social justice

We Were Strangers


We hear about refugees so much we may be inured to their tragedy and pain. Meanwhile they’re hiding in your city, starving in Uganda, being murdered in Myanmar, prostrate with dehydration in Sudan.

I can personally recommend the Jewish way of repeating a few chosen words first thing every morning. After a period of focus something comes along and pushes me to change words. Currently I am using this: When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall do him no wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you and you shall love him as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Lev. 19:33)

From Abraham to today as Jews we have almost constantly been running from oppression, death, starvation somewhere in the world. The Holiness Code, international law and the stories we have heard with our own ears require us to respond to today’s refugees. When mothers and their children  run from murderers and rapists without time to pack a bag is no time to be singing a song about bootstraps.

Refugees are people who choose between flight and death. They are not just looking for better opportunities when they beg for admittance to a reasonably calm country. Their children will be taken, they will be tortured or murdered if they return and usually their home and crops have turned to ash.

I look back on my own childhood and while we were poorer than any church mice, I never worried about armed men storming down the hill into our yard and it never occurred to me there could be tanks on our road. Few of us can imagine the agony the world’s 20 million refugees have suffered through. While 91% of the world’s children attend primary school, about 50% of refugee children do so; 10-15% attend secondary school. What kind of world are we building?

Pesach is a Holy Day that pushes us toward responsibility:

  • To volunteer with the Winnebago County Literacy Council, call your local library.
  • Volunteer at and contribute to local food pantries
  • Contribute to United Nations High Commission for Refugees, 1800 Massachusetts Av NW #500, Washington DC  20036 (UNHCR)
  • Contribute to Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, 220 E 42 St, New York NY  10017 (The Joint)
  • Contribute to URJ Religious Action Center, 2027 Massachusetts Av NW 20036
  • Write to members of Congress and demand that we provide the asylum required by our 1980 Refugee Act.

We of all people must provide a haven to the persecuted, to religious minorities, to the other. The strength of America comes from open doors, extended hands, welcoming words, smiling faces and generous pockets.

- Barbara Kuhn

Some Thoughts on a Yom Kippur Sermon


If you were at Yom Kippur morning services at CBI on September 30th, 2017, you heard Rabbi Epstein's sermon. If you didn’t hear it, please read it. I promise, it won’t bore you, and it won’t disappoint.

For many of us, 5777 was an eventful year, beginning, oh, I’d say with the election results in November. Much has happened since then — the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court; the firing of Sally Yates as Acting Attorney General when she refused to support the Muslim Ban, and the subsequent fight over the ban in the courts that still rages today; the rescinding of the DACA program, leaving 800,000 undocumented Dreamers who came to this country as children in legal limbo; a ban on transgender service members in the military; the quiet start of construction on the border wall in Texas, right through the middle of a wildlife refuge; the establishment of a “voter fraud commission” led by John Kasich as a thinly-veiled excuse for voter suppression. I could go on.

But the thing that I remember most this year were my mother’s words right after the election: “This isn’t the country my grandparents came to as immigrants. It’s not the same country they loved.”

Those words broke my heart a little. But I am not the kind of person who allows a broken heart to break her spirit.

All of these things were on my mind as I listened to Rabbi Epstein’s sermon. She spoke with great conviction, and the strength of her words lifted me up. As she spoke, her courage bolstered my own. And I felt a desire to turn a sense of despair and hopelessness to action. She made me feel that, if we work together as a community, there is something each of us can do — no matter how small — to fix this broken world. 

Below is the letter I wrote to Rabbi Epstein in response to her sermon. It is just the seed of my own small desire to make a difference. But I hope it encourages those seeds you may have in your heart to grow, as well.

Gut Yom Tov.

Hello Rabbi Epstein,

I wanted to thank you for the very moving and passionate sermon you gave on Yom Kippur. It really inspired me to think about how I can become more politically active this year, and how we as a religious community can organize to promote social justice. I know there are other members of our Sisterhood who feel the same way. Even though we're all busy and over-committed, I'm hoping we can find some time to join you in whatever action you think we can take to make this country a fairer, more democratic place for all of its citizens.

One of the parts of your sermon that really stood out was how you made it clear that this shouldn't be a partisan issue. Whether we think people should be sitting or standing during the Shema, the important thing is that we are all praying the Shema -- together, as a community, in support of the same values. And one of those values is unmistakably that all human beings -- ALL of us -- are created in the image of God, and we all deserve the same rights and respect.

Your words were definitely on my mind last night when I went to a "Let People Vote" launch event that was organized by the ACLU. We are the very start of a grass-roots effort to fight unfair voting practices in the United States, State by State. (Actually, by "we", I mean eight people gathered in my neighbor's living room -- plus 600 groups just like us, all around the country.) One of the things that the ACLU made clear in their presentation was that we are to keep our actions non-partisan. Voting rights is an issue that affects all of us, because it is an issue of fundamental fairness -- in a Democracy, no single person's vote should count more than another's -- because we all have equal value and should have an equal say in our government. (Sound familiar?)

So in thinking about it this morning, it seems like our goals as a religious community may be in alignment with what the ACLU is trying to do here. The task of our little neighborhood group is to figure out how to fight gerrymandering in the State of Texas, and it looks like it won't be easy. Despite that, word is that 70% of all voters -- from across the political spectrum -- favor the establishment of independent commissions to redraw voting districts, in order to create a fairer, more representative government. And our little group's job, before the next legislative session in two years, is to convince the Texas State Legislature to do that.

So I guess my question for you is, would you be interested in helping us with this effort, as part of a non-partisan move towards social justice? And by help, I mean anything, no matter how small -- even if it's just spreading the word that we exist?

Here is the link to the ACLU's campaign:, if you'd like to check it out for yourself or forward it to anyone who may be interested.

Thanks again for an inspiring sermon, and may you have a sweet new year! - Lisa