Monday, September 21, 2009


Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year.
They say you can never go home again. This summer I tried that out. I went home to Memphis for a brief visit. The apartments that I grew up in are now torn down and a Mercedes Benz dealership sits on the land of my childhood! Lots of change through the years.

During my visit to Memphis I went to the National Civil Rights Museum. This museum is dedicated to telling the story of the African American Civil Rights struggle and the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is built around the site of his assassination, The Lorraine Motel. You can see the room where he stayed just as it was on that April 4th day in 1968 and the balcony where he was shot by a gunman across the street.

The hotel now restored and the museum built around it, is a far cry from how it looked when I lived there as a teenager. At least once a week, I would park my car outside the hotel and just sit contemplating what transpired there. My mother worked around the corner on Beale Street and I used to drive her to work and pick her up each day. Some afternoons I drove downtown early just to sit outside the Lorraine Motel which during the seventies was a ruin. Fenced off ; crumbling bricks; urban blight. I would try to imagine what happened.

King was in Memphis to help solve a Sanitation workers strike. He had been in Memphis the last week in March trying to help negotiate a solution and have a nonviolent protest march with the workers. It ended in rioting when police attacked. He left only to be summoned back to lead a peaceful protest when the talks broke down once again. The sanitation workers were asking for the basic dignity of a raise from $1.60 an hour to $2.00 and the right to unionize. An issue of economic justice.

But Memphis at the time was hardly the place it is now. It was rife with racism. And the Klan marched openly in her streets. Jews were only a notch above. And the rabbi of my youth, Dr. James Wax worked tirelessly to help the sanitation workers in the struggle. Rabbi Wax was the head of the Memphis Ministerial Association in February, 1968 when the sanitation workers went on strike. Dr. Wax was instrumental in helping organize the workers and the protests, rallying clergy and citizens to their cause. He conferred with Dr. King. He confronted the Mayor of Memphis on a number of occasions who refused to negotiate fairly. And the day after King was shot led a giant march down the main street -Poplar Ave to City Hall to take on the Mayor.

As I would sit outside of the Lorraine Motel as a teenager this living history was part of the fabric of my spiritual foundation. It shaped my understanding of the intersection between my Judaism and civil rights. It echoed the call of our Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Micah to uplift human dignity.

The story of the civil rights movement of African Americans was bloody and long. It involved hundreds of people and different organizations. At first with their various turf wars but then coordinating and cooperating to make their protests meaningful. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Council, the NAACP, The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and later the work of Malcom X joined together to support one another and to build a movement for change and equality even as they maintained their own missions. Whether at lunch counter sit-ins, boycotts of the buses, freedom riders, and voter registration drives, marches like the one in Selma, the various tactics would pay off.

Unfortunately, there were young people who paid often with their lives, like Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner who were lynched by the Klan in the summer of 1964 in Meridian, Ms. They were willing to take on the cause of justice and equality not just with a checkbook but with action and fervor and total commitment to their cause. Not just African Americans. But white Americans who were just as fueled and committed to equality and civil rights.

All through the story of the African American Civil Rights movement Jews were there as team members and supporters. What you may not know is one of the founders of the NAACP was a prominent Jewish leader in 1910, Henry Moscowitz. And many Jews have served on its board and as chair person. Previously serving on the Board was Rabbi Emil Hirsch, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, Julius Rosenwald owner and leader of Sears, Roebuck Company, Lillian Wald founder of Henry Street Settlement House and the Reform Movement’s own Rabbi David Saperstein of our Religious Action Center. Columbia Professor Joel Spingarn served as chair from 1913-39. His brother Arthur succeeded him as chair of the NAACP until 1965. Kivie Kaplan a noted Reform Jewish businessman from 1965 -1975.

Jewish involvement in civil rights was and is an extension of our Jewish values. “Remember the stranger in your midst for you were once strangers in the land of Israel”, the Torah teaches us. This value propels us to see all as created b’tzelem Elohim, created in God’s image. We Jews have been called to a mission of ensuring human rights in places where there are none because we as a people have known throughout our history what it means to be treated without human dignity. To be ghettoized, marginalized, denied economic access and murdered. We know that there are still many places where Jews are hated for no other reason than our faith. Our people have memory of what it means to not be treated as fully human.

And in this sacred community those of us who are Gay, Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender also know what this is like. In this last year, the California electorate proved once again that they gave into their fears about gay people. They gave in to the lies and myths about our lives.
Was it only a year ago that we stood in this sanctuary and celebrated those who had married? Those who tasted the full force of their human dignity granted by the Supreme Court of California with the opportunity for gay men and lesbians to marry their partners? Would all of you who were married in the last year gay or straight please stand! So we can applaud you and celebrate your humanity!
(Please rise)
But sadly now we have lost this part of our equality and liberty. And when on group loses equality all are diminished.

But if we want it back it will take much more than we are doing now. If we want our civil rights at the federal level then it will take more than we are doing now.

Gay and straight must work passionately together. And as a Jewish community we must help be a strong part of this movement towards GLBT full acceptance and equality in our country. It is part of our heritage to cast our lot with the underdog for we have walked that road so often. Our story is the story of the underdog rising to leadership. Of Isaac, not Ishmael, of Jacob not Esau, of Joseph over his older brothers, of Moses over Aaron and Miriam, the underdog wins out. And this should provide us with inspiration for our cause.

Today to achieve our full inclusion and our full civil rights will take more than isolating in our community. We must move beyond just talking to ourselves and our allies. This was a failure of the No on 8 campaign. We didn’t talk enough outside of our allies. We must get out of our comfort zones and build strategic alliances together. For those of you who are straight family and friends who are a part of this community we need you to continue to combat the hatred for gay people everywhere. Our commitment to equality and total acceptance of those on the margins is part of the fabric of Kol Ami’s essence.

But what does that mean for you and me sitting here today? How can we further this cause? And energize ourselves for the long haul. Last November’s defeat at the ballot box and the subsequent defeat at the Supreme Court in overturning Proposition 8 have left many of us jaded; burned; saddened and angry.

Do we merely let the organizations on a national and statewide basis do their work? Do we write checks in the comfort of our homes? Do we leave it to others to do for us? Wait our turn? Do we sit out and say “Well they screwed it up so I am not going to participate. This has nothing to do with my everyday life.” “I don’t care about marriage equality because I am single or I will never get married.” “Marriage is failed institution.” If these continue to be our responses I can assure you GLBT full inclusion and rights will never be won. For this is not the way we will make the vision of the prophets who called out God’s messages of universal hope, of a time when all will become one, a reality.

On this New Year’s Day we have a chance to be God’s messengers, God’s angels in this world doing this holy and spiritual work. We have a chance to be the angels of change in our country, the angels who bring the Divine mandate for human dignity and caring into the world and into our lives. The angels who bring blessings every Shabbat –as we sing Shalom Aleichem; The Angels- like Raphael who bring blessings of Healing and Uriel who brings light into the world. You can be an angel one of the heavenly host on earth. You can be an angel of change though your commitment, and willingness to act bringing equality from the Heavenly Realm here to the Earthly Realm.

First it is time to march. To get out of your comfort zone. Time to show our face in Washington and make a significant showing. Time to join me in Washington, D.C. for the March for Equality Oct 10-11. Show up. Be counted. And help send a message that our rights are crucial for America’s dream of liberty to be fulfilled. You can send a message that we are simply not going to settle anymore—we won’t live as second class citizens. For we have tasted true inclusion and it was stolen from us by the lies. Now is the time to organize and march together. You can be an angel of change. The time has come to understand that the equality and liberty for gay men and lesbians must demand action. The young people had it right last November following our embarrassing and humiliating and devastating loss at the ballot box-the streets is where we must be. And we must be more visible in our quest. Action not rhetoric is what we need to achieve this goal of full human rights here in California and our nation.

Secondly, we must insist that the turf wars between organizations and personalities stop. The battles between personalities and the finger pointing of the past will only keep us from achieving our common goal of equality. And you who are leaders in this room, who sit on the various boards, must demand this of your executives. As donors you must demand that we get on the page together; to share resources. The time has come to demand coordination and cooperation. And if the organizations are busy arguing with each other and we are arguing among ourselves—then the ability to create a real action plan is hampered. We need more coordinated efforts to protest at every army recruiting station. We need coordinated efforts to protest at every marriage license bureau. We need more volunteers to go and register voters and talk to them about marriage equality. Do you think that Rosa Parks was just a nice seamstress who refused to give up her seat on a bus? Mrs. Parks worked for the NAACP! There was coordinated action. And coordinated action is the real way we will transform this country and this state. We need to lobby more and demand of elected officials and those running for office to be held accountable on our issues. We need you to come down from the hills and the comfort of our middle class and be an angel of change – to get actively involved.

We need more volunteers willing to take on the Catholic and Mormon churches by reaching out across the pews to your neighbors and friends who are Catholic and Mormon. We can’t be afraid to engage people in conversation about full equality. We must tell our stories and we must be visible. We are the angels-God’s messengers on earth who will transform our world if we act.

But this is not the task of the GLBT community alone. It will take passionate people of all kinds coming together to rise up to action. We learned this from the African American civil rights struggle.

This is a vision that can be fulfilled. And we here in this congregation are uniquely poised to further this goal. This community has always been gay and straight together—seeking a vision of holiness and wholeness for our lives. To find the Divine inside and to bring that Divine hope into our world. It is why our commitment as a community to social justice has always been at its core. Whether it is feeding the hungry with our work for Sova and Project Chicken or engaging the local West Hollywood Russian community to overcome their fear of gay men and lesbian or walking for Darfur, and raising awareness of the genocide taking place in the midst of the Sudan as the world turns its head as part of Jewish World Watch.

Full equality of the GLBT community is not just about marriage equality but it is about repealing DOMA, Repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, allowing couples to be reunited when one is of a different nationality which at the present time is not allowed. It is about adoption which in many states is still outlawed for gay people. It is about getting the Employment Non-Discrimination Act passed. It is about Extending the civil rights bill of 1964 to the GLBT community. It is about changes in Social Security and other federal agencies. It is about access to healthcare, and for those with HIV/AIDS especially, access to the medicines that help sustain their well-being.

Most importantly, we who are members and supporters of this Congregation understand something that is still often lost on some leaders of the LGBT community and the foundations. That unless we address the so-called religious right on these issues and take them on and fund our GLBT positive religious organizations that we will never win our civil rights. This is a message I have been trying to drum into the hearts and minds of LGBT political leaders for more than two decades. And some have listened. But time and again they continue to think they can do it alone with ballot initiatives, legislation that doesn’t get signed, and court battles. But they can’t. Until we address the lies that the fundamentalist both Christian and Jews repeat. Until more of the political organization in our state recognize and turn to those of us who have the ability to articulate our vision of God’s inclusivity and beliefs have the moral authority to challenge their religious books head on we will never win. We must take the moral authority that we have and expound it everywhere. And you who have a spiritual foundation must be well-versed to answer these inflammatory and hateful lies where the Bible is used to bash us. You can help do this and be and Angel of Change

The pathway to our full equality will take building coalitions with other groups beyond the GLBT community, to work in solidarity to improve the quality of all of our lives and our country. We must reach across the partisan divide especially.

That is why the struggle for our civil rights, our human rights, is broader than marriage equality-it is about shaping a world, a vision where we are part of an ongoing march towards equality and opportunity. In Dr. King’s last years even as he was intimately involved in the struggle for African American civil rights—he understood that human dignity was more than just one group’s equality. And so he turned his eyes also to curing poverty and against the war in Vietnam. He understood that the great challenges in his day to our society held back everyone.
We too must embrace this strategy. The great poverty around us, that was here before the recession hit and has only grown keeps us all from thriving and keeps us from our equality. This is why we are participating in the Jewish Federation and Mazon and Sova campaign Fed Up with Hunger –you each have received a black reusable bag –in it are the lists for Sova, the Kosher Food Pantry. Bring back to us on Yom Kippur or any time to our synagogue a brown paper bag filled so we can help the hungry and begin to defeat poverty. The reusable bag is yours to keep helping our environment.

Another place we should be involved as a GLBT and Jewihs Community is our schools. The problems in our school system hold everyone back from creating a workforce that is ready and able to become the workers that we need for a full economic revival. In Los Angeles County-the dropout rate especially among young boys of color soars astronomically. Nearly one in five African American boys and nearly 3 in 10 Latino boys drop out. Talk about no hope- We can’t live in our isolated hubs of the valley, the hills and the Westside and especially West Hollywood and continue to turn a blind eye to the layers and layers of issues that hold all of us down. Even if you have no children or send yours to private school, this group on the margins is no different than gays and lesbians being on the margins. We all are denied access to full equality and opportunity.

That is why our congregation must be poised in this our 18th anniversary year to engage each other in this quest for justice and equality like never before.

Civil rights are human rights. And when we as a Jewish community work tirelessly for those rights—we are living our values and building Dr. King’s beloved community. As Dr. King wrote in his last book "Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation . . ."
To that end I offer you four opportunities to work to make this change and to be the change –an Angel of Change.

Our congregation will begin a process of working with California Faith for Equality to prepare for a dialogue between members of our congregation and others from congregations that voted Yes on 8 this will be a first step in carrying our message of human dignity to others. Getting out of our comfort zone and engaging with those who don’t understand our lives and our spiritual vision echoed by the Prophets. Wednesday Oct 14 at 7 pm will be the first training for the dialogue. We will be able to transcend some of these boundaries through our dialogue. We might not agree but we will create together some common ground for knowing one another. Be an angel of change face to face with others who are different.

Secondly, Equality California is working hand in hand with the Gay and Lesbian Center’s Vote for Equality program. This program canvasses door to door in neighborhoods reaching out across color and class lines to engage voters in a conversation about GLBT equality. There are sign up clipboards in the lobby and information in your black bangs. There is phone banking, Volunteer recruitment and an opportunity to really make a difference person by person. Be an angel of change.

And later in the winter, Courage Campaign will be holding a mini-camp courage for training activist specifically who come from a spiritual background. And in November Rev. Eric Lee of the Southern Christian Leadership will come and teach us about the issues of education and the increasing dropout rates among boys of color and what we can do about.

We need you. We need you to walk like the angels to transform souls and lives. And through doing so you will transform our cause of justice and equality into a reality.

The Kedusha prayer in the Amidah is a dialogue between the Heavenly Host the choir of angels who sing Holy Holy Holy—praising God.

The midrash says that the Angels do this job from Sunset to Sunup while we
Sleep. And during the day it is our jobs to be like the angels praising God’s holiness and acting in God’s holy ways here on earth. You shall be holy for I Adonai am holy—Words we will read Yom Kippur afternoon. This is the year of action, the year to make a change, this year -5770 of becoming the angels who transform our world, ourselves, and yes our cause of justice, equality and civil rights. And let it be renewd here with us. Ken Yehi Ratzon so may it be God’s will.

Three times you call holy to hallow God like the angels
We are here! We are here!
Your spirit filled army
They are the source of your teaching
That expands the circle of your followers
They proclaim your sacred praise
Which they spread throughout the world
They robe themselves in awe
Crowning your head with Jewels
You shall sing songs anew
Know all this and be brave
Call out a threefold Holy

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