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October 2014

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(This piece originally appeared in the Western Massachusetts Jewish Ledger)

By Rabbi Neil Hirsch
Carol, a congregant at my synagogue, is a 5th grade teacher in the Framingham public schools who has recently gotten into the habit of glancing at her watch at 11:30 AM. That’s when the requests to go to the nurse begin. Why 11:30? Why like clockwork? That’s when the Tylenol wears off for her students who come to school sick. Their parents, who cannot afford to take a day off to care for their children, gave them Tylenol in hopes of keeping their child’s symptoms at bay. So, Carol sends the children to the nurse, hoping that they’ll spend the day there instead of being sent back to the classroom to be with everyone else because the nurse’s office is at full capacity.

The school cannot send the students home because their caregivers are off at work. Because many parents do not earn sick leave, our school systems are taxed and our workspaces are exposed to illness. Simply put, the fact that many workers here in Massachusetts cannot earn hours of paid sick leave is holding us back as a community.

Though the media coverage may have slowed, protests in Ferguson are still ongoing. The challenges of racial divides and mistrust that afflict communities across the U.S. are a tragic emblem of how much work remains to be done to overcome divisions rooted in our nation’s history and the persistence of racial and ethnic disparities. Noting the need to address these issues, many organizations have joined together to continue hosting marches, events and panels to build momentum. A few weeks ago, a number of national and local organizations partnered to host a Weekend of Resistance. 

Over the past couple of months, my colleagues and I have written about the barriers that prevent many Americans from voting. From voter ID laws to cuts in early voting, minorities are being disproportionately affected by changing voter laws. In addition, people experiencing homelessness,   survivors of domestic violence, and transgender Americans face additional barriers to voting. On top of all of these groups, people with disabilities also face unique challenges to voting in America.

More than 30,000 people are killed by firearms each year in the United States, according to statistics. Each year, there are more school shootings, more incidents of gun violence in homes and more suicides by guns and yet, each year brings another round of congressional inaction to address this violence. But, there is more we can do in our communities to meet this challenge. The Reform Movement has partnered with Metro Industrial Areas Foundation to reach out directly to local mayors to ask gun manufacturers to lead reform in their industry. To do this, mayors will ask the gun manufacturers to create first-rate networks of dealers that meet high standards of security, record keeping and cooperation with law enforcement and bring child-proof, theft-proof guns to market – along with a variety of other gun safety technologies.

By Rabbi Bennett Miller

The next year marks an important time for Zionists around the world, as the first elections to the World Zionist Congress (WZC) in five years will be taking place. The WZC, which has met regularly since the First Zionist Congress in 1897, carries important historical weight and controls funding for projects in Israel, so at this critical juncture in Israeli politics, Reform Zionist voices need to be heard.  ARZA, which represents a strong Reform Jewish voice for Israel and Zionism, has created toolkit for the upcoming elections. Here is a piece from ARZA Chair, Rabbi Bennett Miller, on the importance of voting and how to encourage other to participate.

Earlier this month, Jews the world over poured into synagogues to “afflict our souls” on the holy day of Yom Kippur – to search within ourselves to atone, forgive and ultimately emerge renewed.

We are less than one week away from Election Day- a day when we will make our voices heard and show politicians what our priorities are. Yet, about 5.85 million Americans will be denied the right to vote next week because of laws that prohibit people with felony convictions from voting. This obstacle to participation in the democratic process is exacerbated by racial disparities in the criminal justice system. As a result, 1 in every 13 African Americans is unable to vote, and in Florida, Kentucky, and Virginia, more than 1 in 5 black adults is disenfranchised.

Many workers look forward to the day they can retire and spend their days relaxing rather than working for the remainder of their lives. Unfortunately, many LGBT people do not have this luxury. Due to a lifetime of discrimination, older LGBT people face a variety of challenges at much higher rates than their straight peers.

On RACblog, we’ve been following the restrictive Texas law that attempted to shut down more than half of the state’s reproductive health clinics. If you’re as appalled as we are by this effort to limit women’s reproductive freedom, I have upsetting news: Tennessee could be next. On November 4, voters in the Volunteer State will decide on Amendment One, which would undo language in the state constitution that defines abortion as a fundamental right. Currently, the Tennessee state legislature does not have the power to enact abortion restrictions, a welcome, if surprising protection in a region with strong opposition to reproductive rights. With the passage of Amendment One, Tennessee lawmakers would have the authority to enforce restrictive policies like those in Texas, like the mandatory 72-hour waiting period in Missouri, or like the 20-week bans that limit abortion access in nine states.

With the High Holiday season now officially over, we’ve tasted sweet apples on Rosh Hashanah and thrown bread into the ocean on Yom Kippur; we’ve talked about food justice in the sukkah and prayed for rain on Shemini Atzeret; we’ve rolled our Torah scrolls back and begun again at B’reishit, reminded of our obligation to “till and tend” the earth.

Lech Lecha is this week’s Torah portion, in which God tells Abraham to leave his family and start anew and so do we go forward into the new Jewish year. What will we do this year differently than the last? How can we go forward both to improve congregations and Jewish communities and to engage more deeply as Jews in the world around us?