Sunday, December 30, 2018

We made it to Jerusalem!

Yesterday we had a very moving visit to the Kotel or the Western Wall.  After that we went to the Macheneh Yehuda open air market.  It was very crowded because it was almost Shabbat and people were buying food for their Shabbat dinners.  We bought some flowers to give as a gift to our Shabbat dinner hosts and then had same pita, humus, and falafel.  We bought donuts and baklava for later.  Alex has ice cream despite the cold.   Erin and I bought hats because we were cold.

We went to Kabbalat Shabbat services with Rabbi Stacey Blank at Kehilat Tzur Hadassah which is a reform congregation in Kehilat Tzur, a suburb 12 miles southwest of Jerusalem in the Judean Hills with a population of 1,500 people. 

After services, our group split up and we went to Shabbat dinner with local congregants.  Our dinner with Alena and Gail and their children Gabi and Sasha was amazing.  They made us feel so welcome and they prepared a wonderful meal for us.  Erin and Alex enjoyed talking to Gabi and Sasha about High school and middle school in Israel. And Alex and Sasha turned out to have so much in common that we joked that they were  long lost twins.  We enjoyed our evening with our new Israeli friends so much and we were sad to leave.

Yesterday was Shabbat so we are planning to sleep in and then go see the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum.

Monday, December 24, 2018

From Lakeside Travels in Israel: December 2018

From Roberta Heinrich:

Dec. 24, 2018. What a day! Tel Aviv -a view from my balcony - 

that’s the Mediterranean Sea! Delectable breakfast in the hotel and then a trip to the room where it happened - the art museum where Israel declared itself a Jewish State. Shortly after, immersed in Levinsky street with its scent of spices, we sampled pastries filled with spinach, cheese, mushrooms and more. (The butcher shop photo is in homage to my Grandpa Harry, a Kosher butcher from Odessa) On nearby blocks we spied Bauhaus architecture surrounded by European and modern buildings. 
Our Group!

Then to Old Jaffa- the mosque, clock tower, remains of an archeological dig and a
sculpture overlooking the sea. Touring the alleyways, shopping the flea market, and tasting local fare closed our afternoon. Tonight we’re off to a traditional Israeli dinner! A perfect day.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Shofars Calls for Voting

Rabbi Isaac Serotta
Lakeside Congregation
Rosh Hashana Morning 5779

My son, Yehuda, accompanied me on a Lakeside Congregation trip to Israel. We had one specific goal on our trip, and that was to find a shofar for him to blow. We had a free afternoon our last day in Jerusalem so we wound our way into the Old City on its stone streets to a shop we had scoped out in the Jewish quarter. They sell nothing but shofarot.  No trinkets or souvenirs, no other ritual items, Shofars R Us. We set out to find the perfect shofar. Shofars are like magic wands in the Harry Potter Books, you don’t so much pick one out, as one picks you. There is only one way to find the right Shofar. We played every horn in the store, making a joyful noise in the city of Jerusalem.

The shopkeeper didn’t mind. Maybe he was a little deaf. Maybe he was used to it. Shofar blasts rattling off the stone walls were a good advertisement for him. Shoppers came in and started asking me about Shofarot, for display and for use. Finally, with tired lips, Yehuda chose a shofar whose notes were sharp and clear. We carried this 3 foot long shofar wrapped in bubble wrap all the way home, and Yehuda played it in this sanctuary for a couple of years and then it went with him to Iowa and Minnesota and now Colorado.
Hearing the shofar is one of our most beloved traditions. It is the reason that many people come. There is the joy of watching our children hear it. There is excitement and anticipation when we see our shofar blowers, Adam Whiteman and Douglas Smith holding it and preparing to sound the notes.

The Bible mentions the shofar 47 times, and it has different purposes. The shofar might announce a processional, be used as a signal, as a call to war, to induce fear, to end plagues. In the Torah, it says, “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall rest for a holy day, a day of remembering loud blasts, zichron teruah.” That’s really all the Torah has to say about Rosh Hashanah.

Maimonides wrote about the meaning and purpose of the Shofar’s blasts a thousand years ago, saying, “Awake you sleepers from your sleep and ponder your deeds, remember your Creator and return to God in repentance.” Maimonides hears the shofar like an alarm clock.  Even though many people may fall asleep in temple, he doesn’t mean it literally.

He goes on to say, “Do not be like those who miss the truth while following other pursuits.  Look at your soul and consider your deeds; turn away from wrong paths, and make a new start.” Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, a colleague of mine, says, “these are surely days when religion should be a disturber of the peace, a goad to conscience, and a blazing sense of restlessness to right the world’s wrongs.” So today, we hear the shofar as a wake up call, a reminder of our rights and responsibilities as Jews and as Americans.  Elections approach and we cannot be asleep. The Reform movement in our nation and in Illinois is getting together and getting organized. RAC (Religious Action Center) Illinois organizes Reform Jews across Chicagoland and the whole state to stand up and be counted on issues of meaning to our community. Our board voted unanimously to be a Brit Olam Congregation, a nationwide effort of which RAC Illinois is a part, to join hundreds of Reform communities around the country and remind those who come to worship to really hear the words of the prayers and the sound of the shofar and recognize that we have a sacred obligation. We have an obligation to vote.

Rabbi Yitzhak (Berachot 55a) in Talmudic times said, “A leader is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted.” Today, our vote is how we get consulted. If we don’t vote, and don’t encourage others to do so, if we suppress any vote, then the community does not get its full say in who will lead us.

As a people we have rarely lived in a nation as aligned with our own religious teachings. In 1843 President John Tyler lauded the free expression of religion in our nation, “The conscience is left free from all restraint and each is permitted to worship his Maker after his own judgment….The Mohammedan…to worship according to the Koran; and the East Indian might erect a shrine to Brahma if it so pleased him….The Hebrew, persecuted and downtrodden in other regions takes up his abode among us with none to make him afraid…and the Aegis of the Government is over him to defend and protect him. Such is the great experiment which we have tried, and such are the happy fruits which have resulted from it; our system of government would be imperfect without it.”

Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish supreme court justice, said in 1915 “Not since the destruction of the Temple have the Jews in spirit and in ideals been so fully in harmony with the noblest aspirations of the country in which they lived.” He, of course, spoke before the birth of the modern state of Israel, but his point is still relevant. The Jews have never had a home like America. We have been welcome here because of the separation of church and state that President Tyler admired. Beyond that, our traditions teach us the same values that are the noblest aspirations of America.

It has never been our place to sit idly and just let history unfold. From the time Abraham disrupted the status quo and left his ancestral home to begin the journey of the Jewish people we have been wandering Arameans. We have been victors and victims, but we have never stood on the sidelines of world events.

In this nation we cannot be complacent. Anti-Semitism is not dead and gone. Though Jews are loved and welcomed by the majority of our nation, there is still a dark underbelly of Jew hatred. And it is not going away quietly. Anti-Semitic screeds have appeared on synagogue lawns in recent days, swastikas still appear in bathroom graffiti and on synagogue doors.  Holocaust denial and conspiracy theories still have adherents and some of them aspire to positions of power, and others, including in the highest halls of power look the other way to garner their votes.

But we are not voting for ourselves alone. Our tradition teaches that we not only lift our own burden we help our neighbors, even our adversaries in lifting their burdens too. Our rabbis taught in the Talmud (Baba Batra 8a): “If you live in a city for 30 days you must contribute to the food pantry, for three months, contribute to the charity box. For six months you must give to the clothing fund. After nine months, [healing the sick] and burying the dead. After a year, you must contribute to the strength of the city.”

Though the laws of the Bible were written long before the invention of democracy, it seems clear that it should be a Jewish imperative to vote. In 1885, the Reform Movement in America wrote its first platform, and at the last minute they added a brief section crafted by Rabbi Emil Hirsch of Chicago, “we deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society.”

This is not a political statement. It comes from the deepest wisdom of the prophets from generations of old. As proud Jews and proud Americans we cannot stand idly by while our neighbors bleed. We cannot be silent when hundreds are murdered in the streets of our city. We cannot be silent when those who are sworn to protect all our citizens are sometimes the source of violence. We cannot stand aside as families seeking help, home and asylum are separated and no one can seem to reunite them. We can’t be silent when science is denied, when the earth is literally shaking from the fractures of unfettered energy mining, where the air and water gets poisoned by relaxing regulations, where children’s brains and bodies are damaged by cover ups of contaminated water.

We cannot stand silent as Anti-Semitism rises. But we know that hatred of Jews is just one part of a larger hatred; a part of racism and Islamophobia, and homophobia. It is easy to think that things are better than they were a year ago, because so few white supremacists came to Washington DC a month ago when so many showed up in Charlottesville last year, but that is not true. Every indicator of hate crimes is up. These haters don’t need to show up for protests because their agenda is becoming part of the mainstream. They are not going back to hiding under rocks, they are saying out loud what they used to say in private and they are saying it with few repercussions.

Those who call our attention to these things are not prophets of doom, but prophets of hope. They hope that we will wake up and do what it takes to make our broken world whole again. Standing up for justice is not political. The prophets of old were not standing for a political party, they stood up for justice for rich and poor alike. They stood up to say that every human being is precious. All of us are a part of God, each one b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of God. Similarly, our American constitution is not just for Democrats or Republicans, and not just for American citizens. It proclaims a message to the world, that every person has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

On this day of sounding the shofar let the sound wake us up to what we can do to create a more just world.

First let us vote. How is it that after every election we hear what a dismal turnout of eligible voters there has been? I would like to think that it is not true among Jews, not in our congregation, but I fear that we may not be so different from everyone else. If you are not registered, register. If you cannot get to the polls because of work or travel or other difficulties, request an absentee ballot and fill it in. If you employ people make sure that they have the flexibility to vote or help them get the absentee ballots they need.

I would love to see our congregation be a 100% voting congregation. My kids are registered where they now live, Colorado, Washington State, Pennsylvania. Their votes are very powerful, make sure your kids know how important it is to vote. In an essentially two party system sometimes we have to vote for the least worst option, but even then that vote makes a difference. There is a difference between least worst and worst. And if we vote in primaries maybe we can get to a place when we have candidates that are good and better instead of worst and least worst.

And besides your own vote, volunteer and help get other people registered and out to vote.  You can go the non-partisan route, joining League of Women Voters for example. They do not endorse candidates but they do have a goal of getting every eligible voter registered and voting. Or you can join the campaign of the candidate of your choice and help get out their voters. We are a better nation when a larger percentage of people votes. 

And third make it possible for people to vote. In America we have a right to vote. Political power has been used to gerrymander districts, to purge voting rolls, and shorten pre-voting hours for partisan ends. We should always be pushing for more voter inclusion not less.
It is important to make our vote count and to make sure we make good decisions about our votes. I have said before, a candidate who doesn’t believe in science should never receive a vote. It is not my only screen, but it is my first. You can debate about what policies we should put in place to heal the planet, but denial of science is not a policy, it is suicide. I have spoken about the environment many times over the years, but if you need a reminder: Climate change is real. It is serious and urgent and it is caused by human activity. And most importantly, we can fix it.

The shofar is calling us. The alarm sounds and we may not like it. Not many people love their alarm clock, but we cannot hit the snooze button. The brokenness will not heal itself, we need to set the bones so the fractures may knit. We need to heed the prophets. In two weeks when we celebrate Sukkot, the festival of booths, we need to make it the festival of voting booths.

We need to be passionate and insistent advocates for tolerance and enduring kindness between diverse people. To pursue justice is to create a society that protects and enlivens everyone. Let us be relentless, tireless builders of that society in our nation and the world in the year 5779.

It is a mitzvah to hear the shofar. It is a time of waking up, and it is a time to be one as a community.  Let us hear the call to act together to make our world better. We cannot wait for the election that comes after this one. Today begins ten days of heshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of our spirits. Now is the time to stand up, be counted and make a difference.

Ken y’hee ratzon.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

Rabbi Serotta on Immigration Policy. 

There is an old bumper sticker, it has probably been around since the Viet Nam War: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” I can’t tell you how many people have told me that they can’t even watch the news, on any channel, as they hear the horrifying screams of children being separated from their parents. We should feel outrage at what our government is doing in our names. Our immigration system is broken. We all know that, but with the policy of this administration it is now shattered.

It is the new policy of this administration that any migrant family entering the U.S. without official documentation will be prosecuted for this misdemeanor. The parents get incarcerated and that leaves children to be warehoused since they are not allowed to accompany their parents to prison. Parents plead guilty to the misdemeanor in the hopes of getting their children back. Their sentence is usually the few days they served waiting for trial. Getting through the bureaucracy can take more time and the children are left in custody.  Sometimes the parents are deported before getting the children and those kids are left behind in HHS “shelters” for an indeterminate amount of time. Children who have done nothing wrong are serving sentences as if they are criminals. It is an outrage.

There is a second apparently unwritten policy that even when the family presents themselves for official documentation, seeking asylum, the government is still separating children from their parents. Neither parents nor children have done anything wrong, but they must wait for an asylum hearing, not in jail, but in immigration detention which is not so different. This is a government choice, because you do not have to lock up people who have credible asylum claims. They could be beginning a productive life but the administration locks them and their children in separate facilities instead.

Imagine it was us and our families. If we come over the border without papers we lose our children.  If we come over the border asking for asylum, we still lose our children. The best answer is to not get caught which is the exact opposite of what immigration policies are meant to convey. While immigration laws need comprehensive reform, these policies are unique to this administration and they could be ended with a simple call from the president. 

Our tradition reminds us over and over to care for the stranger. The Torah teaches that we must not remain indifferent. How many times have we heard, that evil thrives when good people remain silent? This problem is not too big for us. Jewish organizations are joining with Islamic, Protestant and Catholic groups from all over the political spectrum to end these policies.

Our own Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism suggests six things we can do to help:

  1. Provide tangible support to detainees and separated families by gathering and sending toiletries and toys to the border. Send care packages to: Michael Blum Social Action Chair, Temple Emanuel, 4300 Chai Street (North C Street) McAllen, Texas 78504.
  2. Join a Families Belong Together mobilization in Washington, DC or hundreds of other cities around the U.S. on June 30, 2018.  I will be in Washington that afternoon.
  3. Bring a congregational delegation to McAllen, TX home to the United States' largest immigration detention center. To do so, reach out to Rabbi Claudio Kogan of the URJ's Temple Emanuel in McAllen, who is eager for visitors to see this border community first hand. Friends of mine, including Rabbi David Stern and Rabbi Nancy Kasten from Dallas will be there tomorrow.  Anyone want to take a trip?
  4. Send a letter demanding that President Trump, Secretary of Homeland Security Nielsen, and Attorney General Sessions end family separation now.  Send a letter to our own congressional representatives to continue to push back on these policies.
  5. Organize or join a rally outside your local Immigration and Customs Enforcement office.
  6. Register for the North American Immigrant Justice Campaign's Deportation Defense Training on July 10, 2018. For more information about how to join this campaign, please visit and download the RAC's Immigrant Justice Resource Guide.

I hope this outrage will end soon, but it is important to understand, that even if we succeed, this is just a skirmish in a larger conflict. Don’t let this administration move the goalposts. We cannot say dayenu, and be satisfied that ending these policies is enough. It is not enough until we raise our brothers and sisters and free them from the chains of oppression. Ending an outrage is a start, but real reform is the goal.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Commemoration of the 50th Yahrzeit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

On the commemoration of the 50th yahrzeit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. we marked our Founders’ Day at Lakeside Congregation.  It has been my custom to share sermons of historical importance at that “throwback” service, and I was lucky enough to find the sermon of Rabbi James Wax delivered on April 5, 1968, the night after Dr. King’s assassination.

Ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in the 1941, James A.Wax served as the rabbi of Temple Israel in Memphis, TN, in the 1960s. Rabbi Wax supported racial justice, and during this period was a member of the Memphis Committee on Community Relations which worked towards integration. Here is his sermon which I found online in the Jewish Women’s Archives:

I shall speak only briefly tonight because of the time, but I do not feel that we can have a worship service as moral and responsible people without taking cognizance of what has transpired in these last days.

I am reminded of the speech delivered by President Roosevelt when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The President said in addressing the Congress, that December 7, 1941 would live in infamy.  I think I can be rightly said tonight, that April 4, 1968 will be a day that will live in infamy.

Speaking this morning to the mayor of our city, I said to him that I spoke with mixed emotions, of sadness and anger, of deep and righteous resentment, and the view which I expressed is the view of the clergy of the city of Memphis. I know there are people in our city tonight who are not sad at what happened last night. I know there are some people in our city who might even be glad. I remember a few weeks ago at the Rotary Club when the television newscaster made his five minute report announcing that Dr. Martin Luther King was coming to Memphis there were those who sneered, and some who mocked the announcement. But I wonder who those people are, contrasted with Martin Luther King. Who is this man, Martin Luther King that the President of the United States should proclaim a national day of prayer? Whose death is mourned in the capitals of the world? Whose death is deeply regretted by responsible people, decent people, wherever they may live? Who is this man whose name was sneered and mocked by some of our so-called civic leaders? I shall answer very simply and briefly, Martin Luther King was a prophet, a prophet like Amos and Isaiah and Jeremiah, a man who walked in the footsteps of Moses, (and if I were speaking in a Christian congregation, walked in the footsteps of Jesus). What did Martin Luther King do? Martin Luther King helped to bring freedom to the oppressed people yet in this free nation. He fought to break the chains that have oppressed people. He sought to give men dignity, he sought to make this a better world in which to live.  O how the cynics sneered when they gave him the Nobel Peace Prize. They said, “What did he do to deserve it?” How little can people be! Here was a man in the tradition, the greatest tradition of Judaism and Christianity, bringing freedom to people, and we white hypocrites that speak about freedom for all people know full well that not many miles from here Negroes could not vote. In this very city, called a place of good abode, because their skin was black, they had to sit in the back of a streetcar. They were not even given the dignity of their names.

Martin Luther King was one of the greatest men of this century because he personified the greatest teachings in Judaism and Christianity, and he did it without violence. He sought to appeal to the heart and the conscience of men.

When I memorialized or tried to memorialize the late President John F. Kennedy, standing in this place, I said, “You judge a man not merely by the friends he has, but by his enemies.” Who are the enemies of Martin Luther King? Segregationists! And a segregationist is a bigot. A segregationist violates the laws of the Torah. A segregationist desecrates Judaism. These are the people who dislike Martin Luther King. These are the people that sneered when his name was mentioned at the Rotary Club. Ah, yes Martin Luther King’s skin was black, but his heart was whiter than those who would deny dignity to men because their skin was black. Yes, I speak harshly. I speak Judaism! I speak the Torah! And it is time for us to take it seriously.

Many of us have worked for a month and six weeks from early morning until late at night, from conference to conference, courier boys carrying one message to another. I just spoke with two outstanding men, national figures, and one of them said to me, “Rabbi, I remember when you said several weeks ago we were going to have trouble in Memphis.” And I wasn’t the only one. We have begged, we have cried. And I mean it literally. “Let us solve these problems and avoid death and destruction and desecration.” And tonight I hear of a plan that some people in this city are willing to make certain arrangements that take the form of charity. The black man doesn’t want any charity.  The black man wants to live with honor and dignity and respect.

Yes, Martin Luther King was a champion of social justice and a prophet of peace and that is why he is mourned by people throughout the world. He is dead. His body is now in Atlanta. But I will say this because I believe it is so, that what he stood for has not died. The decent people of this city are filled with a righteous indignation and eve if some of us die in the process, justice will be done. Martin Luther King did not die in vain.

This city shall witness a new spirit and the memory of this great prophet of our time shall be honored. There will be the bigots and the segregationists and so-called respectable but unrighteous people who will resist. But in the schema of history God’s will does prevail. Yes, I speak with anger, I speak with a broken heart. I’m not sad that it happened in Memphis. Some people said, “Isn’t it too bad it happened here?” No my friends, I love this city but this doesn’t disturb me as such. I am disturbed by the conditions of racial injustice that prevail here. I am concerned about the bigotry and prejudice in our community. This disturbs me.

Martin Luther King was one of the world’s greatest men in this time. He was detested and forsaken and spat upon in his lifetime, but his memory lives on tonight. That memory is an inspiration; that memory is an encouragement; that memory has given those of us who were weak a new resolve and a new determination that God’s will will be done. He had a young life of less than 40 years. We are deeply grateful. We are grateful for his heroism, his devotion, his commitment and we say in faith the words of Job, Adonai natan, Adonai lakach, y’hi shem Adonai m’vorach--The Lord hath given. The Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Amen.

A remarkable document! A few word choices might be different today, but the prescience to recognize that we would still remember Dr. King and what he stood for half a century later is powerful. I wish I could have heard Rabbi Wax and his heartbreak and anger, but it frankly pours off the page.

I did have the chance as a boy to hear the Coretta Scott King. Dr. King was scheduled to be the speaker at my brother’s college graduation in May of 1968. His widow spoke in his place, a month after his death. I remember hearing  her that day, hearing fear and brokenness, but also power and determination in her voice. I am sure that everyone who heard her that day left with an indelible emotion in their hearts. A sense that until the work is done, we should keep an eye on the prize, and work for a time of true equality. We have come a long way, but we are not yet there.  Let us take this moment of memory and turn it to resolve to accomplish the task for the sake of our ancestors who fought and died for freedom, and so our children might know peace.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Embracing Diversity

Rabbi Isaac Serotta

In the Torah we read that Israel left Egypt with a “mixed multitude.” It is one of many examples in the Torah to teach us that God loves diversity. Despite the idea that we are a band of brothers, all descendants of one of the 12 sons of Jacob that become 12 tribes, this phrase “mixed multitude” reminds us that we were already an ethnically and racially diverse people. We were already a mix of different customs and stories. 

There are stories, going all the way back to creation when God makes all of the creatures of the earth, which are meant to teach us that God loves diversity.  Our tradition even teaches that the first human was one and then divided into two, a text that suggests diversity even within a single species. When we get to the Tower of Babel, and the creation of a diversity of languages, we are meant to understand that God wants us to be of many cultures, languages and faiths. It is also true that God wants us to transcend those barriers, respect others and come to love our diversity and overcome our differences.

This story comes around every year but it has particular resonance right now. On an international level, as our country debates the fate of dreamers and legal immigration, the respect for difference and the love of diversity is very important. Our national motto, e pluribus unum, out of many, one—teaches us that our founders knew that strength does not come from being all alike. Strength comes from embracing all equally.

That is why when our president denigrates people who come from other countries, when he misrepresents both the vetting process that goes into the immigration lottery and family immigration, I feel the need to speak up on behalf of the “mixed multitude.” While the president focuses on Africa and Haiti today, it is worthwhile to remember that Jewish immigrants were also considered unworthy in the not so distant past.

In 1924 the Congressional Committee on Immigration received a report calling Jews “filthy,” and of “low physical and mental standards.” They were “un-American.” As a result, Congress cut immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe. In 1921 over 100,000 Jews came to America; after the bill passed in 1924 that number became 10,000. Because of these laws, when Hitler came to power, Jews were forbidden entry into the United States. Our action as a nation made us complicit in the genocide in Europe.

Our ancestors came to this country to make a better life for themselves and their families. How often have we told the stories of our own relatives who made it here, saved up money, and sponsored as many members of their families as they could? Who knows how many were saved by the industrious and righteous actions of those immigrants?

Now there are other nations in distress, and other immigrants who would come here to build a better life. We should not shun them in favor of more blondes from Denmark or fashion models from Slovenia. Instead we should see the difficult conditions in Haiti, the Middle East, and parts of Africa as a reason to let people in rather than keep them out. 

Our ancestors were considered low and yet we see what these immigrants did for our country. Every study of immigrants shows what we know in our hearts about our own families. Immigrants work hard, as the musical Hamilton reminds us, “We get the job done.” A mixed multitude was good for our ancestors leaving Egypt and it is good for us in America today.

On a more personal level, God’s love for diversity, is a part of Lakeside’s tradition in the past, present and future. We have embraced many people in our congregation from diverse backgrounds. People of many faiths are welcome in our community. We embrace gender diversity. We embrace Jews of all hues, from all streams of our tradition.

We have cooperated with most of the synagogues around us on educational, spiritual, social, and justice programs. In the Jewish community we also believe in e pluribus unum, although our tradition words it a bit differently, Kol Yisrael arevim zeh l’zeh—All of the children of Israel are responsible for one another.

As an opportunity comes along to unite two congregations, we are like those people leaving ancient Egypt. We don’t all know each other. Not yet. But we know that we are responsible for one another. We are a mixed multitude. In a sense we are tribes that recognize a common goal and believe that together we can do greater things than we can on our own.

When that mixed multitude reaches the sea, the way forward becomes clear. The midrash tells us that the sea didn’t just split, revealing a clear path. It was not until the Israelites stepped into the water, took a leap into the unknown that the road stood revealed. We are taking that step, like immigrants leaving home, like slaves testing the limits of freedom. Each step we take begins to show us the beauty of the path ahead.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Civil Rights: A Serotta Family Legacy

Rabbi Isaac Serotta

I am honored to be part of this scholar in residence weekend when we welcome Joseph Levin, co-founder of SPLC, the Southern Poverty Law Center. Lakeside Congregation has always welcomed diverse opinions, because there is always more to learn. We welcome our friends from Congregation Solel, Har Shalom and around the community. 

I am especially honored that the event committee asked me to share the story of civil rights advocacy in my family and how it shapes my life. It is always meaningful to me when I get to remember my parents, and pay tribute to what they did for me and for the world. There is a lot to tell, so I can only scratch the surface.

My mother, Dorothy Ann Levin, was born in the south. Her family moved to Miami in 1925 when she was a little girl.  Many civil war veterans and former slaves were still alive. The first sidewalk in the city went by her house, and though the city was growing rapidly it was truly a southern town. 

Anti-Semitism was common. As a teenager my mom tried to find a hotel to host the National Honor Society induction ceremony. She was rebuffed by inquiries of whether there would be any children of the “Jewish persuasion” participating. She knew that there was going to be at least one.

Beyond the explicit Anti-Semitism, there was the obvious racism. The hotel managers didn’t need to ask if there were black children in the National Honor Society. Schools were segregated, so the name of the school (my mother attended Robert E Lee Elementary School) itself meant there would be no black children involved.

My mother was the first to say that she did not as a child and teenager recognize the racism around her.  It was simply the way things were. If you saw blacks at all, they were the help, and they were supposed to remain invisible. They would step off the curb to let white pedestrians pass.

My father grew up in Saratoga Springs, New York. As a kid he and his brothers worked in my grandfather’s used furniture (some might say junk) business.  They worked alongside African Americans moving furniture. During the racing season they picked up a little extra money shoveling horse stalls with black people. He lived, not in a world of equal rights, but one that was more integrated.

My parents met and married during World War II. They spent the war on Army bases in Georgia and Florida. It was my father’s first experience of the deeply racist south, and he was appalled by it. My mother always credited him with opening her eyes. That is what it takes, sometimes. Someone to help you see what has always been there if you just knew to look .

As we grew up, the city of Miami changed. We used to joke that Florida is the only state where you have to drive north to get south. But even so, racism was endemic in Miami, where my siblings all attended schools that were 100% white, where we learned that Ulysses S. Grant was a drunk who got lucky, and where we used to get a day off from school on Robert E. Lee’s birthday. It is true that when debate was going on about whether to have a holiday in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, one Florida state senator suggested that we celebrate Dr. King and Robert E. Lee on the same day. He said, “That way everyone will have something to celebrate.”  People in Miami were a little less likely to say things like that out loud, but it was as segregated as any city in the south.

When we were kids we used to drive from Miami to New York in the summer to see family. This was before the interstate system was completed, so we used to get up at 3am to make some time and get off the Florida and Georgia surface roads as quickly as possible. Along the way we would stop at gas stations, with colored bathrooms and water fountains. As the sixties wore on the “white” and “colored” signs disappeared, but the facilities were still there and the culture didn’t change very much.

My most vivid memory of these trips is crossing the Georgia border at Valdosta.  There was a large billboard, freshly painted, of hooded men on horseback. It said, “The United Klans welcome you to Georgia.” It was terrifying. I had a similarly dark experience in the tourist mall of Underground Atlanta, where the former state governor, the racist Lester Maddox, had a store where he sold axe handles  They were souvenirs. Burned into the wood it said, “n-word beater.” Take one home for your very own!

It was intimidating and disgusting. To the present day if I am in the south I will not be at the “Dixie Diner,” or anywhere that brandishes a confederate flag. If you are still celebrating the confederacy, no matter how you may cloak it in “heritage” or “state’s rights,” you are still siding with the people who beat people instead of serving them lunch, who still turned me and my friends away from the door of a diner because one of us was wearing a Jewish star.

Once your eyes are open you can’t really choose to close them again, and that was the story for my mother.  She began to fight racism wherever she saw it. In 1960 she was among those who helped integrate the lunch counter at Burdines Department Store. She got involved in the League of Women Voters and organized voter registration drives in the African American neighborhoods of Miami. My brother considers the experience of helping people register to vote before he was of age himself to be one of the most important experiences of his life.

My mother taught all of her kids to “stand up, show up, and speak up.” She taught us to fight against poverty and injustice.In the Jim Crow south the justice system, the educational system, and the economic system kept black people down. Jim Crow has mutated but it is not gone. The same system that oppresses African Americans in the south keeps them in the neighborhoods of Chicago’s south and west side, and allows people like me, many of us, to maintain our white privilege.

Though few of us have ancestors who owned slaves, as most Jews came to America after the Civil War, we are still beneficiaries of a corrupt system. We shouldn’t forget that there are Jews in many hues; Jews by birth and by choice, from Africa, the Middle East, China and India. But if white Jews don’t recognize how they have been allowed to transform from colored to white, and don’t work to make things better, we are complicit. It is easy to tell ourselves that we love everybody and wouldn’t have a problem having African American neighbors. But we do nothing to help people move up the economic ladder. When one of our local congregations, Zion Lutheran Church, proposed building some affordable housing on their property, some of the neighbors went into a “not in my backyard,” frenzy.  People who would never ever define themselves as racist protected their white privilege with arguments about traffic and property values. I went to the plan commission to speak in favor of the church. That there was not a single person of color in the room may tell you all you need to know.

While we don’t have poll taxes or voting tests anymore, the new Jim Crow controls the electorate through criminal prosecution. In most states being convicted of a crime purges you from the voting roll. In some you can lose your vote permanently, in others you may apply to be reinstated after you serve your term plus parole and probation. Our country has more people in prison than any other. The poor and people of color are more likely to be convicted, so disenfranchisement falls disproportionately on them.

There is a reason that the Attorney General opposes legalization of Marijuana. If marijuana is legal the prison pipeline gets disrupted and more people of color will be able to vote. There may even be legal standing for those who lost their voting rights to regain them through the courts. The last thing Attorney General Sessions wants is to enfranchise minorities and the poor. That he can couch that in terms of his love for “law and order,” is a bonus.

Many Lakeside kids have had a brush with the law. They might have to do a few service hours. Then their records are expunged. Meanwhile the Cook County Jail is the largest in the country. It is full of people awaiting trial because they cannot afford bail. If they are students they flunk out, if they work, they lose their jobs for being unable to attend, all before they get their day in court. Many plead out so they can get to work and then they have a record that keeps them from voting and perpetuates the cycle of poverty and hopelessness. In a nation as evenly divided as ours, those who are not allowed to vote could be the margin between victory and defeat.

Growing up in Miami, there were times I could have been arrested. My brother did get caught. Even though he spent time in prison, I saw firsthand how white privilege and money worked. It led me to many volunteer hours in prisons. I have had the ironic experience of celebrating the seder, our festival of freedom, in a Florida prison. A lot of folks joined us to get the four glasses of wine. It is heartbreaking to hand out books from the prison library as I did in the Milwaukee stockade, and find that prisoners wanted coloring books because they couldn’t read anything more challenging. Every study shows that race and income play a decisive role in who gets convicted, who serves time, and therefore, who doesn’t get a second chance.

These issues are at the forefront of civil rights today. That’s why I marched with the NAACP on a small part of their journey from Selma to Washington D.C. As I arrived with my daughter, Vered, the first person I met had adopted the name “Middle Passage,” after the journey slave ships took from Africa to the West Indies. He and I sat together at breakfast in North Carolina, and bonded over a bowl of grits. Nothing makes me happier than good grits, and for some reason you northerners just don’t get it. Middle Passage carried the American flag every day for 800 miles. I walked beside him carrying a Torah for a small part of that walk. I got the feeling that some of my rabbinic predecessors, my heroes, like Joachin Prinz, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Maurice Eisendrath got when they walked with Dr. King.

We walked into downtown Raleigh, and I stood by Reverend William Barber, a giant of a man, and a giant in civil rights today. On the steps of the state capitol we called for equal voting rights for all Americans. It was Reverend Barber at the Democratic Convention last year who referred to Jesus as a dark-skinned Palestinian Jew. One can only wonder what kind of “extreme vetting” Jesus would get if he tried to come back today.

I recently went to Washington, DC for the day to march from the Martin Luther King Memorial to the Justice Department on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. The march was made up of ministers, priests, imams, Buddhist and Christian monks and nuns, Hindus and Sikhs and, of course, rabbis. We went to the Justice Department to demand equal rights, justice reform, and votes for all citizens. One of the ministers said, “Jesus wouldn’t be welcome in Trump’s America, [but] Trump [should worry that he] won’t be welcome in the Kingdom of Heaven.”

On that day Reverend Jim Wallis referred to racism as “America’s original sin,” and called on everyone there to preach from every pulpit that we must confront the evil of racism.  It is up to us to denounce racism throughout our society. Even pizza makers have to do it. Being colorblind is not good enough. We also need to recognize how the institutions that have been so good to white folk, are not blind to the color of our fellow citizens. It is not enough to have a black friend, or to wish we had a black friend. We have to recognize our own privilege and work to even the playing field. We don’t have to give up our own slice of the pizza, but we have to work to make the pie bigger so that everyone has an adequate slice.

Start anywhere you like. For me it has been about justice reform and voting rights and access to healthcare, but just recognizing that this is not yet the land of equal opportunity is a start. Ceilanne pointed out a sign in our neighborhood the other day, “Drive like your children lived here.” She suggested the underlying message is that we only care for our own children. What do we have to do to understand that other children are also precious? I went to Ferguson with my youngest daughter, Elisha. We walked and chanted with supporters of Black Lives Matter, “Whose kids, our kids.” They all deserve safe streets and all deserve the opportunity to learn, to work, and to vote. This is not yet the land of equal opportunity for people of color and for the immigrant and the poor, not even for women, even though they are not a minority. Until we recognize that all of them are our children, then this will never be the “more perfect union” our founders hoped we would achieve. 

That is why I have to fight my own complacency. It is easy to just care about our own family and community. Easy to say I’m too busy, it’s too far to drive, it’s outside my comfort zone. I have to stand up, show up and speak up and be an ally in the march toward justice, because that is what my parents taught me.

I’m proud of their legacy of civil rights and I hope that I am pushing the envelope a little more. I have tried to teach it to my kids, and I am proud of them. One of these days, hopefully in their generation if not yet in ours, we will reach the mountaintop and equality will go from a dream to a reality.

Ken y’hee ratzon.

Monday, November 6, 2017

In Memory of Rabbi Selig Salkowitz

News arrived over the weekend of the death of my immediate predecessor at Lakeside Congregation, Rabbi Selig Salkowitz. Selig changed the face of the modern Reform rabbinate, and though he only served our congregation for a year as an interim rabbi, he certainly changed our congregation as well.

Selig served a congregation in New Jersey for many years with great distinction. In his honor they named their Scholar-in-Residence program after him, and his funeral was held in their sanctuary this morning. Selig was also a distinguished member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, chairing an ad-hoc committee to look at the question of ordination of LGBTQ rabbis. The committee report was in favor of ordination, changing the face of the American Rabbinate.

After his retirement, Selig took on the task of serving congregations all over the country in the role of interim rabbi. It was practically unknown for congregations to take this step until Selig, and a handful of other colleagues, proved the wisdom of giving congregations an opportunity to step back, do a self-appraisal and search for a new rabbi without the pressure that finding an immediate replacement can bring. 

That is the gift that Selig gave to Lakeside Congregation. In his brief time here he made deep connections, and in a matter of months, I know that he changed people's lives  He also helped the board and rabbinic search committee define what they were looking for in a new rabbi. He did that work while also holding down the fort; teaching and preaching and leading services at Lakeside.  

It was, of course, during that year, that I interviewed to be the rabbi here. I met Selig and he became my trusted advisor. He gave me his honest and hopeful appraisal of the congregation, and of what he thought my chances of success might be. At the same time he was advising the search committee, and his wisdom was welcome in every room.

I will never forget the service where Lakeside welcomed me, and we said farewell to Selig.  With exaggerated ceremony and with good humor he took his keys out of his pocket and passed them to me.  He set the tone of scholarship, informality, caring and humor, that have been ongoing for these past 20 years. 

I got to see Selig from time to time at rabbinic meetings, and we invited him back to Lakeside on several occasions. I have run into several colleagues happy in their rabbinic positions at places where Selig served as interim rabbi before they arrived. I am not quite sure what to call Selig in my life. I don't know that I knew him well enough to call him friend.  And I didn't lean on him enough to think of him as a mentor. The best way to describe him comes from a story in the Torah. In the Book of Genesis, Jacob sends his son Joseph to find his brothers who are in the fields with their flocks.

When Joseph gets to the field his brothers are nowhere to be found. The whole biblical narrative is in danger of falling apart. If Joseph doesn't find them, he doesn't get to Egypt, he doesn't become second in command to Pharaoh, doesn't save Egypt and Israel, there is no Moses and therefore no revelation and no Judaism.

The Torah tells us that Joseph comes upon a man, who asks "What are you looking for?"  and then directs Joseph on his path. That was Rabbi Selig Salkowitz. He asked Lakeside Congregation, "What are you looking for?" and he asked the same of me. And when he realized that we were headed in the same direction he helped us find each other. Some commentators say that the man Joseph finds in the field who points him on his way was really an angel sent by God. I know how I feel about my predecessor, Rabbi Selig Salkowitz, but I'll leave you to draw your own conclusion. May the memory of Rabbi Selig Salkowitz abide among us as a blessing, and may he rest in peace.

Rabbi Isaac Serotta

Friday, September 8, 2017

Our Latest Refugee Family!

Florentine and Tchadrak are our latest addition to the refugee resettlement project and we are helping them acclimate to American life. We don’t know much about their background, here is what we do know:

 Florentine speaks French and is originally from Rwanda. Tchadrak speaks French and Swahili and is  from the Congo. They came to the United States six weeks ago with the help of the Ethiopian Community Association of Chicago. They live in a very small studio apartment in Rogers Park. Florentine was a school teacher for 8-10 year olds, Tchadrak owned a “mini market”, selling milk and groceries. They attend English classes at the Ethiopian Community Center and, this week, started working at the United Club Lounge at the airport. 

We are helping them improve their English skills, we have provided clothing and bedding for them, taken them to the grocery store and introduced them to American foods. We will help them learn computer skills using the computers at the local library branch.

They need a twin size air mattress and a set of twin size sheets.

We made it to Jerusalem!

Yesterday we had a very moving visit to the Kotel or the Western Wall.  After that we went to the Macheneh Yehuda open air market.  It was v...