Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Please Be Charlie, Too - Rabbi Jonathan Roos

I am Charlie.
Sorry, I am not Charlie.
Yes, actually, I am Charlie. Please be Charlie, too.

It is not easy for opponents of terror and defenders of free speech to agree if we should or should not be Charlie Hebdo. The magazine is insulting and its satirical cartoons are vulgar. So, like Clarence Page, David Brooks and others, I personally would not choose to publish such images even though I support the freedom of others to do so.

This, however, is not the moment to stand up against the moral turpitude of today’s popular culture (unless that has, in fact, been your regular message and mission before the terror attacks). That is not to say that we all need to embrace crude content or watch TV shows that embarrass us in order to make a statement.

To say, “I am Charlie,” in this moment, in the wake of the Paris terror attacks is to say, “I will stand up in defense of those who are targets of terror, violence and intimidation.” It is also to say, “I publicly acknowledge that the named group - Jews, Police Officers, Writers and Artists - is a target of hate. They have been and will be attacked because of who they are as much as for what they have done.” It does not say, “I draw or enjoy pornographic cartoons of the prophet Mohammed.”

We know this from the other statements trending after the attack, “Je Suis Juif (I am Jewish)” and “Je Suis Ahmed (I am Ahmed). To state the obvious: people are saying they are “Jewish” because Jews were attacked for being Jews. People are saying they are “Ahmed” because that’s the name of the French police officer murdered outside Charlie Hebdo's offices. Nobody has responded to those statements with a heartfelt, principled stand: “Sorry, I am not Jewish because while I respect the right of other people to have their own beliefs, I personally would not choose to reject the teachings of the New Testament.”

An apocryphal story from World War II makes the point clear:
“According to popular legend, King Christian X chose to wear a yellow star in support of the Danish Jews during the Nazi occupation of Denmark. In another version, the Danish people decided to wear a yellow star for the same reason. Both of these stories are fictional. However, the legend conveys an important historical truth: both the King and the Danish people stood by their Jewish citizens and were instrumental in saving the overwhelming majority of them from Nazi persecution and death.”
During the Nazi occupation of Denmark, Jews had the protection of the Danish authorities and the support of their neighbors. “Unlike in other western European countries, the Danish government did not require Jews to register their property and assets, to identify themselves, or to give up apartments, homes, and businesses.
“In addition, Jews were not required to wear a yellow star or badge. Two attempts were made to set fire to the Copenhagen synagogue in 1941 and 1942, but local police intervened both times to prevent the arson and arrest the perpetrators. The Jewish community continued to function, including holding religious services regularly throughout the German occupation.”
(See this full article about Denmark

The Danes did not actually wear the yellow stars but their actions – which always speak louder than words anyway – screamed, “I am Jewish” even though, technically speaking, they weren’t Jewish and probably never much agreed with Jewish religious teachings.

You don’t have to buy Charlie Hebdo or even look at vulgar content to count yourself among the protectors of free speech and the opponents of terror. But you can not allow over-intellectualized sensibilities about language or mistimed moral outrage about vulgarity to prevent you from speaking out.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
- Martin Niemoller

Friday, January 9, 2015

When Faith Breaks Your Heart.... by Rabbi Hannah Goldstein

When I woke to news of the shooting at Charlie Hebdo yesterday morning, my heart broke along with so many others. I imagined the fear in that office, the families torn apart by grief, the citizens of France whose values were under assault. Again, this morning, more bad news. Hostages taken in a kosher grocery store and children on lockdown. People often say, “Why choose religion? It’s a source of conflict in our world.” These past two days seem to make their case, that religion incites violence, that being a person of faith makes you vulnerable to manipulation or brainwashing, that religion tears us apart. 

Mayor Bowser addressing a packed WIN action
At times when faith feels so distant, I still find myself searching for the comfort that faith can provide. Yes, religion can be the source of destruction and hate, but it can also strengthen us and bring us together. Last night, Temple Sinai participated in a Washington Interfaith Network action with DC’s new mayor, Muriel Bowser, at St. Augustine Catholic Church.  This interfaith group pressed Mayor Bowser to commit to creating jobs, stopping gun violence, maintaining affordable housing and ending homelessness in our city. With faith as the common bond, but with vastly differing ideologies, Washington’s interfaith community used religion as the catalyst to come together and as the source of hope that we can build a better world. 
In the Shabbat morning liturgy, there is a modern interpretation of the Hoda’ah, a prayer in the Amidah during which we show our gratitude to God. There is a line that reads, “For high hopes and noble causes, for faith without fanaticism, for understanding of views not shared, modim anachnu lach (we thank you).” We thank God for the potential of religious pluralism. We thank God for our intellectual ability to hold more than one truth at a time. We thank God for our capacity to disagree passionately without turning to hate. 

On this Shabbat I pray for the safety of satirists and Semites. I pray for reason and restraint, and for the courage to believe in that which we cannot see. I pray for the freedom of ideas, images and ideologies. And I pray for a world where we can live in peace and celebrate our many faiths without the threat of fanaticism.
-Rabbi Hannah Goldstein
Over 1,000 WIN members and friends packed St. Augustine's

Friday, July 25, 2014

Mitzvah Mission to the Border, Aug 17-21

Kindertransport (Jewish Child Refugees), 1939
There is a serious refugee problem on the US-Mexican Border that demands our attention and our help. According to Time Magazine, 44,000 unaccompanied children have entered the US since October. Along with tens of thousands of adult women and families, these children are fleeing violence and anarchy in Central America and seeking the basic promises America has always held forth: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

This issue is very close to home for the Jewish community and we must help. We have religious principles that demand we help the stranger, widow and orphan and care for the most needy. Every Passover we start our seder by recalling aloud how our ancestors were enslaved and then driven from Egypt with only the clothes on their backs. We start the seder by announcing, “Let all who are needy come and share our meal.” That message appears again and again throughout our holidays and our sacred texts.
Helping immigrants and refugees is not just an ancient, holiday message. Our recent history is filled with stories of Jewish refugees forced to run border blockades, held in detention camps and, too often, sent back to the terrible conditions from which they fled. In reading about the problem on our border today, I have asked myself: “How often have I taught the story of the refugee ship, The St. Louis, and the tens of thousands of Jewish refugees who were refused safe harbor in the USA in the 1930s and 40s? How many Israel trips have I led to the Atlit Detention Camp, where the British held thousands of Jewish “Illegal immigrants” outside Haifa in the 1930s and 40s – Jews fleeing or who just survived the Holocaust? How many people have told me they are moved by Leon Uris’ Exodus? And how often have I thought of tracing the footsteps of my own great-grandfather who came to the US in the early 1900s after his first wife and his children all died in Ukraine?” And then I asked, “Why are we – me personally but also the larger Jewish community - absent from providing help on this issue today?” If there is any single issue that resonates with our own historical experience it is this one.

My family and I will be traveling to McAllen, Texas from August 17-21 to assist with aid efforts for children and families fleeing Central America.  We are horrified by the circumstances that these people are facing in their home countries but we are inspired to action by the incredible work of the faith-based community in McAllen.  Please consider joining us on this mission to South Texas.

We will spend most of our time volunteering in McAllen at The Sacred Heart Catholic Church refugee relief facility that was established by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in early June.  We will also spend time with my friend and classmate, Rabbi Claudio Kogan and members of his small Reform congregation, Temple Emanuel of McAllen.  I am arranging educational opportunities with civic and religious leaders to help us learn more about the immigration issue.  We will learn from those on the front lines and hear the stories of the refugees first hand.

If you cannot travel with us, you can still help. Catholic Charities needs financial donations and basic supplies for the families. They have asked us for new hooded sweatshirts/jackets for the children and light travel blankets. Most of the children or families leave McAllen on long bus rides across the country without enough appropriate clothing to stay warm when needed.  We are happy to schlep your donated items with us to Texas and will arrange for future shipments directly to McAllen as needed.

I am so proud that over the past year our congregation has committed itself to helping children in need through initiatives at Sinai House, Wheatley Education Campus and Roosevelt High School. Some of our biggest social action programs last year involved children and human trafficking and the impact of gun violence on children.  This mission to McAllen continues that emphasis on children in need.   I hope you will join me in working to help these children and refugees find comfort and safety.
If you are interested in joining us or donating, please email directly:

We are planning to fly in and out of San Antonio and rent a car or van to drive to the border. We will likely stay at one of the inexpensive hotels in McAllen.

Tax deductible contributions for this project can be sent directly to the Temple Sinai Rabbi Roos Discretionary Fund. We will present the full amount of all donated funds to our partner organizations in McAllen. You can also donate supplies through this link:

On Religious organizations’ efforts to help with this current situation, see


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.