The Women’s Rabbinic Network is an organization for women rabbis of the Reform movement. This year’s biennial convention was held in Baltimore last week, and the theme for our time together was Sh’ma Koleinu—hear our voices.
The goal of the convention was to learn from one another, learn from events in the city hosting us and learn how to listen to and raise our voices individually and together.
Sunday night’s program honored a new book and vatikot—elders. The Sacred Calling, winner of the 2017 National Jewish Book Award, is an anthology of women’s experiences as rabbis. The book was inspired by the 40th anniversary of Rabbi Sally Priesand’s ordination (five years ago). I am grateful to not only know Sally, the first woman ordained a rabbi in America, but to be her friend.
After the book presentation, four vatikot, or elders, women who were ordained between 1972-1983, shared personal stories. Rabbi Dena Feingold’s resonated with me deeply as she spoke of her story of the Torah. She recalled rolling it as a student-rabbi, something which I love doing. Rolling a Torah and having the time to wander through the text is a personal experience connecting with the sacred scroll. Rabbi Feingold also recalled how powerful it is for someone to hold the Torah for the first time, something I witness often.
Monday morning we gathered early to begin our day. I was blessed to get close to Torah, literally, during services. It was an honor to chant Torah for my colleagues. Praying together and raising our voices in song was a sweet experience.
“Good morning Baltimore”—the song rang through my head from the hit show, Hairspray. The show tells the story of Tracy Turnblad making it as a dancer in the 60s on ‘The Corny Collins Show’ and more importantly, promoting racial integration. The joy of services and the happy melody in my head matched my mood of being with colleagues.
However, Monday afternoon and evening we spent time focusing on the Baltimore of today and years ago. The melody coursing through the rest of the day was not cheerful. My colleague, Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen, arranged a walking tour of the Sandtown neighborhood where Freddie Gray lived and died. Freddie was a young black man arrested by the police two years ago. He was given a ‘rough ride’ to the police station and arrived with a broken spine and multiple injuries from which he died about a week later. The city of Baltimore erupted and national news showed the riots. As our tour leader and Baltimore activist, J. C. Faulk explained, the residents of Sandtown view this as an uprising (not riot). Yes, we saw the CVS that was burned down. But J. C. Faulk also showed us the beautiful murals—social justice expressed through art—that popped up in the hours, weeks and months following the tragedy.
Since there were more than 50 of us touring the neighborhood, I was aware of how much we stood out. J. C. invited us to engage in conversation with the residents which some of us did though time constraints made it challenging. One man from the neighborhood was particularly offended by our large presence and thought we were there to look and judge rather than see, hear and learn. He engaged a few of us in conversation and emphasized that everyone living there is a human being. We heard him and validated his feelings. His reaction reminded me of a piece I read when traveling as part of a rabbinic group with AJWS to Guatemala.
A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
You decide to venture from the sanctity of your tropical compound. You see natives. You marvel at the things they can do with their hair. The things they fashion out of cheap twine or ordinary cloth. Squatting on the side of the road. Hanging out with all the time in the world. You might look at them and think: “They’re so relaxed, so laid-back, they’re never in a hurry.”
Every native of every place is a potential tourist and every tourist is a native of somewhere. Every native would like to find a way out, every native would like a rest, every native would like a tour. But some natives-most natives in the world-cannot go anywhere. They are too poor. They are too poor to go anywhere. They are too poor to escape the realities of their lives; and they are too poor to live properly in the place where they live, which is the very place you, the tourist, want to go—so when the natives see you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their own banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself.
Monday evening we continued learning with J. C. Faulk and his program, Circle of Voices. Faulk gathers citizens and activists to learn from one another. That evening he had over 80 rabbis to join in the learning. The inner circle is for talking and the outer circle is for listening. First, the rabbis spoke while the citizens and activists listened. They learned what being a rabbi means to us. They resonated with our desire to engage in tikun olam—heal the world. We learned from the citizens the challenge of living in a divided community and their desire to meet others and make a difference. The activists, including PFK Boom, who spoke like a preacher, shared their passion to improve their community, knowing that death is inevitable. PFK shared earlier that day he had been in solitary confinement for three years for a drug charge. He survived and prevails, raising 7 children—two graduates from college already and a newborn baby—doing all he can to make the world a better place one neighborhood at a time.
Sh’ma Koleinu—hear our voices. God, we listened to the voices of Baltimore residents, citizens and activists as we heard our voices as well.
Together we raised our voices in prayer, in conversation and for justice. Tuesday’s date, June 6, was the anniversary of the S. S. St. Louis being denied entry to the US in 1939. Of the 937 Jewish refugees on board the ship sent back to Nazi Europe, 254 of them died in concentration camps. Knowing we would be in Baltimore that day, we participated in HIAS’ national vigils, which I organized. I’m pleased to learn the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the decision to put a hold on a travel ban.
Sh’ma Koleinu—listen to our voices; listen to others’ voices. There are more stories to tell. More work to done. Baltimore is a city in need of deep healing as is our country and world. By truly listening, we bear witness to one another’s struggles and triumphs and can raise our voices for justice.
Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz
June 10, 2017
Photos from WRN