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.

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.