Twin Cities Tzedek Now

It is not up to you to finish the work, yet you are not free to avoid it. (Pirke Avot 2:16)

Voter ID Amendment (Don’t Stand Idly By)

I have the distinct honor of posting Rabbi Esther Adler’s Yom Kippur sermon.

I was struck by the courage of this statement, coming as it did on the holiest of days in the Jewish calendar.

Please read and re-post, tweet, forward, and spread the word!

Don’t Stand Idly By: Voter ID
Rabbi Esther Adler ©

Mount Zion Temple
Yom Kippur 5773, September 26, 2012

It has been said that every rabbi has just one sermon that they preach over and over in different ways. I believe it is true. Those of you who have heard me speak from this bima over the years probably have a pretty good idea of what my one sermon is. But today you will hear a different sermon from me. And to be frank, I am a little nervous about stepping outside of my sermonic comfort zone.

But first, a story: A rabbi was crossing through the woods when he saw a huge bear approaching. He tried to run away but soon he was trapped. Fearing his end was near, he began to pray, “Shema Yisrael…”1 When he was done he heard the bear saying “Baruch AtahAdonai…” The Rabbi was overjoyed ‐ a Jewish bear! We’re mishpocheh ‐ I’m saved!” Then he heard the bear finish his prayer:”…hamotzi lechem min haaretz.”

The bear was reciting the blessing before meals.

Moral of the story: Things are not always what they seem.

I want to talk to you today about something that is not at all what it seems. It is the proposed amendment to the Minnesota constitution entitled: “Photo Identification Required for Voting.” The question on the [Minnesota] November 6 ballot reads:

“Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to require all voters to present valid
photo identification to vote and to require the state to provide free identification to
eligible voters, effective July 1, 2013?” Yes, or No.

My first reaction to this was “Sure; that makes sense.” And that is what proponents of the amendment are counting on. Their tagline is “Its just common sense.” With this, I agree ‐ given Merriam‐Webster’s definition of common sense as “…judgment based on a simple perception of the situation…” But simple perception is not the best source for important decision making.

When Jews study, it is always with the aid of commentary. Our Torah commentator par excellence is Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, known by the acronym Rashi. Rashi explored both the plain sense and the underlying meanings of every verse in the Torah. His commentary is so preeminent that we have come to use his name to refer to the very exercise of close text study and of gleaning hidden implications.

So let’s “do the Rashi” on the ballot question.

“Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended…
Rashi might note: This issue comes before the voters as a constitutional amendment because after receiving a majority vote along party lines in the Legislature, it has twice been vetoed by the governor. Constitutional amendments cannot be vetoed.

“to require all voters…
Rashi might emphasize that “all voters” means NO EXCEPTIONS.

“to present valid photo identification to vote…
Rashi might speculate what will qualify as valid photo identification. The amendment’s authors have said that this will be left up to the 2013 Legislature. But by all indications it will be a very strict standard, ‐ the strictest of any state in the nation: To be valid for voting, the ID will have to be issued by the state, and contain a current photo, current name, current address, and an expiration date.

“and to require the state to provide free identification to eligible voters…
Rashi might wonder: How will the eligible voters get the free identification? Who will pay for it? What documentation will be required? Here, his commentary would go on for several pages. I’ll get to that in a moment.

And about the whole thing, Rashi might ask, “Ma Pit’om?” Why?

The purported goal is “election integrity and fraud prevention.” This sounds reasonable, but the fact is that voter impersonation ‐ the only kind of fraud that photo ID would prevent ‐ is virtually non‐existent in Minnesota.

We have a very good election system in Minnesota. We topped the nation in voter turnout in 2008. In 2008 and 2010 – Minnesota’s elections underwent close scrutiny in recounts. The legal teams of both parties pronounced our system squeaky clean. Senator Coleman’s lead attorney said “We were looking for fraud, but found none.” He went on to say that Minnesota’s system is transparent and remarkably thorough.2

So as a fraud‐prevention or election integrity measure, this constitutional change is unnecessary.

It will also be unwieldy and very costly in both time and money. Start‐up costs have been estimated at over 55 million dollars to cover the free IDs, a new balloting system, hardware, software, and staffing.

If the issue was simply that this is unnecessary and impractical, it would not be a fitting topic for Yom Kippur, and I would be delivering a more comfortable sermon.  The fact is that it is patently unjust, and as Jews we are obligated to oppose it. As Elie Wiesel said in his 1986 Nobel Laureate lecture: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”3 Disenfranchising anybody threatens the very foundation of the democracy we cherish. Free, fair, and accessible voting is the cornerstone of American democracy, and this will make voting costly, unfair, and inaccessible for the most vulnerable members of our society. The amendment is modeled after Indiana’s voter ID law, which disenfranchised more Indiana voters
in two years, than the all the voter impersonations found in the entire country over two decades.4

The Voting Rights Act– which was drafted in the Washington office of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism ‐ outlawed discriminatory voting in 1965. At the time President Lyndon Johnson said:

[A]about this there can and should be no argument. Every American citizen must have an equal right to vote. There is no duty which weighs more heavily on us than … to ensure that right. There is no reason which can excuse the denial of that right.5

But that is exactly what the Voter ID amendment will do.  As I said a moment ago, in order to vote, one will have to present a state‐issued photo ID, with
current name, current address, and expiration date. In effect, this means a Driver’s License.6

Who has a Driver’s License? People who drive.

Who drives? People who can afford a car.

So, in essence, if you can afford a car, you can vote. For most of us here, this is not a problem. But consider all the people who don’t have a valid Driver’s License. Proponents of the amendment argue that the state will be required to provide free ID to those who need it, and that they will actually be helping people because everyone should have an ID. Again, this appears reasonable until we take a closer look. First of all, this free ID will be good for VOTING ONLY, not for getting on airplanes, opening bank accounts, receiving social services, or any other purpose. Second, there will be hidden costs to the recipients, which amount to a poll tax.

Let’s do an exercise I’ll call “There but for the grace of God, go I…”

Imagine you don’t have a Driver’s License because you don’t have the money to own a car. You have a job, maybe even two, at minimum wage. Can you take time off from work to take the bus to the DMV, and wait, probably for hours, to get your free voter ID? Will there be someone to watch your kids while you do that?

Or maybe you don’t have a valid Driver’s License because you are elderly and have given up driving, or have moved into a nursing home. Perhaps you are bedridden or in a wheelchair. How are you going to get to the DMV to get your free photo ID? Remember, too, that you will need to bring supporting documents to prove your identity. Do you have your official raised‐seal birth certificate? To get a replacement you will need to get your application notarized, and pay up to $75, depending on where you were born. If the issuing state has lost your birth certificate, you are out of luck. If you are an African American born before 1965 when the Civil Rights Act enabled equal access to hospitals, a birth certificate was never issued. If you changed your name when you married, then the name on your birth certificate won’t be right. You’ll need your marriage license. Can you afford another $35 for a certified copy? Do you know how to get one?  Suppose you are able to collect the necessary documents, and get yourself to the DMV for your free State‐issued Voter ID. But then later, you can’t make rent, or your home is foreclosed, and you have to move to a cheaper apartment or stay with friends or family. Or, God forbid, you’ve moved to a shelter to escape domestic violence. Now your new free Voter ID card is invalid because your address is wrong. You will have to start over. Imagine you are a veteran who put your life on the line in defense of democracy, but your Veteran’s ID doesn’t count for voting.

Let’s look at some numbers: The Minnesota Secretary of State has identified 200,000 registered voters who do not have appropriate ID. They probably do have ID, and it may even have a photo on it, but it is not “valid government‐issued Photo ID with current name and address and an expiration date” and therefore unacceptable for voting. Who are they?

  • They are 25% of African‐American Minnesotans of voting age. This is unmistakably racial discrimination, and illegal according to the Voting Rights Act.
  • They are our future leaders: 20% of college students don’t have ID with their current address. Statistics show that early voting experiences influence life long civic engagement.7 Do we really want to turn our young voters away?
  • They are our parents and grandparents: 20% of elderly Minnesotans have expired ID.
  • They are 15% of people making less than $35,000 a year, and the percentage rises as the annual income goes down.

If this amendment passes, all these people will have to leap formidable if not insurmountable hurdles to exercise their civil right to vote. We must ensure that voting remains a right, not a privilege.

Imagine you are an absentee or a mail in voter. You will need to submit “substantially equivalent identity verification.” It is hard to imagine how a person submitting a mail‐in ballot can present photo‐ID. In 2008, a quarter of a million Minnesotans voted absentee or by mail.  Who are these people?

  • Farmers in rural townships.
  • Students living out of state.
  • People who are homebound or bed‐ridden.
  • Service men and women on active duty overseas.

There is yet another problem with the amendment. It will replace Election Day registration with Provisional Ballots. I mentioned earlier that the most common form of acceptable ID will be a current MN Driver’s License. Since you probably have one, you won’t be directly affected. Unless you lose your wallet, move, get married or divorced, change your name, or go to school away from home around election time. Then the name or address on your Driver’s License will not be correct until you get a new one. Under our current system, you can re‐register at the polls on Election Day, and have your vote.  Under the new system you will be given a Provisional Ballot. After you cast your vote, your ballot will be put in a special envelope with your name on it, and set aside. You will then have one week to gather appropriate documentation and bring it to the county elections office. There your documentation will be studied, and if deemed acceptable, your ballot will be removed from its envelope and counted.

In 2008, there were 500,000 Election Day registrants in Minnesota. That is half a million votes. Nationwide statistics show that most Provisional Ballots end up uncounted. Even if you are not elderly, poor, disabled or black, you will have been disenfranchised. Not to mention that your
ballot is no longer anonymous.

So let’s add it up: 200,000 registered voters without acceptable ID, 250,000 absentee and mail-in voters, and 500,000 Election Day registrants. That is nearly one million voters at risk of disenfranchisement. Hubert Humphrey reminded us in one of his last speeches that the moral test of a society is how it treats its weakest members.8 If we allow this amendment to pass, Minnesota will fail the test. Given Minnesota’s first place record of voter turnout, and its “squeaky clean” system, what is motivating this?

History has shown that our democracy tends to contract following large scale expansions of civil liberties. After Mexicans in the southwest were guaranteed citizenship in 1848, property and literacy requirements were imposed to keep them from voting. In 1870, the 15th amendment enfranchising African American Men was immediately followed by poll taxes, literacy tests, and Jim Crow laws.9

We appear to be following this trend. According to the Pew Research Center, national turnout in the 2008 presidential election was the most racially diverse in American history, with nearly one‐in‐four votes cast by non‐whites.10 The 2010 census revealed that minority populations are growing at an unprecedented rate.11 In 2011, new restrictive voting legislation was introduced in 34 states.12 You do the math.

The 1965 Voting Rights Act requires states with a history of racial discrimination to apply for pre‐clearance by the US Justice Department before they can alter their election laws. So far, Texas and South Carolina have been denied because their proposed Voter ID laws are deemed discriminatory. Minnesota does not require clearance, because we do not have a history of discrimination. Thank God for that. Let’s not start now.

Rabbi Spilker spoke on Rosh Hashanah about how our stories move us to work for Tzedek (justice). Our Jewish story compels us to prevent this travesty. From our sacred texts to our historical experience, Judaism exhorts us to seek justice and fight oppression. Genesis teaches that every human being is created in the Divine image, and so must be treated with equal respect. From Exodus we learn the heart of the oppressed. In every generation we are to see ourselves as if we, ourselves, came out of slavery in Egypt. In Leviticus we have the golden rule, which we will hear this afternoon. The book of Numbers teaches us to make sure
every individual is counted, and in Deuteronomy we are exhorted: Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof: Justice, Justice you must pursue.

The Prophets echo this message: Jeremiah says “Woe to one who builds his house by injustice.”  Amos pleads “Let justice well up like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.” Micah asks, “What does God require of you but to Do Justice, Love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?” Just moments ago we read from Isaiah: “This is the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice.”13  From expulsions to crusades to pogroms to the Holocaust, experience has taught us that we cannot tolerate discrimination.

Rabbi David Saperstein, speaking on behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis said, “No election should be won or lost based on the exclusion of eligible voters. Barriers at the polls are a violation of a basic principle of our democracy … It is our duty to ensure that all citizens are afforded the free and unfettered opportunity to vote and have their votes fairly counted.”14

This past year the Twin Cities Jewish Community rose up to oppose the marriage amendment. Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman, co‐chair of the Minnesota Rabbinical Association wrote in a letter to our colleagues: “the Jewish community should be able to say that we fought [just] as hard … against Voter ID ‐ with the message that ALL people count in our society, our communities, and our democracy.”

Elie Wiesel said we can’t win every fight. But I think we can win this one, if everybody participates. As I said earlier, proponents are counting on people to vote on the basis of “common sense.” Instead, we must make sure that Minnesotans vote on the basis of accurate information. We must reach out to everyone we know, and also to those we don’t know, to educate them about the discriminatory impact of this amendment. You can find resources on the tables outside the sanctuary, and on our website under the Social Justice tab, under the News and Updates section, or attached to my sermon. Send a friendly informational email to everyone in your address book. Text and tweet your friends. Post on Facebook. Get a lawn sign. Sign up for a phone‐bank. Talk to people. And of course, vote NO
on Election Day.

Hillel taught:15

Im Ain Ani Li Mi Li: If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  In our democracy we advocate for ourselves by voting.

Uksheani L’atzmi ma ani: If I am only for myself, what am I;  We must intervene for those who risk losing their right to vote.

V’im lo akshav, eimatai? And if not now, when?

There are only 41 days left until the election.  The time is short and the task is great. 16 This afternoon we will read from Leviticus: Al ta’amod al dam re’echa, Do not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds.17 In Hebrew the word Dam can also mean silence. Our neighbors are being silenced, and our democracy is bleeding. We must act now.


Background of the amendment at

Voter Identification: The True Costs. From the Humphrey School of Public Affairs Community Action. An informational website, with opportunities to take action,
such as phone banks.

League of Women Voters‐topic/politics/voter‐id‐amendment

MinnPost has a variety of articles on both sides of the issue

NAACP Click on #1 (23 Million) on the scrolling banner to watch a video.

Defending Democracy: Confronting Barriers to Voting Rights in America

Our Vote Our Future is the primary organization fighting the Voter ID amendment.

Read the full text of the amendment

Take Action Minnesota. An informational website, with opportunities to take action, such as phone banks.

If you wish to learn the other side, visit their official website Protect My Vote. It is interesting to note that it is called protect MY vote, while the organization against Voter ID is called OUR vote OUR future. Note also that in the video, they present cases of voter fraud, nearly all of which were caught and punished, or types of fraud which would not be preventable with Voter ID. It is also highly partisan.

1 “Hear O Israel;” The beginning of the prayer on says on one’s deathbed.
2 Twin Cities Public Television, Almanac, February 5, 2010.
4 Justin Levitt, Analysis of Alleged Fraud in Briefs Supporting Crawford Respondents (2007), at

5 President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Special Message to the Congress: The American Promise, 1 Pub Papers 1 (Mar.
15, 1965).
6 A Minnesota Non‐Driver Identification Card would also be acceptable, but these carry a surcharge.‐id‐card

8 1976
9 Defending Democracy: Confronting Barriers to Voting Rights in America

13 Jeremiah 22:13, Amos 5:24, Micah 6:8, Isaiah 58:6‐7
15 Pirkei Avot 1:14
16 Pirkei Avot 2:20
17 Leviticus 19:16

Yitziat Mitrayim

Shana tovah, friends. 

Mount Zion Temple (St. Paul, Minnesota) has embarked on a year-long focus on tzedek.  Rabbi Adam Spilker has helped the Tzedek Committee identify three Jewish values which inform our acts to create justice in the world:

Yitziat Mitzrayim – Leaving Egypt and knowing the heart of the stranger.

B’tzelem Elohim – We are all created in the image of God.

Tikkun Olam – The world, created imperfectly, is waiting for us to mend it.

I had the honor to speak about yitziat mitrayim.  The presentation was in response to the following Torah passage:

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourself been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

I hope it motivates you to think about your own stories and what drives you to work for a better world

* * *

The main motivation for me to work for a better world is my understanding of the Jewish value, yitziat mitzrayim.  In particular, I am drawn to Exodus 23:9. This passage resonates with me in many ways because I can remember –  and I am reminded of –  what it means to be a stranger.

I grew up in rural poverty, so at an early age, I was aware that there were places and people that were beyond my reach.  My mother divorced her first husband, who was an abusive alcoholic, and re-married the man who would become my father.  As a Catholic in our small Catholic community, that made her the object of considerable ostracizing, and by extension, I felt that, too.  My mother worked for a wealthy family from Oklahoma who owned lake homes near my birthplace, and every summer, they would bring “the help.”  The help were African American women, and when my mother had them to our home (quite honestly, the only African Americans I ever met before I went to college), I know I felt more of an affinity with these women and their experiences than I did with many of the people in my own community.  At an early age, I knew what it was like to be an outsider, and I promised myself that no matter what I did, I would never forget where I came from, and I would do everything in my power to level the playing field.

The first time I came to Mount Zion in 1994, even here I was a stranger.  I am Jewish by choice, but when I first sat in the back, in what Rabbi Elka Abrahamson called “yahuputzville,” I was a stranger.  The Hebrew sounded alien.  The liturgy seemed aimed at an audience that did not include me.  Leap ahead 17 years: I visited the welcoming waters of the mikvah in June of 2011, and I was no longer a stranger here: instead, I was at home.

However, I am reminded of what it means to be a stranger almost every day in my work environment.  I am honored to be a community college English professor, and community college students, almost by definition, are strangers.  They are often strangers to academics.  They are frequently strangers to a new country.  They enter the classroom, and I am the stranger at the front of the room.

And so I remember what it is like to be a stranger:

I remember when students write about their struggles with addiction or the trauma of coming out to their families.  I remember when students discuss being the first in their families to attend college or leaving behind their culture and their language for a new opportunity.  I remember when they share with me the mistakes that they have made and the painful consequences that continue to afflict them.

I remember what it is like to be a stranger, and I want to welcome them, to assure them that they belong in college, to challenge them because that is what it means to treat someone with dignity.  Teaching is my most important act in the pursuit of justice.

In this year of tzedek, I want to reach out to the stranger.  However, even as I speak about what drives me to work for a better world, you might be feeling alienated, a bit of a stranger in your own sanctuary.  You might be thinking that all this talk of tzedek is well and good, but it is not really for you.  I understand that sentiment more than you might imagine.

I remember the first time that I heard that Mount Zion would focus for a year on Israel.  I physically hurt: my stomach clinched, my head throbbed, my jaw strained.  I dreaded it.  In that moment, I made myself a stranger.  But, because this is my spiritual home, I came to the events.  I listened as thoughtful people respectfully disagreed and worked hard to listen fully to the other.    I came to understand another meaning of Israel – to wrestle with God.  My search for definitive answers about Israel had been a misplaced goal – it was the search, the ongoing wrestling match, that mattered.  At the end of that year-long focus, I did not feel so much the stranger as someone who finally understood the rules of the game that I wanted to play.  I wanted to engage.

Maybe that will be the experience for you in the coming year, but you will not know until you take that first step to engage.  It is good to remember that once we were strangers, but we need not be strangers here.   Let us seek justice together.

Jewish Community Action’s Three Faces of Power

I had the distinct honor of presenting JCA’s Three Faces of Power on Sunday, 3 June, at Beth Jacob Synagogue in Mendota Heights, Minnesota, as part of JCA’s Stand for Justice event.  The idea for the three faces came in large part from Brian Zaidman, a fellow Tzedek Institute member and a congregant at Temple of Aaron in St. Paul.  I also received extensive and helpful feedback from Melissa Rudnick and Vic Rosenthal of Jewish Community Action. You can click this link to see a PowerPoint presentation titled  Jewish Community Action’s Three Faces of Power, and I do have to give a shout out to my son Eamon for creating it:)

The Three Faces of Power

To fight for economic justice means we must build power.  But, what is power?  Most people, if we are honest with ourselves, are not entirely comfortable with power.  We often see power as tainted, as a force for evil.  When asked to free associate with the word power, many people’s first thought is drawn from a movie based on a comic book:  “With great power comes great responsibility.”  It’s not bad as a starting place, but do we really want our philosophy regarding power to be drawn from a comic book movie?

Jewish Community Action believes that social change requires power.  We believe that the people involved in social change must come to terms with their power and exercise it from an informed and conscientious position.   These are JCA’s Three Faces of Power:

The first face of power is drawn from the public narratives we evoke, and our public narrative is rooted in our Jewish identities.  We recognize that ours is but one narrative in the public realm, that the dominant narrative rings loudly in our ears, a narrative of “small government,” “free market,” “discrimination is a thing of the past,” and “rugged individualism.”  These phrases are expressed so frequently that their meanings morph and shift depending on the whims of the user.  They have devolved into something the pundits call “common sense.”   However, the Jewish public narrative offers a compelling alternative.  As Jewish people, we first acknowledge that our public narrative must be infused with our values and history.  We are moving our agenda, shaped by the bold statements –  Anachnu Ma’aminim – we believe.  We join as a community and with our allies as covenantal partners – bnai brit – understanding the urgency of our work but committed to the long haul.  We recognize the shared fate we have with others, the reflection of God’s presence in the world – tzelem elohim – and that everyone deserves the same rights and access, that we must pursue racial, social and economic justice.  This is our story, and each of us is called to play a role in the unfolding drama of this public narrative.

The second face of power is building capacity for change, and this is done through Community.  Community reminds us to build relationships, build alliances, and build the long-term infrastructure to act while sustaining ourselves for future struggles.  Community reminds us that we are never as powerful as when we act together.  We must come together as leaders in our community determined to teach others, to learn from others, and to stand together for justice.

The third face of power is acting on specific issues.  The allure of specific issues can be seductive, and we can get trapped there untethered to our public narrative or our need to build capacity for change.   However, action reminds us that values alone are never enough.  Our urgent pursuit of all types of justice requires us to act together to combat any discrimination based on race, age, economic status or sexual orientation.   This is our shared fate with one another.  Our community and our allies must work collectively, we must act with hope, optimism and gratitude, and we must build sufficient power.

When we act on all three parts – our public narrative, our need to build capacity for change, and our action on specific issues –  we begin to understand how all issues are inter-related.  The three faces of power provide us with a firm footing from which to act, but we are not naïve.  JCA recognizes that the story of power in the mainstream is meant to keep us in our place.  In the mainstream, power is held by a few, and the rest of us must simply take whatever is given to us.

We see this most profoundly in the divisive nature of our political discourse.  Liberal or Conservative?  Liberatarian or Progressive?    Muslim, Christian, or Jewish?  Social Welfare State or Free Market Enterprise?  Rich against poor, young versus old, male opposed to female?  Stadiums or schools?  Gay or straight?  Alien or citizen? Black versus White? We are torn asunder as our civic language is stretched to the breaking point.  In this way of thinking about power, we are not the people filling the middle; we are, instead, the ones who fall into the chasm between the polar extremes.  We are silenced.  We are disempowered.  And this is not accidental.

JCA’s three faces of power – Jewish and Community in Action – provides a powerful narrative antidote to the dominant rhetoric.   We acknowledge the sustaining power of stories, the stories of power.  Rabbi Jill Jacobs writes, “’In the beginning,’ God speaks the world into being.  From the first moment of our history, language is central to the Jewish experience.”[1]

How we believe, talk, and act on our understanding of power matters.  That you are here today speaks volumes to the stories you want to create, to the roles you want to play, to the power you want to develop and enact.

[1] Jill Jacobs.  There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice through Jewish Law and Tradition.  Woodstock, VT:  Jewish Lights Publishing, 2009.

Kudos to JCA and the Northside Community Reinvestment Coalition

There was an article in the online StarTribune today (13 December 2012) reporting recent developments within the Northside Community Reinvestment Coalition.  Take a moment to read about this exciting tzedek effort.

What is Twin Cities Tzedek Now?

This blog is an outgrowth of an organizing effort called The Tzedek Institute led by Jewish Community Action (JCA), whose mission is “to bring together Jewish people from diverse traditions and perspectives to promote understanding and take action on social and economic justice issues in Minnesota.”  Beginning in August 2012, JCA trainers convened 31 people from the independent Jewish communities, seven Twin Cities-area synagogues, and VOICE, a Russian-speaking cohort. JCA trainers met with the group during seven different training sessions totaling approximately 29 hours.  December 13, 2011, marks the final training of the Tzedek Institute and ends Phase I (more on Phases II and III in future postings).

It has been a remarkable experience.  I am fortunate in many regards because I had the privilege of participating in Gamaliel Foundation Community Organizing Leadership Training in 2005.  I went as an academic, someone who had read about community organizing theory and practice and who had taught courses with community organizing themes central to the curriculum.  I went to Chicago for that training with my body and my mind, but not really with my heart.

The Tzedek Institute has allowed me to combine my body, my mind, and my heart. I finished a long, long conversion process in June 2011, and I began training in September 2011.  In this new place in my life, I feel like this is my first contribution to the Jewish communities, and it does make me smile.  I have had the distinct pleasure of getting to know some amazing people through this institute, and I look forward with great anticipation to the work that we will engage.

Wrestling with God – A dvar torah by Susan Cobin

Susan Cobin is a Beth Jacob congregant, and at a recent luncheon gathering with many of the Twin Cities’ senior rabbis, Susan delivered this dvar torah.  Afterwards, many of us in attendance commented that it captured the essence of The Tzedek Institute.  With Susan’s permission, we are posting her dvar torah here for all to enjoy.

These parshiot in B’reisheet establish our lineage, our community and our purpose.  These are the compelling stories we remember from our earliest years, both, I think, because we remember stories better than we remember lists of laws, but also because without these stories there would be no context to the laws, and even to our lives.  In this week’s Parasha, Jacob wrestles with God.  This is not the first God Wrestling we see in the story.  Certainly Abraham does his share of wrestling as well.  Each generation of our patriarchs wrestles and with each generation God makes the covenant anew.  Each patriarch gets his own blessing, his own brit, with God.  It is after his bout with God that Jacob gets his new name, Yisrael-God Wrestler, the name that we as a people inherit.

God has gone to an awful lot of trouble to establish this relationship with the individuals and the people.  The whole project seems quite important.  From this text we come to understand that God must have needed us as a committed community in order to do the work that is outlined in the ensuing books of Torah, the work of perfecting creation.  Why a committed community? Why not just good individuals?  It seems to me that humans can’t sustain important work alone.  We need each other for inspiration, for criticism, for perspective, for incentive, for comfort, for love.  In each generation we need to wrestle with God.  We get complacent or we become paralyzed by the gravity of our situation.  We need our texts to remind us of our mission, our brit, of the tasks that have been set before us; we need to wrestle to focus us on our commitments, and we need our community to push and pull us forward.

At this moment in time the work is inescapable.  For those of us who can withdraw from the pressing need all around us, the temptation is great.  Then in a moment of God wrestling, we realize that we cannot withdraw from our task.  What of our obligation to our children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren?  What about the world we need to give them?   How do we do our job to love the God that is in each of us?  How do we transmit the knowledge that each person is a holy vessel holding blessing and each person is able and obligated to transmit blessing to the world?

The Tzedek Institute has brought us together as a community of Jews, all God wrestlers in our own way, to engage in this holy work of making the world better.  It is important that we, Jews from many different congregations and from no congregation, come together to do this work.  Back in my TCJMS days we used to invite rabbis to teach the students and faculty.  One rabbi told a story to our middle school students and those of us on the faculty when they were learning to wear tfillin.  He said that the shel rosh is in four separate compartments because as individuals and as Jews our thoughts diverge.  However, the shel yad has only one compartment because even though our thinking diverges, our hands must work together as one to do our task of making the world better.  Alone we can do nothing.  Alone we are not persuasive.  Alone we have no strength, no will, no ability to stay with the task. We get discouraged because our power is limited; change is incremental; progress is slow.   We must always remind each other of the work to be done.  We must share a vision of how to do it and push each other to stay committed, encourage each other to carry on, to love each other enough to keep us all involved, to build ever enlarging circle of people whom we bring into the work and into our lives of shared engagement.  This is why God worked so hard to build this people, made this covenant with each generation, gave us the mission, the rules to live by.  Why else?

In teaching us how to act to make the world better, the excellent JCA staff, Vic and Melissa and Lauren really only needed to reach within this story of ours, this story which we gave to the world.

Our task in the Tzedek Institute is to build a community of Jews who is committed to remembering the laws given us as part of our brit and to work to make those laws functional in our world.  We are beginning to do this by having one on one conversations with members of our respective communities, , in other words, getting to know the people we daven with, to find what shaped them, what drives them, what scares them or makes them angry enough to focus them.  Rabbis might want to help us think about whom we need to contact from the beginning-which people the work needs and which people need the work.   In the world of organizing, this might be called building capacity and infrastructure.  With JCA as our partner, we can also collaborate with other synagogues and churches or mosques in our neighborhood. It is also useful to find out what national groups we can partner with, like the National Coalition for the Homeless or Mazon.  Within our group we need to begin to research the issues we are working on so among the leaders of the group at least, each aspect of the issue has an expert to speak about it and to teach the rest of the group about it. It is our hope that as we enlarge the working group we can find enough common ground to select action issues that touch us and seek out partners to work with us in our action.

Inspiration to stay comes from meeting small goals, winning small victories, making small change and then assessing and moving on to another campaign, another piece of repair. These are the immediate political gains that drive us forward.  It would be lovely if the world immediately looked better because of our work, if one grand sweep would change everything for the better.  No one of us, however, likely has a long enough time for our work to see sweeping change.  We need to be gratified by pieces of progress, by the constant creation, day by day, like creation itself, of creating the building blocks and inspiring the builders of better world.  That is why, even as we push legislation, elect better leaders, create methods to keep pressure on the power brokers, speak truth to power, as we used to say, it is also critical that we continue to build the community.  We need to constantly teach the texts and teach the skills to pursue the goals of those texts in the real world.  We need to teach children and their parents and teach parents to teach their children and children to teach their parents.  We need to invite people in, welcome them to this empowered and loving world of purpose and joy.  We need to help them to be actors in the drama of making the world better.

We are told that it is not on us to complete the task but we are not free people to desist from beginning…However, if we don’t educate our successors, both in the mandates we take from our texts and in the skills of organizing, no one will carry on.

Unless we continuously examine our goals, revisit the picture of what we want the world to look like, we may not get a transformed world.  It is easy for humans to lapse into old ways.   At every juncture, it is critical to look back into our texts to remember what our collective understanding of a just world is.  Are we being true to this vision both in our goals and in our conduct working toward these goals?  It is easy to allow even good work to be driven and perverted by our yetzer harah, by greed, insecurity, anger or lust for unilateral power.  Are we connecting to our real values and commitments?  Are we influencing the debate on the streets, in the press, in the halls of congress for good? Are we avoiding the trap of  giving in to pettiness and short term self- interest that prevents us from working to make the world better?  We transform the world through the way we act as much as through the ends we achieve.

Our human needs for belonging and for transcendence, for being a part of something larger than our selves, something that has deeper roots and survives beyond our own fragile bodies are answered here in these parshiot, in the God wrestling and the brit that God makes with each generation and each individual.  Our task is to make the commitment, to engage.

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