Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
Yom Kippur Morning • 23 September 2015
Earlier this month, I traveled to Fayetteville, NC to join America’s Journey for Justice. The NAACP organized this 40-day march from Selma, Alabama to Washington, DC to bring national attention to ongoing racial injustice. At rallies along the way and at the capitol, activists urged state and national lawmakers to enact reforms in voting rights, criminal justice, education, health care, and economic sustainability.
I went because Reform rabbis organized to carry a Torah scroll the entire distance of the 860-mile journey. Each day a handful of rabbis shared the responsibility of holding the scroll during the 20-mile daily stretch.
I went because I still remember a black and white photo (pun intended) of Martin Luther King alongside two rabbis, one of them holding a Torah scroll. That rabbi was Maurice Eisendrath, then president of the Reform Movement. The other was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, great sage and prophet of 20th-century American Jewry. Heschel famously said of his participation in the Civil Rights Movement, “I felt like my feet were praying.” Heschel’s academic work in Europe before the war was a major study of the Hebrew prophets. Then he fled the Nazis, settling in the United States to find this black Christian preacher who spoke like a Hebrew prophet. That prophetic voice called America to do cheshbon hanefesh — the soul-searching we strive to do on this holy day — and to recommit itself to its founding ideals of freedom and justice.
I went on the march because my immigrant grandparents found in America not just a haven but a home. Grateful for the opportunities afforded to them here, they modeled a life of caring citizenship and giving back to the community. Their hard work paved the way for me to have privileges and opportunities beyond their wildest dreams. With that privilege comes the responsibility to pay it forward, to ensure equal opportunity and justice for others.
I went on the march because I love this country. I don’t talk about this much, but I am a sappy patriot, a sucker for Americana. I get emotional when I hear God Bless America. I get excited for the 4th of July — not the parades and BBQs so much as the actual commemoration of the revolution. I can't wait to reread George Washington’s letter to the Jews of Newport, RI, declaring America a land that “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Never before had a nation made such a promise to the Jews. It makes me swell with pride and gratitude — and also humility, as I think of other groups who have known bigotry and persecution all too well in this country. I love this country both for what it is and for what it promises to be. The Journey for Justice felt like a chance to celebrate both the progress and the potential of America.
On the march, I met activists who were there for the day and others who were on their 31st day of marching. They were black, white, Latino; young and old; Jew and Christian. There was an 85-year-old white woman who led the pack at a brisk pace. She was part of a local group called “The Raging Grannies” who like to get into trouble for justice. There was a black teenager who complained about the heat while getting on the bus for a break. I shared his feelings, because it was very hot — 90 degrees, sunny, and humid. One of the elders turned to this boy and said, “Your ancestors endured much worse, picking cotton all day in the hot sun with no breaks.” He didn’t complain after that. I thought of what our people have endured — in the Shoah, pogroms, the Inquisition, Egypt. I thought of the imperative, never forget. I thought of why we brought the Torah on the march in the first place: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9; see also Exodus 22:20, Leviticus 19:34, Deuteronomy 10:19). I thought about our Jewish slavery narrative, how we retell it every year to our children, how it calls us to value freedom and justice, and to remember our kinship with the oppressed.
I realized later that I put a lot of pressure on the march to transform me. In an unexpected way, it did: it reinvigorated my drive to be more invested in this community’s well-being. The Journey for Justice was an important symbolic statement and rallying cry at the state and federal level. But my revelation was about my calling to “do justice and love mercy” here in this valley. Here, with this congregation, I can have the greatest impact. My community, the context in which I live out my values, is here.
I’ve shared with you before a quote by E.B. White that has become a mantra: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” Here in the Roaring Fork Valley we’ve mastered the “savor” part. Whether we’ve moved here or visit part-time, the natural beauty, outdoor recreation, small-town feel and slower pace of life bring us joy.
On this day of soul-searching, of teshuva - returning to our core values, I challenge us to work on the “improving the world” side of the equation. Let’s cultivate the will to better this place. I know there are hundreds of non-profits here, and I know our members are active in dozens of projects to improve well-being in the valley. Today, I want to push us to become more involved as a congregation, to make social responsibility a cornerstone of who we are.
Two of our core values, as mentioned in our mission statement, speak to this:
Tzedek u'Mishpat - צדק ומשפט - Righteousness & Justice: Fostering a commitment to the mitzvot of Tzedakah (obligation of giving) and Tikkun Olam (repairing the world). Organizing and volunteering to make change for the good of our communities.
Or La-Goyim - אור לגויים - A Light to the Nations: Living our Jewish values publicly within our communities for the benefit of all. Promoting interfaith understanding and cooperation.
They’re beautiful words, and I say that not just because I helped write them. They express our people’s highest calling. More complicated, though, is how to embody them as a sacred collective. What does it actually look like?
As a step toward answering that question, I’ve been involved over the last couple years with an interfaith valley-wide conversation convened by the Manaus Fund. Recently, I joined their board of directors. The organization was founded about eight years ago by George Stranahan, local philanthropist, education reformer, and strategic troublemaker. The Fund set out to combine the strengths of social entrepreneurship and community organizing to build a better valley community.
What they — now I can say we — are trying to do is change the way we relate to each other in this valley. Our lives are so individualized, so atomized, that we rarely know what’s going on for someone behind the veneer of “How are you?” — “Fine, how are you?” Think of how impatient and uncomfortable we get when someone gives a real answer! That’s true not only across group boundaries — racial, religious, socioeconomic — but also within groups, even with the very people we’re supposed to care about most. It’s a shame that people keep their struggles private when there could be public solutions within our collective grasp.
The key to transforming our community, both within these walls and throughout the valley, is to build relationships. There are techniques to learn and best practices to emulate, but in the end it’s not rocket science. It’s about relating to people by sharing concerns and interests, by being vulnerable and curious, and most importantly by listening.
The Manaus Fund has already had success through this method with the Valley Settlement Project. They hired a community organizer to go into low-income, mostly immigrant Latino communities — and listen. They found extreme isolation. They heard stories of struggle around employment, transportation, education, childcare, language. Out of that listening came several projects, for children and adults. A pre-school on wheels — El Busesito — brings early childhood education to those without other access to it. Neighborhood groups convene for parents and young children to promote healthy choices even before pre-school. For adults, a Lifelong Learning initiative in Spanish literacy and math lays a foundation for employment, passing the GED, and self-sufficiency. The Parent Mentor program trains and supports parents to be advocates in their children’s schools and to help address large class sizes as well as language and cultural barriers.
We often think of charity or justice work as something “we” do for “them.” We the privileged can give a better life to the less fortunate. In Jewish tradition, as articulated by Maimonides in his ladder of Tzedakah, the holiest form of giving is to enable someone to become self-sufficient. In the language of community organizing, it’s called the Iron Rule: “Never do for someone else what they can do for themselves.”
The truth is, these initiatives within the Latino community advance our entire community. When they organize to improve their employment readiness, their neighborhood networks, their parenting and school support — the entire community benefits. I know we have a number of congregants who are deeply involved in the local public schools, as parents, volunteers, and professionals. I think they’d agree that improving the quality of the valley’s schools is not something one group can simply do for another. That kind of positive change only comes from partnership, from relating to each other across lines of race, class, and faith that usually divide us.
Changing the conversation around how we do Tzedakah also means changing how we think about power. Jews tend to have some discomfort with the concept, since we have found ourselves too often persecuted by those in power. But power, simply defined, is the ability to get things done. And if we care about acting on our values, if we care about embodying Tzedakah and justice in this valley, then we have to care about power. We may need to dismantle some of our misconceptions around power, since we in this room tend to think of ourselves as empowered, with the financial and social capital to get what we want.
But consider this counter-example: members of our Jewish community struggle with finances, housing costs, employment, childcare, isolation. Step one is to stop pretending that all Jews are affluent and doing just fine, because that misconception blinds us to real needs in our own backyard.
And consider a second counter-example: the recognition of Jewish holidays by the public school districts. I have made some headway on this in Aspen in the last five years. I built relationships with parents, the school board, and school administrators to express to them our concerns around the scheduling of major school events during our holiest days. The new district calendar now includes a special color code for Jewish holidays. And yet, the conflicts continue: even as I share these words on Yom Kippur, the Aspen High School Experiential Education program is currently underway, leaving many of our families to make a difficult choice. It’s not a failure of will — it means we haven’t built enough power to change it. What a fascinating thought — that this group doesn't have enough power! It’s a little surprising. Think of the wealth of resources and experience and professional success in this room right now — and yet, on this issue, we’ve hit a wall. Now, imagine if we were organized. Imagine if we were part of a coalition of Latinos and whites, of Jews and Catholics and Protestants, of parents and teachers and engaged citizens, who could bring real leverage on this issue. And then — imagine what else we could accomplish together.
How many of you have expressed concerns about aging in place here in the valley, without adequate assisted living facilities? When the Basalt Continuing Care Retirement Community fell through, in part because an outside consultant thought it would be too hard to attract and retain nurses here — doesn’t that keep you up at night? How many worry about the lack of affordable housing, as more and more families move further downvalley, and parts of Aspen become, as one pastor told me, “a ghost town”? How many parents worry about their kids getting a quality education, and why do so many of our kids go to boarding school? How many of us lose sleep over pockets of anti-Semitism in this valley, often rearing their heads in nasty letters to the editor? How many parents wonder how to raise socially conscious kids in a bubble of privilege?
The truth is, we can’t address any of these questions alone. In fact, the more we retreat inward, the worse our problems become. We have to redefine Tzedakah not as what “we” do for “them” nor even as what “we” do for each other — but as what we all do in partnership for the good of our community. If we want to face our concerns and act on our values effectively, we can’t act alone. We need power — and power comes from organized relationships.
Look for opportunities in the coming year to build public relationships with people who are often invisible to us — both within and outside our walls. Look for chances to identify new leaders and develop your leadership potential. One of my mentors calls it “liberating talent.” Look for our congregation to be focused less on what programs we can serve to you, and more on what aspirations we can realize together. Look to be challenged to test your assumptions about who needs help, who has power, and what it means to be in community.
On Rosh Hashanah I spoke about the rewards of being a giver. Today I call us to the public, collective expression of giving. We are about to read in the Torah: atem nitzavim ha-yom kul-chem — “You stand, all of you, this day,” ready to enter into a communal covenant (Deut. 29:9). What if we were to see our relationship to this community as a covenant, with duties and expectations? What if we were to invest in the empowerment of others, to advance the community together instead of advancing ourselves without regard for others? What if we had faith that these are the ways to improve our world? What would it take for us to realize that pursuing justice will transform us along the way?
This thing which God commands us to do is not beyond us or out of reach… No, it is so very near to us, in our mouths and in our hearts, to do it. (Deut. 30:11, 14)