Reflection on Gun Violence

I have been engaged in the issue of gun violence prevention within my synagogue, interfaith community, and greater Boston area. I am proud of the work that we have done and see much work to be done down the road. Below is a reflection that I offered at a recent gathering of our interfaith community on June 5 organized by our local faith leaders, both clergy and lay. I hope that you agree that gun violence is an issue for all of us and an issue of public health – hence, it is very much a women’s issue. Happy to hear feedback. How are you and your communities engaging in this issue?

Good evening. My name is Rabbi Jill Perlman and I stand here tonight because I feel an obligation as a human being to be here. Perhaps like you, I am saddened and horrified by the prevalence of gun violence that I have witnessed around me and I feel the need to call out for change.

I also stand here tonight because I feel an obligation specifically as a Jew and a rabbi to be here.

This past Yom Kippur, on the bima of my congregation, I acknowledged the spate of gun violence that I saw overtaking the nation… I had no inkling of the pain that was still to come.

This past September when Yom Kippur fell, we were still reeling from the deadly shooting and rampage in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado that left twelve dead and many more injured. We were still processing the shooting and murder of six worshippers at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.

I asked publicly what role I had to play, we all had to play in these events even as we sat here in Massachusetts so geographically removed from these places. For I believe that I did hold some responsibility as we did we all.

I derive this sense of communal responsibility in part from my understanding of my faith tradition and specifically from a liturgical piece called the vidui, our prayer of confession, which Jews recite the world over on Yom Kippur.

Jews beat their chests as they recite the litany, Ashamnu bagadnu gazalnu… We have sinned, we have betrayed, we have stolen… The list goes on and on in the first person plural. We say WE even if those particular acts are not ones that we have personally engaged in.

Embedded in this ‘we’ – I believe –  is an essential notion: it is the notion that we are all responsible, the notion that each of our actions and our acquiescence to each other’s actions have contributed to the culture that feeds these actions or these non-actions, if you will. It is the notion that we are all in this together.

My understanding of my Judaism demands that I speak out for the common good when we are at risk; for the safety of all of us: men, women, and children when there is danger.

When I consider the epidemic of gun violence that occurs on a daily basis in our country, I know that I must not remain on the sidelines, that I must not remain silent.

From Leviticus, we learn that we must not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor (Leviticus 19:16). Friends… the blood of our neighbors, perhaps the blood of our own bodies is flowing; it’s in the streets and in our homes.

From Genesis, we learn that we are indeed our brother’s keeper (Genesis 4:9). We are responsible for those around us. We must not shake the sacred responsibility that one human being holds for another.

From the Talmud, we learn that when the community is in trouble, a person should not say, “I will go into my house and eat and drink and be at peace with myself” (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 11a). We must not to shut our doors, shut our ears, shut our hearts and be content with our lot while others are suffering around us.

I am not and cannot be at peace with myself at this time, not when nearly everyday gun violence persists in ways that we have the power to stem.

I am honored to stand here amongst my colleagues from across the spectrum of faith traditions and amongst all of you tonight to call upon our state and our country’s leadership to actively pursue common-sense gun legislation.

For there is no acceptable alternative. None at all.

The rabbinic sages teach us: If one destroys one life, it is as if he has destroyed the whole world. And if one saves one life, it is as if he has saved the whole world (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a).

Let us raise our voices collectively to demand the creation of sensible gun laws so that we can indeed save lives and insodoing, save this world.

Ken y’hi ratson – May it be God’s will.

Rabbi Jill Perlman serves as a rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, MA. She is excitedly awaiting the arrival of her third child and first daughter as she careens into the 38th week of her pregnancy.

Today, we are all Bostonians in heart

I grew up here. I went to college and grad school here. Rabbinical school took me to Jerusalem and New York, but only for a few years and now I’m back in Boston and I feel privileged to be able to raise my family here. Two boys and a little girl -God-willing- is on her way.

I’m a Boston girl through and through. 

I love my dirty water. I love when r’s are absent from words where they should in truth exist. I love the fact that when I was in Starbuck’s this past weekend in Lexington, I stood behind a whole militia of minuteman ordering macchiatos between battle re-enactment practice. I love Boston… and I hate it that we are in pain and feel fear.

I’m a Boston girl…  but today, we are all Bostonians in heart.

We’re seeking comfort. O God, source of all creation, grant us comfort in your presence just as we find it in the arms and words of family and friends.

We’re seeking courage. O God, grant us courage to face tragedy and not to let go of our ideals and convictions for a more peaceful world.

We’re seeking strength. O God, may we find strength within and strength in Your presence that is felt all around us.

May we honor the memories of those who lost their lives in this tragedy. May healing come swiftly in body and spirit to the wounded.

Boston, my love Boston, is the home of the strong. May we continue to forge ahead with strength as we care –so lovingly- for our fallen.

In Reaction to the Reaction around Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In

I have not yet read Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In (though I’ve ordered it and may miraculously get to read it on my upcoming maternity leave). I haven’t read many of the so-called “back-lash” articles either. But as this is a blog, I’m blogging in my own present moment reacting to the conversation that I am hearing around me (and so, one should not read this as a book review of Sandberg’s book in any way). What I have done is listen a bit, read a bit, and witness a few women railing against Sandberg’s premise while others treat it as their new-found Bible. I’m writing in reaction to the reaction as I have begun to witness it.

For now, my limited understanding is that Sandberg, Facebook COO is asking women to lean in, to let loose our ambitions, to be aware of the ways that we have held ourselves back and equally been held back by those around us. Sandberg seeks to understand why women continue to lag far behind men in leadership positions and examines possible solutions for addressing these challenges. So far, Lean In is a message that I can fully embrace.

Sandberg appears to be asking/demanding that as a culture, we shift and change. This applies to all of us regardless of our gender. Men are an essential part of that process as husbands and fathers, and as colleagues, bosses, and mentors. If women are going to achieve, room must be made in the home as well as the boardroom through the sharing of childcare duties and the expansion of opportunities in the workplace.

Some of the backlash as I understand it comes from the fact that Sandberg is not your everyday woman. Rather, she is a millionaire who can literally afford to deal with the work-home balance while not every woman can count on being able to pay for quality child care while also working. I have heard the argument that maybe women naturally shy away from the top tier positions because we simply don’t want them or we find less-pressure jobs more fulfilling overall or we choose child-rearing as our primary focus and as such, Sandberg’s ask is not only exclusive, but also offensive to those who have made choices that differ from Sandberg’s own.

I came across an interesting tweet in response to this particular criticism.  Heidi Moore, the Guardian’s financial analyst tweeted: “No man reads [male-written business manifesto] Good to Great worrying that it doesn’t sympathize with guys working at McDonald’s.” The issue is not about judgment about one’s choices. My problem with my understanding of the backlash is the unrealistic expectation that Sandberg needs to account for all women’s choices. Men don’t write about success with that same unrealistice expectation. Why, I wonder, do we immediately attack one woman’s take on success and balance when it doesn’t fit in with everyone’s presumed choices? It is true that Sandberg’s argument/plea to women to lean in, to fight for professional success if that is what they truly want may not fit every single woman to a tee, but I don’t think (and again, I admit I have not yet read Lean In) that she is proclaiming that every woman need to make the same choices that she has. Her book is a wondering aloud about the lack of parity and equality in the workforce, particularly in the top tiers and what we can do as individuals, if we so choose, and as a society to right this wrong.

This past week, we read Vayikra as a Jewish community. The first word Vayikra itself is most often written in Torah scrolls with a small alef in comparison to the rest of the letters in the word. The midrash around this interesting scribal anomaly is that as Moses was writing the Torah as dictated to him from above, he came to this verse and in his humble nature did not want to put in print that alef (and thus write that God called to Moses). Moses did not want to publically proclaim his special role and relationship with God. He wanted to drop that alef so that the word became vayikar implying that God just ‘happened’ upon Moses as opposed to having called and singled him out to share the laws of Torah with the people. However, God wants the alef and so Moses compromises by writing vayikra ([God] called) with the miniature alef. He is saying ‘I am important, but not so much so…”

The small alef represents to me the balance we all face between recognizing our potential, recognizing our calling and our gifts while at the same time remaining humble in nature and making room for others around us. Now before we go so far as to use this midrash to justify women being demure or that we should hold back in our humility and say dayenu for all that we have already achieved… I would like to offer another approach. That small alef is for everyone – women and men alike. Sometimes there are times that some of us need to pay more attention to its size and there are other times that some of us need to pay more attention to the fact that that alef even exists in the first place and acknowledge our talents and gifts and even our chosenness and callings in this life personally and professionally. This is an individual journey for all of us. At the same time, perhaps this is also a gender journey as we work collaboratively towards a more equitable society. Perhaps the message for our present day is that room needs to made by men for women to notice, proclaim, and embrace the alef’s existence (after all, we’re not just happened upon!). Perhaps, it’s even time for women to not only embrace that alef, but even to lean in and throw a magnifying glass on it so that we – and the world around us – can begin to bear witness to our call.

Rabbi Jill Perlman is the assistant rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Lexington, MA. She works with an amazing male senior rabbi and mentor. Along with her amazing husband with whom she shares child-care duties, she raises her twin 3-year-old sons and is excitedly expecting a daughter to join their lives.

The Beginning of the Conversation

The following comes from the February 2013 bulletin of my congregation, Temple Isaiah www.templeisaiah.net The responses that I have heard from my congregants affirms my understanding that many are not aware of (at least the full extent of) the situation and status of women in Israel in the public religious sphere. It also affirms my understanding that we care and are outraged. This bulletin article comes on the heels of sermons and teachings, but, in many ways, is still the beginning of the conversation.

 

My love of Israel is deep as I know it is for so many of you. My concern for Israel’s well-being and her people’s well-being is equally as deep. At a time when Israel is routinely attacked, it can be difficult to express anything critical of her actions, but there are times when our love and care must turn from protection to challenge. It is out of my deep love and commitment for our homeland that I offer my concern about the role of progressive Judaism in Israel and the place of women in the public religious sphere. In many ways, Israel is a more egalitarian country than most Western countries. Golda Meir became Israel’s fourth Prime Minister in 1969, which makes it all the more difficult to accept and allow the illegality of women’s public prayer at the most sacred of all sites to the Jewish people, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

When I lived in Jerusalem a number of years ago, I made it a point to celebrate Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of each new Hebrew month, with an extraordinary group of women. At 7am each Rosh Chodesh, I would make made my way to the Western Wall in my long skirt and long sleeves and join a group of women that spanned age, nationality, and Jewish denominational background.

Once we were all gathered, we would pull out our prayerbooks; someone would take the lead and we would begin to pray as a group. As the heckling began, we would lean into one another for mutual protection. A woman not of our group would begin to yell at us that what we were doing was inappropriate. She would call us Reform Jews (an insult) or Christians (another insult). She would shush us, but we would just sing louder.

That is often when we would begin to hear the heckles from over the fence that separated the female from the male section. They would scream, Had we no respect for God? Had we no respect for halacha (Jewish law)? If we were lucky, insults would be all that was hurled. Chairs and stones have also found their way from the men’s side over to the women’s.

Why was this simple act of praying such a defiant one? What was the problem here?

The problem was and continues to be that women are not allowed to pray freely at this site that is sacred to all Jews. Our gathering was disturbing the public peace (no matter that women make up the public, too). We were breaking not just custom, but law to pray out loud lest our female voices distract the men from their prayer. Our tallitot and kippot, ritual garb traditionally reserved only for men, were illegal.

Those days when a woman would smuggle a Torah scroll stuffed in a duffle bag into the Kotel square were the days that often moved us far beyond heckling into what felt more like war. Fights have broken out over Torah scrolls as men have tried to pull them out of the arms of women.

Women of the Wall, the group that is attempting to fight this fight in the public sphere as well as the courts, has been engaged in this battle for over 24 years. They dream, as I dream, of a pluralistic vision for the Wall, one that honors all Jews as opposed to just one faction of Jewry.

Women who pray with Women of the Wall have been detained and arrested intermittently over the years, but there has been a particular crackdown lately with at least a detainment or an arrest nearly every month since June.

New procedure has dictated that women be searched at the gates and not allowed into the Kotel square if they have a tallit or a kippah on their person, ritual items that we take for granted in our community. If they want to enter, their prayer shawls must first be confiscated.

As of the writing of this article, there has been some good news. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, responding to outrage to this situation from Jews the world over, has appointed Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to head up a commission to look at this issue and determine if any compromise is possible; compromise including the allowance of certain times when women’s prayer is sanctioned and not only in a secondary location, but in the public sphere. It has been reported that Netanyahu told Sharansky that the Western Wall “must remain a source of Jewish unity rather than division.”

My fears and concerns are great regarding the issue of women and the Western Wall. I am worried that Jewish women are being short-changed their heritage. I am worried that Judaism in Israel automatically equals Orthodox Judaism. I am worried that diaspora Jews, especially young ones are becomingly increasingly distanced from their homeland due to a variety of reasons, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The suppression of the rights of women at the Kotel is further pushing young Jews away from Israel.

Tremendous work in this area is being done by Women of the Wall as well as by the Israel Religious Action Center – and we can be a part of that work. Our potential to make change is great. Our voices raised together led to Netanyahu’s appointment of Natan Sharanksy to review this issue and it is absolutely crucial that we continue to make our voices heard. Our most holy of sites belongs to all of us and we must not be afraid to not only dream of, but to demand an approach to the Wall that deems it a place for all of us to pray, no matter if we identify as a Reform Jew or a traditional one and no matter our gender.

L’shalom,

Rabbi Jill Perlman

In Response to Friday’s Tragic School Shooting

I cannot post to this forum about anything else today, but my utter sadness, dismay, anger, frustration and bafflement over the tragedy that took place this past Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

As a rabbi, a Jew, a human being, but especially as a parent, my heart is in pieces for the victims and their families.

I spent this past weekend with my congregation’s third grade families at a retreat. While we didn’t address the tragedy with the third graders directly, I did sit down with their parents. A planned text study on Parashat Miketz was understandably thrown out the window as parents asked for time and space to delve into how the tragedy affected them and how they were going to talk with their children about it.

Some had already had the conversation while others had not. Since the children that we were discussing were third graders, we reasoned that their children would eventually hear of the tragedy (if not in homes then from fellow students on the bus on Monday morning) and that parents should be the ones framing the conversation rather re-framing it later on.

We talked about how they know their children the best and should be the ultimate arbiters of the content of the conversation.

We talked about being honest and factual while not divulging more than needed.

We talked about the power of listening to our children’s concerns rather than assuming what those concerns might be. We emphasized together the need to listen over the need to talk.

We acknowledged that it is okay to say that we don’t know to all of the questions on the table and that it is okay to show grief. We must stand firm, not wither before our children, but that does not mean we must be stoic and hide our natural human emotions from them. They learn from us.  As adults, we don’t shut our eyes and our hearts to the pain around us and neither should they.

We also realized that this is a time for mourning and sadness, but it does not and should not preclude us from trying to enact change to protect other families from the pain that those in Newtown, CT must be experiencing. This includes security and safety issues, a more thorough conversation about the support needed for the mentally ill, and, of course, gun safety and control.

One of the most meaningful responses to the events of Friday was an old quotation dug up on a parenting site that I found. It was Fred Rogers who said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

Mister Rogers always knew how to say it just right. For me, this seemingly simple statement sums up my incomplete theological response to the shooting. One man carried out so much evil and he will leave a mark that can never be erased. But so many have come out to help and to hold and to simply shed tears along with the families. Those of us spread across the country may not be able to hold each family personally, but we can be those helpers that Mister Rogers talked about by taking action.

One of the ways in which I choose to honor the memories of the twenty six fallen at Sandy Hook is by taking a stand on gun control. I have signed onto a clergy petition called Clergy Against Bullets, which supports legislation to restore the prohibition on large capacity ammunition feeding devices in the United States, which no one needs. You can find the petition here: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/clergyagainstbullets/

I encourage all of us to find ways to raise our voices. Consider signing the petition on the White House’s We the People site, which calls on Congress to create tighter restrictions on gun ownership. You can sign that petition here: https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/immediately-address-issue-gun-control-through-introduction-legislation-congress/2tgcXzQC

Las night, when President Obama  addressed our nation, he said that “someone once described the joy and anxiety of parenthood as the equivalent of having your heart outside of your body all the time, walking around.”

We are all aching and we are all vulnerable. And even more so in these days following Friday’s attack. I am a mother with two 2-year-old sons and I can not fathom the staggering pain that those closest to this attack must be undergoing. We must strive to prevent it in the future with whatever strength we have – not just for our own children, but for all of our children.

I join with our nation and with our world in sending our prayers to the families of Newtown, Connecticut. My God grant you strength. In these difficult times, may God grant all of us strength.

Rabbi Jill Perlman is the assistant rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Massachusetts and the mother of two 2-year-old sons whom she loves with all of her heart and soul.

Binders Full of Women

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Rabbi Jill Perlman

So I don’t know about you, but I was tearing my hair out last night as I sat and watched the second presidential debate. I spent a good deal of the evening simply trying to contain myself so I wouldn’t throw something at our television. I managed to keep my hands busy by being one of the reported millions of Americans who took to social media for the millisecond-by-millisecond commentary. I now know the opinions of a wide array of folks, from old childhood friends to political pundits to the moms in my children’s preschool.

There were multiple times that the twitterverse seemed to explode, but there was one comment (or gaffe) in particular that really caught fire in my social media corner of the universe (and presumably yours as well): BINDERS FULL OF WOMEN. My goodness. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, the world went nuts. And the memes, oh the memes. Check out two of my favorites here.

I’m glad I can have a chuckle at this because if I didn’t, I might be the one exploding instead of my twitter feed. Let us remember what started the meme craze. When addressing the issue of pay equity, Romney launched into the story of his own search for women to fill positions on his staff. Upon finding that there were not enough qualified female applicants, he outsourced the search, if you will, leading to the infamous binders full of ladies.

Romney concluded his response to the issue of the wage gap by adding that employers who seek to add women to their staffs need to flexible because, after all, that is what women are looking for: flexibility so that they can come home and cook dinner.

Sigh.

I fundamentally agree that employers need to think outside of the box. Flexibility IS key, but the issue is not solely about flexibility and women. No men need to get home? No men cook dinner? Shh… nobody tell my husband.

I’m not naïve. I know that more women than men may require these flexible hours, but that’s right now – that’s BECAUSE that is the assumption we work under. Employers need to be flexible to people, men AND women. Romney’s response places women in the primary role of homemaker whether or not that is her actual role even when she is working. Women benefit from flexibility and -newsflash!- SO DO MEN! I say this because as a rabbi, I am often not home in the evenings. I say this because I-can’t-cook.

As a woman, as a Jew, as a human being, I want to make sure that the issues important to me are being discussed in a respectful manner, in a way that doesn’t demean who I am or what I am working towards. Moreso, I want to make sure to correct the sentiment behind this inarticulate poorly-worded comment. The issue is the wage gap. Flexibility is one small part of a broader systemic problem that requires real action, not a homey story with an awkward phrase that doesn’t even address the question at hand. If we’re going to get any real work done in the arena of equal pay, then let’s at least throw out the binders.

Writing Our Own Story

This past week in our torah portion known as Pinchas, we met five heroes of our tradition: Machlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milchah, and Tirtzah, the famous daughters of Zelophechad. We carry them with us as our heroes in social justice, in standing up for what’s right, and, of course, as trailblazers in the fight for women’s equality.

When their father dies and leaves no sons, the sisters make an argument in front of Moses and in front of the entire community that his inheritance should be theirs.

They make a very clever argument in a very clever way. They make their case in public and in a sacred place, the opening to the Tent of Meeting with all of the leadership and community assembled. As we know from community organizing 101, it’s more difficult for those in power to refuse a request when asked in public. They argue that their father was worthy (specifically that he was not a member of Korach’s rebellious faction) and that if his inheritance did not pass down to them, that a worthy man’s name would be lost to the Jewish people. They articulate their request in terms of the betterment of the system at work and the community.

Whenever I encounter this vignette, I am pleased and encouraged, awed and inspired. Our tradition recorded women standing up for themselves with no dire consequences and for that, I am grateful as a woman and a Jew. However, there has always been a part of me and will always continue to be a part of me that wishes that they were empowered to simply stand up and shout, ‘This isn’t right!’ without needing to resort to appeasing the system and the male authority around them, without needing to make their argument in terms of their father’s name, but rather in terms of their own. While I relish the steps forward that this story presents, there has always been a part of me that yearns for a story where such clever strategy need not be employed in the fight for justice… that the push for justice would be compelling enough an argument.

Now I live in reality. I know that life is more nuanced than simply black and white, right and wrong. We live in a world of strategy and Machlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milchah and Tirtzah must have known that as well. They couldn’t rely on the people to come to the conclusion that the sisters were right simply because they were right. They needed to appeal to the community’s best interests. As we think ahead to the battles that must still be won in our fight for justice, we, too, know that strategy, and, in fact, some appeasement and, indeed, some concessions are a necessary part of the journey even when we know that the cause should be enough.

And so while I applaud our five heroes found in Pinchas for winning a battle for equality, for women, and for themselves, I await the story where a woman – or anyone – can stand up for what is right without the need for such clever strategy and appeasement.

Maybe, just maybe we’ll be that story someday.

Rabbi Jill Perlman is the assistant rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Lexington, MA. She is the proud mom of twin toddler boys, Lev and Eli.