A Lament for the Detained Children

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My rendering of Lamentations 2, written and read for a Tisha B’Av vigil held at the Jerome Combs Detention Center, Kankakee, IL, August 11, 2019.

we are beyond humiliation
beyond shame
we incarcerate children without pity
we deport parents without a thought
and build systems that destroy families indiscriminately
now we truly know what it means to be dishonored
our so-called glorious past is now seen
for the sham that it was
the way of life we celebrate is but a privilege
for the few and the powerful
we can’t see that our own might
will be our downfall

we venerate leaders
who should be tried for their crimes
we never dared imagine a power
greater than our own
like so many before us
we conquered the land then drew borders
as a testament to our fear and dread
now we build higher walls
to keep out those who seek shelter
we built massive checkpoints
we lined up human beings
like cattle in cages
now children cry out for parents
who will never answer their calls
their voices echo endlessly
through the camps but there
is no one left to hear

we ask one another with bewilderment
have we ever seen such cruel violations
yet in truth we ourselves have inflicted
such cruelties on children here
and around the world
we sentence minors to life in prison without parole
we remain silent as a cruel occupation
abducts and imprisons children in military prisons
convicts them in military courts
and yet we dare to act surprised when
we hear news of children thrown into cages
at our southern border

our silence betrays us
these walls will soon encircle us all
soon there will be no one left
only a single mass of mourners
whispering broken hymns of lament
grieving what was lost
and what might have been
one day we will know the sorrow
of the dispossessed

we who never heard the cries of migrants
and their children will know what it means
to be uprooted detained and discarded
those who we scorned and abandoned
will bitterly welcome us to the world
of the dispossessed
the enemies we created
through our own fearful actions
will surely come back for us all

let us hope and pray
there is still time
let the cries of our children
pour into our hearts like water
the cries of any who have been forced
from their homes pursued
taken locked away sent away
anyone whose very lives are forbidden
forgotten forsaken
let their cries compel us
to take down oppressive systems
built by the powerful to maintain
the power of the powerful
let their cries remind us
that there is a power yet greater
that comes from a place that knows no borders
no deportations no barrier walls no prisons
no guards no soldiers no ICE no police

a place where we no longer need to struggle because
justice gushes forth like a mighty stream flowing freely
from the sovereign beyond all sovereigns
we beseech you chadeish yameniu
renew our days
that we may build the world
that somehow still might be
kein yehi ratzon – may it be your will
and may it be ours’
ve’nomar and let us say

Amen.


shalom aleichem/beyond borders

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photo: Love + Struggle

My invocation for the Action to End Criminalization, Detention and Deportations,
delivered at Daley Plaza, Chicago, July 13, 2019

shalom aleichem peace to you
angels of the most high
watch over those who find no rest
forced from their homes
forced to leave everything they’ve ever known
everyone they’ve ever loved
because poverty gripped their communities
because the military occupied their land
because agribusiness seized their farms
because the mining companies poisoned their soil
because the multinationals polluted their water
because they couldn’t leave their houses
for fear of the gangs who walked the streets day and night
oh angels who come from a place beyond all borders
sovereign beyond all sovereigns please
watch over them as they make their way
this is our prayer let’s say amen

shalom aleichem peace to you
angels of the most high
watch over the young woman eight months pregnant
who begged her family for five thousand dollars
after her house was burned to the ground by the militia
who crossed nine borders in two months
from cameroon to nigeria to ecuador then by bus and by foot
through colombia panama costa rica nicaragua honduras guatemala
and finally to tapachula mexico
now she’s sitting on a concrete bench cradling her swollen belly
wondering what will happen when she gets to tijuana
will she be detained will she be allowed to cross will she
be granted asylum will she be sent back to face the death squads
oh angels who come from a place beyond all borders
sovereign beyond all sovereigns please
watch over her as she makes her way
this is our prayer let’s say amen

shalom aleichem peace to you
angels of the most high
watch over the parents whose children
are ripped crying from their arms
just as they arrive at the border
who have no idea where their babies have been taken
who are not told where they are
or how they can reach them
watch over the children
who are left to fend for themselves
some too young to speak
without a guardian who knows them
without an adult who understands them
forced into backlogged courts
forced to sit in cold crowded holding cells for days
with no beds or showers where they can only
wait and hope and pray that someone will somehow find them
oh angels who come from a place beyond all borders
sovereign beyond all sovereigns please
don’t let them be forgotten
this is our prayer let’s say amen

shalom aleichem peace to you
angels of the most high
watch over those who live in constant fear
that those flashing police lights are meant for them
who wake up each day wondering is this the day
my children will be gone when i come home
is this the day i won’t come home
is this the day they’ll be snatched from the streets
from their cars from their workplaces
is this the day they’ll be shackled and thrown in unmarked vans
sent into detention cells onto airplanes and sent off into the night
for the crime of seeking a life of dignity for their families
oh angels who come from a place beyond all borders
sovereign beyond all sovereigns please
watch over them
this is our prayer let’s say amen

shalom aleichem to you angels of justice
angels of the most high
show us how to fight for the liberation of anyone
who has been forced from their homes pursued
taken locked away sent away
anyone whose very lives are forbidden forgotten forsaken
inspire us to take down oppressive systems
that were built by the powerful to maintain
the power of the powerful
remind us that there is a power yet greater
that comes from a place that knows no borders
no deportations no barrier walls no prisons
no guards no soldiers no police
a place where we no longer have to struggle for justice because
justice gushes forth like a mighty stream flowing freely
from the sovereign beyond all sovereigns
all of us angels of justice all of us
building the world we know is possible yes
shalom aleichem peace to you
peace to us all
this is our prayer let’s say amen


psalm 92: song after the revolution

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tonight we raise the cup,
tomorrow we’ll breathe deeply
and dwell in a world
without borders, without limit
in space or in time,
a world beyond wealth or scarcity,
a world where there is nothing
for us to do but to be.

they said this day would never come,
yet here we are:
the surging waters have receded,
there is no oppressor, no oppressed,
no power but the one
coursing through every living
breathing satiated soul.

memories of past battles fading
like dry grass in the warm sun,
no more talk of enemies and strategies,
no more illusions, no more dreams, only
this eternal moment of victory
to celebrate and savor the world
as we always knew it could be.

see how the justice we planted in the deep
dark soil now soars impossibly skyward,
rising up like a palm tree,
like a cedar, flourishing forever
ever swaying, ever bending
but never breaking.

so tonight we raise the cup,
tomorrow we’ll breathe deeply
to savor a world recreated,
and when sun sets once again
we continue the struggle.


For Hanukkah: The Ballad of Clara Lemlich

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Al Hanisim,
This is for the miracles,
for the redemption, for the mighty deeds,
for the saving acts and
for the resistance of our ancestors
in days of old, at this very time…

First night of Hanukkah 1909 and
the worst snowstorm in twenty years
was slowly gathering, the wind
ripping holes through the lines of strikers
huddling against the piercing cold.

Among them was young Clara Lemlich
the same one who just two weeks earlier
stood impatiently in Cooper Union
hour after hour
listening to the union men drone on
until fed up, she grabbed the podium and sent
Yiddish words flying, inciting
sparking, before finally igniting:

I am a working girl
one of those who are on strike
against intolerable conditions.
I am tired of listening to speakers
who talk in general terms.
What we are here for
is to decide whether we shall strike
or shall not strike.
I offer a resolution
that a general strike
be declared now.

Thus exploded the Uprising of the Twenty Thousand.

After the smoke had cleared
the ILGW won union contracts at every shop
save one: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory
who said no to new changes, no to fair wages
no to any union in our shop.

One year later the Triangle burst into flame,
sending working women plummeting to their deaths
like sparks flying, sputtering and disappearing
on a cold winter’s night.

That’s how it is with miracles:
we rededicate the Temple
but in due time it will fall.
The miracle isn’t the fire that lasts, no
the miracle is where we find the strength
to rise up and relight the fire
once again.

Post Script:

Clara Lemlich died at the age of 96
at the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aged,
after organizing their workers
and agitating their management
to honor the boycott of the United Farm Workers
(which they did).


“Who Shall Live?” A New Prayer for Rosh Hashanah

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The U’netaneh Tokef prayer is one of the signature moments of the Rosh Hashanah service – the moment in which we invoke the image of a Book of Life for the coming year and ask a litany of versions of the question, “Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die?”

It often seems to me that this prayer is at its core a meditation on the randomness and precariousness of existence – a way of giving voice to our deepest fears over that which we cannot ultimately control in our lives and world.

However the kicker comes at the end: after all the uncertainty, we conclude by proclaiming “But repentance, worship and acts of justice can avert the harshness of the decree.” We do not – cannot – simply end on a note of fatalistic dis-empowerment. U’netaneh Tokef says, in essence, “yes, there is indeed harsh cruelness in our world – so what do we intend to do about it?”

After all, so much of what seems random in our world is in fact the blowback of our own actions, individual and collective. While it may be temping to simply throw up our hands and blame this cruelty on others – or the vicissitudes of a “random world” – the harder truth bids us to take a deeper look within, reckon with our own culpability, and think honestly about what we are prepared to do to make this new year one of peace, wholeness and justice for all.

Here’s a new version of the prayer that I’ve just written for the inaugural Rosh Hashanah service at my new congregation, Tzedek Chicago. Feel free to read and share:

U’netaneh Tokef

We say together:
We declare the terrifying power of this day,
this awesome, sacred day.
We hear the great shofar sounded once again.
We listen for the still, small voice in its wake.

We sing together:
בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן,
B’rosh hashanah yikateyvun, uve’yom tzom kippur yeychatemun.

(On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.)

We say responsively:
This is the season we dare to ask out loud:
who will live and who will die?

Who by famine and who by war;
who through oppression and who through neglect;

Who by weapons and who by dehumanization;
who through hatred and who through ignorance.

Who in the dark and who in the bright light of day;
who by passion and who by design.

We sing together:
בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן,
B’rosh hashanah yikateyvun, uve’yom tzom kippur yeychatemun.

(On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.)

We say responsively:
Who will benefit from power and who will be victimized by it;
who will dwell in safety and who will be uprooted.

Who will be targeted and who will be collateral damage;
who will escape and who will fall.

Who will be beaten down and who will rise above;
who will find peace and who will dwell in darkness.

Who will be protected and who will be vulnerable;
who will be counted and who will fall through the cracks.

We sing together:
בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן,
B’rosh hashanah yikateyvun, uve’yom tzom kippur yeychatemun.

(On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.)

We say responsively:
Who will be privileged and whose chances will be slim;
who will brought in and who will be cast out.

Who will be healed and who will not have access to healing;
who will be fed and who will go hungry.

Who will be loved and who will be despised;
who will reach out and who will turn away.

Who will written in and who will be erased;
who will succumb and who will fight back.

We sing together:
בְּרֹאשׁ הַשָׁנָה יִכָּתֵבוּן וּבְיוֹם צוֹם כִּפּוּר יֵחָתֵמוּן,
B’rosh hashanah yikateyvun, uve’yom tzom kippur yeychatemun.

(On Rosh Hashanah it is written and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.)

Together:
וּתְשׁוּבָה, וּתְפִילָה, וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.
U’teshuvah, u’tefillah u’tzedakah ma’avirin et roah hagezeyrah.

(But repentance, worship and acts of justice can overturn the harshness of the decree.)


Locking Our Children Away: Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5772

Cedric Cal was born to a single mother, in a family that lived below the poverty line on Chicago’s West Side. His father had left the family, married another woman and had very little to do with him. His mother Olivia worked constantly, doing her best to keep her family together. As the oldest of four, Cedric became the de facto father of the family and was entrusted with protecting his younger brother, who was legally blind.

Cedric’s family moved around a lot and he learned very early on how to make friends quickly. He liked sports, particularly baseball – and when his family lived on the West Side, he played sports in the local Park District. When they moved to the South Side, however, there were no Park District services available, so sports were not an option for him. Still, no matter where they moved, Olivia became very adept at finding ways of getting Cedric and and brothers into decent public schools. From 5th to 8th grade, he attended Alcott Elementary. Minding his younger brother, he took the public bus every day on a long trek from the West Side to Lincoln Park.

Cedric’s mother taught him how to fill out applications and interview for jobs, but there really weren’t any to be found. And those that were hiring certainly weren’t hiring African-American teenage boys. He was never really successful at finding a real job,  but when he was 14 he learned that he could make money dealing drugs. He knew that his mother would be beyond furious if she ever found out, so he made sure to keep his drug dealing and his growing gang activity secret from her. Cedric never, ever, brought his earnings into their home – his mother had made it clear that drug money was not welcome anywhere near her house. Even when he bought a car, he parked it far away from their home.

I met and spoke with Cedric two weeks ago at the Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet. He explained to me that as he continued to sell drugs, as he continued the gang life, little by little, he became “desensitized to the things my mother had taught me.” It was quite poignant and sweet to listen to Cedric speak about his mother. “My mother,” he said, “has a lovely spirit,” adding: “I was scared to death of my mother.” He told me of one instance in which Olivia confronted drug dealers on a street corner with a two by four in her hand. Cedric laughed and said that could scare even the toughest gang members in the neighborhood.

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