My Eyes Have Seen, My Ears Have Heard: A Human Rights Journey to the Dominican Republic

“Once the eye has seen and the ear has heard, you can no longer pretend to be uninvolved or unaffected.”

My father used to teach me this Jewish concept when I was young as we would march for social justice causes in New York City, as we would fight for the freedom of Soviet Jews, rally against the war in Viet Nam.

My parents instilled within me the notion that as a Jew, as a human being, I am morally obligated to use my voice to speak out for those who could not speak for themselves. My parents showed by example that if I witnessed evil or wrong-doing or injustice in our world, I needed to act.

I recently went to the Dominican Republic on a human rights journey to bear witness: to see with my own eyes and to hear with my own ears the powerfully moving stories and struggles of so many Dominicans.

“What!? There are human rights violations in the Dominican Republic? You aren’t going to Punta Cana to the nice beach resort?” I was asked this many times prior to my journey.

I travelled to the DR as part of a six-month Rabbinic Global Justice Fellowship with American Jewish World Service (AJWS). We went to meet with people from a number of human rights organizations, to listen to their stories, and to figure out how we can best accompany them on their journey of justice, their journey of perseverance, their journey of truth, their journey of finding humanity in the face of great difficulty.

As one of my colleagues so eloquently said, this was a journey about “becoming human.” Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, humanitarian, Torah scholar and professor, once stated: “To remain human in the face of absurd inhumanity is the real message of Judaism. And to act upon what we see is critical. Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil.”

I was privileged to be present and witness deep moral courage expressed by human beings living in the midst of discrimination, poverty and pain.

The Dominican Republic government is perpetrating great human rights violations. In 2010, the government changed their constitution to revoke the citizenship of any Dominican-born person of Haitian descent. This is a complicated situation which perpetrates a cycle of lack of birth certificates, lack of ID cards, lack of ability to enroll in schools, lack of ability to obtain employment. It perpetuates a cycle of poverty, anguish and despair. It perpetrates fear of deportation, depression and lack of will-to-live.

I went to witness the discrimination that women and girls face by a society that values a “macho” culture, where gender-based violence is the “norm” and goes unpunished. I went to hear testimony from the LGBTQ community about how the Catholic views on sexuality, combined with the “macho” culture, join to form attitudes of hatred, alienation and gross miscarriages of justice toward the LGBTQ population.

And while I went to see, listen and witness, I knew this experience would be so much more profound than all of that. Why? For even though our bodies have five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch, we cannot overlook the senses of our souls. The differences between people lie in their individual use of these senses OR in their reliance only upon their physical senses.

My senses were on overdrive during this entire trip to the DR – both my physical senses and my senses of the soul: my heart and my mind.

What I physically touched, smelled, tasted, saw and heard moved my heart, touched my spirit and deeply stirred my soul.

I am a very visual person. I notice colors, shapes and small details all around me. From the moment we arrived at the Santo Domingo departure gate at JFK airport in New York, my eyes were acutely aware of the brightly colored clothes and iridescent make-up the Dominican women seem to prefer.

The vivid orange curtains in my hotel room gave color to an ordinary and plain space. We stayed in Santo Domingo’s Colonial District. On our first day there, we walked through these narrow, old streets to our first visit with our first NGO. I was struck by the brightly painted buildings, the way the colors liven up every street, every corner, every shop.

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Many of the NGO’s we visited didn’t have running water. Each and every one of them was working on serious and critical issues: the problems of statelessness, gender-based violence, deep discrimination against the LGBTQ population, women’s issues, and so much more. And yet, each office was filled with beautiful and richly hued artwork – a feast for one’s eyes.

And even the poverty-stricken Palamerjo Batey was wrapped in color: fuscia bougainvillea, vibrant painted tin and concrete shacks, women dressed in hot pink, electric blue and grass green. A batey is a slum for Dominicans of Haitian descent. Originally, the bateys were for those who came to work in the sugar-cane fields. Often, there is no running water, no electricity, no garbage/waste removal, houses made of corrugated tin with tin roofs, sweltering in the hot sun. Dominican citizens of Haitian descent have been denied their basic rights and have no ability to gain access to education, work and other daily necessities. The DR has always discriminated against those who come from Haiti, even as they depend upon them for labor. In 2010, when the Dominican government changed their Constitution and stripped Dominican citizenship from anyone who was born in Haiti or has a parent born in Haiti, the situation of Dominicans of Haitian descent became even more dire. (Click here to read more about this: NY Times Sunday Magazine Article, January 17,  2016 In Exile or here: AJWS – Dominican Republic)

Batey
Palamerjo Batey

I found this sense of color reflected all over the DR – in the colorful buildings, people’s clothing and makeup, the blue of the water, the dramatic hand gestures, the wide, welcoming smiles. Despite whatever is happening there politically, socially, economically, it seems to me that the strong, bold, vibrant colors, the big gestures and bright smiles reflect a resiliency of spirit and attitude that say: “Notice me! I am here! I am not going away or fading into the woodwork. You can try to take away my identity, but you cannot break me and I WILL get noticed!”

My eyes also saw beyond the bright colors: the extreme poverty in the Batey, the naked children playing in the dust near barbed wire, the listless dogs lying in the dirt, the families in homes made from tin with corrugated tin roofs baking in the hot sun – with no running water and many without electricity. My eyes saw this….and my heart cried.

The bright colors did not remove the reality of pain and suffering of the daily existence, nor the great discrepancy between the “haves” and “have-nots”: those who are Dominican-born and of Haitian descent have been suffering tremendously since 2010. They are among the “have-nots”. The contrast of seeing a Porsche dealership so close to the entrance to the Batey is evidence of the great disparity of wealth that exists here.

My ears listened to stories of heartbreak, disappoint and hope:

Elena: Her story is one of the many of the 200,00 Dominicans of Haitian descent. She’s 27 years old, born in the Dominican Republic to parents who came from Haiti. Her citizenship and documentation were all revoked after 2010.

sadness
Elena

She wasn’t able to complete her education because of her lack of financial resources and her lack of status. She married young, to a man who emotionally, sexually and physically abused her and they have four children. She was on the verge of suicide when she met someone from one of the local NGO’s supported by AJWS who showed her that they will advocate on her behalf, help her to get documentation. She left her husband and is now working on trying to obtain her identification papers with the assistance of the NGO.

Jenny: Is a lawyer who is the Executive Director of Mudha. Mudha has been advocating for women and women’s issues in both the DR and in Haiti for over 32 years. Jenny shared how Dominican culture is a “machismo” culture, where women are second-class citizens. Women of Haitian descent tend to have deep black, ebony skin (a negative trait in the DR). Black skin, poverty, being female, all lead to greater suffering and more discrimination.

Mudha “takes our voices to other places where we can’t arrive”. Mudha creates schools in Bateys where no schools exist, they offer workshops to provide skills for women so they can provide for themselves and their families, they teach women how to use their voices, how to speak up for themselves and so much more.

Rose Iris: Another human rights lawyer. She travels great distances to advocate with the government on behalf of Dominican men and women of Haitian descent who have no documentation and no identification. She helps give these people the tools and resources to fight for their rights and she fights for them as well.

Jenny accompanied us to the Palamerjo Batey where we listened to more voices share their stories of exclusion, pain and love of this beautiful land. (Everywhere we went, no matter how much people were suffering, we heard tremendous love expressed for the DR). We heard Juliana, the Director of the Anaisa School (the school started and funded by Mudha). Juliana, with her presence, her every fiber, her very self radiates love for the sacred work in which she is engaged: educating and empowering children, Dominican children. She shared that only 10% of Dominican children of Haitian descent are able to continue on to high school. Only 1% of those ever continue on to university. In the Anaisa School, many children come to school with empty stomachs: there is simply no food at home. The school has no food to offer them and only enough funding to provide six snacks/month. No funds for books, no funds for supplies, no funds for learning games. We sat in chairs in a playground that had four broken and unusable swings. Yet, the children were all clean and smartly dressed in their school uniforms: blue pants/jumpers/skirts and coral shirts/blouses. There’s great pride in their appearance.

Juliana told us that as teachers, their greatest satisfaction is when the parents come to thank them for what they are accomplishing with their children.

The school has 175 students, three teachers and one assistant and only goes up through 4th grade. So few resources to help build a strong future.

We listened to more stories:

Baneiras: the 25-year old President of the Youth Group who dreams of going to university, but cannot because she cannot obtain her identity cards: she was born in the DR and her parents are of Haitian descent. So she volunteers as a community organizer to change life, to influence the world around her, to promote a better world. With the youth, she discusses violence, sexual and reproductive health and gender; she raises awareness about how the issue of no documentation affects the social mobility of the youth and how they must use their voices to change this situation; she uses the dramatic arts to create change: she’s one of a 12-member theatre group (three people from her Batey and 2 other Bateys participate as well) that used drama to highlight the issue of “garbage and waste reduction” in the Batey (the town refused to collect garbage/refuse from the Batey. Thanks to their play, this is beginning to change).

We listened to beautifully poised, graceful and articulate schoolchildren in the 4th grade as they put on a small performance for us, singing songs and reciting poetry. At first we thought: “this is so lovely. How beautiful!” But we wondered, “why aren’t they smiling while they’re performing? They all look so serious.”

And then, our interpreter translated the children’s words:

“I was born here, why are you kicking me out?”

“I am trapped like a bird in a cage, I cannot move?”

Children in 4th grade should be playing sports, worried about learning. They should not have to worry about whether or not they can even attend school, about whether or not they or their parents will be deported, about whether or not their parents can earn a living to put food on the tables, about whether or not the country they love will consider them fully human with full rights?

It immediately brought to my mind an association from the not-so -distant past of another beautiful and articulate group of children, whose citizenship was also wrested away from them, who also could not attend school: the Jewish children in the Holocaust. And I thought of the children poets of Terezin, who wrote: The Butterfly:

 

The Butterfly (Pavel Friedman, 4.6.1942)

The last, the very last,

So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.

Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing

against a white stone…

Such, such a yellow

Is carried lightly ‘way up high.

It went away I’m sure because it wished to

kiss the world goodbye.

For seven weeks I’ve lived in here,

Penned up inside this ghetto

But I have found my people here.

The dandelions call to me

And the white chestnut candles in the court.

Only I never saw another butterfly.

That butterfly was the last one.

Butterflies don’t live in here,

In the ghetto.

 

The Palamerjo Batey is also a ghetto, like Terezin. It is a slum, with no way out. With state enforced sanctions, violating human rights. We bore witness to the wonderful work the NGO’s were able to accomplish, thanks in part, to subsidies they receive from AJWS.

We listened to members of COTRAVETD, an organization dedicated to supporting the rights, health and well-being of trans sex workers, a most vulnerable community within the larger Dominican population. To be transgender in the Dominican Republic is to face unprecedented discrimination. How can one live life being trans in a society that values “machismo” above all? I sat with Jairo, Juliette and Cassandra, all trans sex workers.

Juliette introduced herself first by her birth, male name. The DR insists that all people present as their birth identities and their birth genders for their State ID’s, for all official functions. They stigmatize trans individuals as “monsters” and “aliens”. There are limited employment opportunities, barriers to healthcare and government sanctioned violence. Juliette’s father and brother kicked her out of her home when she was 10, which was when she landed up on the street for the first time. Often, sex-work is the only opportunity for earning an income that’s available to trans individuals.

We heard the stories of leaders and volunteers who are part of REVASA, an

LGBT
Deivas

organization working for equality, advocacy and support for the LGBT communities. I listened to Deivas, who is running for political office — as an openly gay man and a devout Catholic. In a moving campaign-style speech, Deivas said, “What we want is not just for ourselves but for the whole world. Ours is a message of love.

 

Our journey continued to Haina, the most polluted town in the Western hemisphere. We learned how the Free Trade Agreement with the United States deprived people of earning a living wage, because Free Trade is unregulated: no rules for wages, working hours or conditions. The plastic and rubber that is manufactured in Haina and brought back to the US grossly pollutes the air, water and ground. People have extraordinarily high rates of cancer and other illnesses, extremely high rates of abject poverty, and lives that are sorely compromised.

In Haina , we listened to the women of the Junta de Mujeres Mama Tingo who have organized as an umbrella organization to support one another and their communities. They defend their rights and confront gender-based violence, especially violence in the family, they advocate for themselves in the political process and work to teach boys and men about the “new masculinity.” At Mama Tingo, solidarity and working together is very important. Everything is done in teamwork. Their successes are impressive. We met with young girls, teenagers, women young and old. While there, we learned that one of our interpreters who had been with us all week was ready to share her story: Arsi’s mother was a victim of “femicide:” when her mother was 35, her husband killed her, leaving Arsi mother-less, scared and vulnerable. The people with whom we met throughout the week, the stories we heard, gave Arsi hope, raised her spirit. When she heard about the good work being accomplished at Mama Tingo, she cried, wishing that no other women will ever have to experience what her mother and she went through at the hands of her father.

And then the women sang, the girls danced. They lifted their voices, their hands and their hearts to us and we heard words of hope, smiles of solidarity.

singing
Celebrating Community at Junta de Mujeres Mama Tingo

Throughout the time we were there, we tasted and smelled the scent of hope in the actions of those who are dedicated to changing the world in which they live: Luis, AJWS’s “man on the ground in the DR” and so many, many people who touched me with their courage, their strength, their generosity. Facing incredible hardships and assaults on their dignity, they are standing up, taking risks, acting in solidarity, committed to systemic change, basic rights and human dignity of all people.

They remind me of Nachshon, based on a rabbi’s tale (called a midrash) written about the the Torah portion from the week we were there, Parshat B’Shalach (from the Book of Exodus, the Song of the Sea). When Nachshon arrived at the Sea of Reeds, he saw the deep water in front of him, and Pharaoh’s army, horses and chariots chasing behind him. He knew if he waited for someone to do something, we would either drown or be killed. So he took one small step on his own, to save his own life. He walked into the water. It came up to his ankles. Then he waded in more deeply until it came up to his knees. Then he walked further until it came up to his waist. Pharaoh’s army was drawing closer and closer. So Nachshon continued walking into the depths of the sea. When the water was up to his nostril’s God said: “Now I know that this people is ready to be saved. When I see that they are ready to help themselves, I can now walk alongside and do my part.” And at that moment, God had Moses raise his staff, the waters parted and the Israelites walked safely to the other side.

The people we met during our visit are the Nachshons of our day. They are wading deeply into the waters, knowing and hoping that they must be the agents of change, one small step at a time. We are the ones who must walk alongside, holding the waters back, making it possible for them to get safely to the other side.

We touched the hands of those with whom we spent time, knowing that this physical touch will profoundly touch our hearts, minds and move us to action. We saw how AJWS touched so many by engaging with others in the meaningful, important and good work they do.

Now that I am back home, I ask that you join me on this journey. That you serve as witness as well, as you hear the voices of Jenny, Baneiris, Elena, Juliette and all those who are fighting for their basic rights. As you read their tales of darkness and despair, of injustice and hope for a better world.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible if they do not speak up and act out against injustice.”

Click on the link below to sign the petition, asking the United States government to pressure the Dominican Government to end the crisis that is taking place with the issue of statelessness:

https://ajws.org/action/dr/

Together, you and I can make a difference. As the prayer we recited at the very beginning of our journey in the DR says:

Let us remember that we travel not for the sake of travel alone, but to have our perspectives on the world transformed.

Let us take responsibility for our own actions and words as we study and work, listen and learn, struggle and grow.

Let us arrive safely at our destination and leave secure in the knowledge that we have helped to create change: change that is meaningful, lasting and real.  (AJWS “Reflection”, Tefilaft Haderech, Travelers Prayer)

Watch this space for further “calls to action.”

Star Wars – May the Force Be With You, A Jewish View

(This was my D’var Torah – my brief sermon –  at Temple Isaiah, Stony Brook, on Friday, December 18, 2015. Parshat Vayigash. The day after “Star Wars – The Force Awakens” opened).

Shabbat Shalom! This is a very special Shabbat – “Shabbat Star Wars.” I’m sure that everyone is aware that the new Star Wars movie opened last night. I haven’t yet had an opportunity to see it – but from all accounts, it is “out of this world!”

And if you haven’t tried this trick yet, type the words: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” into the Google search bar… the results will amaze you!

star-wars-episode-7-image

The first Star Wars movies came out when I was just finishing high school– 38 years ago. Yet, the Star Wars phenomenon and appeal have never gone away, even after all these years. My young six-year old nephews, and so many other young children love everything about Star Wars:  collecting Star Wars Lego sets, books and paraphernalia. They can describe in great detail all of the intricacies involving the characters and the plot-lines, they love making up their own Star Wars stories and they’re excited to see the new movie.

So I  thought that this evening would be a good time to spend a few moments sharing some thoughts about “Star Wars –The Jewish View.” The movies have much to teach us and share common themes with our ancient Jewish texts.

First, Obi Wan Kenobi – the legendary Jedi master,  explains that the Force is what gives Jedis their powers. The Force surrounds us and penetrates us, he explains. The Force binds the galaxy together.

In our Torah portion this week, Vayigash, (from the book of Genesis) we see the ultimate Jewish Jedi: Joseph. He’s in charge of all of Egypt. The only one who is more powerful than him is Pharaoh. Yet, Joseph’s power doesn’t come from Pharaoh – it comes from his connection with the Divine, his belief and his faith in God. In this week’s Torah portion, God has inspired Joseph and enabled him to forgive his brothers for selling him into slavery so long ago. With God by his side, Joseph and his family are able to reconcile and move forward as a united family.

We too, can find strength and sustenance with God’s presence in our lives. Just as the Force is what gives a Jedi his/her powers, God is what gives meaning to our very existence. God is what binds OUR universe together.

Next, In all the Star Wars movies, we see deep and significant friendships developing between Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, R2D2, C3P0, Chewbacca, Wookie and so many other creatures of all shapes, sizes, levels of hairiness and colors. This is a celebration of diversity at its best – an acknowledgement that “all life forms matter.”  We see in these stories how true friends value each other’s special gifts, and remain loyal when adversity strikes. When faced with challenges or obstacles, friends are there to help you overcome those obstacles or to save you if you need help.

In our Joseph story, Pharaoh was a true friend to Joseph. He greatly valued all of Joseph’s special gifts and acknowledged Joseph’s talent, wisdom and abilities. So much so, that he assisted Joseph in reuniting with his family and gave Joseph’s family excellent land on which to live when they came to Egypt. The friendship was reciprocated.

Our Jewish tradition teaches us (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 8) that we should “Acquire for yourself a friend.”   What is the meaning of this text?  The commentators say that this text teaches us that we should acquire a friend with whom to eat and drink, read and study, sleep and share secrets of Torah and personal secrets.

In the beginning of the Torah, as part of the creation story, God says: “It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a fitting help-mate for him.” God then creates Eve. People are meant to live in relationships: with partners, with friends, with community.

As a Jewish community, this notion is reinforced by the fact that we need a minyan – a quorum of 10 people – in order to recite certain prayers. As a people, we believe that it is important to live in community, surrounded by others. As Jews, we do not live in isolation. We cannot celebrate the passage of time or the cycle of life alone. The power of friendships and the power of community can be uplifting indeed. And just like in Star Wars, we are taught that the honor of one’s “fellow is as precious to us as our own.” (Pirke Avot 2:10)

Third, Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi represent wise, revered elders, who have much to teach those who are leading the way. At first glance, Yoda doesn’t seems like much to behold: he is small, wrinkled, shriveled. But looks can be deceiving: he is the Jedi Master par excellence. His wisdom is beyond compare. Obi Wan Kenobi, too, has much to share with others. He is a great leader and has lived his life with struggle and battle, overcoming some and losing others.

Obi Wan Kenobi’s life has been just like all of ours. Each of us has experienced the joys and struggles of life. And we get through life with the help and guidance of trusted and wise mentors.

In this week’s Torah portion, When Joseph reconnects with his father, Jacob, we see that Jacob, too, is old and has lived a long life, full of trials and tribulations, joys and heartache. Jacob, in his advanced years (in the Torah over the next few weeks) will still have much to teach to his children and grandchildren.

We are taught: “Aseh l’cha rav, u’kneh l’cha chaver – Acquire for yourself a teacher, and you will make for yourself a friend.” (Pirke Avot 1:6).  None of us is expert in all things – we can each learn from those who came before us, from those who are our peers and from those who are younger than us. We must have an inquiring mind, an open heart and a willing spirit, if we want our future to be bright with hope and fulfillment.

Finally, in Star Wars, there is always the Dark Side of the Force, represented by Darth Vader and his minions, his evil deep breath (can you hear his: “huuuuuuuuuuhhhhhhh”?  – deep breathing noise here). Egypt – initially in the Torah – represented a place of plenty and sustenance. It was the place that Abraham and Sarah went to get food during a famine. Joseph and his family lived long and prospered there. OK the phrase“live long and prosper” belongs to “Star Trek,” not “Star Wars – but I couldn’t resist!”  Egypt initially was a place of plenty, bounty and goodness. And then, the dark force took over…and we saw the another side of Egypt.

But if it weren’t for the Dark Side of Egypt, we never would have left, never would have gone to Sinai, never formed a covenant with God, never would have received the 10 Commandments, and never become the People we are today.

We are taught: There are two forces that exist within each one of us: the Yetzer Ha-Rah and the Yetzer Ha-Tov. The good inclination and the evil inclination. It is the Yetzer Ha-Rah, the evil inclination that motivates each of us to find a partner, to go to work each day, to procure food, to take care of our families. And it is the good inclination, the Yetzer Ha-tov that makes sure that we don’t do anything to excess, and that we take care of the stranger and feed the hungry, clothe the naked. We need each one of these inclinations to balance the other. We need each to have a healthy existence on this earth.

There are so many more Jewish themes in Star Wars – perhaps we should all arrange to go and see the movie together!

For now, however, I will conclude by saying: “May the Force surround you and be with you, may you find loving companions to guide you through life’s path, and may your Yetzer Ha-Tov always take precedence over your Yetzer Ha-rah! Shabbat Shalom and May the Force be with You!

Chanukah: Lighting the Sparks of Justice

My six-year old nephew Max is a wonderful combination of raucous Ninja-turtle-loving boy and mature-beyond-his years sensitive soul.

I love sitting with him in restaurants as he spontaneously compliments our server by telling her: “You’re beautiful!” Or, when we’re at a family gathering, he will suddenly tell everyone: “I love you! Group hug!”

So when my sister-in-law posted this photo of Max on Facebook from the first night of Chanukah,  I wasn’t surprised to see the most beautiful expression of joy on his face as he observed his Chanukiyah with its glowing candles (a Chanukiyah is a menorah specifically used for Chanukah. A menorah is any multi-branched candelabrum). He made this chanukiyah himself and his face is just radiant – like the candles:

Max Chanukah 2015

Max, and his nine-year-old sister Zoe, care about the world around them. Even at their young ages, they understand that not everyone feels the warmth and glow of the holiday lights, or the love of family and friends, or the feeling of having food in their bellies  or the security of a safe and secure home.

The word “chanukah” means “dedication.” Historically, our holiday is a celebration of religious freedom – freedom of the Jewish people’s right to practice our own religion in our own country in safety and security. We celebrate the rededication of our Temple in Jerusalem which had been desecrated by the Greek/Syrian army in 165 BCE.  The actual ritual celebration evolved to become a “Festival of Lights.” (For a more complete description of Chanukah – please see the description here:)

History of Chanukah

There are those who still threaten to fracture our world today. Every day, we read of examples of xenophobia (fear of foreigners or “the other”), hatred, violence, war, bloodshed, refugees with nowhere to go, hunger, poverty, homelessness, racism. The list of maladies which afflicts us seems never-ending.

Yet, Chanukah is all about hope. The flames on the candles remind us that all it takes is one spark to light a flame: a flame that leads to justice, a flame that leads to healing and wholeness. One flame in the darkness can bring great light, great warmth to a very dark place: one spark of righteous deeds can inspire others to do the same.

This Chanukah, this Festival of Lights, as we kindle our Chanukah candles, I hope that we can dedicate ourselves anew to bringing justice, hope and light to our broken world.

Let each of us be that spark or flame that ignites others to join in repairing our world:  “ani v’atah n’shaneh et ha’olam” – together, you and I can change the world.

And we’ll work together to keep the flame alive, as Peter, Paul and Mary sing: “Don’t Let the Light Go Out”

 

We Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem…And All Who Dwell There

On Shabbat, we typically light two candles.

Why? Because in the Torah the Ten Commandments are repeated twice, the first time in Exodus 20 and the second time in Deuteronomy 5.

In each of these, the commandment about Shabbat is slightly different, in Exodus 20:8 we are told to “remember” (zachor) the Sabbath day to keep it holy.  In Deuteronomy 5:12, we are told to “observe” (shamor) the Sabbath day to keep it holy.

Thus the rabbis of old say we light two candles on Shabbat, one to represent “remember” and one to represent “observe”.   The act of “remembering” is passive, while the act of “observing” is active. Shabbat requires that we do both: we remember our history, while we do something physical do make Shabbat our own unique experience.

Candles for Shabbat
Candles for Shabbat

We light candles because the flame is a symbol of God’s divine presence. It is symbolic of the spark of goodness in each of us. Light one candle in a dark room and the entire room is illuminated by the warmth and glow of that single flame.

Shabbat is a taste of that time to come when the world will be filled with the divine sparks within each of us and when each of us can see the divine sparks in the other. No more war, no more violence, no more bloodshed.

This week, we observe Shabbat during a time of terrible violence and unrest in Israel. Let the light of our Shabbat candles be a beacon of light and hope for all. Let us pray for an end to that violence, an end to the acts of terrorism, an end to the bloodshed.

We know that the light of the Shabbat candles reminds us that fire can either spark acts of goodness in others, or can ignite the flames of hatred or enmity. We pray that the flames will ignite passion for righteous deeds, acts of love, the pursuit of peace.

(What follows below is from Amichai Lau-Lavie, The Founding Director of Storahtelling, Inc)

I share with you a beautiful ritual created by two religious leaders who are mothers and lovers of peace. They came came together during a previous time of violence in the Middle East to compose a new prayer for peace: The Prayer of the Mothers.

Sheikha Ibtisam Mahameed and Rabba Tamar Elad-Appelbaum invite us to take their prayer into our hearts and into the world.

Read it below – in Arabic and Hebrew.

They also created a new ritual at that time: Inviting us all to light a candle on Fridays – for peace. Another candle for the Sabbath Keeping Jews, a candle for Muslims on their sacred day.

See the invocation for this ritual below. They ask that we help spread this precious new prayer and ritual.

May we not  light this extra candle for the rest of our lives.  But let’s start lighting it tonight.

Shalom. Salaam. Peace.

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CANDLE FOR PEACE

Let us Light Candles for Peace
Two mothers, one plea:
Now, more than ever, during these days of so much crying, on the day that is sacred to both our religions, Friday, Sabbath Eve
Let us light a candle in every home – for peace:
A candle to illuminate our future, face to face,
A candle across borders, beyond fear.
From our family homes and houses of worship
Let us light each other up,
Let these candles be a lighthouse to our spirit
Until we all arrive at the sanctuary of peace.

Ibtisam Mahameed Tamar Elad-Appelbaum

!تعالوﻭاﺍ نضﯾﻳئ شمعاتﺕ اﺍلسلامﻡ

وﻭاﺍلدﺩتانﻥ وﻭطﻁلبﺏ وﻭاﺍحدﺩ: خصﯾﻳصا اﺍلانﻥ, في ھﮪﮬﻫذﺫهﻩ اﺍلاﯾﻳامﻡ, اﺍﯾﻳامﻡ اﺍلبكاء اﺍلكبﯾﻳرﺭ, في اﺍلﯾﻳوﻭمﻡ اﺍلمقدﺩسﺱ لدﺩﯾﻳاناتنا, في ﯾﻳوﻭمﻡ اﺍلجمعة وﻭمساء اﺍلسبتﺕ, نضﯾﻳئ في كلﻝ بﯾﻳتﺕ شمعة للسلامﻡ: شمعة تطﻁالبﺏ بوﻭجﮫﻪ اﺍلمستقبلﻝ, وﻭجﮫﻪ اﺍلانسانﻥ. شمعﮫﻪ تنتصرﺭ على اﺍلحدﺩوﻭدﺩ وﻭاﺍلرﺭعبﺏ. منﻥ بﯾﻳوﻭتﺕ عائلاتنا وﻭبﯾﻳوﻭتﺕ صلوﻭاﺍتنا نضﯾﻳئ اﺍحدﺩنا للاخرﺭ وﻭاﺍلشموﻭعﻉ تكوﻭنﻥ اﺍلبرﺭوﻭجﺝ وﻭاﺍلفنارﺭ لارﺭوﻭاﺍحنا

!حتى نصلﻝ لمعبدﺩ اﺍلسلامﻡ. اﺍبتسامﻡ محامﯾﻳدﺩ

!تمارﺭ اﺍلعادﺩ-اﺍفالبوﻭمﻡ !!!

!בואו נאיר נרות שלום

שתי אמהות ובקשה אחת: שדווקא עכשיו, בימי הבכייה הגדולה האלה, בימים המקודשים לדתות שלנו, בשישי ובערב שבת, נדליק בכל בית נר לשלום: נר שמבקש פני עתיד, פני אדם. נר שצולח גבולות ואימה. מבתי המשפחות ומבתי התפילה שלנו נאיר זה לזה והנרות יהיו מגדלור לרוחנו

עד שנבוא אל היכל השלום

איבתיסאם מחמיד

תמר אלעד-אפלבום

 images-1

THE MOTHERS PRAYER: 

God of Life:

You who heals the broken hearted, binding up our wounds.

Please hear this prayer of mothers.
You did not create us to kill each other
Nor to live in fear or rage or hatred in your world. You created us so that we allow each other to sustain Your Name in this world:

Your name is Life, your name is Peace.

For these I weep, my eye sheds water:
For our children crying in the night,
For parents holding infants, despair and darkness in their hearts.
For a gate that is closing – who will rise to open it before the day is gone?

With my tears and with my constant prayers, With the tears of all women deeply pained at these harsh times

I raise my hands to you in supplication: Please God have mercy on us.

Hear our voice that we not despair That we will witness life with each other, That we have mercy one for another, That we share sorrow one with the other, That we hope, together, one for another.

Inscribe our lives in the book of Life

For Your sake, our God of Life Let us choose Life.

For You are Peace, Your world is Peace and all that is Yours is Peace,
May this be your will
And let us say Amen.

Sheikha Ibtisam Mahameed and Rabba Tamar Elad-Appelbaum

English Translation Amichai Lau-Lavie, The Founding Director of Storahtelling, Inc.

أغنية الحياة والسلام

صلاة مشتركة

اله الحياة
الذي ُيشفي القلوب الحزينة والمتألمة استمع لو سمحت الى صلاة الأمهات

لأنك لم تخلقنا لكي نقتل بعضنا بعضا
وليس لكي نعيش بحالة من الخوف, الغضب والكراهية في عالمك هذا
بل لكي نسمح لبعضنا البعض أن نذكر أسمك
اسم الحياة, اسم السلام في العالم.

على جميع هؤلاء أنا أبكي دوما
أبكي خوفا على الأطفال في الليالي
يحمل الآباء أطفالهم الصغار واليأس والظلام في قلوبهم على البوابة التي أغلقت والتي لا نعرف من سوف يقوم بفتحها

وبالدموع والصلوات التي أصليها طيلة الوقت
وبدموع النساء اللواتي يشعرن بهذا الألم القوي في هذه الأوقات العصيبة
أنا أرفع يدي اليك يا ربي أن ترحمنا
لنعيش مع بعضنا البعض
ونشفق على بعضنا البعض
ونواسي بعضنا البعض

ونأمل الخير لبعضنا البعض

ولكي نكتب قصة حياتنا في كتاب الحياة من أجلك يا اله الحياة
امنحنا أن نختار الحياة

لأنك السلام ومنزلتك السلام وكل ما لديك سلام بإذن الله لنقل آمين

ابتسام محاميد وتمار العاد- أفلڨوم

מלך חפץ בחיים הרופא לשבורי לב ומחבש לעצבותם

שמע נא תפילת אמהות

שאתה לא בראתנו על מנת שנהרוג זה בזה ולא על מנת שנחיה בפחד, כעס ושנאה בעולמך אלא על מנת שנדע לתת רשות זה לזה לקיים את שמך שם חיים, שם שלום בעולם

על אלה אני בוכיה עיני עיני יורדה מים על ילדים בוכים מפחד בלילות
על הורים אוחזים עולליהם וייאוש ואפלה בלבם על שער אשר נסגר ומי יקום ויפתחהו טרם פנה יום

ובדמעות ובתפלות שאני מתפללת כל הזמן ובדמעות כל הנשים שכואבות את הכאב החזק בזמן הקשה הזה
הריני מרימה את ידיי למעלה
אנא ממך אדוני רחם עלינו
שמע קולנו ה׳ אלהינו בימי הרעה האלה שלא נתייאש ונראה חיים זה בזה
ונרחם זה על זה
ונצטער זה על זה
ונקווה לזה לזה

ונכתוב את חיינו בספר החיים למענך אלהים חיים. תן שנבחר בחיים

כי אתה שלום וביתך שלום וכל אשר לך שלום וכן יהי רצון ונאמר אמן

Do Not Remain Indifferent – Syrian Refugee Crisis

The Statue of Liberty is a “quintessential” New York landmark, anchored in the Harbor in lower Manhattan, just south of Battery Park.

We take this special iconic site for granted. We see it all the time. We have a tendency to forget what Lady Liberty is supposed to represent.

How often do we think of the poem inscribed on its base, by Jewish poet, Emma Lazarus, in which the Statue of Liberty is depicted as the “Mother of Exiles?

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The huddled masses “yearning to breathe free” are crying out to us now: from Syria, Eritrea and so many other places throughout the world: 60 million people world-wide are displaced for one reason or another. We are in the midst of one of the worst refugee/humanitarian crises of our time since the Holocaust.

It is up to us to act, to mobilize, to raise our arm and be that beacon of light “lifting our lamp beside the golden door” helping people find refuge, safety, security and a place to call ‘home.’

Our hearts ache. Our joy these Holy Days is incomplete. As long as people are suffering, our world cannot be filled with shalom (peace) or shleimut (wholeness). 

The time for action is now. There is much to do. Together, you and I can change the world.

Click here for my Rosh Hashanah morning sermon  with more details: “Do Not Remain Indifferent – the Syrian Refugee Crisis”

And,

See the flyer below for a few suggested action steps.

"Hear the Call, Be the Call" - Action Steps
“Hear the Call, Be the Call” – Action Steps

Dying with Dignity, Strength, Gratitude and Love: A Lesson for Us All

My friend and congregant Lisa is passionate about hearts.

She finds them in the clouds, she sees hearts in the pattern in the cracks on the sidewalk, she has the uncanny ability to find the one beautiful autumn leaf that is formed into the most perfectly shaped heart.

Lisa radiates love and light. The heart as a symbol of love, life and hope perfectly represents Lisa’s upbeat and positive approach to daily living.

“Find Your Heart” – Artwork and Book by Pedie Wolfond

And as a way to help others understand her approach, Lisa has started to collect hearts, post inspirational sayings on Facebook expressing her philosophy and sharing her writings.

Perhaps the most important and precious heart Lisa has ever found, she discovered over 25 years ago.  Lisa connected with the one true heart that would ever root itself within her own heart and make its permanent home there: she met her soon-be-husband Doug while she was teaching at a small private pre-school in Commack.

Immediately, Lisa and Doug each knew that their relationship was special and that their two hearts were meant to be together. Thus began a 25+ year love affair which many of us can only hope to achieve: they share the same values and core beliefs, they have raised two beautiful and wonderful boys and share the same parenting goals. They encourage each other to grow and learn as individuals, enriching their marriage and their family in the process. They celebrate each other’s achievements and support each other every step of the way.

Truly,  Doug, Lisa, and their sons, Evan and Jordan – have hearts that “beat in sync” and even in harmony.

So a few months ago, when Doug was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer the family was initially devastated. However, their strong family bonds, Lisa’s deep spirituality and positive attitude, enabled the family to be together in powerful and meaningful ways. The nurturing heart embraced them all.

Lisa also believes it’s important for the greater community to be part of the healing process. We’re  told in our Jewish tradition, that when you visit the sick, “you take away 1/60th of their pain.” We know from studies, that there is great power in reciting prayers for healing for those who are ill – even if they are not aware they are being recited. So Lisa reached out to every resource available: the Jewish community, her own friends and family.

Every day, she would post positive messages and quotes on Facebook, she would surround Doug with symbols of healing and other positive images. The family was able to share wonderful bonding experiences together over the summer.

At the same time, Evan and Jordan were still able to experience the summer as teenagers, having fun with their friends and girlfriends. Doug started chemotherapy treatment not too long ago and things seemed to be moving forward toward a better future.

At the end of last week, Doug took a turn for the worse. And then two nights ago, everything came crashing down. They were told that the cancer had further metastasized and basically, there was nothing more that could be done. Doug’s situation is very serious.

Doug did not want to be poked and prodded. He wants his remaining time to be comfortable. The family made the decision for Doug to enter hospice care two nights ago.

When I went to visit yesterday, I wasn’t sure what I would find. The family had been so full of hope for Doug’s recovery. Doug, Lisa and the boys are young. The future still has so much in store for all of them. Were they ready to accept that Doug was now on a new journey, one where his physical body would die sometime in the near future?

My visit yesterday with Lisa, with Doug and the boys was extremely powerful and moving.

How do you prepare those around you for the fact that you are now on the final journey of your life and that death is imminent?

How do you prepare yourself for this final journey when you know you will be leaving this earthly world?

How does one prepare to say “goodbye” to our loved one who is making this final journey?

She and I sat talking outside in the healing garden while Doug slept.

Waterfall in the healing garden at Good Shepherd Hospice
Waterfall in the healing garden at Good Shepherd Hospice

I was in awe of Lisa’s tremendous strength at this most difficult and painful time.

Doug’s heart is so deeply embedded within Lisa, and she and Doug have spent so much time speaking about what is taking place now, that Lisa has been preparing herself for this moment. She knows this will not be an easy time. She knows that she cannot possibly know what she will feel when “the time comes.” However, she knows that she will always feel Doug’s beautiful heart with her always. 

I was able to spend time alone with Doug. Obviously, this is not where Doug hoped his illness would lead, but he also knows that he cannot change things. Doug’s heart is so open and full, full of love and gratitude:  he expressed love and gratitude for all the blessings he had in his life: his beautiful family,  gratitude for his wonderful supportive congregation and me, for his co-workers, for everything in his life. We spoke of ways to make this part of the journey meaningful for him and his family, to say “goodbye” and “I love you”. We spoke of what it might mean when he’s physically gone, but we hope his beautiful heart and  spirit will still be felt by those close to him. We spoke of these things and so much more.

His attitude, his dignity, his approach, his tremendous sense of love, gratitude and acceptance brought me to tears. I felt as if he was the one leading the way for all of us. He was showing us that everything was going to be ok. He would be the one in the driver’s seat, and then he would hand the steering wheel to someone else at the designated time, when it was time for him to “go off into the sunset.”

As Lisa, Evan, Jordan and Lisa’s mother came into the room, we spoke of these things for a bit longer.

Lisa, Evan, Jordan and Doug held hands – and I took a photo.

The Walters' Family Hands
The Walters’ Family Hands

Lisa has always loved my blogs. I had asked if I could write something about Doug’s and her tremendous strength during this time (without using their names) and her reply was: “Please – use our names.” And Doug gave his permission as well. They both feel if they can help someone else going through something similar, that  it is so important and worthwhile to do so.

I asked everyone to hold hands and make a circle of love. I sang two different mi sheberach prayers – prayers of healing. I asked for healing of mind, body and spirit for all of them. I asked for them to find the strength for this journey with the love, support and nurturing embrace of each other.

El na r’fa na la – God please heal her now,

R’fu-at ha-nefesh, r’fu-at ha-guf, r-fu-ah shleimah – healing of the soul, healing of the body, complete healing

Heal us now.

Doug and Lisa, Evan and Jordan – we wish you comfort and strength on this journey. Know that we are here for you however you need us, whenever you need us. Doug, you are going to a place where we cannot accompany you. We wish you peace and smooth sailing. We will take care of your family.  Your heart will live within all of us, beating strong and loud, lighting the way toward the future. Inspiring us to live as you would want us to live. 

L’chi lach – to a place that I will show you.

Lech l’cha – to a place you do not know.

L’chi lach – to a place that I will show you

And you shall be a blessing, And you shall be a blessing, And you shall be a blessing

L’chi lach. (Debbie Friedman, based on Genesis 12:1-2)

Breathe In…Breathe Out: Preparing for the Days of Awe

When I was young, my parents would take my siblings and me on long car rides to visit relatives out-of state. One of our favorite songs to sing on those rides was: “The ants go marching one-by-one, hoorah, hoorah!…” When we played outside, we loved watching ants climb into their colonies, busy with their work. The ants fascinated me.

I was not quite so fascinated with ants, however, these past few weeks, as they took over my kitchen. At first, there were just a few, scurrying over the counter and near the sink. I set traps. I sprayed. Nothing helped. The situation became so bad that I realized I had to call in the exterminator.

He sprayed the entire exterior of the house and then the inside: the kitchen, upstairs, the bathrooms, and I thought I was finished (although he did tell me to call him back in two weeks if I still had a problem).

And then after two weeks, “the ants go marching one-by-one…” Just as I was preparing for a dinner  party, I went to my floor-to-ceiling pantry, and I realized that I had floor-to-ceiling ants. Everywhere. Crawling up the walls. On the ceiling. In the pantry. Everywhere. And not “one-by-one” but by the thousands! A million times worse than before. It was as if they thought THEY had been invited to the party! And my guests were coming in five hours! Eek! I still had a lot of cooking to do. OY! How was I ever going to get it all done?!

I called the exterminator again in a panic. Left a message. Started to empty the pantry. Thankfully he called back right away and said he could come that same day. But I did have to empty the entire pantry and a few other cupboards.

Thankfully, my food was not infested. But I was thinking, how am I going to pull off getting this dinner ready? I now had the contents of my entire pantry on my dining room floor, table and in parts of the kitchen.

And then I realized, just breathe.

BreatheNo one was sick. No one was hurt. It wan’t an emergency. My house looked like a mess, but if I took a minute to just breathe, I would find a way to get everything finished.

So I breathed, slowly – in and out. I reviewed my list of what I was serving. I prepared each item one at a time. I ignored the mess on the floor. I found things that needed to be thrown away that had been sitting in the cupboard for too long.

The exterminator came. I finished prepping. I even had time to put everything away and clean up the kitchen before my guests arrived. I just didn’t have time to change my clothes, but it was ok.

And I sat down with my guests and just relaxed. And breathed and enjoyed being with them in my serene backyard.

My situation with the ants comes at a time on our Jewish calendar when we are also supposed to metaphorically “breathe”. This coming Saturday evening, we usher in the Hebrew month of Elul. This is the month that immediately precedes our High Holy Days. We’re supposed to slow down, breathe in, breathe out. We’re supposed to stop rushing around trying to “get it all done.”

During this time we review our own lists: how was our past year? What went well? What could have been better? What relationships can we improve? To whom do we need to say “I am sorry?” Do we have excess “stuff” that we’ve been carrying around for too long that we can/should “throw away” or let go?

How do we prepare our own souls, our own selves, so when Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur do arrive next month we are spiritually, emotionally and physically ready for all they entail?

If we stop, take the time to breathe, reflect and think, we can enter these Days of Awe refreshed, renewed, and with full intention of heart, mind and spirit.

Kol ha’n’shamah t’haleil Yah, hal’lu Yah!

Let all that breathes praise God, Halleluya! (Psalm 150:6)

Food for Mind, Body and Spirit

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