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February 3, 2022 / Rabbi Laura

Great Books, in honor of Black History Month

Over the last couple years I have been on a deep journey of inner exploration, learning, and reflection about race, power, and privilege. In an effort to live as an anti-racist, to work toward the end of hate, discrimination and racism in my community, our country and the world, one part of my personal work has involved reading books by Black authors, about the Black experience, and about the dynamics of racism in America.

I embarked on this practice as a Jew living in America. I know that I “pass” as White in many spaces. Yet, at the same time, I consider myself to be “conditionally White,” for once my Jewish identity is revealed, the dynamics often change. I have experienced marginalization, other-ing, and hate. And, at the same time, I know I have power and privilege that my friends of color do not.

I have learned so much about my own implicit biases, which seem to have become imbedded in my psyche through societal osmosis, because I surely didn’t receive them from my family, and which I continue to battle with every day. I have learned about moments in American history which tragically I was not taught about as a child, even in the progressive and diverse public schools I attended in Los Angeles.

In honor of Black History Month, I invite you to take on a similar personal journey toward being anti-racist. For, in order for us to truly bring about change, in order to be true allies to our Black siblings-in-humanity and neighbors, we must first engage in our own learning about Black history and the experience of being Black in America, about power and privilege. In doing so, we come closer to understanding, to empathizing, and hopefully toward doing the much needed work of allyship, advocacy and activism.

In observance of Black History Month, I invite you to read one of the following:

  • An American Marriage: A Novel by Tayari Jones
  • Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons For Our Own by Eddie S. Glaude Jr.
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Black Power, Jewish Politics by Marc Dollinger
  • Caste by Isabel Wilkerson
  • Deacon King Kong by James McBride
  • Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
  • Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women that a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall
  • How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
  • The Cooking Gene by Michael Twitty
  • The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalilah Harris
  • The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict and Victoria Christopher Murphy
  • The Underground Railroad: A Novel by Colson Whitehead
  • The Vanishing Half: A Novel by Britt Bennett
  • The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
  • White Fragility by Robin Diangelo
  • You Are Your Best Thing by Tarana Burke & Brené Brown (eds)

July 23, 2021 / Rabbi Laura

The long slow work of housing justice

In recent months I’ve been part of a small yet dedicated group of housing justice advocates (warriors, really!) who are tirelessly working to create greater housing stability, ensure legal rights, and prevent evictions for Fresno and Central Valley residents.

Coordinated by Faith in the Valley and Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, our diverse group has been in conversation with local government leaders about the need for concrete, long term, homelessness prevention programs that will provide income-eligible tenants, who are sued for eviction in housing court, regardless of tenancy or type of eviction, a right to an attorney to defend their case, and will provide city-wide education for both tenants and landlords about their rights and responsibilities.

We have spent hot weekend mornings out canvassing neighborhoods to hear stories and giving witness to the struggles our fellow Fresnans have been experiencing, all so that we can advocate for them in the offices and chambers of City Hall. Members of the team have done extensive research on the eviction rates in the Central Valley. That research process revealed that in Fresno alone, “the annual number of evictions in Fresno is always above 2,000 and likely reaches as high as 4,000+ every year due to the number of informal evictions that are not documented in court filings” and that only “1% of tenants had legal representation compared to 73% of landlords (Evicted in Fresno, January 2020).” We currently estimate that over 28,000 rental households in Fresno are vulnerable to eviction.

While conversations about funding and implementing a Eviction Protection Program in Fresno are still ongoing (it was funded for this year’s budget, but not to the extent needed), the State of California has provided a glimmer of hope for those living on the edge of homelessness, with the passage of AB832 that provides eligible tenants and landlords rent and utilities relief in the amount of 100% of arrears accrued due to the COVID-19 pandemic from April 1, 2020 – September 30, 2021.

#housingjustice has been on my mind.

I am so grateful for the roof over my head, that we were able to purchase our home, and we are able to pay our mortgage each month.

In our home we do not live in fear of eviction, of landlords who retaliate against tenants who request-and-then-demand repairs to code violations. We do not have to struggle through advocating for ourselves in eviction court, without any legal representation – because none was offered to me, or because I don’t know how I would pay for it, or because I don’t even know that it is my right to have said representation. But, that is not the case for so many of my neighbors.

So, when Jim Grant, retired Director of Social Justice Ministry for the Diocese of Fresno, invited me to join him for a conversation on his podcast and YouTube show, Looking at Social Justice, it was clear that this is what we needed to discuss.

If you are a Central Valley resident that has been unable to pay your rent or utilities due to loss of income from the COVID-19 pandemic, you can look into applying for AB832 funds by going to #HousingisKey.

You can also learn more about AB832 and the local organizing work Faith in the Valley is doing by joining an informational workshop on Wednesday, July 28 at 6:00-7:00 PM pacific. Workshop registration:

July 10, 2021 / Rabbi Laura

Fort Bragg to Willits Road (Hwy 20)

Fort Bragg to Willits Road

The moon played hide and seek with me

as my love navigated the twists and curves bringing us eastward

and the voices of JT, Broza, Freddie and Billy shuffled through the playlist

and Dan popped in singing Or Zarua Latzadik.

She peeked out from among the rolling golden hills, thirsty and parched from the late June heat,

first on my left, then on my right.

Between the majestic oaks and the towering coastal redwoods

her dim light growing ever brighter

as the sky transformed from crystal clear blue to sapphire

and her friend the sun bid adieu behind my back

through the coastline fog.

Her white orb missing just the slightest touch of curvature

as if someone had licked part of her away.

A serene and quiet awe-filled end to a beautiful day with my beloved.

A day of laughter

accompanied by stolen kisses in amongst the redwoods.

January 1, 2021 / Rabbi Laura

What I read in 2020

There’s got to be some irony that in 2020 I read 45 books. Yes, 45. And the bulk of those books – probably 40 of them – I read between March 15th and December 30th, as a way to occupy my mind and body during the pandemic and our stay at home orders.

As I review the list of books, I am reminded of what 2020 offered me. First, even before the pandemic I needed to up my game in online learning so I spent part of the winter getting my feet wet with that. Was that prescient? Then come the summer and knowing that I would be teaching online all year, I spent several weeks reading and thinking about how to craft educative online learning spaces and experiences. Only two books are listed here, but they were accompanied by many blog posts and journal articles as well.

Escape. I devoured many of these reads via audiobook borrowed from my library via the Libby app. Through the spring and summer I found myself walking in my neighborhood, exploring streets I’d not seen before, walking our newly adopted dog Bella, and listening to a compelling, funny, or touching story. The need to walk enabled me the opportunity to escape the fear, loneliness, and stress of reality and reenter that fictional world. And the draw to the imaginary pulled Bella and me out the door each day.

Doing the work of understanding systemic racism. I have been speaking and writing and allying against racism for as long as I can remember. Yet, like many of us, after the murder of George Floyd, I felt that I was failing, falling far too short in understanding what it means to truly be and act as an anti-racist (Thank you Dr. Kendi for that language). So, I took upon myself the task of delving deep into the literature. This is hard internal work. I have noticed some of my own racist tendencies to which I have been socialized, whether I like it or not. I am not done doing this work. You will notice in my list of books that there are quite a few by black authors, and about the experience of being black in America. I have several books still to read. I will write more about this soon.

I am grateful to my loving, tough, smart, and curious book group who selected some of these books you find on my list. The conversations we had together were challenging and heart-warming, mixed with empathy and laughter. I pray for the time when we can greet each other with hugs and sit together in one of our living rooms with glasses of wine and plates of homemade treats exchanging ideas and stories.

Last April I made a trip to my office at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles to grab books I needed for work and books that had been sitting on my shelf waiting their turn to be read. Some of those books are here in my home office still waiting their turn. I promise, in 2021, I will get to you!

My 2020 Reading List:

  1. Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love by Dani Shapiro
  2. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
  3. The Color of Love: The Story of a Mixed-Race Jewish Girl by Marra B. Gad
  4. Going Online with Protocols: New Tools for Teaching and Learning by Joseph McDonald, et al
  5. Beloved by Toni Morrison
  6. An American Marriage: A Novel by Tayari Jones
  7. The Girl Who Lived Twice by David Lagercrantz
  8. Calypso by David Sedaris
  9. The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes
  10. Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
  11. The President is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson
  12. The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
  13. On Division by Goldie Goldbloom
  14. Engaging the Online Learner: Activities and Resources for Creative Instruction by Rita-Marie Conrad and J. Ana Donaldson
  15. Anything is Possible, Elizabeth Strout
  16. The Girl You Left Behind, Jojo Moyes
  17. The Dutch House, Ann Patchett
  18. The Beekeeper of Aleppo, Christy Lefteri
  19. There There by Tommy Orange
  20. Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu in 1918 and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinney
  21. After You by Jojo Moyes
  22. The Library Book by Susan Orlean
  23. The Coffee Trader by David Liss
  24. This is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel
  25. Untamed by Glennon Doyle
  26. The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why it Matters by Priya Parker
  27. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
  28. Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore (1st in series)
  29. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury
  30. You Suck by Christopher Moore (2nd in series)
  31. Bite Me by Christopher Moore (3rd in series)
  32. A Woman is No Man by Etaf Rum
  33. Open Your Hand: Teaching as a Jew, Teaching as an American by Ilana M. Blumberg
  34. How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
  35. Still Me by Jojo Moyes
  36. A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende
  37. Caste by Isabel Wilkerson
  38. Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women that a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall
  39. American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
  40. The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  41. Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks
  42. The Tattooist of Auschwitz  by Heather Morris
  43. Hebrew Infusion: Language and Community at American Jewish Summer Camps by Sarah Bunin Benor, Jonathan Krasner and Sharon Avni
  44. Leveling the Playing Field: Advancing Women in Jewish Organizational Life by Shifra Bronznick, Didi Goldenhar and Marty Linsky
  45. Humility is the New Smart by Edward D. Hess and Katherine Ludwig

January 19, 2020 / Rabbi Laura

Voting is a mitzvah – say a blessing!

Say a blessing.


Help protect the voting rights of others.

The 2020 election season is well under way and folks around the country will be gathering to caucus or heading to the polls very soon.  Voting is a sacred act.  As is customary in Jewish practice, we often sanctify such acts by saying a blessing.

Several years ago I wrote a blessing for Jews to recite as they gather to caucus, as they step into the voting booth, or before they seal the envelope on their vote-by-mail ballot.

In 2018 I turned that blessing into a Blessing Card that I sold for a nominal fee. I sold over 150 cards, 100% the proceeds went to support non-partisan voting rights organizations and voter registration campaigns. 

A blessing for voting

With the 2020 elections carrying weighty implications for our country, our democracy, our families, and our communities, I hope that you will once again exercise your right to vote, say a blessing while doing so, and perhaps even help protect the voting rights of others while doing so.

Please consider purchasing one or more cards for your family and friends, for those who may be voting for the first time or for the 50th time, for your congregants, students, and colleagues.

Each card is printed on 3.5 x 2 inch premium business card stock. Cards may be purchased one-at-a-time, at $1.00 each or in packets of 10, for $8.00.

All proceeds will go to help support non-partisan

voting rights advocacy and voter registration organizations.

25 Blessing Cards for $20.00


10 Blessing Cards for $8.00


1 Blessing Card for $1.00



January 3, 2020 / Rabbi Laura

2019 in Books

I love to read, always have. I have vivid memories of enthusiastically participating in  elementary school read-a-thons in support of the Multiple Sclerosis Society.  Remember this guy?

MS Read-A-Thon (PSA, 1981) - YouTube

In recent years, between a career, raising children, volunteer work, and then my ambitious pursuit of a doctoral degree I wasn’t always able to find the time or energy to read as much as I would have liked, or read what I wanted to read.

2019 was the year I found my time to read again!  Having completed my doctoral work in April, I had more brain space and leisure time to read. Nowadays I find myself sometimes reading three books at a time:  One to listen to during the many hours a week I spend in my car; I am a devoted Audible subscriber. I try to read a professional book during my workouts at the gym. I find the combination of the two mutually reinforces and strengthens my discipline to take care of my body and my mind.  Finally, there is the book that sits by my bedside for nighttime reading.  I am also grateful for my wonderful book group, women of varying ages and experiences who come together to expand our knowledge of the world and of ourselves.  Those Thursday nights are often my favorite of the month!

So, like some of my other friends and heroes who read and share their lists at the end of the year, here is my list of reads from 2019.

  1. Born A Crime by Trevor Noah
  2. Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
  3. Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor by Yossi Klein HaLevi
  4. Sapeins: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
  5. The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish
  6. After Anatevka by Alexandra Silber
  7. Circe by Madeline Miller
  8. The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye by David Lagercrantz
  9. The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore
  10. White Fragility by Robin Diangelo
  11. Creativity, Inc by Ed Catmull
  12. The Expats by Cris Pavone
  13. One is Not a Lonely Number by Evelyn Krieger
  14. Rabbi Akiba by Barry Holtz
  15. Witness: Lessons fro Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger
  16. Refugee by Alan Gratz
  17. Portraits of Jewish Learning ed. by Diane Tickton Schuster
  18. Brave not Perfect by Reshma Saujani
  19. Starting Strong by Lois J. Zachary and Lory A. Fischler
  20. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
  21. The Inspired Teacher: How to Know One, Grow One or Be One by Carol Frederick Steele
  22. A Full Measure of Happiness by Kenneth Golde
  23. Temple Mount by Keith Raffel
  24. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
  25. Daring to Lead by Brene Brown
  26. Inside the Box: A Proven System of Creativity for Breakthrough Results by Drew Boyd & Jacob Goldenberg
  27. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
  28. Immigrant City by David Bezmozgies
  29. The Dreamt Land by Mark Arax
  30. Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much To Do (and More Life to Live) by Eve Rodsky
  31. Going Online with Protocols: New Tools for Teaching and Learning by Joseph P. McDonald, Janet Mannheimer Zydney, Alan Dichter
  32. Written in My Own Heart’s Blood by Diana Gabaldon
  33. The Underground Railroad: A Novel by Colson Whitehead
  34. Here All Along: Finding Meaning, Spirituality, and a Deeper Connection to Life–in Judaism (After Finally Choosing to Look There) by Sara Hurwitz
I am hoping that 2020 will afford me even more time to read and my list will be even longer next year.  I already have a long list of titles awaiting.
January 25, 2019 / Rabbi Laura

Farmworker Appreciation Day

Today, in the Central Valley in California, we mark Farmworker Appreciation Day.

Image result for farmworkers and laborers crop

Well, in my mind, every day should be farmworker appreciation day. While we may buy our produce, meat and dairy, our grains and nuts from large box stores or chain supermarkets, or hopefully from local farmers’ markets – it is the farm laborers who work hard to help us bring that food to our tables.

So today, as you gather around your Shabbat dinner tables, you may consider adding an additional blessing to the others your recite. Or, 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.

October 3, 2018 / Rabbi Laura

Buy a Vote Blessing Card

Say a blessing.

Help protect the voting rights of others.

Two years ago, I wrote about how I approach voting as a sacred act. I was motivated to write a blessing for Jews to recite as they step into the voting booth or before they seal the envelope on their vote-by-mail ballot.

A blessing for voting

Blessing Card (front)

A blessing for voting copy

Blessing Card (back)


This year, I find myself in the same head-and-heart space, considering the implications of these 2018 mid-term elections will have on our country, our democracy, our families, and our communities. So, I’ve brought back the Blessing for Your Vote.

As a small contribution to the many “get out the vote” campaigns taking place, I have created and produced a limited number of Blessing Cards that are available for purchase.  All proceeds will go to help support non-partisan voting rights advocacy and voter registration organizations.

Please consider purchasing one or more cards for your family and friends, for those who may be voting for the first time or for the 50th time, for your congregants, students, and colleagues.

Each card is printed on 3.5 x 2 inch premium business card stock. Cards may be purchased one-at-a-time, at $1.00 each or in packets of 10, for $8.00.

1 Blessing Card for $1.00



10 Blessing Cards for $8.00



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