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Pursuing Justice and Saying Yes to the Rainbow

by Susan Lubeck, Bend the Arc Jewish Action
Delivered on the occasion of the installation of Rabbi Mike Rothbaum, October 12, 2018


What a  joy to be your guest for this holy occasion, and to get to visit your community. Being here and meeting you  makes it a little easier missing Rabbi Mike and Anthony.

I received the honor of speaking here tonight because of a significant partnership Rabbi Mike and I formed during his time in the Bay Area. It started when Mike and I found each other through our shared strong impulse to do justice.

What do I mean by justice?  I offer you some mental pictures - that happen to involve R. Mike -

  1. Mike, along with an array of multifaith clergy, engaging in a footwashing ceremony - a Christian ritual - with undocumented immigrants, and as they remove their shoes and lift their pants or skirts, we see with a jolt how many are wearing tracking bracelets on their ankles.
  2. Celebrating when we - with the leadership of Ella Baker Center - pass legislation to finally limit use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities in CA - yes - there were no limits on the use of solitary confinement in California juvenile facilities up to then - and hoping the terrible stories we’ve heard from youth don’t ever have to be repeated. Mike helped start that team in 2014.
  3. After police killings of Black people, Mike getting arrested the day before Thanksgiving with a group of 20, while I was in New Jersey with family, following it on social media and feeling guilty. This was part of a successful effort to get punitive felony charges dropped against activists who had committed nonviolent civil disobedience.

I imagine you chose Mike in part because of these kinds of mental pictures, this kind of moral imagination and commitment to action. I share these mental pictures not to idealize Mike or the work we have done -, but to affirm the power of yes.

As a social justice organizer, I spend a lot of time making asks. Will you come to this march? Will you call this decision maker? Will you ask 5 other people to do those things? Will you co-chair a team ?  Hearing a lot of no’s among the yeses is normal —

I want to let you know I’m here tonight because Mike said YES as much as anyone I’ve ever partnered with, and energized the YES in me. I kept thinking up things to ask him to do and he kept doing them, and he kept learning how to ask others too - instead of that common phenomenon where a clergy person shows up as a solo act, Mike learned how to move others to action.

Rabbi Mike says YES as an expression of Torah - he feels that in his bones - and by saying that yes, he makes new Torah that we need - and now you are doing that together here.

Tonight we read parsha Noach - a story most of us know, at least in its broad outlines. Sin, flood, ark, two-by-two, dove, rainbow - right? As with so many of our Torah characters, Noach is not exactly a paragon of virtue, but he did listen and say yes at a crucial choice point ...and got busy building that ark.

As I share these stories and mental pictures of justice involving R. Mike, I’m a newcomer here, not part of this community, so I can only guess what you may be thinking of yourself in relation to this justice work.

Whatever you’re thinking right now, tonight I affirm your place here, and I affirm this partnership between you and your rabbi, and I ask you to say yes to whatever still small voice speaks to you, to fully say yes to this partnership with Rabbi Mike, to say yes to the riches of what Jewish practice has to offer, and - a fundamental piece -  to say yes to community.

I’ve spoken some about justice and what it actually looks like and I’ve also flung the word “community” around quite a bit.

A way into the significance of community is to tell you a little of my story. Telling stories, self-disclosure, is an important part of organizing people. My parents grew up in NY city with lots of extended family, and my grandparents were garment workers active in their union. In search of affordable homeownership, my parents moved to a suburb, a Levittown outside of Philadelphia, like so many others moving from tight social ties and into low-density areas with looser ties. They built strong friendships in that town, and had liberal views and a strong sense of ethics, but weren’t involved in public life or political work. I had no Jewish observance or education.

I didn’t know what Shabbat was until I went to summer camp - what’s with the white shirts and the candles?... I had no sense of collective power, collective obligation, or public purpose. I came very close to being one of those Jews who remain clueless and in effect throw away our tradition without even knowing what I am throwing away. My dad is extremely anti-religious, so I thought of synagogue as a place where incomprehensible words were said to an incomprehensible (male) deity, accompanied by mystifying rituals. I also found women’s invisibility intolerable, even before I had words or analysis for that. 

I won’t tell you the full story of how from that starting point, I became the “superJew” standing before you today. But about 30 years ago, I joined a synagogue - and overcame my resistance to doing so in part because it unapologetically demonstrated a larger purpose and justice focus. I have stayed put, served on its board, devoted my professional life to work in Jewish social justice, become deeply committed to a “we” that fights for racial and economic justice -- and I’ve come to much of that because of Jewish wisdom and because of my synagogue community. My life grew in happiness and meaning and depth beyond my dreams.

How did those shifts take place? Here’s some of what I learned by and in community.

In community, I learned to extend beyond my friends and people I connect with easily. I learned that in community we look into each others’ eyes, and listen. We share fears and vulnerabilities and joys. We go beyond social chitchat.

In community, I learned that when I don’t like something, instead of  kvetching about it in the proverbial parking lot, I can ask myself it it’s really a problem, and also ask myself if I’m willing to help do something about it!

In community, I learned that when I got frustrated with people for not caring about what I care about, instead of withdrawing, I learned to understand it’s an opportunity to figure out how to provide leadership. 

In community, I developed a sense of commitment to something larger than myself or immediate family - to the whole community and concentric circles of the human family - and you could even say, to Gd, whatever I mean by that. 

In community, I learned that when I took leadership, others would back me and I would back them - making my fear of failure and isolation manageable.

In community, we can offer compassion and care even as we disagree.

In community, I learned that Jewish wisdom can free the mind and heart.  For example, consider the Exodus as the Jewish master narrative - which has the audacity to assert that liberation and transformation are possible.

I’m taking this time to talk to you about community, not just because you *are* a community and because community has helped me find the good life, but because this is a matter of much larger significance.

This life-in-community offers an alternative and even an antidote to the governing modern paradigm in which we are fundamentally customers or consumers, always evaluating what we “get” for each dollar or hour “spent.” Customers and consumers, isolated in our homes or on our screens. Customers and consumers, who may succumb to disinformation or cynicism. Customers and consumers, seeking distraction and entertainment.  Customers and consumers, who embrace celebrity culture, even as a way of relating to public life.

Community, practiced with depth, is a vanishing art form, and one that may be crucial to our survival as a country and a species. Community practiced with depth, matures us, develops us ethically, allows us to reach for transcendence, to discern what really matters in life and say yes to that.

Remember those mental pictures I shared? It’s so important to remember who and what is behind those stories. The single mom working for McDonald’s who runs out of food money each month and takes the risk of striking - along with thousands of others - to get $15 and a union. Nearly ⅓ of the workforce makes under $12/hour! The Dreamer whose childhood was marked by the daily fear of deportation - will my parents be gone when I get home from school, or will they have been taken away? The black and brown youth  dealing with fear of state violence and the constant message that their lives and well-being are disposable. The parents of those children who have to have “the talk” about that. 

The children of low-income parents whose cortisol levels are detectably elevated from stress at the tender age of 18 months! - Yes, think about that for a minute - babies with elevated cortisol levels due to poverty, which creates risk factors that affect their whole lives.

Who else do we need to think about? Me and you and whoever else is awake at or 3 am as we think about :

  • the recent grim report about effects of climate change [1]
  • Scenes of Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville
  • The fact that this year saw record numbers of overtly white nationalist candidates running for public office [2]
  • Last year’s significant increase in hate crimes, [3]
  • attacks on the press
  • attacks on the very idea of fact
  • casual misogyny, racism and homophobia.

And we can’t put out of our minds the images and cries of children and parents separated from each other, of children with mylar sheets as blankets, of children being marched through airports with minders to places and people unknown.

I know - all this is hard to hold and this is shabbat and a night of celebration! - but we have to face it and hold it, and we can face it and hold it together.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of blessed memory said the following

“I would say about individuals, an individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. I am surprised every morning that I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil, I’m not accommodated. I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere; I’m still surprised. That’s why I’m against it, why I can hope against it. We must learn how to be surprised. Not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.”

This is a perfect quote in the spirit of Rabbi Mike’s Torah.

So yes - yes to striving to be strong enough to face facts and feel feelings, and act accordingly. This is what our tradition requires of us and what community can help us do. If we treat community only as a place of retreat, we betray our tradition.

But let’s recognize that Heschel’s demand that we maintain the capacity for surprise, applies as much to beauty and joy as it does to pain and horror. In addition to the quote I just shared, Heschel was also known for his phrase “radical amazement.” Openness to life, that ability to wonder, that refusal to be numb - that applies to pain and challenge … and also to beauty and the essence of being alive. 

Think of the rainbow at the end of the Noach story - that beautiful miracle of color, that symbol of human diversity, that symbol of LGBTQ love and liberation. Here’s a confession - on the rare occasions when I see a rainbow, it sometimes takes an act of will to STOP, to BE,  to really see it and marvel. Let’s take time with our next rainbow, open to it. Revel in it. And remember also our part of the covenant. Gd - however we think about Gd - can’t redeem this world without our active and determined partnership. 

The rainbow, the beauty and genius of shabbat, the beauty of knowing and being known, the knowledge of what our ancestors have gone through so we could be here - and yes, COMMUNITY - open us to the holiness of life and its beauty , and also to the call for justice.

So - please, like Rabbi Mike, say yes. Yes to all of it.

Yes to building and living in community, and from this community, extending into larger circles and creating/engaging  larger and larger visions of “we.”

Yes to discerning what is happening in our country right now and responding with clarity and sustained action.

Yes to holding each other with lovingkindness and chesed through disagreements and confusion.

Yes to Jewish wisdom that can free our hearts and minds. 

Why not go for all of it? Yes to liberation, yes to holiness.

May this partnership between Rabbi Michael Rothbaum and this community be blessed with holy wisdom, with clear seeing, deep listening, sustained acting. May this community be blessed with radical amazement and the rainbow. YES.

Kein y’hiratzon, so may it be.




Thu, February 25 2021 13 Adar 5781