective level? I do not have a simple formula or policy to suggest.  Perhaps we could begin with the new proposal from Representative Barbara Lee to open a Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Commission.  Maybe it would mean reparations.  Certainly it would mean deep transformational work that touches all dimensions of a society that aspires to be a beacon of justice and equality but so far has fallen short.

The undertaking is overwhelming, but we must not let that defeat us or tempt us to waste our anger on destructive actions which only play into the narrative of white supremacy that got us here in the first place.

We do not need to destroy, we need to heal and help our nation to more fully live up to the promise of our founding vision.  I believe it’s still not too late.

Nikole Hannah-Jones writes in the powerful NYT Magazine 1619 Project about how she came to understand her father’s patriotism, despite the painful history and ongoing struggles of black Americans:

… My father knew exactly what he was doing when he raised that flag…More than any other group in this country’s history, we have served, in an overlooked but vital role: perfecters of this democracy…. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals.  And not only for ourselves – black rights have paved the way for every other rights struggle…without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans, our democracy today would most likely look very different – it might not be a democracy at all.

In this moment of pain and anger, may we take courage and inspiration from the ‘idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts’ that people of color and their allies have made since the founding of our nation to bring us closer to our founding ideals.  Let our struggles and our progress not be in vain. May we find the patience, discipline, resilience and skill to defeat the forces of hate which threaten to destroy us.  Let 2020 be a year that gives birth to a new chapter of justice and healing, that America may emerge from our sicknesses of racism, selfishness, greed, and violence to build a future of prosperity, peace and joy for every person.


Passover 2020

04/01/2020 04:47:39 PM


This year, as in every year at this season, I ask myself where the story of the Exodus intersects with my lived experience.  How am I Pharaoh? How am I Miriam? Where is liberation happening? Where is there still slavery?

In 2020, we will encounter the holiday as our ancestors did on the very first Passover described in the Torah – hunkered down in our homes as a great plague wreaks its destruction on the world around us.  Like our ancestors, we may also be experiencing intense fear and anxiety to witness humanity so thoroughly humbled by an invisible power; a great reminder of our vulnerability. We can only hope that on the other side of this trial we too will find positive transformation.

This crisis exposes all of the ways that our society has failed the most vulnerable among us.  It exposes the arrogance and folly of extreme individualism, which conceals our deep interconnectedness.  It also demonstrates our ability to stop our daily lives for sake of a collective need, and it calls us to make sacrifice, and be creative, courageous, forgiving, and patient.

If only humanity will learn these hard lessons now, perhaps as we rebuild we can make this moment a turning point for the good.  Perhaps this plague will force us to restructure our world according to more sustainable, compassionate values, which turn out to be the key to our own liberation.

And meanwhile -- I will really miss gathering in person with you this year!  This is hard! The Seder is so physically grounded, so tactile and sensual, so much about big gatherings in person, that even a virtual experience will surely include many painful compromises. 

And yet, when we ask, Mah Nishtana? What is different, this night from all other nights, this year from all other years, I think it’s important to remember that we are not the first generation to face a difficult Passover. 

This year is challenging, scary, inconvenient, and a number of other unpleasant adjectives.  But come April 8th, the moon of Nisan will be full, Pesach will arrive, and we must make the best of it, just as our ancestors have made the best of seder nights in times of great difficulty.

We will miss gathering with family, friends, and community.  Some of us are mourning losses and facing very tough impacts from the corona pandemic.  This is a scary time, but that makes it all the more important to remember the ways that we are free and blessed, as the holiday arrives.  

I continue to pray for your well being and the well being of your loved ones. 

Next Year In Person!!!!!
Rabbi Katie

Day seven

03/19/2020 02:06:48 PM


Rabbi Katie


Corona pic

This morning, we did not rush to get the kids off to school. We lingered in pajamas.  We let Daddy sleep in.  The boys began their 5th game of monopoly.  Day seven.

There are gifts in this time out of ordinary time. This involuntary worldwide Shabbat.

In our community’s online zoom sessions so far, we have been able to see the faces of members from Sonoma to Benecia to Pacifica to San Francisco, people we have missed in our geographical scatteredness.  Last week we were joined for Shabbat blessings by a guest in another time zone who missed a local service but found us online.  We are connecting in ways that reach beyond our previous capacity. In some paradoxical way, our apartness is bringing us together.

This is not to minimize the seriousness of our moment.

The suffering is real.  I just had a zoom session with rabbinical colleagues all over the country and heard stories of caring for toddlers while running a synagogue from home, a virtual funeral, family members with fever and cough unable to get a test, overseeing painful lay-offs, and caring for vulnerable community members who live in poor neighborhoods with high concentrations of the virus.  And from what we know, things will get worse before they get better.

But eventually, things will get better.

Humanity will make it through.  And in the process, we will learn so many things.  About our interconnectedness.  About vulnerability and compassion.  About the value of being together in a room making music unmediated by screens.

To me it is helpful to remember, our people have been through much worse.  We have many spiritual resources to turn to in this time. Eventually, this trial will make us stronger. And on the other side, just think of how sweet it will be to gather!  When this all ends, what celebrations we will have!

When the children of Israel were fleeing from Egypt, there was a moment of terrible fear.  Ahead of them, the Sea of Reeds blocked their way forward.  Behind them, the chariots of Pharaoh closed in.  Some cried out in despair, “It would have been better to die in Egypt!”  But Moses reassured them, “Do not be afraid.  Stand fast together and witness Adonai’s salvation… be silent and still.” (Ex. 13:13-14).  Right now, as we face this grand collective challenge, may we find our courage, standing together in new ways, supporting those in need.  And may we be blessed to find the gifts and the learning in this time of remarkable global stillness.


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


Wed, February 8 2023 17 Shevat 5783