Monday, August 26, 2013

Director's Cut: Fifty Years Since the March on Washington

I am writing one of my high holy day sermons about the fiftieth anniversary of March on Washington and lots of material won't make it into the sermon. Here's a nugget that would only make into the "director's cut" or bonus material.

"The March showed the power of diversity to push for political change." Volunteers and march attendees recall the surprisingly successful turnout of all types of people - parents, church ladies, college students, laborers, performers, couples, kids. One of the Freedom Riders recalls that they significance of the day was not in any speech but in the gathering itself, which was a reflection of the kind of pluralistic society that King's "Dream" described. Charlie Mann was a 13-year old from Chapel Hill, NC, who came to the March on one of the last buses. He still recalls the stunning display of diversity that he found at the March: "It felt like maybe things were changing in the country after all."

When comes to a movement and its ability to effect change, there is greater power in greater diversity.

Check out Time's online resource,, a great collection of photos, videos, testimonies and stories. I used it a lot to research the March.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Gone Are the Days: Talia Agler Girls' Shelter

Talia Agler, a teacher in our religious school and an active member of our community, died tragically in January 2012. She was 26 years old. We had the proper memorials and visitations and funds were set up in her memory. It was powerful and moving. And it continues as Talia's legacy continues in the most incredible ways. God forbid any of you reading this should suffer such tragedy. But whenever your time comes, will you be remembered like this? From the Talia Agler Girls Shelter in Nairobi, Kenya:

Talia's family went to Kenya this summer to visit the shelter and took this video as they met with the girls of the shelter. Talia's parents have written and posted many photos and videos from the trip. You can link to all of it from the blog of Rabbi Rich Agler (Talia's father):

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Just Congregations @Sinai Makes a Difference

DC Council Members Evans, Bowser, Barry, Wells
and Mendelson at WIN Sinai action

On April 22nd, Temple Sinai hosted the first action the Washington Interfaith Network (WIN) ever held in a synagogue. It was a significant night on many levels: a culmination of our efforts in the past two years to re-ignite Sinai's role as a center for social justice in DC; a clear demonstration of the breadth of WIN's coalition; a successful action that produced results within days and continues to resonate in the current DC budget mark-ups and hearings. Just days after the action, DC Council Member Evans proposed a Community Benefits Agreement just as he and the other council members promised on the bima of Temple Sinai.

The action at Sinai focused on job creation for district residents through DC Water, which has an embarrassingly low job hire rate in the district. Mike DeBonis picked up the story for the Post and describes the ongoing situation - including a mention of the action at Sinai. Barbara Kraft, Sinai member and volunteer leader on this issue, testified along with others from our WIN coalition on May 8th at the DC Water Board’s public hearing on the water bill rate increase. On June 3, there will be confirmation hearings for new Board members, at which point Council Members will stress jobs.

This is great example of why we joined WIN and how our commitment to social justice has become manifest.

WIN Action team prepares before the April 22nd action

Friday, March 8, 2013

Enter Shabbat With No Worries

This story is worth watching for a few minutes. It's got 4 million+ views on YouTube so maybe you've already seen it but it's worth entering Shabbat with one of the messages from Nick (featured in the video): Gratitude, Self-Acceptance, Positive Attitude, Self-Respect and Self-Love.

Friday, February 22, 2013

The Little Things Are Big: Rabbi Asch on Purim

Purim is a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, but that does not keep us from celebrating it in a major way. We know the story of Purim, how the wicked Haman was incensed that the Jewish Mordechai would not bow down to him. For this offence, Haman ordered all the Jews to be killed. Queen Esther chose to reveal her Jewishness to King Ahasuerus and plead for her people’s lives. Haman is killed and the Jews are victorious and celebrate their narrow escape.
Some traditional obligations (mitzvot) we observe on Purim are:
1.       Hearing the Megillah.
2.       Giving mishloach manot, literally, sending of portions. Each person is supposed to send a gift of at least two types of food to at least one other person.
3.       Giving money to the poor, in Hebrew matanot l’evyonim. Tzedakah is a part of this Jewish holiday as it is of Jewish life in general.
4.       Having a Purim Seduah, a festive Purim meal.
5.       Becoming so drunk we do not know the difference between the evil Haman and the Wicked Mordechai.
Of all these obligations, mishloach manot is the easiest and most fun for me. I love baking hamentaschen, helping my kids package them, and delivering them to friends and neighbors, many of whom are not Jewish. When I was in Mississippi, I delivered these gifts to my fellow teachers, many of whom had never spoken with a Jew.
The ability to reach out to non-Jews on a “minor” holiday is important. We often discuss our Judaism most often at Chanukkah or Passover, which coincide with the important Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter. But, as we know Judaism has a full calendar of holidays some of which can pass without much notice. It is wonderful when we can take the opportunity to celebrate Purim and to let others know about this fun holiday. There are still a group of teachers in Mississippi talking about the Jewish holiday where we eat the triangle cookies!  
Of the five mitzvot of Purim, which one is the most meaningful to you?

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Our Work Must Expand: Backpacks For Wheatley

One of our Just Congregations partners, Wheatley Education Campus, needs help beyond its classrooms. Every week two temple members volunteer as teachers’ aides in the classrooms and another member collaborates with Wheatley’s principal and staff on other ways the temple community can help the Wheatley community. One of the school’s teachers suggested a weekend food backpack program to help feed the students. Nearly 100% of Wheatley’s students received free and reduced lunches and breakfasts five days a week. They are hungry and their families struggle to put food on the table. The teacher identified a need: when there’s no school there may not be full meals for these kids. She suggested a “back pack” filled with food for the student to take home on Friday in order to have enough to eat over the weekend.

The volunteer team did not want to wait. They adopted a successful model from another school district, went to Costco to purchase enough food for 50 kids for this weekend, got reusable bags donated by Chevy Chase Supermarket and Whole Foods and had our Noar students fill the bags on Tuesday night. Barbara, the Wheatley teacher who suggested the program, took the bags with her and they will be distributed this Friday. This is just a first step. More than 50 kids need food but there are challenges with storage space, transportation, distribution, food purchasing and more. Our volunteer team already knew that they didn’t need to “reinvent the wheel.” So…

On Monday, I joined the three Wheatley volunteers (Joan Goldwasser, Darren Gersh and Elizabeth Roos) at the Capital Area Food Bank to learn about the Food Bank and its Partnership Program. The Food Bank runs its own backpack food program and serves 2,000 students across Washington, D.C. already. The Food Bank also creates partnerships with agencies like us. They provide the food at low cost and we provide the distribution program and services. The Food Bank is an incredible place and its new facility in Northeast D.C. is impressive. Most impressive, however, is the need to alleviate hunger in D.C. and the steps the Food Bank is taking to address that rising need. They currently have 700 partners who distribute food around the area. They want to double that number. We are completing our application to make the Wheatley Back Pack Food program the newest Food Bank partner. But we need help. Our current volunteers are already tasked with full teaching assistant days at Wheatley. What would it take for you to put this on YOUR calendar? Contact me, Rabbi Oleon or Darren Gersh ( if you will help.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Characteristics of a Team

Cantor Robins on this week's Torah portion....

It’s a particularly good week in the reading cycle, jam-packed with drama, music (well, the blasts of the shofar!), weather (mainly thunder and lightning, but also smoke and fire), and the watershed moment of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai.  For purposes of the blogosphere, I can’t think of a portion that provides more content to discuss – especially for a blog called Lifting Sinai!
In hopes that Shavuot (when we read the 10 commandments again) will bring an important and exciting blog post about this awesome and critical moment for Moses and bnei Yisrael, I think its worth exploring the moment before Moses goes up to Sinai.  So, to recap – here’s the situation:
            Moses and his people have just made their way out of Egypt and across the sea on dry land.  The journey wasn’t glamorous, and not always easy.  Upon arriving on ‘the other side,’ Moses is summoned by his father-in-law, Jethro.  (Lets remember – they have a pretty good relationship.)  Jethro has been kind and wise in his communication with Moses.  At this moment, he invites him over.  Moses and Jethro greet one another warmly, and Jethro brings Moses into his tent, whereupon Moses tells Jethro the whole story.  (By the whole story, I am reading into the text that Moses shares all the gory details…all the miracles and all the stress of going from slavery to freedom.)  Jethro is impressed and amazed, and taken by the power of YHVH.  He blesses God, praises God, and offers a burnt-offering (sacrifice) to God.
Next day.  Moses is doing his Moses-thing, settling disputes amongst the people.  Jethro takes a look at this, and asks Moses what he’s up to.  Moses is working impossibly hard to take care of all the conflict resolution work that God has entrusted (and commanded) him to do.  Jethro is worried – he’s convinced that Moses working from morning until evening is not a good call; that he will wear himself out.  So, Jethro (being the wise Kohen from Midian that he is) directs Moses to find some people to whom he can delegate some of this work; saving the biggest (read:  most significant to the community or most complicated to answer) for Moses himself.   And so, Jethro advises Moses on the qualities of the people whom he should appoint to build this new legal system in the desert.
21 You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and 22 let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you. 23 If you do this — and God so commands you — you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied." (Translation from JPS)
            In the advice Jethro gives to Moses, he lists four qualities that the folks Moses appoints should have:  1) capable, 2) God-fearing, 3) trustworthy and 4) spurn ill-gotten gain.  Let’s reinterpret it for our day.
1)  Capable, skilled:  We want to expand the network of people who help us do our work (professional or personal) with people who are skilled and capable at the task we need them to help us complete.
2) I read God-fearing here as ‘on the same page as us’  - after all, Moses was God-fearing and working for God.  He’d want to surround himself with people ‘sharing the vision.’
 3)  Trustworthy.  Is this one self-explanatory?  (Remember, we know that the people surrounding Moses are a few steps away from committing a HUGE sin that will prove them both a little un-trustworthy and a little not God-fearing)
4)  I read this as in it for the mission (the passion), not the compensation or the fame.
            And so, the question for us as we read Parashat Yitro this week is:  Are the qualities Jethro tells Moses to look for the same qualities we look for in our teams, staffs, etc?  And if not, what would we change and/ or add to the list?