The Battle to Oppose Restrictions to Reproductive Rights

It’s estimated that more than one hundred million people will be watching the battle on the playing field for the Super Bowl this Sunday as the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks compete for the title and that amazing ring.

That amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue in ads, sponsorships…you name it.

For weeks, the press has been interviewing players, talking about odds, getting us hyped for the “big game.”

Even if one isn’t a football fan, it’s hard not to get caught up in the frenzy of Super Bowl fever.

As for me, I’m attending two Super Bowl parties myself.

But there’s another battle being waged right now in the United States: one that affects every single one of us in some manner: either because we are female, or because we have a mother, wife, sister, daughter, granddaughter or some other woman in our lives. And it’s my hope that we can get just as caught up in this battle as we are in the Super Bowl:

The Battle to Oppose Restrictions to Reproductive Rights for Women

Be A Voice for Choice: Speak Out to Oppose Restrictions to Reproductive Rights
Be A Voice for Choice: Speak Out to Oppose Restrictions to Reproductive Rights

I am joining with many of my colleagues and with the Reform Movement to speak out to oppose restrictions to reproductive rights for women. I urge you to write to your congressional representative to oppose these restrictions as well.

For me, the issue is based on both personal experience and on my understanding of Jewish values.

The Personal Perspective:

  • One of my closest family members became pregnant as a result of being raped by her physician. (His license to practice medicine was revoked as a result of that attack. He should have gone to jail.). If she had not been allowed access to an abortion, she would have been forced to give birth to a child by rape. (And she was not in a situation where pregnancy was a viable option).
  • I have six nieces and many other close relatives who are all female. It is important to me that they, and I, have the ability to make our own choices when it comes to decisions about our bodies.
  • One of my dear friends became pregnant with a baby who was grossly deformed. It was determined the fetus had no brain. She and her husband had to make the difficult but necessary choice to terminate the pregnancy as soon as they were able.

The Proposed Legislation:

On February 28, the House of Representatives passed The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act (H.R. 7)
by a vote of 227-188.

Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism: Focus on Reproductive Rights
Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism: Focus on Reproductive Rights

The Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center (RAC) has a great deal of information and updates about this issue. Click here to read more about this from the RAC. Here is a summary of the issue:

This is dangerous and highly restrictive bill that severely threatens the right to choice affirmed by the Supreme Court in Roe V. Wade (1973). With the passage of this legislation, it threatens to prevent women seeking needed reproductive health care from using their own private money to pay for abortion services.

H.R. 7 would also deny women the right to deduct abortion services in their health care tax credits. This infringes not only on federally-administered health care plans, but also on privately-run and paid-for plans.

This legislations would likely lead many private health insurance plans to eliminate abortion coverage altogether. This reduces a woman’s access to safe, legal and affordable abortion.

Additionally, H.R. 7 further enshrines the “Hyde Amendment” of 1976 into law. The “Hyde Amendment” forbids any federal funding for abortions for those on Medicaid, Medicare or those in the Indian Health Service (except for in the cases of rape, incest or endangerment to the life of the mother).

The Jewish Perspective:

Judaism teaches us that all life comes from God and therefore, all life is sacred. However, a fetus is not considered to be a fully functioning “human being” until “it’s head has crowned”. What does this mean?

This means that from a Jewish traditional perspective, our tradition teaches us that we place the health and well-being of the mother as our top-priority while the mother is pregnant. Yet, at the same time, we still do all we can to nurture the growing fetus as it has the potential to grow into a fully viable human being.

We learn from the rabbis in the Mishna (Mishna Ohalot 7:6) that a woman is forbidden to harm herself or risk her own life to save that of her unborn fetus. If her life is threatened, she must “dismember the fetus limb-by-limb to save her own life”. In other words, she must abort the fetus to save her own life. Additionally, if her mental health is at risk (as in the case of rape, incest) the woman is permitted to terminate the pregnancy. However, if she is giving birth, as soon as the baby’s head has crowned, we are taught, the baby is a viable human being, and one must save the lives of both the baby AND the mother.

Therefore, our Jewish tradition teaches us that there are circumstances when the sanctity of life demands of us that in order to save a woman’s life, abortion is both the moral and correct decision.

Take Action:

What can you do? You CAN make a difference!

It’s even simpler than planning a Super Bowl party!!

Urge your congressional representative to speak AGAINST The No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act (H.R.7) which would deprive women of the ability to make their own choices about their reproductive health.

You can email your representative directly by clicking on this link (all you will have to do is fill in your email address and address):

(As an aside, I know my representative, Brad Schneider. He assures me that they DO READ all of the letters and emails they receive and they do make a difference).

Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center Email Direct Link to Your Congressional Representative

To reach your Members of Congress, call the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121.

We cannot stand silent while the House of Representatives considers a bill that violates the US Constitution, the US Supreme Court Roe V. Wade decision and our Jewish tradition.
So while you are gearing up for the Super Bowl this Sunday, take a few extra minutes and “gear up” for the women in your life as well.

Join me in the battle to oppose restrictions to reproductive rights.

Turn Your Guns into PloughShares

“Guns! Buy your guns here! We sell all types of guns: wild west guns, shot guns, guns, guns, guns!’

I’ve just returned from visiting friends in the Southwest. It seems that on every other block, I had an opportunity to purchase my own gun. There were more gun shops than fast-food joints. I almost felt assaulted by all the gun shops I encountered. Perhaps I could grab a burger and a gun to go?

My friends and I initially joked about what kind of gun we should purchase, but in reality, it is not a joke. Not when each week, we read of another school shooting, another accidental killing by gunshot, another drive-by gang killing.

We have some staggering statistics regarding guns and gun violence in the United States: On average:

  • 30,000 Americans are killed by firearms each year;
  • 12,000 Americans are murdered by firearms each year;
  • 30 Americans are murdered each day via gunshot
  • 200 Americans are wounded each day via gun violence; and
  • with 88 guns per 100 people, the United States has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world. (Statistics courtesy of the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center).

This past June, Illinois (where I live) became the last state to pass the “Concealed Carry” Bill, allowing Illinois State Police to issue a concealed-carry license to any qualified applicant. The law just went into effect the beginning of January, 2014.

Many places, such as houses of worship, (including my own Congregation B’nai Torah),  restaurants, grocery stores display a “NO CONCEALED WEAPONS ALLOWED” sign:

No Concealed Weapons Allowed
No Concealed Weapons Allowed: Turn Guns into Ploughshares

Is this the kind of world we want for our children? A place where they become as familiar with the logo for “No Guns” as they are with the logo for the “Stop” sign? Do we want them to worry that they might not be safe at school or at the playground? Do we want them to worry that their parents might not be safe at work? 

I am sure that many of us know someone who has been personally affected by gun violence. And it isn’t something that only takes place “out there”: it takes place in JCC’s, in synagogues and in our own homes as well. Guns do not discriminate when it comes to age, gender, race or religion.

In last week’s Torah portion, Yitro, from the book of Exodus, we receive the 10 Commandments. The first two Commandments are statements: 

I am the Eternal Your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.

You shall have no other Gods beside Me. (Exodus 20: 2-3)

Our text tells us: God exists. And the singularity of God’s nature suggests that all of us are equal in God’s eyes. As such, we need to treat every human being with that same sense of equality. With dignity and respect.

We need to combine the first two commandments with the Sixth Commandment:

“You shall not murder.” (Exodus 20: 13)

It becomes clear from our text that guns and other weapons of violence are not to be used indiscriminately. That if we are to preserve our relationship with God and our relationship with each other, we need to carefully think through what our society does to prevent gun violence.

The Reform Movement supports Gun Violence Prevention Advocacy and offers congregations educational and programmatic resource materials.

Visit the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center (RAC)website: for more information or click below for the RAC’s

Gun Violence and Prevention Program and Resource Guide

“Don’t stop after beating the swords into ploughshares, don’t stop! Go on beating and make musical instruments out of them. Whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them into ploughshares first.” –Yehuda Amichai

Ariel Sharon – Lion of God

Ariel Sharon. His name means “Lion of God” (in) the “Plains of Sharon.” (the northern half of the coastal plain of Israel)

Could there be a more appropriate name for this man who devoted his life to his country with courage, passion, and zeal?

All week long, we have been reading what historians, analysts, biographers, friends and foes have to say about this larger-than-life man. Whether one loved him, hated him or wavered back-and-forth, Ariel Sharon was one of the few people who had the most significant impact – positive and negative – on Israel over the course of modern history.

I will leave the political analysis and discussion to those who are more expert than I. Sharon’s death, after eight years in a coma following a stroke, will provoke a great deal of reflection and commentary.

For me, it brings to mind the words of our patriarch Jacob at the end of the book of Breishit, Genesis. As Jacob prepares to die, he blesses all his children. But he bestows upon his fourth son, Judah, a blessing that results in the tribe of Judah leading all the others. And according to tradition, King David and the royal line descend from the Tribe of Judah.

“You O Judah, your brothers shall praise; your hand shall be on the nape of your foes; your father’s sons shall bow low to you. Judah is a lion’s whelp. (gur ar-yeh Y’hudah); On prey, my son, have you grown. He crouches, lies down like a lion, like the king of beast who dare rouse him? The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet; So that tribute shall come to him..and the homage of peoples be his.” (Genesis 49: 8-10)

The symbol of the Tribe of Judah, is the lion. We often see the Lions of Judah depicted artistically holding up the tablets of the covenant.

We want the strength of the lion to guard our pact with God. We want the fearlessness of the lion to keep away our enemies. We want that Ari-El, that Lion of God to keep us safe from all harm. If the lion can do the fighting for us, then we can be free to live our lives as we desire: in peace, freedom and security.

Lions of Judah
Lions of Judah

Ariel Sharon is the fulfillment of Jacob’s blessing. He was that “Gur Ar-yeh Y’hudah” that “lion’s whelp” who had the courage, tenacity and fierce character to fight on behalf of his country. He was not afraid to do what had to be done. He truly was that Lion of God, the “Ari-El” for whom he was named. And just as lion’s are also ruthless and cunning, at times, so was Sharon. Leaving a brutal and bloody trail behind.

But just as Jacob blessed Judah with the words “the sceptre shall not depart from Judah”, Sharon was able to fight his way back from the battle field, from his defeats, to lead his people. The wreckage of the lion’s prey, was left behind as he sought to strengthen his people. The name “Sharon” can also depict a “rose” from the Valley of the Sharon. Ariel Sharon could be an ironic contrast of “lion” with the “rose of the Valley of the Sharon”: strong and beautiful, fighter and builder, courageous and impulsive.

Jacob’s blessing ends: “So that tribute shall come to him..and the homage of the peoples be his”, so too, do we see the praise and the homage coming to Sharon this week after his death.

Zichrono livracha – may his memory be for a blessing.


My friend, Mattan Klein, flutist extra-ordinaire, and Director of Seeds of Sun, plays flute in this moving musical tribute at Ariel Sharon’s funeral.

Click below for:

Reform Movement Statement on The Death of Ariel Sharon

Sing a Song of Freedom

This week and next we commemorate the values of freedom, justice and liberty.

B’shalach, our Torah reading for this week, celebrates the new-found freedom of the Israelites as they escaped from slavery in Egypt.

In Exodus 15 we read the beautiful Song at the Sea, the poem of praise, thanksgiving and victory which the Israelites sang upon their safe deliverance. “Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Eternal. They said:


I will sing to the Eternal, for Adonai has triumphed gloriously;

Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.

The Eternal is my strength and might;

He is become my deliverance.

This is my God and I will enshrine Him.

The God of my ancestors, and I will exalt him.” (Exodus 15: 1-2)

We remind ourselves every day, twice a day, that we used to be slaves when we recite the “Mi Chamocha” prayer in our daily morning service and evening service. “Mi Chamocha” is actually not a prayer or blessing. The verses are actually taken from this week’s Torah reading: Exodus 15:11 and 15: 18:

“Who is like You, majestic in holiness,

Awesome in splendor, working wonders!… The Eternal will reign for ever and ever.”

Why do we need to remind ourselves constantly of our servitude?

Both the Torah itself and the later rabbis instill within us the value of historical memory:

In every generation, one is obligated to see one’s self as having personally left Egypt. As it is said: (Exodus 13:8), ‘And you will tell your child on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I went free from Egypt.'” (Mishnah, Pesachim 10:5)

By reciting Mi Chamocah twice daily, we are reminding ourselves of a few things: 1) we are connected to God in a relationship that is historic; 2) God redeemed us from slavery; and 3) if we needed assistance to be liberated from bondage, then we are obligated to help those who are not yet free as well. Mi Chamocha then is our call to action.

Modern Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel took this obligation very seriously. In one of his important works, he wrote:

“Freedom means more than mere emancipation. It is primarily freedom of conscience, bound up with inner allegiance. The danger begins when freedom is thought to consist of the fact that “I can act as I desire.” This definition not only overlooks the compulsions which often lie behind our desires; it reveals the tragic truth that freedom may develop within itself the seed of its own destruction. The will is not an ultimate and isolated entity, but determined by motives beyond its own control. To be what one wants to be is also not freedom, since the wishes of the ego are largely determined by external factors…Freedom presupposes the capacity for sacrifice. Man’s true fulfillment cannot be reached by the isolated individual, and his true good depends on communion with, and participation in, that which transcends him. Each challenge from beyond the person is unique, and each response must be new and creative… The glory of a free society lies not only in the consciousness of my right to be free, and my capacity to be free, but also in the realization of my fellow man’s right to be free, and his capacity to be free.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Insecurity of Freedom, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966)

Heschel was not just a man of thought, a man of words, but a man of deed. In 1965, he marched in the famous march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was his friend and close colleague. “When I marched in Selma, it felt like my legs were praying,” Heschel commented after the march.

Susannah Heschel, AJ Heschel’s daughter, explained this further:

“For my father, though, the march was not simply a political demonstration, but a religious occasion. He saw it as a revival of prophetic Judaism’s political activism and also of the traditions of Hasidism, a Jewish pietistic revival movement that arose in the late eighteenth century, according to which walking could be a spiritual experience.” (Susannah Heschel, “Following in my father’s footsteps: Selma 40 years later”)

The photo below shows Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on the far right, participating in the Selma march. On his left is Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, a former Senior Rabbi of Holy Blossom Temple (where I began my rabbinate) and long-standing president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (1943-1972). Both Heschel and Eisendrath worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. fighting against racism, bigotry, hatred and intolerance. They all fought for civil rights and justice.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath (Pres. of the UAHC), Rabbi Abraham Joshuah Heschel. The March from Selma to Montgomery, 1965.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath (Pres. of the UAHC), Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The March from Selma to Montgomery, 1965.

Therefore, it is not so ironic that we as a Jewish people are celebrating our own historical liberation from bondage, just one week before we, as a nation, observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Martin Luther King, Jr. taught:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (Birmingham, Alabama, April 16, 1963).

Dr. King’s words go hand-in-hand with what we learn from our own Jewish tradition:

“In a place where there is no humanity, strive to be human.” (Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, 2:6)

as well as,

Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Justice, justice you shall pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

We will do justice to our Torah portion this week, B’shalach, and to the memories of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and to all who work to free the captives, when we work to fulfill the following words:

Let violence be gone; let the day come soon when evil shall give way to goodness, when war shall be forgotten, hunger be no more, and all at last shall live in freedom.” (Gates of Prayer, page 618. Central Conference of American Rabbis, New York, 1975).


Together, We Can Strengthen and Heal One Another

“Rabbi,” my congregant asked me on the phone, “I have a favour to ask. I feel so terribly distraught. Can we please organize a healing circle?”

Toward the beginning of November, we heard the news that Sammy Sommer, the 8-year old son of Rabbis Michael and Phyllis Sommer had relapsed. He had Acute Myeloid Leukemia. The news was devastating: 520 days after diagnosis and months of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant there was no longer any cure. No hope. The end would soon be near. Sammy died on December 14th.

This news shook my congregation to its very core. It sent them reeling and we are still not back on even ground.

Sammy’s father Michael had served as one of the rabbis at our congregation for two years. He developed strong and meaningful relationships. Sammy’s mother, Phyllis, is a beloved Associate Rabbi at another congregation nearby. They have been chronicling Sammy’s illness and their family’s journey through “the land of the sick” with a blog that has reached thousands across the world:

My congregants needed a way to deal with the devastating news as a community. They knew they could not change the situation or the outcome. But they wanted to find an appropriate communal outlet for their grief and anguish. They needed an opportunity to find healing and strength through prayer, reflection and music. They knew that solace would be found by joining together.

We came together in our beautiful room that overlooks the lake. The floor-to-ceiling windows wrap around the entire length of the space and surround you with the serenity of nature: majestic trees, endless sky, calming waters.

One of the views overlooking Lake Michigan from Congregation B'nai Torah
One of the views overlooking Lake Michigan from Congregation B’nai Torah (Photo credit: Noah Taxman)

We sat in a circle – a circle of healing – in the room with dimmed lights.

“Please listen to my call – help me find the words, help me find the strength within, help me shape my mouth, my voice, my heart, so that I can direct my spirit and find You in prayer.” (Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman).

Those who attended, came initially, because of the news of Sammy’s relapse. But everyone in the room had also suffered from personal loss: the death of a sister when she was a young teen, the death of a grandchild, the death of a son-in-law, a son who was lost to the ravages of mental illness, personal illness and other setbacks.

We prayed together, we sang together, we silently reflected. And then we shared: feelings, thoughts and emotions.

“Prayer takes us beyond the self. Joining our little self to the selfhood of humanity, it gives our wishes the freedom to grow large and inclusive. Our prayers are answered not when we are given what we ask, but when we are challenged to be what we can be.” (Rabbi Morris Adler, from A Service of Healing, Temple Beth Elohim, Wellesley, Massachusetts).

As we joined hands in our circle of healing at the conclusion, to feel the strength we can glean from each other, we stood silently together. The touch of one hand to another at that moment, was more powerful and more healing, than any words could possibly be.

The healing power of hands
The healing power of hands (Photo credit: Sharon L. Sobel)

We ended with words of song, from the book of Exodus (15:2):

“Ozi v’zimrat yah, va’y’hi li, li-shu-ah – Adonai is my strength and might; God will be my salvation.”

Together, we can strengthen and heal one another.

Shabbat Shalom!

Zoe’s Beautiful Eyes

My 7-year old niece Zoe has the most beautiful eyes. From the time she was little, everyone has commented on the remarkable beauty of her big, blue eyes.

Zoe - eyes
Zoe’s beautiful eyes

But what makes Zoe’s eyes most beautiful, is that they reflect her inner beauty: her way of looking at the world that often belies her age. Zoe will often say things that are both wise beyond her years and reflect the innocence of her youth simultaneously.

Her ideas and notions are often deeply (and unintentionally) rooted in Jewish tradition and there is great wisdom to be gleaned from what she shares.

So on this New Year’s Day, I would like to share these lessons from Zoe for 2014. If we can strive to live up to these four ideas shared by Zoe, 2014 will be a very good year indeed.

1. Zoe has only recently joined a swim team. Physical activity has been a challenge to her and she has worked hard over the past year taking both physical therapy and occupational therapy to overcome some challenges. At her first “away” swim-meet, she placed last. But she was so thrilled to be there. On the phone, she told me in a very excited voice, “Auntie Sharon, I wasn’t disqualified!” She had a fabulous time and she was still “in the game”! Zoe appreciates all that she has. She lives life in the moment, with joy, zest and contentment.

We learn from Pirke Avot, “Teachings of the Fathers”, 4.1 “Who are wise? Those who learn from all people…Who are rich? Those who rejoice in their portion.” We too, can find a way to live “in the moment, ” to rejoice in our achievements and celebrate our success, to live with joy and contentment and to be thrilled that we are still “in the game.”

2. One day, out of the blue, Zoe told her mother, “Mom, I have a very big heart. My heart is so big, it can hold 1000 elephants.” Zoe’s heart IS tremendous! She is generous and kind. She feels empathy for others. She understands that we have an infinite capacity for love and for reaching out to others with a helping hand, a loving touch and a kind word.

The third book of the Torah, Leviticus 19:18, instructs us: “V’ahavta l’re’acha ka-mocha” – You shall love your neighbour as yourself. This is known as “The Golden Rule”. I could write a piece just on this, but suffice to say for now, that each of us has to feel as if our own heart can “hold 1000 elephants.” We need to feel a way to reach out to others and make a difference in their lives.

3. December 26, 2013 was the fourth anniversary of my father’s death. As my brother was observing our father’s yahrzeit (anniversary of death), Zoe said, “Grandpa, I love you as much as I’d love the world to live in peace.”

Zoe and her generation deserve to live in a world filled with peace. 7-year olds should not have to be worried about war, violence and terrorism.

Pirke Avot also teaches us: (1.12) “Be like the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing it.” It’s our obligation to work toward making this world a more peaceful place. If 7-year olds can verbalize that wish – we must act on it.

4. Zoe also gave my brother a 5-point business plan for his work. It was a fabulous business plan (Harvard Business School – watch out!) Her first part applies to us all:

Smile more. If people see you smile more, they’ll feel better about themselves. Then THEY will smile more and do a better job and make other people feel better about themselves. If you are smiling, perhaps that will encourage everyone to enjoy what they are doing. This ties back to the very first point above.

So, if we strive to live our lives in the year ahead through Zoe’s eyes, we will appreciate what we have and live life with zest, open our hearts to others, strive to make this world a more peaceful place and smile!

All the best for a 2014 filled with the blessings of health, contentment, joy, love and peace!