Friday, June 19, 2015

Dear Mother Emanuel, A Letter of Condolence

Dear Mother Emanuel
June 19, 2015 ~ 3 Tamuz 5775
Rabbi Jen Gubitz
Temple Shir Tikva, Wayland, MA

A letter of condolence to Mother Emanuel, the name by which Charleston’s Emanual African Methodist Episcopal Church is lovingly referred:  

Dear Mother Emanual, we are so profoundly saddened for your loss. We are so profoundly saddened for your losses. For thousands of years, in Jewish tradition, upon hearing of a death, we recite these words - Baruch Da’ayan Ha’emet, Blessed is the True Judge. And we tear Kriyah - we tear, rip, rend our clothing to expose our hearts. We expose our hearts breaking for you and, dare I say, with you.

Baruch Dayan Ha’Emet, Blessed is the True Judge. Our hearts break for and with you, dear Mother Emanuel. But why, and how could we bless God when our hearts break, why and how could we bless God when another’s heart has ceased beating? We bless God because dear Mother Emanuel - Emanuel OR Im Anu El. You have known this truth, Mother Emanuel, for the nearly 200 years you have enveloped the hearts joined in worship, the hearts joined in prayers, the hearts of your children. We bless God dear Mother Emanuel, because you’ve always known that even in darkness, Im Anu El, God is with us.

And because God is with us God is with you, for nearly 200 years, dear Mother Emanuel, you have shown a resilience unmatched. Not without historic labor pains your children were given birth in 1818, “a free church in the heart of the confederacy, before the Civil War ever began”a resilient “spiritual and political [cradle] divorced from the oppressive white institutions all around them.”  And not without growing pains and grief, did you shelter your children’s adolescence and maturity as they sought to free themselves from the most egregious hate and violence. Dear Mother Emanuel, you enveloped your children in refuge as your son Denmark Vesey organized to liberate your enslaved children in a major slave uprising in 1822. And though you were burned to the ground in retribution that year, you would once again rise to envelop your children in your sanctuary. And though you were forced to meet in secret, dear Mother Emanuel - Im Anu El, God was also with you in secret, the psalm reminds, v’shachanti b’tocham, dwelling among us b’mikdash - in your sanctuary of God’s ever present love.

Dear Mother Emanuel, just years after the earth shattering hatred of the Civil War, your sanctuary was rocked once more by earthquake. But rebuilt, and free, your children could finally worship openly again, and into your enveloping sanctuary they entered.And You sheltered Frederick Douglass, and Sojourner Truth, And You embraced Eliza Ann Gardner, and Harriet Tubman, You held Booker T Washington, and Martin Luther King with your resilience unmatched.

Dear Mother Emanuel, we tear kriyah, ripping and rending our clothing in grief as we witness the fabric of our society unravel. Our exposed hearts break; we are a country in need of emergency surgery. Your son, the now slain Reverend Clementa Pinkney, wondered: “Could we not argue that America is about freedom whether we live it out or not? Freedom, equality and the pursuit of happiness.” He reflected, “And that is what church is all about: freedom to worship and freedom from sin, freedom to be full of what God intends us to be, and to have equality in the sight of God. And sometimes you got to make noise to do that. Sometimes you may have to die like Denmark Vesey to do that. Sometimes you have to march, struggle and be unpopular to do that.”His words were sadly prophetic, dying with 8 brothers and sisters, pursuing his freedom to fulfill God’s word.

Dear Mother Emanuel, even with broken hearts and perhaps in spite of them, Clementa’s brothers and sisters will continue to fulfill his prophetic vision of what your church, what your sanctuary is all about. And it is in our capacity to march, to struggle, and to be unpopular with them in the pursuit that all should be equal in the sight of God. Because we will not tolerate a society in which you do actually have to die like Denmark Vesey like Reverend Clementa Pinkney, age 41; like Asst. Pastor; Sharonda Coleman Singleton, age 45; like Tywanza Sanders, age 26, or like Ethel Lance, age 70, or like Susie Jackson, age 87; like Cynthia Hurd, age 54; like Myra Thompson, age 59, or like Daniel Simmons Sr., age 74, or like DePayne Middleton Doctor, age 49.

We cannot tolerate a society in which you do actually have to die to make noise for the kind of equality that drowns out the noise of supremacy and racism. Mother Emanuel, yesterday marked 51 years since 15 rabbis were arrested in St. Augustine, FL, for making noise - the sacred and joyful noise of praying in an integrated group of worshipers.

In fellowship, I invite my community to join together with one of local A.M.E. communities in Boston. We will make noise together, in memory, in anger, and in celebration of the long history and deep friendship shared between the Black and Jewish Communities.

Dear Mother Emanuel, we are so profoundly saddened for your soul wrenching, society rending, heart breaking loss. Ha’rofei lish’borei lev…הָרֹפֵא, לִשְׁבוּרֵי לֵב May the one who mends broken hearts [someday] heal your broken heart…”, dear Mother.  As the psalmist reminds: Karov adonai l’mishbarei lev” –God is close to the brokenhearted. But I believe you already knew that, dear Mother Emanuel.  For every time you recite your Church’s name, you speak into being this eternal truth that even in your darkest hour, Im Anu El, God is with Us.

Charleston and the Age of Obama, The New Yorker.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Living in the Hyphen - Confronting Internalized Racism

Parashiyot Achrei Mot (hyphen) Kedoshim
Rabbi Jen Gubitz
May 1, 2015 ~ 13 Iyyar 5775
Temple Shir Tikva

It was an image out of a utopian movie. Children seated in organized rows. Some dressed in traditional African garments. A vast array of what you could see: skin tones, hair color, height - and, of course, a vast array of what you could not see: religion, ability, disability, personality, and socio economics.  Children all singing together: “Jambo, Jambo, Jambo, sana, jambo. Jambo, jambo, jambo watato, jambo.” This was a 1974 song by Ella Jenkins using basic Swahili that meant: “Hello, hello, hello, everybody, hello” sung as part of the yearly celebration focused each year on a different part of the world - this time Africa.

The year before that we dressed in red, white and green and did traditional dances from Mexico. And the year after that, wandering through the halls in kimonos, we practiced the sacred art of a Japanese tea ceremony and the origami folding of a 1000 Cranes.

It was a public school created after the Civil Rights era as a means to bridge racial, ethnic and socio-economic gaps through Fine and Performing Arts and Multicultural exploration.  It was exceptional and it was well before Crayola came out with its box of Multicultural (a.k.a. skin tone colored) crayons. Some children came from the neighborhood where the school was located, of which some were white, hispanic or asian, but many were black. I was actually bussed in, as were many of the other white children from neighborhoods as far as 30 minutes away. It was a reverse commute from what we understand bussing to be today. While I was and sometimes felt in the minority as a Jew, I did not know that I was, nonetheless, actually in the majority because I was white. In fact, while I knew I had white skin, I had no idea what it really meant to be White with a capital W.  Until perhaps 7th or 8th grade while watching the results of the OJ Simpson trial at school during Show Choir.  The Show Choir was the most diverse group in the school - and I could feel the sharpness of divided reactions emerge among kids who had grown up together singing in swahili, playing our orff instruments, and raising our voices with utopian choral music that praised the rainbow of American society.  That’s when I learned I was White with a capital W.

And so today, I share with you the sadness of extremes that exists in the hyphen of our Torah reading calendar. Achrei Mot hyphen Kedoshim. This week is a double portion.  Achrei Mot (After Death) hyphen (-) Kedoshim (Holiness.)

Achrei Mot, after death. Freddie Gray’s death by police brutality, officially deemed murder 
and homicide by Baltimore’s Chief Prosecutor.  
A brutal and senseless loss like so many others.
Achrei Mot Freddie Gray.
Achrei Mot Eric Garner.
Achrei Mot Michael Brown.
Achrei Mot Trayvon Martin.
Achrei Mot an endless list.


Kedoshim, holiness.  As Baltimore residents take to the streets, “Not on our watch,” they say.
Kedoshim, holiness. As clergy from around the country, such as members of T’ruah - Rabbis
for Human Rights - flew to St. Louis to join hands with an interfaith community
marching in the streets of Ferguson and this week also in Baltimore.
Kedoshim, holiness. As people called in orders of pizza to feed protesters.
Kedoshim, a little boy hands a police officer water;
Kedoshim, safe houses for teens to come to to talk about the issues under one roof
Kedoshim, blacks and whites cleaning up together after riots.
Kedoshim, holiness. As Baltimore convulsed in protests-turned-to-riots, “Not like this,” said
Freddie Gray’s mom. “I want justice for his death but not like this. 
Don’t tear up the whole city.”
Somehow Achrei Mot, even after Freddie’s tragic death, his mother has found her way beyond the hyphen to Kedoshim.

Achrei Mot hyphen Kedoshim. 
After these deaths, I find myself primarily still in the hyphen for I did not suffer a loss and I did not protest. Of all the kids with whom I grew up, I have one black friend. I have barely any friends who are not Jewish and mostly friends who are rabbis, which is about as homogenous as one can get. I’ve become one of those people who at times will lock the door when I see a man of color approaching late at night.  I could justify that away with our increasing need for caution these days, but I also know the assumptions in my head that are inherently racist.  When I encounter a black person well dressed in a suit and tie or heels, and when I encounter a black person wearing a hoodie. More often than not - I am in the hyphen.

In my family, there are two career paths: serving the Jewish people, which my parents and I love and serving low income, predominantly African American children in public education settings. My sister teaches minutes away from Ferguson. My brother and his wife are building in New Orleans a school modeled on the very school in which we grew up. I’ve always sought a way to merge their work with mine. I’ve chosen this active use of myself tonight, not because I hope you will assuage me of any guilt nor to guilt you; nor do I need reinforcement that, of course, I also reside in the work of Kedusha. I know that. Rather, I use myself, my faults, my internalized racism - as a model and as a call to action for myself and for us all.

Where are you in the hyphen?
Though we share not the same precise streets as Ferguson or Baltimore, would you run into the streets if we did? Well guess what? We actually do. We have those same streets. It cannot go ignored or unsaid just how highly segregated Boston truly is and just how possible those events of Baltimore or Ferguson could easily take place here.

Where are you in the hyphen? In what ways do you have thoughts, fears, and opinions that are known as internalized racism? I ask not because I think if you do these things you are inherently a horrible person but because we all have them within us and we rarely admit it. But how often do you cross the street or lock those doors? Do you refer to a neighborhood as shady - when what you really mean is that black people live there? Do you celebrate gentrification because it means better restaurants and hipper coffee shops? (I’m guilty of that.) Have you ever used language like “the hood”, “that’s ghetto”, “those thugs”? Yes, the Jewish community suffers our problems in how others believe false truths about us, but do we realize how lucky we are not to be suspected of shoplifting, racially profiled, and never in danger when wearing a hooded sweatshirt in the chilled night air?

This past week at the Religious Action Center’s Consultation on Conscience - I was inspired by Rabbi Susan Talve, a social justice giant in downtown St. Louis, and Aaron Jenkins, the Executive Director of Operation Understanding DC, an organization that brings together black teens and Jewish teens for a year long process of discomfort and exploration of racism and anti-Semitism. They pushed us to consider our assumptions, our internalized racism, and what we can do about it. We do not yet have this particular organization in Boston -  but there is capacity and I think urgency. On Monday, I’m speaking with Operation Understanding’s Founder and St. Louis Jewish community leader, Karen Kalish, to see in what ways our community might push this forward. This project would be for me, both personally and professionally, a way to move beyond the hyphen.

A final teaching:
The order of our parshiyot, our Torah portions, is Achrei Mot Hyphen Kedoshim Emor.
After Death, hyphen, there is Holiness. And then - Emor - Speak.

You do not have to wait until next week when we read Emor - to take action.
Emor, speak up.
Emor, speak up about the internalized racism you find within yourself.
Wonder: what are my assumptions? What assumptions have I taught my children?
What assumptions do I hope to challenge and change?
Emor, speak up when you hear others using the language of racism and otherness.Thug
these days - is tantamount to the 'N word' - sometimes they don’t even know they are
using it. Sometimes they do.
Educate yourself on the issues.
Emor, speak up so as not to further normalize language and behaviors that are clearly not 
working for our world - and that elongate indefinitely that hyphen
that separates us from them.
It is a hyphen that continually reinforces the black community’s unequal status in America.

Rabbi Talve entreats us: "find YOUR Ferguson, find that sleepy suburb that is ready to erupt, and jump in together to save all our children."  

And may we journey together from Achrei Mot hyphen to Kedoshim to Emor - from senseless deaths to communal equality and holiness and to speaking out for justice.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Unbound: the Year of Unraveling - Erev Rosh Hashanah 5775

Since I'm unable to insert my sermon with proper citations in this setting - check it out on Temple Shir Tikva's website.  Shana tovah!  Jen

Erev Rosh Hashanaha Sermon 5775 - Rabbi Jen Gubitz

Friday, September 26, 2014

Shabbat Shuva: Return to Sender (From 5774)

Shabbat Shuva: Return to Sender
September 6, 2013 ~ 3 Tishrei 5774
Rabbi Jen Gubitz

Turning the key, with a creak the mailbox opened.  Thumbing through the pile she found another packet from AdSense with unusable coupons unless you plan to redo your house every month; a charitable foundation’s solicitation with more return address labels; another’s solicitation that was an exact replica of the form email they’d sent her 10 times that week; an excise tax bill from the town; and an envelope so dog eared and tattered it looked like it had traveled through decades. And in big bold sharpie-black letters across the front: Return to Sender, Address Unknown.

You can probably already predict this extended metaphor: for we are in that period of Jewish time when the postal service to the divine needs to add Sundays to its delivery schedule, needs to hire extra elves (wrong holiday), needs to hire extra messengers (perhaps angels), to support all the influx of pieces arriving in the mailbox on High.

And so we must ask ourselves: To whom will you write? And what will you say? And how will you say it?
Prescribed to us by the month of Elul and the Yamim Nora’im, these days of Awe, we engage now in a reflection of our inner Rolodex - organizing, optimizing not the actual cards but the relationships represented by each.
We read and re-read, we write and re-write, letters to our loved ones, letters to the universe, letters to God…

So to whom will you write? And what will you say? And how will you say it?

In a stationary store, it’s as though there is a card for every occasion…
Thank you!  Happy Birthday! New Baby! Mazel tov on your Wedding! Condolences on your loss.

But it is rare to see a card that says in a non-cheekish, non-hipster, or non-sarcastic way, “I’m sorry… “I regret when I… “Forgive me… or “I forgive you…

While the industry may one day catch on to this opportune business endeavor, sans stationary -

To whom will you write? And what will you say? And how will you say it?

Our body clocks are attuned to the Jewish calendar and there are people in our lives who are waiting to hear from us. Don’t send them a form letter. Don’t send them an automatic email response. Or a printed holiday greeting.  

That’s not enough.

And so too are the Gates on High waiting to hear from you.  What will you say and how will you say it? And how does the Divine open each letter? And how does the Divine consider its contents, giving each its due time?  

But wait, before you head to the mailbox, there’s one more person waiting to hear from you.

What will you say to yourself? And how will you say it? How will you consider the contents of your letter? How will you give yourself your due time?

[An aside: you can give yourself that due time on a website called, which invites you to reflect on 10 personal questions. After locking it, it will allow you to return to your answers in 5776.]

On this Shabbat Shuva, and in these days of return, may your hand tire
from all the letters that will transpire as you seek to build and rebuild, write and rewrite, and I pray, read and re-read all the soul correspondence you send and receive...

So to whom will you write? And what will you say? And how will you say it?

O source of this New Year, 5775, we pray that our messages be worthy of your merit. We seek to address you in your holy dwelling place so we may return and return to sender, return and return to ourselves - again and again, a Forever Stamp embossed on our souls.