Just the Evidence, Ma’am

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 3/20/17

Some of you will remember the TV show Dragnet, which ran on first NBC and then ABC through the entire decade of the 50s.  Week in and week out a dedicated audience would tune in to watch the adventures of the plain spoken detective – what was his name?  Joe Friday (Jack Webb) – as he methodically and systematically investigated crimes, solved cases, and brought in the bad guys.  There was very little actual action in the show.  Occasionally Joe Friday might draw his gun and run after a criminal.  But for the most part he went about his job using his mind, interviewing people who were connected to the case, figuring out what the truth was by assembling the facts.  And if you remember the show you also remember Joe Friday’s famous phrase, which became part of the vernacular – what was it?  Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.

It is sad to say, but it is hard to imagine Joe Friday being successful in today’s world.  The criminals he chased down were not psychopaths or serial killers, they didn’t have some kind of infernal plot to destroy an entire city like so many of today’s TV evildoers.  There was no violence in the show, I don’t recall even a fist fight, there were no explosions, no car chases.  There were no fancy cars for that matter – I think Joe Friday drove around an old Buick – and no fancy clothes – just a plain grey suit, a white shirt, and a dark skinny tie.  And of course in those days, in the 50s – admittedly a simpler time – there were actual facts – something that today seems to be regularly called into question.

So in Joe Friday’s world, he could say ‘just the facts, ma’am,’ and everyone knew what he meant.  There was a fundamental assumption shared by all that facts could be determined, and once they were determined they were not debated.  Something either happened or it didn’t.  A person said something, or they didn’t say something.  If you read something in the newspaper or heard Walter Cronkite say it on TV you believed it was true.

But today we seem to be in a different place.  Facts are debated, not accepted.  People seem to make assertions about what did or did not happen based more on what they wished had transpired, as opposed to what actually did.  This isn’t entirely new, and no question it is something that has been going on in politics in one way or another for awhile, but it does feel like it has reached a new level.  Certainly a number of assertions that have been made by the current administration don’t seem to have any factual support at all, from inaugural numbers to wire tapping accusations to voter fraud.  But the left does it too.  You may remember the uproar a couple of weeks ago from the about Uber, the car service.  There were claims that when JFK airport taxi drivers joined in a strike against the administration’s immigrant policy Uber had rushed in and taken advantage.  Almost immediately the left started a #deleteUber campaign to try to get people to stop using the service.  The problem was, there was no actual evidence that Uber had done anything wrong.  To put it simply, there were no facts to support the claim that the left was making.

And it is precisely about this issue that Judaism might have something to teach us.  Going all the way back to Torah times Judaism has insisted on the use of evidence to determine what has happened or not happened.  The Torah teaches that witnesses – first hand, eye witnesses – must be consulted when criminal cases are tried.  And one eye witness is never sufficient – at least two are required, because when two people say the same thing it is more likely to be true.  Rabbinic law develops this idea further in the Talmud, creating strict criteria for determining whether witnesses should be considered trustworthy, and also describing an extensive procedure for examining witnesses to make sure that the actual facts of any given case are being uncovered.  Joe Friday might not be very comfortable with the way we deal with facts today, but had he studied the Jewish laws about evidence requirements and witnesses he would have been in very familiar surroundings.

The Torah also insists that the system of law should not be influenced by the power, or lack thereof, of those involved in any given case.  That is to say that a poor person should not be believed just because they are poor – nor should a wealthy person, a person in a position of power, be believed just because of who they are.  The very same requirements of evidence apply either way.  Neither the low person or the high person on the totem pole should get any preferential treatment.  Torah law is insistent on this point, teaching in Leviticus 19 the following:  לא תישא פני דל ולא תהדר פני גדול – do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich – rather judge them fairly. (19:15)

In fact I would argue that the Torah seems to believe that even God is not to be believed without verification.  In this morning’s portion we read about the sin of the golden calf.  It is a story we know well – Moses at the top of the mountain, communing with God, receiving the law, while the people at the mountain’s base are worshipping an idol.  At a certain point God says to Moses ‘hey, you had better get down there, the people are out of control, and they are worshipping an idol.’  And Moses’ first reaction is to defend the people and try to calm God down.  Once he does this Moses goes down himself, and he is carrying the tablets that God gave him.  What does he doe with those tablets?  He breaks them!  When?  Not until he sees with his own eyes what has actually transpired.

God have given Moses testimony.  God had told Moses exactly what was going on.  If he fully believed God, why didn’t he just break the tablets right then and there?  But he doesn’t – he waits until he has seen it with his own eyes, until the actual evidence is right in front of him – and at that point, the facts become clear to him, and he acts, shattering the tablets and punishing the people.  It seems that even with God the tradition insists on actual evidence to establish the facts, to determine what has or has not happened.

I think we should insist on the same.  When statements are made today, regardless of who makes them, when stories are reported, regardless of whether we hear about them on Fox News or read about them in the NY Times, we should follow our tradition and wait for the evidence to appear.  A claim without evidence is not a fact – it is simply a claim.  That was not good enough for Moses, even though the claim came from God.  It was certainly never good enough for Joe Friday.  And it shouldn’t be good enough for us either.  Just the evidence, ma’am, just the evidence.

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One Good Day

For me, the ingredients are simple and straight forward.  First of all a chance to read, to spend time with my mind drifting to the furthest shore, to go back in time or forward, and then back again, to visit faraway lands, to feel the sting of loss or the triumph of truth or the swell of a heart, all through the pages of a book.  Perhaps also to study a new subject, or to relearn an old one.  To reflect on the issues of the day.  I still read the ‘old fashioned’ way – real books, with covers and pages, even actual newspapers, dirty-finger producing, paper crinkling, awkwardly sized as they might be.

The second thing?  Just some family time.  Unhurried, unscheduled, no clear agenda, no places to be, no times to keep.  There is a simple and calm joy in those moments, rare as they are, almost a quiet wonderment, a lightness of being and a poignant feeling of gratitude.  Just to be together.  To celebrate, without word or ritual, or even thought, the powerful connection that binds us to those we love.

And also to spend some time outside.  Preferably during the liminal moments of the day, dawn or dusk, the sun rising or falling, the colors changing, the unmistakable sense that the world is moving beneath your very feet.  To mark the wind and see  – yes, see – the air.  To hear the sharp bark of a dog, the rustle of a breeze, the subtle song of a bird.  To notice how an acorn falls from a tree, or how the nose of a rabbit wrinkles again and again, wondering if the scent of danger has arrived.  To walk in quiet thought, pondering, musing, considering, and also wondering – how is it that this great world in all its beauty is somehow connected to me?

Last but not least, to play my guitar.  Not particularly well, of course.  But just to strum the strings and form the chords, to juxtapose the majors and minors, to pick a simple melody which has been picked so many times before, for so many years.  Perhaps to play a song I’ve loved, and to hum along, occasionally forming the words in my mind.  There is something calming about it to me, almost meditative.  The world outside recedes, the troubles and tribulations and sorrows and sadnesses begin to fade.  For the song is eternal. It was always in the world, just waiting for some unknowing person to pick up an instrument at just the right time, so the song can, ever briefly, find a home.  It may stay for a time, a generation or even two, and then it will go back to the place from whence it came.  But while it dwells with me, in my hands, in my mind, in the sweet spruce and dark mahogany woods of my guitar, it brings a sense of soul-calm.

But soon the guitar must be laid aside, the song let go.  Darkness has fallen, somehow the day is coming to an end.  And the dog must be walked!  A last dish or two attended to.  And if I hurry some time, at the very end of this day, to go back to my book.

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Anti-Semitism and Rising Tides

This a text of my shabbat sermon from 3/4/17 –

A generation ago my father, growing up here in Baltimore in the lower Park Heights area, was all too familiar with anti-semitism.  There were particular days when he would choose one way to walk home from school because he felt he was less likely on that route to encounter a group of boys that would try to beat him up because he was Jewish.  My dad ran track at City College – his event was the high hurdles – and he said to me many times when recounting some of the trials and tribulations of his youth that he was grateful he was one of the faster runners around.

I also encountered anti-Semitism growing up in the small town of Binghamton, in upstate New York.  Some of it came from a place of simple ignorance – my friends’ mother once asked me if I had ever seen my Orthodox relatives without their hats.  When I told her I had, she in all seriousness asked me if they had horns on their heads.  But there were also some malicious incidents along the way.  I remember in particular one evening where a drunk man was pounding on the door of our home screaming anti-semitic slurs at my father, who after all was conspicuous as a Jewish doctor in a town with few Jews.

My children, by and large – the next generation – as far as I know, have been free from any kind of anti-Semitic experience.  Part of that has to do with growing up in the heart of Baltimore’s tight knit Jewish community.   But part of it also has to do with the gradual dissipation of anti-semitic sentiment in this country.  It was only one generation ago where Jews could not live in certain neighborhoods, or where schools like Hopkins had ‘Jewish quotas,’ or where certain law firms, or accounting firms, or businesses, would not employ Jews.  But today, thank goodness, a Jew can live in any neighborhood, work at any job, go to any school, or work at any business without fear of disclosing his or her religious identity.  Over the last couple of generations the Jewish community in America has become the most successful, integrated, and wealthy diasporic Jewish community in history.

Now was there anti-semitism out there?  Of course there was.  It would rear its ugly head when a comment would slip out about ‘Jewing’ somebody down, or in a crude joke someone would make about how Jews like money, or have big noses.  But by and large in the last quarter century or so as Jews in this country we felt safe and secure, we felt confident, we felt American, we felt accepted.  Do we still feel that way today?

Ten years ago a rabbi probably would not have felt the need to ask his or her congregation that question in America.  Maybe in parts of Europe or South America, but not here.  And yet I imagine you know why I am asking you that question today.  This week again there were bomb threats delivered by phone to JCCs around the country, and also for the first time in the recent spate of such calls, to Jewish day schools.  Another Jewish cemetery was desecrated earlier in the week, this time in the Philadelphia area.   We have seen a rash of anti-semitic incidents over the last 6 months unprecedented in my lifetime, and in the last two months alone we have seen 90 such incidents in 73 locations in 30 different states.

Now it may be that with the first arrest in these cases, late yesterday afternoon, things will begin to settle down sooner as opposed to later.  What we would hope to see in terms of how this has been addressed is what we have seen – local law enforcement agencies and the FBI on a national level have taken this very seriously and have been working with the various Jewish organizations from day 1 to ensure first of all safety, and second of all that those responsible would be held accountable and punished.  But what I want to think about with you for the next couple of minutes is what creates the kind of atmosphere that becomes fertile ground for this kind of behavior.  Why all of a sudden is this going on?  What has changed?

And I think the President, in the beginning of his speech from the other night – the first couple of sentences – had it exactly right.  Let me quote those sentences for you:  “Tonight, as we mark the conclusion of our celebration of Black History Month, we are reminded of our Nation’s path toward civil rights and the work that still remains. Recent threats targeting Jewish Community Centers and vandalism of Jewish cemeteries, as well as last week’s shooting in Kansas City, remind us that while we may be a Nation divided on policies, we are a country that stands united in condemning hate and evil in all its forms.”

You see what he did?  He connected the dots between three things: Black History Month, the recent anti-semitic incidents, and the shooting in Kansas City.  If you are not familiar with that shooting, it was a hate crime perpetrated against Indians because of their ethnic identity.  Three separate minority groups – the African American community, the Jewish community, the Indian community.  And the president is suggesting that when one of those groups is threatened, they are all threatened.  The old saying is a rising tide lifts all boats.  But the opposite is also true.  To use the metaphor when the water sinks to a low level, it brings everyone down.  When one minority group is targeted, when it starts to feel acceptable to go after one minority group, other minority groups will soon be targeted as well.

That seems to me an important idea for the Jewish community to remember when dealing with the current anti-semitic activity.  We have been very strong in speaking out and standing up for our rights and freedoms as these incidents have occurred week after week.  As we should!  But what I want to argue this morning is that we must be just as public, and just as forceful, in defending the rights of other minority groups.

When any minority group is threatened and targeted – the Muslim community, the African American community, the LGBTQ community – any minority group – Jews should be the first to speak out about it and to come to that group’s defense.  First of all because it is the right thing to do.  But secondly, because our fate is connected to theirs.  When you let the hate and the prejudice and the racism out of the bottle, it doesn’t neatly and carefully go into one little area and stop.  It seeps and bleeds and creeps to the next group, and then the next.  And we have to remember as Jews we are one of those groups.

One week from tonight its Purim, and we’ll gather together here in the Berman Rubin for our annual reading of the Megilah, the story of Ester.  One of my favorite verses in the entire Bible is in the 4th chapter of that book – this is Mordecai speaking to his niece Ester, now the queen:  “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life because you are in the King’s palace.  On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, delivery may come from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish.”

Long ago those words spurred Ester to action.  The Jewish community today should not forget that lesson, those words, or Ester’s activism as we wrestle with our own world and its challenges and troubles.  May our people and our communities be part of the tikkun, the healing, that we all hope to bring about for a better, safer, and kinder world.

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A Day in the Life

Of a rabbi, of course.  This was Sunday, a busy one, filled with lifecycle events as Sundays so often are.  My schedule had been complicated by a funeral (something you simply can’t plan for).  I was writing the eulogy by 7:30, doing my best to pull together the threads of the conversation I had had with the family the previous day.  A long and well lived life, one worthy of both celebration and gratitude.  The funeral was scheduled for 1.

But there were other things on the docket.  First up a conversion of a 6 month old baby boy.  I met the family, helped the parents navigate a moment that is both simple and at the very same time enormously complex.  When the baby was out of the mikveh and dry and smiling, I was back in my office.  My remaining schedule for the day:  an unveiling at 12:15, the funeral at 1, and then a wedding downtown scheduled to begin at 3:30.

Of course I had to prepare for the wedding, put together a few comments to make to the bride and groom, make sure I knew exactly what the order of the ceremony would be.  I spent the 40 minutes or so between the conversion and the time I had to leave for the unveiling doing the wedding prep.  At 11:45 I was climbing into my car to head to the cemetery for the unveiling.

Now it would be a sprint – unveiling, funeral, burial, wedding, all in rapid succession.  I met the family for the unveiling in the cemetery at 12:10, a small group gathered a year after their loss to pay tribute to memory and presence.  At 12:25 I left the cemetery and drove to the funeral home.  The funeral service began promptly at 1, with beautiful words of tribute spoken by the son and daughter of the woman who had died.  From the funeral home back to the cemetery for the burial service.  It was now 2:45.  I left the cemetery for the second time that day, pulled onto the highway, and headed downtown.

I found the proper lot, parked, took my tallit and of course the ever present Rabbi’s Manual.  I found the wedding coordinator (s!) and they led me to the bride and groom.  There is always a reaction when the rabbi arrives at a wedding – yes!  This is actually going to happen!  And soon! We signed the ketubah, were led downstairs, got in line for the procession, the music started, and we were off.  Wonderful bride and groom, laughing and so at ease.  In twenty minutes it was all over, the young couple joined together as husband and wife.

I took a breath.  A kindly bartender poured me a bourbon, and I chatted with some of the wedding guests for a time, even got to wish the groom a mazaltov.  But the day was over.  Dusk was falling, and I headed home.

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Sunrise

You missed it if you slept late, seduced by the warmth of the covers, waiting for the heat to slowly warm up the house.  There was a ribbon of red in the  eastern sky, the bare tree tops forming an uneven silhouette in the distance, their leafless branches reaching and twisting, waiting for first light, and soon, spring.  There is a pattern there, ancient secrets, chill morning air, fresh wind, light growing softly.

And you would not believe how brightly Jupiter burned in the western darkness!  Cold and beautiful.  It too looked back towards the east, acknowledging the coming of a new day, yet reluctant to leave its post, king of the predawn quietness.

Across the field I saw a light go on in the window of a home.  All over the neighborhood covers were being pushed back, feet were touching cold floors, yawns and stretches and first thoughts were emerging from a deep world of dreams.  Soon coffee would be brewing, sleepy eyes might glance at the headlines of a news paper.  Tousled hair would be combed, clothes chosen, bread toasted, or perhaps a special treat for breakfast on a cold morning – cream of wheat?  Oatmeal?  As the light of day grew stronger, the trees began to look ordinary, with just the faintest hint of their former magic.  Even Jupiter dimmed, turning in for the day.

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Not All Who Wander Are Lost

The title is a quote from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  Below is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 2/4/17.

Not really a sermon this morning, but three brief vignettes that might help us, as Jews, think about about some of what is going on in Washington these days, particularly the immigration ban.  Sometimes it can be helpful to look back, because it is easy when you get comfortable – as we are today – to very quickly forget where you’ve actually come from.

And we’ll begin by looking way, way back, all the way back to this morning’s Torah portion, the events of which most scholars would date about 3500 years ago.  I want to introduce you to a young Israelite slave who was living in Egypt at that time.  His name was Nahshon, the son of Aminadav, from the tribe of Judah.  He was about 18 or 19 years old, and had lived his entire life in slavery, working in the hot Egyptian son, doing the backbreaking work of building the pyramids.  But there was something special about Nahshon.  Unlike his parents’ generation, whose spirits had been crushed by the cruel bondage of Egypt, Nahshon had a fire burning inside of him.  He had always believed that one day there might be a way to escape the slavery, to leave Egypt behind, and to live life as a free man.  But he never really knew how that night happen.

And then one day a man named Moses appeared.  He would come to the Israelite villages, and he talked about ideas that seemed strange, even crazy.  He said that the old God of the ancestors, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah had returned.  That that God had heard the cry of the Israelites in their slavery, and had set in motion a series of events that would somehow enable them to be free.  Many of the people didn’t believe Moses, but Nahshon did.  He began to quietly talk about a moment that would soon come, a door that would suddenly open, a window in time, when the Israelites would leave Egypt and set out on a journey to freedom.  Nahshon watched, and waited, and bided his time.

Then one night it actually happened.  It was the middle of the night, and a terrible cry could be heard throughout the land of Egypt.  A deathly power was making its way through the Egyptian homes, slaying all of the first born.  Moses and his messengers went through the Israelite settlements, urging people to pack a few belongings in haste, to take with them only what they absolutely needed the most.  And so the people quickly assembled – men, women, children.  Nahshon fell in with his tribe, with a small sack over his shoulder.  In his heart he felt a sense of hope he had never before felt in his life.  He turned his face to the east where the sun was rising, and he began to walk forward.  As the first rays of the sun fell on his face, his eyes burned brightly.

Lets now take our minds out of the Egyptian desert, and move forward in time about 1000 years.  In the year 586 BCE a Jew named Azariah lived on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  He was a simple man, living a simple life.  He made his living by harvesting grapes and olives in the groves and vineyards around his small home, and making wine and olive oil that he sold to travelers who were on their way to see the great city.  But Azariah lived in troubled times.  Jerusalem has been besieged by the Babylonian army, the greatest power in the ancient world, and the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar.  The Babylonians have built great war towers around the city’s walls, and they waited patiently as hunger and thirst began to set in.

In the course of a few weeks during that terrible summer Azariah watched the Babylonians bring Jerusalem to its knees.  The siege lasted for three months, but the end was quick.  The Babylonians finally breached the outer walls, and then steadily made their way towards the Temple mount, burning and destroying everything in their path.  When they reached the Temple they set it on fire, and later tore it down, stone by stone, to its foundation.  A few days later Babylonian soldiers appeared and informed the local population they would be exiled and sent to a far away land.  They had one day to prepare.  Azariah didn’t know it, or think about it this way, but very much like his distant ancestor Nahshon he packed a small sack with his few belongings.  The next morning he joined a long line of his fellow Jews, 4,600 of them, and guarded by Babylonian soldiers, they began a journey that would take many months, and would end with them living in exile on the banks of the K’var River in Babylonia.  For the first time in Jewish history there was a diaspora community, but they never forgot Jerusalem their sacred city, or Israel their holy land.

Of course there have been countless other Jewish journeys in the course of time, some forced, others taken freely. As the Muslim civilization grew to power in the 7th century Jews followed trade routes and established small communities on the Iberian peninsula.   In the the late 800s Jews gradually made their way into Europe, settling in small villages along the Rhine River, and in Italy and France.  There were forced expulsions – from England in 1290, and of course from Spain in 1492.  Each time, like Nahshon and Azariah before them, the Jews packed their few belongings and began another journey, searching for a home, searching for freedom.

I would like to share one last story with you this morning.

This story begins fairly recently in the long scope of Jewish history, on the 13th day of May, in the year 1939.  On that day a young woman named Regina Adler boarded a boat called the SS St Louis in Hamburg Germany.  There were 937 passengers on that boat, almost all of them Jewish.  They were afraid, fleeing a country they had believed to be a safe haven, a place where until recently they thought they could live freely as both Jews and Germans.  Regina was born in Austria Hungary, in 1897, but had come to Germany with her parents as a teenager.

When the ship set sail the destination was Havanah, and despite difficult conditions on board the trip went smoothly.  Every passenger on the ship left Germany with proper documentation and permits that should have allowed them to enter Cuba, but when the boat arrived at the Havanah port they were told all permits had been revoked and they were forced to remain on board.  In desperation the boat headed for US shores, but it was met by US Coastguard ships and told in no uncertain terms that it would not be permitted to land.  On June 6 the decision was made to turn the St Louis around and head back to Europe.

About half the passengers on the boat would survive the war.  England, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France all agreed to take in some of the Jewish refugees.  Most of those who ended up in Nazi controlled areas died in the camps.  But Regina Adler was permitted to enter England, and she lived there for many years after the war ended.

These are our stories, Jewish stories.  Of exile and forced travel, of wandering and searching for home and freedom.  They are ingrained into our souls and psyches – informing who we are and how we see the world.  Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “we are all travelers in the wilderness of this world.”  When we think about today’s events, about a world filled with refugees, about immigrants searching for a new home, about borders and who should be permitted to cross them, we should remember our own history.  After all, it wasn’t so long ago that we were packing our own small bags, leaving our homes behind, and setting out with hope for the Promised Land.

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Looking for Kansas

You will remember the famous line from the Wizard of Oz, spoken by Dorothy to her dog Toto just after they arrive in a strange and magical land:  ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore.’ Over the years that phrase has entered the vernacular, generally used to indicate the moment when you realize you’ve entered unknown territory, that you’ve come to a place, whether physical or metaphysical, where you’ve never before been.

So where are we today?  With constant protests and regular ‘executive orders.’  With immigration bans and simmering anger.  With simple and straight forward facts being doubted and questioned and sometimes blatantly denied.  I actually had to step between two men in their 80s at our kiddish after services this past Shabbat.  I was afraid they were going to come to blows, one speaking out in support of the administration, one against.  Both of them, by the way, are immigrants.

Wherever we are, we are not in Kansas.  Of that I am sure.  I guess the question might be how do we get back?

Being honest, at this point I don’t know.  Perhaps the Wizard of Oz is instructive.  Dorothy had a long way to go before she found her way back home.  Challenges and even some dangers to overcome.  The Yellow Brick Road.  The Lion and Scarecrow and Tin Man.  Those weird looking flying monkey things.  The Emerald City, even the Wizard of Oz himself.  And of course the Wicked Witch!  Along the way she had moments of heartbreak, despair, and doubt.  And even at the end of that long road it was touch and go.  But she made it.  And when she arrived, boy did Kansas look good.

And all the way through she maintained the courage of her convictions.  Not  that she didn’t learn along the way, and change and grow.  She did!  But her innate sense of decency and fairness and the kindly inclination of her heart remained steady.

Maybe that is what is happening in America today.  People are realizing what really matters to them, and the country itself is rediscovering fundamental values like tolerance and kindness, caring for the marginalized, and welcoming the stranger, fairness and human dignity.  Sounds a lot like Kansas.  And people have been pulling their ruby red slippers out of their closets all over this land.

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