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September 28, 2017 / Rabbi Laura

For this, I have nothing to atone

They say you are doing things right when you get hate mail.

Well, I must be doing something right, because I’ve received a very hateful piece of snail mail.  You know its going to be a “good one” when it starts off with

Dear Ms. Winer,

I’m sorry I cannot refer to you as “Rabbi,” but I don’t believe women can serve as rabbis. To do so is misleading.

And that is the nicest part of the letter.

This particularly hateful piece of mail was in response to my comments regarding Brooke Ashjian, the current president of the Fresno Unified Board of Education.  I suppose I could humor us all by quoting his letter in full, but here are just some of the juicier parts:

You of course, are interested in advancing LGBTQ culture, because you represent a queer version of Judaism. In fact, Reform has nothing to do with Judaism. Reform has led millions of Jews astray from G-d. Reform has caused as many casualties as Adolph Hitler. Judaism in Fresno is completely in shambles because of Reform…

Brooke Ashjian is not the evil one. Adherents to Reform are the evil ones. You are evil… You speak heretical words. You have publically misrepresented Judaism by advocating gay culture.  You give credence to the position that radical feminists are full of sick ideas…

One day Reform Judaism will be destroyed and defeated…

You get the point.

But, he clearly misses the point – several of them actually.

First point:  I do not deny Brooke Ashjian – or anyone else! – their personal beliefs.

What I do expect though, is that the leadership of the Fresno Board of Education – when serving in their capacities as leaders – uphold the values and policies of the school district.

When one sits in the School Board chambers, one is surrounded by posters that depict the goals, core beliefs and commitments of this district.  Among the other worthy and admirable statements, included are the ideas that our district is committed to ensuring the safety of all of our students and our district is a place where diversity is valued.  I expect the leadership of this district to uphold those core beliefs in word and deed when doing the work the district. Mr Ashjian has failed to hold himself to these commitments.

Second point:  I will not get into a debate about which is better or more true, Reform or Orthodox Judaism.  Each Jew choses how s/he wants to observe his/her Jewish life.  Rather than arguing about the so-called sins or heresies of different ways of being Jewish, we should be embracing the multiple points of entry into Jewish life and ways of living authentic Jewish lives. Yes, there are different ways to be authentically Jewish!  This has been true for millennia – Judaism has never been monolithic.

As I look back at the letter, the part that is most hurtful to me is this line:

Most people would be thoroughly crushed if they found out their child became a homosexual.

This man’s words tear at my heart.  I KNOW DEEP DOWN IN MY SOUL that all people are created in the image of God, and all people are created in their own uniqueness – whether that means they have blue eyes, or red hair, are short or tall, are gay or straight. Were my child – or my niece or nephew or any child that I am close with – to tell me they were gay I would say, “I LOVE YOU! I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU! YOU ARE PERFECT JUST THE WAY YOU ARE.”

On this day before Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of Atonement – the holiest day of the Jewish year – I know that with regard to the sins this man accuses me of, I have nothing for which to be ashamed or for which to atone.

September 13, 2017 / Rabbi Laura

Open Letter to Brooke Ashjian

Dear President Ashjian,

I was not able to share my full thoughts with you at tonight’s Board of Education meeting due to the fact that you cut public comments down to 1 minute per person.  So, I offer them here for you.

My name is Laura Novak Winer and I am a Jewish educator and a rabbi. My 25+ year career focuses on education of our youth and children. For the last 15 of these years I have been at the forefront of work on educating youth to develop a sense of sexual ethics and healthy, age-appropriate relationships with their peers, as well as on equipping parents and faith leaders with the tools they need to teach their children, congregants and parishioners to have these conversations with their youth through the lenses of their faith.

I believe that there is a time and a place for sexuality education in the home, in our places of worship AND in the public school. As adults committed to providing public education for all of our children we hold a collective responsibility to provide for the intellectual, social-emotional and physical growth of our children.

Tonight I am here, Mr. Ashjian to comment about your leadership as the president of this school board. Mr. Ashjian, I appreciate that you have a clean voting record. Yes, you follow the laws of this state regarding what types of education we are required to provide our children.

Yet, just as important are your words when you speak in your presidential capacity. As the president of this board, you have to represent the needs and interests of the greater Fresno Unified School District in both your deeds and with your words. You represent its mission, its values and its goals. Of course you have your own personal opinions about how, when and where sex education should take place. I do not deny you those opinions. But, when you sit behind this microphone, and when you speak in your capacity as the president of this board, you represent this district.

Your words in recent weeks have been hurtful to many in our community. As a Jew, I was personally and deeply offended by your comparison of the LGBT community and its allies to the Ottoman Turks. As a Jew, I understand your familial history. Yet your analogy is flawed! The LGBT community – like your family and mine were – are the unjustly disempowered. They were hated by the Turks and the Nazis just like our families were.  Today, the LGBT community and its allies speak out in an effort to attain rights and acceptance, rather than  deny those rights from others. As a mother, a rabbi, an educator, and a member of the Fresno community I was deeply offended by your comments to the Fresno Bee about your perceived dangers of comprehensive sexuality education.

You have spoken hateful and hurtful words, which cannot be taken back. The impossibility of undoing damage done by harmful words is underscored in a tale about a man who went through his community slandering his neighbors”

One day, feeling remorseful, he begged his rabbi for forgiveness and said he was willing to do penance. The rabbi told him to take several feather pillows, cut them open, and scatter the feathers to the winds. The man did so, but when he returned to tell the rabbi that he had fulfilled his request, he was told, “Now go and gather all the feathers.”
The man protested, “But that is impossible.”

“Of course it is. And though you may sincerely regret the evil you have done and truly desire to correct it, it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it will be to recover the feathers.”

Mr. Ashjian, as the president of this board, I urge you to consider what kind of leader you intend to be for our district. I hope that you will be one who find a way to heal the wounds that you have created for our LGBT youth and their families. I hope you will find a way to make amends to those who have been hurt, not by your voting record, but by the words you say as president.

Thank you.

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer

September 4, 2017 / Rabbi Laura

Remember the Laborers

Today, September 4, 2017 is Labor Day in the US. This day is most often celebrated with BBQ, last days of summer, picnics and swimming pools, playing on the beach.  In the Jewish calendar today is 13 Elul, 5777, the month before our Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah.

Elul is a time for reflection on themes related to the Jewish High Holy Days.  At this time each year, friend and colleague Rabbi Phyllis Sommer assists us with this reflective work by suggesting a theme for each day in the month of Elul. Today, 13 Elul = Remember.

Here in #FresnoCounty today, I am remembering the true laborers of our community: those who toil in the fields and orchards, on the ranches and the processing plants in order for the rest of us – across this great nation – to have food delivered to our markets and to put on our tables to eat in comfort.

If Fresno County were a state, it would be the POOREST state in the US.  While some government officials here in the #centralvalley earn 6 figure salaries, those who work in our fields are living at the poverty level, lucky if they can earn $15,000 a year.

As a Jew, as a person of faith, I often say a blessing before I eat a meal.  I thank God for bringing me bread, food, sustenance.  This blessing – Ha’Motzi – if one of the first blessings a young person learns to recite.  The practice of reciting a grace before meals is something many faiths share.

Yet, it is not only God who brings us this sustenance. Shouldn’t it be incumbent upon us to also remember and offer blessings upon those who labored to grow and harvest this food?  Once upon a time, most people probably did grow and harvest and prepare their own food.  That is not the case anymore – except for some of my farmer friends (you know who you are!).

So, on this Labor Day, on this 13th day of Elul, in which we engage in the act of remembering, I offer this additional prayer to the words of the traditional Jewish blessing before eating.  Perhaps we can all add these words into our daily prayers of thanks and gratitude for the food we eat.

.ברוך אתה יי אלוהינו מלך העולם המוציא לחם מין הארץ

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, ha-motzi lechem min ha’aretz.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of the universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

מישביך אבותינו ואמותינו מברך את האנשים שעובדים בסדות בפרדסים ובביתי חרושת להביא לנו את האכל הטרי  . והבריא הזאת

Mishebeirach avoteinu v’imoteinu, m’varech et ha-anashim she’ovdim b’sadot, b’pardasim, u’b’beitei-charoshet l’havi lanu et h-ochel ha’tari v’ha-bari ha’zot.

May the one who blessed our fathers and mothers bless the people who work in the fields and in the orchards and in the factories in order to bring to us this fresh and healthy food.

May 3, 2017 / Rabbi Laura

Becoming Pure

I am honored to have written this d’var Torah as part of Matan’s weekly blog series in which we find lessons linking the concept of inclusion to each and every Torah portion. You will find it cross posted there.

This year, Shabbat Acharei Mot falls on one my favorite weekends of the year, when Rick and I serve as rabbinic faculty at the Jewish Learning Works Special Needs Family Camp.

purity-is-no-longer-about-perfection

Why are we talking about Yom Kippur now?

This week’s parsha, Acharei Mot gives us the commandments related to observing the Day of Atonement.

“And this shall be to you a law for all time: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall practice self-denial; and you shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you. For on this day atonement shall be made to purify you of all your sins and you shall be pure before Adonai.” (Leviticus 16:29-30)

These verses show up between much longer passages about arcane rituals of purification and detailed prohibitions regarding sexual relations. What strange bookends for a set of instructions about how to observe our holiest day of the year. Yet, of course nothing is random in the Torah. So, there must be a reason behind placing the description of the rituals of Yom Kippur at exactly this point in the Torah.

When we look at the commonalities between the different elements of Acharei Mot, we see two intertwined themes emerge. Acharei Mot is about creating purity. Purity of space. Purity of body. Purity in relationships. In order to define what is pure, one has to also define what is not pure. So, our parsha also sets boundaries. It helps us come to understand where pure space begins and where it ends. It helps us distinguish between when the body is pure and when it is tainted – both physically and spiritually. It classifies which relationships are sacred and which are abhorrent.

What is curious about the definitions given in Acharei Mot is how they differ from those given in previous parshiot. In earlier sections of Torah, in order for a human body to be considered pure, it had to be clear of any wounds or imperfections. Similarly, in order for an animal to be worthy of sacrifice, it had to be free of any blemishes. No such restrictions or expectations are articulated in this parsha. Acharei Mot offers us a much more inclusive vision of what it means to achieve a state of purity. Purity is no longer about achieving perfection.

Rather, purity is about both the state of the body as well as a state of mind. In this parsha we see that the body, the spirit and the mind are always in flux, moving on a spectrum between opposing states of purity and impurity. Neither state is permanent. There is always a means of return to purity for all.

Yom Kippur offers that us path of return. Yom Kippur is that time when we all are expected to do that work of returning to purity, returning to God. If we look back at those verses above, Leviticus 16:29-30, and pay attention to the Hebrew, we notice an important factor in this process that is not visible in the English.

These verses are directed to the whole collective community, Israelite and non-Israelite alike. The words are grammatically in second person plural, as if to say, “you all, or y’all.”

“For on this day atonement shall be made to purify y’all of all y’all’s sins and y’all shall be pure before Adonai.”

Additionally, the Torah recognizes that the members of the community are different. The text recognizes that some are Israelite and some are not.

“…And y’all shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among y’all.”

The Torah is inclusive of the diversity of the people in the community.

Thus, Yom Kippur is that time when we work together to find purity of body, mind, spirit. Doing that work together creates space and acceptance for everyone to participate each in their own way. Each person will find themselves at a different place on the spectrum between impurity and purity. Some will have a longer path to walk to reach purity. Some may do their work of purification in a different way than others. Some may need assistance and some may help carry others along the way. Regardless, the community reaches that place of purification together.

January 28, 2017 / Rabbi Laura

Stay at it

Below is the d’var torah I offered at the annual gathering of the Association of Reform Jewish Educators (ARJE) this past week.  I have the honor of serving as the president of the ARJE, and shared this with my colleagues and fellow ARJE members on Monday, January 23, 2017.

shoe-laces

“Lace up your shoes.

Show up.

Stay at it.”

 

Not quite enough syllables for a haiku, but these nine simple words say so much. They are not my words. They are former president Barack Obama’s, from his final speech to the nation uttered just 10 or so days ago.

Lace up your shoes.

Show up.

Stay at it.

These nine words exemplify three important aspects of what it takes to be a leader.

Leadership is about preparation. We “lace up our shoes.” We get ready to do the work, building the skills, putting the tools and resources we need in place that will enable us to do what needs be done.

Leadership is about showing up. It’s about being present. We have to be at the table, in the conversation, on the march, letting our voices be heard.

Leadership is about having the confidence to keep at it. The work can be hard. But we cannot give up. We have to “stay at it.”

In our parsha this week, we see Moses challenged by the third of these basic principles. God comes to Moses and says to him, for the second time, “ Go and tell Pharaoh, king of Egypt to let the Israelites depart from his land.” And Moses replies, “The Israelites would not listen to me; now then should Pharaoh heed me, me – who gets tongue-tied!” (Exodus 6:12)

This isn’t the first time we hear Moses’ doubts about his own abilities to lead the Israelites. It is at the burning bush that Moses first claims his deficiencies for leadership, saying that he was “heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue,” which many of interpreted as meaning he had a speech impediment. Is he saying the same thing here?

Some commentators suggest in this moment Moses is speaking more about his capacity for leadership than his self-perceived physical challenges around it. Is he worthy of transmitting the divine word? Does he have the ability, the power, the confidence?

Well, let’s see. Is he prepared to be a leader? Has he “laced up his shoes?” In this instance, we might consider that actually his act of removing his shoes at the burning bush, his encounter with Ehyeh asher ehyeh was a moment of preparation – perhaps the ultimate moment of preparation – to do the job he was called to do. After removing his shoes, he had to put them back on, and with God’s blessing, leave that sacred space and sacred moment to begin the journey of bringing his people to liberation.

Did Moses show up? Yes, he did. He showed up for his people when he witnessed the Egyptian taskmaster beating the slave. He showed up for his people when God called to him from the burning bush and Moses responded, “Hineini – here I am.” And he showed up when he first gathered the elders of the Israelite community together to organize them and prepare for the action of escaping from Egypt.

So, why this moment of doubt? Why, when defeated by his first appearance before Pharaoh does Moses lose his confidence? Perhaps he didn’t think he could make a difference.

I’m sure we have all be there, like Moses feeling as if our small contributions wouldn’t make a difference.

Yet, do you really believe that? I don’t.

An African parable tells the story of the hummingbird who discovers a forest fire. She flies to the lake, scoops up a few drops of water into her tiny beak, carries that water back to the forest and drops that water onto a burning tree. Back and forth she goes, making little impact on the raging fire. Soon the other animals start laughing at her. The elephant says to her, “little hummingbird, do you really think you are going to be able to put out that fire all by yourself?” Her response, similar to our own Rabbi Tarfon’s, was: while I may not get the fire out, it is my duty to at least try.” Hearing her brave response, the other animals join in the effort, and together they put the forest fire out.

Alternatively, perhaps Moses didn’t believe in himself and his ability to succeed? This was a watershed moment – he was reaching the point of no turning back – and chickening out?

I’m sure we’ve each felt that too. We’ve thought, its just too hard to make this change really happen. The finish line is too far away, so I’m just not going to try.

I don’t know about you, but I cannot live without that hope and vision for the future. Do we really want to give up and just stay “stuck in our Egypts.” That’s not how we roll, as Jews. Otherwise, why would we say each year at the end of our seders, “Next year in Jerusalem.” – next year in a place that is ear-shalem, a place of wholeness.

Moses had his moments of doubt, just like we all do. Taking on the role of leadership is hard and sometimes scary work. Yet, in the end, Moses does succeed. He brings us out of slavery and into the Promised Land. That isn’t to say he is perfect. We know he wasn’t. Yes, he lost his patience at times. Yes, the Israelites complained to him and about him. Even his closest advisors – his brother and sister – complain. But, he keeps at it. He had to find is confidence and believe in his ability to make the change God and he dreamt of.

potus

 

Former President Obama’s final words to the nation on that night in Chicago were, “I’m asking you to believe in your ability to bring about change.” This is what it means to “stay at it.” Believe in yourself.

As we begin these 3 days together, learning about and exploring our roles as Jewish educational leaders, I pray that we can find comfort and inspiration from our teacher Moses. He had doubts. He had fears. The road ahead was going to be long and hard. Yet he kept at it and didn’t give up. And I pray that we can be emboldened by the words of President Obama. Believe. We must believe in our abilities to bring about the changes we seek, so that we can each reach our Promised Land.

May we all:

Lace up our shoes.

Show up.

And stay at it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

October 17, 2016 / Rabbi Laura

A blessing for voting

 vote

Are we commanded to vote?

As a regular respondent in Moment Magazine‘s Ask the Rabbi column, when asked, I responded that yes indeed, it is a mitzvah – an obligation – to vote. While not commanded in Torah,

…voting is so important that one should sell one’s tefillin (phylacteries) —a symbol of one’s commitment to observing the mitzvot (commandments) —in order to do so. I would suggest that for us, today, voting is more than a right or a privilege. It is an obligation incumbent upon us as equal citizens in a democratic society.

During this election season I have been working hard to get out the vote, making phone calls to registered voters, encouraging them to exercise their right to vote. I receive a plethora of responses to my calls. Among the most distressing are those from people who tell me they do not plan to vote.  “Regardless of who you select, you must vote. It is your right, your obligation as a citizen of this country.  If we really believe in democracy, it is incumbent upon each of us to let our voices be heard.  We do that through our electoral process.  Vote!”

The most pride-filled moments of these calls are when I speak with a young adult, an 18-19 year old, for whom I know this will be their first time voting in a presidential election.  I ask, “are you excited about this opportunity to help select our next president?”  I encourage them to take that responsibility seriously. I want to say, “Mazel tov!”

My instinctual “Mazel tov” response triggered something for me: I, as a voter, view this civic obligation also as a sacred act.  It is worthy of a “congratulations!”  In the same vein, perhaps it is worthy of a blessing as well.

Others have written kavannot (meditations) to be read before voting.  Rabbi David Seidenberg wrote a Voting Prayer, and Michael Lerner has written a meditation before going to vote.  Yet, neither of these are constructed as blessings in accordance with Jewish tradition, which should start with these words:

…ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם

Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu, melekh ha-olam…

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe…

Our Jewish tradition helps us mark many sacred acts with blessings. We say blessings for both ritual experiences as well as for day-to-day occurrences which are worthy of being elevated to and set in a sacred frame, such as seeing a rainbow, eating a first fruit of the harvest, or meeting a wise scholar.  Why not a blessing for voting?

So, I offer up this blessing:

ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם שמצפה מאיתנו לעסוק בעבודת אזרחות המדינה

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam,

she–me׳tzapeh me’itanu l’asok b’avodat ezrachut ha’medina.

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe,

who expects us to engage as citizens in our country.

When you step into the voting booth – or before you seal the envelope on that vote-by-mail ballot – consider sanctifying the moment.  We are blessed to live in a time and a place in which we as Jews can freely vote. Treat that obligation with the reverence such an act deserves – with a blessing.

Not yet registered to vote? You may still be able to do so!

October 14, 2016 / Rabbi Laura

Doing our Sacred Work Together

This blog has been cross posted on the Union for Reform Judaism’s Inside Leadership blog.

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Education.

Engagement.

What is “it?” What does “it” look like when we do “it” successfully?

Where do they intersect? Where do they diverge?

These questions are being asked in many circles: in the halls of Jewish academia, like HUC-JIR, Brandeis University and JTS; in the synagogue staff meetings, between directors of education, religious school principals, directors of youth engagement, youth group advisors, rabbis and cantors; in camp visioning and planning conversations; in central agencies such as the Jewish Education Project’s recent research and recommendations in Generation Now.

Without even knowing the answers, one thing Jewish educators of all varieties have come to understand is that we need to work collectively in both asking and answering these and many other related questions. Some Jewish education settings have already successfully eliminated those silos, creating holistic visions and structures for doing the work of education and engagement. No longer can we function in detached and erroneously separated silos of “youth engagement” and “Jewish education”, or “informal” and “formal.”

The recent merger of ARJE and RYPA is one way that Jewish educational leaders in the Reform Movement have taken action to create a more collaborative approach to our work. This merger brings together all Reform Jewish professionals who engage and educate youth in synagogues, camps, and other Jewish organizations. As one organization, the Jewish educational leaders of the Reform Movement are able to:

  • Serve as a collective voice for the Reform Jewish education, in all its varieties of settings
  • Authenticate in one professional association the close relationships that exist on the ground in our day-to-day work settings
  • Provide common support and advocacy for professionals who may have diverse portfolios yet collectively embrace the ARJE mission to advance the profession of the Jewish educator and inspire excellence in Jewish education
  • Create space for a diversity of professionals to network, explore curiosities, ideas, varied practices and approaches together through our rich professional learning opportunities

The grammars of “education” and “engagement” are distinctive. As a more diverse community, we, the members of the ARJE, are committed to learning from and with each other. We are committed to developing an understanding of each other’s vocabulary, each other’s practice, as well as each other’s successes and challenges.

In spite of these differences, what is most important is that our core values are aligned. We share a commitment to excellence in Jewish education, Jewish learning, and Jewish engagement. We share a vision of the future in which our communities are vibrantly living and learning Jewishly. We know we are stronger when we do this sacred work together.

How is your community is addressing these questions about engagement and education? What have you done to break down the silos that may exist? What have been your challenges and where have you been successful?