Friday, May 27, 2011


Dear Readers,

I'm pleased to share with you this thoughtful and important D'var Torah offered by WRT congregant Sarah Weingarten who is studying Economics and English at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Jonathan Blake


I have been living in a foreign country for a few years now with a literal ocean of distance between my life in the U.K. and my Jewish roots at WRT, but when Rabbi Blake asked me to write a piece about this week’s portion, I connected with the Torah as one connects with an old friend, and was immediately (and once again) struck by the relevance of its wisdom to the modern causes in my life, and our shared lives alike.

This week’s Torah portion, Bemidbar, is the first in the Book of Numbers, and takes place as the Jewish people are wandering in the wilderness over a year after their Exodus from Egypt. God commands Moses to take a census of the Israelite population by recording the number of males over twenty years of age from each ancestral tribe, and eleven houses of Israel are thus accounted for. The Levites, however, are not counted – God instead commands Moses to distinguish them from the rest of the Israelites as the caretakers and guards of the Tabernacle of the Pact, in which the Ark and its Tablets are kept.

The Israelites are commanded to camp around the Levites in their family groups, both to protect and remain separated from the Tabernacle. It is only after the Levites are consecrated to God that they, too, are counted, and each group is given its own sacred responsibilities. However, despite the stratification of the Israelite population both within the tribal groups and as a whole, the numbers are all added up throughout to represent one unified people, and the entire population marches as one formation.

I was very affected by this portion about ancient hierarchies and biblical rites because it carries so much meaning for the principle of social action that we, as WRT congregants, exemplify every day. This summer, I will be working for Let’s Get Ready, a non-profit company that employs college student volunteers to provide free SAT coaching and college application assistance to underprivileged youth throughout New England and the Mid-Atlantic. I have been involved with Let’s Get Ready for two years - by mentoring high school students of lower-income backgrounds who lack the financial resources and the self-confidence to pursue their dreams of attending college - and I have seen the program work dozens of times. Now, I am co-directing the White Plains site, and I am keenly aware of how easy and rewarding it can be for college students to make a real impact not only on their students’ lives, but also on the socioeconomic barriers that prevent many wonderful high-schoolers from attending our nation’s top colleges.

To me, the most obvious feature of Bemidbar was, aptly, its focus on numbers – the counting and recording of family groups and amounts of money, and the hierarchy in the Israelite population that results. I read in the Plaut Commentary that, in fact, there has historically been an ambivalence in Judaism toward counting people and recording their ages because “there was a feeling that knowing a person’s ‘number’ was equivalent to knowing his essence,” an awareness that should not belong to men, but to God. Moreover, numbering appears to “[set] a limit” where physical and spiritual growth should instead appear to be limitless.

As I read this commentary on the content of Bemidbar, I could not help but think of my students at Let’s Get Ready, who are initially fearful that, in the college application process, they will merely get tagged with a “number” – their SAT score – without getting a chance to express their “essence” as they attempt to improve their lives. They often underestimate themselves and, in perceiving themselves to be counted out because of their socioeconomic background, effectively count themselves out.

What we do at Let’s Get Ready, however, is more than just improving the ‘number’ that will, to some extent, define the students to college admissions boards. We also get to know them as individuals over the course of seven weeks, and we teach them how to express their essence with pride, strength, and hope as they undertake the difficult and potentially life-changing college application process. We do not set limits; rather, in a way similar to the spiritual ideal identified in the commentary above, our students’ horizons become limitless.

How, then, to reconcile my work with Bemidbar, a chapter in our biblical history that uses finite numbers above all else to qualify the various groups within the Israelite population? I began to look at the portion with a wider lens and to consider the significance of its setting in the desert wilderness. It seems that many commentators have explored the idea of the desert and why the Israelites were given the Torah and many sacred rites there. One passage from the Midrash suggests that it is because those who preserve the Torah “make [themselves] like the desert: set apart from the world.” Given my work this summer and the drive toward social action that WRT has instilled in me, however, I cannot agree that holiness can arise from detachment.

I am more drawn to another passage from the Midrash, which explains that the Torah and its accompanying sacred responsibilities were given in the wilderness because the desert “is open and accessible to all mankind.” This has resonated with me beyond all else as I devote myself to Let’s Get Ready, especially since it is slowly becoming more widely acknowledged by academics and policymakers that the socioeconomic divide in our country makes for a higher education environment that is often not the meritocracy we would like it to be. Many competitive colleges and universities are attended by disproportionally large numbers of high-income students, while low- and middle-income students of equal caliber are shut out because they do not have access to the financial resources that would allow them to adequately prepare and ultimately pay for their education. Ideally, our collective educational institutions should emulate the desert [Hebrew, "midbar"] of Bemidbar, in which, led spiritually by the Levites, everyone is counted equally, and all tribes, despite their size, are given the same claim to the teachings of the Torah.

Ultimately, therefore, Bemidbar projects a spirit of unity and spiritual equality that, in conjunction with its focus on numbers, suggests that there is holiness in both the individual and the group. Each family is proudly identified and counted separately, but the numbers are added up to form the Israelite population as a whole, and it is because the wilderness is an even playing field that their spiritual cohesion is possible. I hope to take this idea with me into my work this summer with Let’s Get Ready – when it comes to social action, there is just as much holiness in the ability of one person to impact the life of another person, as there is in a collective group effort in pursuit of the common good. If everyone has an equal voice and an equal chance, there will be no limits to what humanity can accomplish.

Let’s Get Ready is looking for motivated, dependable, and enthusiastic college students to join our White Plains program by becoming volunteer coaches one evening a week from mid-June to mid-August. Interested students should apply by Friday, June 10th at,

or email Sarah Weingarten at for more information.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Sacred Power of If - Bechukotai 5771

Help us get the word out about saving the Amazing Afternoons program at Edward Williams School.

(And learn a little Torah while you're at it!)

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Blake

Friday, May 13, 2011

Behar 5771: Westchester United!

BEHAR 5771

I live 8 miles from Westchester Reform Temple. On a good day, in no traffic, it takes me 12 minutes to drive to work. On a bad day, don’t ask. The little community in which I live goes by many names. Our mailing address says Bronxville but the nearest Metro-North station is Fleetwood. The School District is Yonkers but the nearest city is Mount Vernon. If I walk ¼ miles west of our condo, I’m on the campus of Sarah Lawrence College. If I walk ¼ mile east, I’m in an apartment complex in downtown Mount Vernon.

The intersection of these communities sets their disparities into high relief. Green-and-pink flowering trees line the college walkways adjacent to the concrete sprawl of the Cross-County Mall. The green-and-pink argyle uniform of the archetypal Bronxvillian clashes with the low-slung pants and baseball cap of the Mount Vernon adolescent. As but one of countless related statistics, in 2007 the average SAT score in Bronxville was 1217; in Mount Vernon it was 838 (outranking only some districts in Yonkers which averaged as low as 794). (Scarsdale averaged 1256 that year for those of you who seek bragging rights.)

Living where I do has made me aware of pervasive, corrosive challenges in Westchester County.

WRT has been, and will remain, responsive to local concerns, even as we always stand at the ready to respond to an emergent crisis. When it comes to doing God’s work on earth, we do not take an either/or approach. When we were asked, “Does WRT stand with Darfur or with Israel?” the answer was a resounding YES. Do we stand with Haiti or with Japan? YES. Do we stand with New Orleans or with New Rochelle? YES.

Engagement at the local level does not preclude engagement in global concerns. Our generation will be remembered either for our moral grandeur or for our failure to uphold the mitzvot of responsible stewardship of our world. We will confront the threats posed by our dependence on fossil fuels. Any responsible commitment to Tikkun Olam requires both a telescope and a microscope.

Addressing the needs of Westchester County constitutes a core commitment of my rabbinate. We have big problems here, like school violence and gangs; school systems that fail to prepare youth for college and a competitive global job market; drug addiction; deadbeat and incarcerated parents; meager options for low-income housing, inadequate daycare for children of single working mothers, poorly funded after-school programs for adolescents (where they exist at all), and insufficient access to affordable, nutritious food.

Some of these problems seem unprecedented, but many date back as far as human civilization. Above all, we see with unmistakeable clarity in Westchester County a problem both global and local, modern and ancient: the growing gap between the rich and the poor, a gap that allows communities like Scarsdale to flourish alongside Mount Vernon, Rye Brook alongside Port Chester.

This week’s Torah portion, Behar, tackles head-on the gap between the haves and the have-nots. It speaks of an institution called Yovel, the Jubilee or fiftieth year, requiring a remission of outstanding debts, a cancellation of outstanding mortgages, a return of estates to original owners, a release of indentured laborers, and mandated welfare for the destitute. This parasha also reinforces the longstanding Jewish practice of interest-free loans.

Could the authorities really have enforced such a sweeping economic recalibration without widespread revolt or protest? Is the Bible’s vision the very definition of utopian, that is to say, of a society that could never exist? Apparently even by Hillel’s time in the first century BCE, creditors would refuse loans to people in need when the Yovel was approaching. Nevertheless we must admire the Torah’s moral courage to call it like it is, to identify the widening gap between rich and poor as a failed social condition requiring remedy.

That moral courage later would also find its voice in Reform Judaism. Listen to these words from the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, the capstone principle of a generation’s definitive statement of purpose:

In full accordance with the spirit of the Mosaic legislation, which strives to regulate the relations between rich and poor [that’s a reference to this week’s portion], we deem it our duty to participate in the great task of modern times, to solve, on the basis of justice and righteousness, the problems presented by the contrasts and evils of the present organization of society.

“The contrasts and evils of the present organization of society!” Good for us for speaking with blunt force -- back in 1885. Can we summon the courage to say it again now? If you want to see those “contrasts and evils” up close, just take a twelve minute drive in any direction.

Let me repeat: WRT has never neglected our neighborhood. I am inspired every day by our congregants’ dedication, creativity, and perseverance, from Cooking for a Cause, to monthly mitzvah collections, to seasonal and sustained food drives. When I came to WRT, I developed a program to oversee student mitzvah projects. Now virtually every Bar and Bat Mitzvah completes a commitment of 18 hours of community service, and many continue well into High School. Our congregants have created opportunities like Favors for Humanity, for families to pool money that would otherwise have been spent on party favors into a communal tzedakah fund, and Food Rescue, which hygienically conveys leftovers from catered events to local institutions with limited food budgets.

WRT understands the power of tzedakah. I’m reminded of the scene in Fiddler on the Roof when Lazar Wolf sees a man begging on the streets and says, “Here, Reb Nachum, is one kopek.” The beggar says, “One kopek? Last week you gave me two kopeks!” Lazar says, “I had a bad week.” And the beggar says, “So, you had a bad week, why should I suffer?”

Even in hard times we have continued to raise the bar for charitable giving. Last year’s Confirmation class raised over $6,000 and gave $1,500 to the Edward Williams School in Mount Vernon where many of our kids volunteer. In fact, just last night, WRT congregants convened an assembly to rescue their Amazing Afternoons after-school program, whose funding the state has cut. Our annual Confirmation fundraiser is this Sunday morning, so please come with open wallets and open hearts. Dirty cars optional but recommended.

So WRT already stands out front when it comes to social action. But Parashat Behar challenges us to go way beyond the usual way of doing it. Parashat Behar challenges the status quo. It says: examine the world as it is and turn it into the world as it ought to be.

Giving tzedakah and performing deeds of lovingkindness for people in need positions us as benefactors and them as recipients. The benefits to the recipient are real and measurable, but at the end of the day, there is no shift in the fundamental power structure. If anything, the benefactor-recipient model of Tikkun Olam highlights the power differential between one community and the next. It’s us and them instead of just us.

Enter four letters that I hope you will learn and embrace and use. C.B.C.O. They stand for Congregation-Based Community Organizing. CBCO enables synagogues to build deep relationships and address entrenched challenges through thoughtful conversations and by creating powerful coalitions across lines of race, class, and faith.

Working together, congregations identify broadly held concerns of injustice and then bring their collective power to successful action to transform their communities.

Working with local community organizing groups, Reform congregations across the country, along with their diverse partner congregations, have already achieved significant victories on issues of affordable housing, health care access and affordability, nursing care quality for both patients and employees, schooling, air quality improvement, and much more. Westchester Reform Temple is proud to be one of the lead CBCO congregations in Westchester.

Many people have said, “We know that Yonkers needs better schools. We know that Port Chester needs fair treatment for its predominantly Hispanic immigrant population. We know that Mount Vernon needs more low-income housing. Why can’t we just work on those issues?” But that defeats the purpose of CBCO, in which listening campaigns allow us to cultivate buy-in and strengthen not only the coalition but also each member congregation, one conversation at a time. Only when issues emerge from the community will we authentically serve the community.

And the issues we need to address are simply too big for WRT to tackle alone. No matter how generous we are, we can’t solve them with our tzedakah alone. No matter how determined we are, we can’t solve them with our dedication alone. No matter how loving we are, we can’t solve them with our compassion alone.

We have to join with other congregations, for one purpose: to amass the power it will take to change entrenched norms in Westchester. People in power may not care when a group of leaders from a single congregation arranges a meeting to advocate for this or that cause, no matter how much thoughtfulness and passion they bring to the table. But believe me, governments and corporations will listen when 24 congregations stand together, loudly demanding change.

The Union for Reform Judaism has identified CBCO as a priority for the Reform Movement. Rabbi Jacobs and I have been involved in a Westchester-based CBCO initiative for more than three years, and WRT has spent much of this year getting ready for this hard and holy work.

Two nights ago, in the basement social hall of Greater Centennial AME Zion Church in Mount Vernon with which we share a special partnership, 25 delegates from WRT joined with representatives of a dozen other local congregations--Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim--to become Westchester United, formally announcing our commitment to collaborate for the greater good of Westchester County. Our collaboration, which will grow to include many more congregations, will require a significant investment of time, money, and energy from both clergy and lay leaders, an investment commensurate with our deepest hopes. The diversity in that room Wednesday night was itself inspiring. The event began with an invocation from the Quran; the proceedings were translated simultaneously into Spanish for the robust Hispanic represenation. One after another, speakers testified to the power of CBCO to transform communities. We heard about the success of the low-cost Nehemiah homes in Brooklyn and about a recent victory in confronting the Ford corporation about its contribution to pollution in New Jersey. The emotion in that room gave a tantalizing preview of this coming November’s Founding Assembly: an electrifying event that, I promise you, will make local headlines.

I’m eager to join with you and our neighbors in this effort.

Together we will fulfill the precept announced in this week’s Torah portion, accompanied by the blast of the shofar:

U’k’ratem d’ror ba-aretz, l’chol yosh’veha: Proclaim equity throughout the land, to all who dwell in it.
Kein yehi ratzon.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Shabbat Shalom!

Dear friends,

I am pleased to share with you this piece for your information and reflection, our own Rabbi Richard Jacobs in his own words.

This is the Shabbat that anticipates Yom Ha-Atzma'ut, Israel's Independence Day. As we gather to celebrate Israel and show our support for her, let us remember that Israel is strengthened--not threatened--by a multiplicity of viewpoints. Let a broad and diverse chorus of Ohavei Tzion -- lovers of Israel -- rise up!

Click here for the link to this important video and text of Rabbi Jacobs' speech.

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Jonathan Blake