When You Come Here, You Are a Child of God
Updated: Oct 2
Yom Kippur, 5784
Last spring as our guests, Micah Lapidus, and Melvin Miles were with us from Atlanta, they sang a song called “I am.” As they did, Cantor Cooperman and I looked at each other with a knowing glance. Then, as some of you came up to us and said, “that needs to be a high holiday anthem,” our thoughts were validated.
Knowing what’s coming, I want to begin with a little experiment. I invite you to close your eyes (if that might be triggering, keep them open). I want you to bring to mind a Jewish family. What do you see? Who is there? What color is their skin? Do they have children or not?
How many of you saw two adults? How many of you saw children with those adults? How many of you saw a man and a woman? For how many of you was the family white? How many of you saw the family members as able-bodied? How many of you saw the family members as neurotypical?
We live with a reality in our world, especially in this little corner of our planet where we see Jewish families through a particular lens. If the Jewish family you saw included a white man, a white woman, and white able bodied children, as you can see, you’re not alone. This thinking actually has a name. It is called Ashkenormative (if you don’t believe me, there’s a Wikipedia page). Ashkenormative thinking refers to the assumption that in Jewish communities, Ashkenazi culture is the default. It is a form of Eurocentrism that confers privilege on Ashkenazi Jews relative to Jews of Sephardi, Mizrahi, and other non-Ashkenazi backgrounds. It assumes that all Jews are the descendants of Tevye and Golda instead of having come from medieval Spain, north Africa, or the Levant. It assumes that our foods are one of the big K’s -knishes, kugel, or Kreplach instead of Kubbe, Couscous or Krembo. It’s a mindset that imagines our humor coming out of the borscht belt and not North Africa and sees our families as having come through Ellis Island and not Newark Airport.The truth is, conservatively, 20% of Jews in the United States are Jews of Color but because of our own internal biases or white supremast biases, we fail to notice the multiplicity of skin tones and cultural diversity that surrounds us, to our detriment.
“Ashkenormative thinking and ignorance based racism in our communities hurts the entire Jewish community,” says Ilana Kaufman, who is black, Jewish and directs the Jews of Color initiative. Ignorance based racism and racial microaggressions in the Jewish community cleaves Jews of color from the Jewish community. Often, those Jews leave and do not come back. It could be a synagogue security guard stopping a black Jew on his way to minyan while not stopping his white friends or a Chinese Jewish child of this congregation not being accepted by his Jewish classmates at Northwestern because as he told me, “they didn’t think I looked Jewish.” It's a practical and economic issue as well. Given that 1 in 5 Jews in North America are Jews of color, if you heard that your business was somehow pushing away 20% of your clientele, how would you respond?
Beyond challenging this viewpoint where we might do teshuvah for not recognizing the multi-racial patchwork of who is in our midst, I want to challenge the viewpoint of what a Jewish family looks like in general. I want to challenge this on this day, because the words of our Torah ring in my ears, “Atem Netzavim Kulchem - You stand here this day, all of you.” In Parashat Netzavim, everyone was included - men, women, children, even the stranger in the camp. It included every socio-economic group, from tribal leaders to wood choppers and water drawers.
If the Torah were being written today, who would this tapestry include? I imagine it would include Jews of color, Jews by birth, Jews by choice, those who are Jewish adjacent,
those who love Jews and those who are just Jew-ish. It would include LGBTQ+ Jews, divorced Jews, Jews, who, by choice or circumstance never married nor had children, Jews who are married and, by choice or circumstance do not have children, disabled Jews, non-neuro typical Jews and, I am sure, many others as well.
When we continue to hold an Ashkenormative, white, cis-gendered, partnered, child centric view, we reinforce our biases, we act with exclusivity and honestly, we violate a basic principle of Judaism, that everyone is equal in the eyes of God. Al chet shechatanu, for the sin we have committed by holding to a narrow view of who or what a Jew is. Al Chet Shechatanu, for the sin we have committed that, through our myopia, we have unwittingly excluded members of our community.
A story: The year is 1979. I am in sixth grade attending a Jewish day school in Vancouver. It is a Thursday morning. Many of my classmates are sharing when their b’nei mitzvah will be at the Conservative shul directly across the street. I sit silently. I don’t have a date to share. My parents are divorced. My mom didn’t belong. It was a lot of money and, as a single divorced woman, she didn’t feel comfortable going to synagogue alone. In those days we bounced around; from Chabad to the Jewish renewal synagogue (which I referred to as the hippy dippy shul) or to Saskatoon to be with my grandparents. My dad belonged but if he received a letter inviting him to the b’nai mitzvah date meeting, it didn’t register. Whatever the case, I was not represented. When I told my mom about it, I insisted that she join the Conservative synagogue. Being the only child of divorced parents in my class, I wanted to feel “normal.” She joined the synagogue. I had a meaningful and memorable b’mitzvah experience and ended up with a decent story. And it did something else for me. Ever since this time, my heart has held a special place for children of single parents and for the single parents themselves. I imagine how hard it is. I watched my mom do it solo. And in a Jewish community that still prioritizes two adult households, I am deeply sensitive to the feelings single parents might feel.
And just as there are households with one adult, with or without children, there are other households with two adults and no children. I asked a friend of mine who fits this description what it's like. Like so many things in life, he said, it’s a mixed blessing. In some ways it is liberating, to be able to be on the margins of the community, observing as an “inside outsider,” or an “outside insider.” In other ways it is a burden, emotionally and spiritually. If you are here and do not have children, either by choice or by circumstance, I apologize if, in my own prejudice, I have inadvertently excluded you. Al chet Shechatanu, for the sin we have committed by holding to a narrow view of what a Jewish household looks like. You belong here. You are noticed. You are needed.
Another story: Do you know that we have a Pryede flag in front of our building? It is not a political statement. Nevertheless, a few people have objected to it on political grounds. It is true, LGBTQ+ rights have become politicized. There are now 496 anti lgbtq bills before various legislatures across the United States. In late August, the government of Canada warned L.G.B.T.Q. travelers that they may be affected by recently enacted state laws that restrict transgender and gay people. I find it unbelievable that in 2023, when we know that sexual orientation is not a choice, that we are in this place. I find it unconscionable there are still groups in our nation who promote conversion therapy, who advocate for pulling books about human sexuality off the shelves, and who object to schools creating safe spaces for LGBTQ students. So if it’s not political, why do we have this flag?
It is there because, as a religious community, we are always looking to safeguard the physical, spiritual and mental well being of all who come under our umbrella. Judaism has always been about being a voice for the voiceless and powerless. This is why we have flags and bathrooms and inclusive language. It is why we hold an annual pride Shabbat. It is why this fall, Rev. Kate Malin of Christ’s Church and I are co-teaching a course called, “Genesis and Gender.” We also know that creating safe spaces matters. It is estimated that an LGBTQ teen attempts suicide every 45 seconds. These kinds of initiatives help save lives. That’s why the flag is there.
It’s also personal. One of my children is transgender. I want her to know just as I want all of our children to know that when they come here, they are noticed for who they are, they are included and they belong.
When I told Shai how I responded to some of the questions about the pride flags, she cried. When I asked her why she was crying, she said, “Dad, you have no idea how much it matters to me to know that you support me so much. I have so many friends in the trans community who do not feel this sense of love and support from their parents. It makes them feel incredibly alone and alienated. Your support gives me the strength and courage that I need as I go through this very difficult transition.”
Now some of you might be thinking, “There he goes again, spouting liberal talking points from the bima and making me feel uncomfortable because my views are not represented.” But I want you to know and I want to state clearly and unequivocally that while these issues are currently political ones, my intent is not to politicize them nor to make anyone feel uncomfortable. My intent is to raise up the teachings of our tradition, teachings that influence me and my thinking, teachings that, at their core, state that each person is made b’tzelem elohim, in the image of the Mystery we call God and therefore worthy of being treated as such. And where did I learn this? From Yitz Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi!
Rabbi Irving Greenberg is probably one of the most important rabbis and thinkers today. Still going strong at 90, all of our Jewish lives have been influenced by him. Did you or your children go on Birthright? He conceived of and created it. Have you visited the Holocaust museum in Washington? Along with Elie Weisel, he drew up the blueprint for it. Soviet Jewry? Rabbi Greenberg was one of the activist founders of that struggle. Have you ever heard or used the terms Tikun Olam or B’tzelem Elohim? Rabbi Greenberg’s writings and teachings placed them into the Jewish lexicon.
Yitz views the climax of the entire Torah coming at its beginning, when it is expressed that we are created in God’s image. Based on the Talmud’s understanding of what it means to be created in God’s image given that God has no image, Rabbi Greenberg teaches that it means that every human being is born with three fundamental dignities: infinite value, equality, and uniqueness.
Infinite value means that your life is worth more than any amount of money in the world. That it is worth spending an unlimited amount of money to keep you alive or to save you and that no person should lack the fundamentals of living because of lack of money.
Equality means that, whatever your gender, whatever your skin color, whatever your sexual orientation, whatever your religion, we are all equal, and there is no preferred superior image of God.
And uniqueness simply means that each of us is unique, that not even identical twins are identical. There will never be a person like you again, and that what you have to say has to be heard and listened to in a distinctive way.
Rabbi Greenberg points to a Talmudic argument between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ben Azzai. Akiva says, “Love your neighbor as yourself is the core principle of the Torah.” Rabbi Ben Azzai says, “Nope. Being made in the Image of God is the core principle.”
Rabbi Greenberg suggests that the two Talmudic rabbis do not stand in opposition but are actually in agreement. How? Because when you love somebody you discover that they are infinitely valuable, equal, and unique and this is the quality and dignity of an image of God. As Yitz puts it, “As I come to love a person I come to share their needs and their feelings and I instinctively want to help fulfill their needs. The dream of Judaism is that someday we will live in a world in which every human being knows that the other is not just an other, but, like myself, is someone that I love and whose life and whose needs I experience as my own.”How then do we apply that theology both here in this building and also in our daily lives? We begin by learning. In addition to the course that Rev. Malin and I are teaching this fall, we will welcome two outside teachers. One will be Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, founder and spiritual leader of Lab/Shul, one of the country’s most diverse (and innovative) congregations. He also happens to be Gay and the nephew of former chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel Yisrael Meir Lau. The other will be award winning Jewish educator Yoshi Silberstein, the child of an Ashkenazi Jewish father and Chinese mother.
Our Torah study this year will focus on the Haftarot, the words of the ancient prophets like Isaiah who said, “This is the fast I desire: To unlock the fetters of wickedness, To let the oppressed go free; And to not ignore your own kin; prophets who spoke truth to power and who actively railed against the inequities in Israelite society. We will be inspired and moved by their words every Shabbat morning. I hope you will join us. Finally, I am pleased to announce that we will soon communicate our new congregational ethics code with you. It is a code that expresses expectations for how everyone who comes under CSR’s wings should aspire to act and how everyone should expect to be treated - be they congregants, clergy, staff, families, or visitors. It makes clear that when each one of us conscientiously behaves ethically and with civility, Community Synagogue becomes a safer, more welcoming, and more sacred community.
If we come here and listen to and recite these words and then go out there and forget that not only do we have an opportunity but that we have a responsibility to act like the prophets of old - speaking truth to power, upholding the rights of the oppressed and victimized, ensuring that everyone, regardless of the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, their gender, their marital status, their physical or mental abilities is treated with the same degree of dignity and equality as the next person - if we forget this, then the words of Isaiah we just read are for nought, then his words - just like they did 2500 years ago - fall on deaf ears and we are left to suffer the consequences. As playwright August Wilson once said, “You are responsible for the world that you live in. It is not the government's responsibility. It is not your school’s or your social club’s or your church’s or your neighbor’s or your fellow citizen’s. It is yours, utterly and singularly yours.”
And so, if we notice one another and show interest in each other as someone also made in the image of the Holy One; if we learn each other’s names, including using each other’s expressed pronouns and proper pronunciation; if we are known in community, freed from the fear of rejection, accepted for who we are and feeling truly safe in a community that prides itself on its sacredness; and if we are missed if we are gone; then we are well on our way to creating a community that if God were a human being, God would be happy to be a guest in our home.
In mid-July, there was a wonderful feature in the NY Times Magazine on writer/director Greta Gerwig and her process of creating the Barbie Movie (and you thought I could make it through these days without referencing it?). The part of the article that spoke to me most were the final paragraphs, about what Gerwig was ultimately trying to achieve, that using Barbie to affirm the worth of ordinary women felt, to her, quasi religious.
Here is her story:
“When I was growing up, our family’s closest friends were observant Jews; we vacationed together and constantly tore around each other’s homes. Every Friday I would join them for Shabbat dinner and every Friday the family’s father would rest his hand on my head, just as he did on his own children’s, and bless me too.
“I remember feeling the sense of, ‘Whatever your wins and losses were for the week, whatever you did or you didn’t do, when you come to this table, your value has nothing to do with that. You are a child of God. I put my hand over you, and I bless you as a child of God at this table. And that’s your value.’” And she continues, “I remember feeling so safe in that and feeling so, like, enough… I want people to feel like I did at Shabbat dinner. I want them to feel blessed.”
That, my friends, is ultimately what this is all about. When you come here, you are a child of God, you are a blessing and that is your value. When you come here, no matter who you are, no matter the labels you place on yourself - or that society places on you - you belong, you are loved, you matter, because… you are… we all are.
Whether you see me or not, whether you believe in me or not
Whether you love me or not, I am
Whether you stand with me or not, whether you embrace me or not
Whether you see me or not, I am
Clothed in dignity, I am, bathed in love I am
I am a prayer, I am a prayer, I am
I am a blessing, I am a prayer…… I am
Down this road I walk, sometimes alone I walk, sometimes with you I walk, I am
To the horizon I walk, the sun is rising while I walk, head held high I walk, I am
Clothed in dignity, I am, bathed in love I am
I am a prayer, I am a prayer, I am
I am a blessing, I am a prayer…… I am
Crowned with honor, I am, Proud and strong, I am,
More than enough, I am/ Worthy of love, I am
I am a prayer, I am a prayer, I am