Build Sanctuaries With Our Lives: On the Pulse Gay Nightclub Massacre

Pulse vigil

Photo by John Raoux/AP

Build Sanctuaries With Our Lives
Parashat Naso, June 18, 2016
First Narayever Congregation – Gay Pride Month

We are talking this week about sanctuaries. Creating sanctuaries. Building them. Staffing them. Bringing offerings to furnish and decorate them. Consecrating them. Blessing them. And hearing God’s voice in them.

First we count the Levites tasked with carrying the Ohel Moed, the portable sanctuary, through the desert on the way to the promised land. These are the ones that help make sure we’re always heading in the right direction, toward freedom, toward a better place, and that we’re taking with us all our holy things, not forgetting where we’ve come from, even taking the broken tablets with us – our injuries, our broken places, our losses.

Toward the end of the Torah portion, we hear about Moshe finally finishing setting up and dedicating the mishkan, and all the tribes bringing beautiful offerings toward this communal sanctuary. bringing of themselves. And of course, we hear the Priestly Blessing, given by God to Aaron with which to bless the people; and we hear how Moshe would speak with God and hear God’s voice from the Ark.

We encounter many different kinds of sanctuaries around us. There is of course this sanctuary, our religious space in which to focus on matters of the spirit, on prayer, on song, and community. We speak of offering sanctuary to those in need, to refugees, to those being pursued. Sanctuary as resting place. Even a sanctuary for animals, who are then protected.

Sanctuary means feeling something holy, connecting with others, feeling safety, understanding, and protection.

Last weekend, as you all know by now, the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida was attacked by a gunman bent on doing violence to LGBTQ people. In so many forums, I saw that for the LGBTQ community, Pulse and other gay bars and nightclubs are not just bars and nightclubs. They are safety, understanding, protecting, holiness, and community.

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Remembering and Acting: Rosh Hashanah 5775

Remembering and Acting
Rosh Hashanah Day 2 – 5775
Congregation Dorshei Emet
Rabbi Julia Appel

I am squinting at a small square photograph. In it, my Bubbie wears tall hair and a long polyester dress, orange and green paisley, fabulous glasses. Her sister Rita stands next to her, taller hair, similar dress and pattern, from when Rita worked in accounting at the dress company. They are smiling at the camera. It’s a party. My mother is off at to the side, her long dark blond hair pulled back at the nape of her neck, mid-conversation. This one will go in one of the square silver frames I bought yesterday. I think it will make Bubbie smile.

My mother and aunt have gone through Bubbie’s photo albums to divide them up. Bubbie doesn’t look at her albums anymore. We’ve just moved her to the memory unit of the retirement community where she’s lived the last first years. She began forgetting where her room was in assisted living, and sometimes whether she’s showered that day.

The room is nice enough, but it is definitely just a room, not an apartment or suite, as her two previous rooms had been. She asked my mother soon after moving whether she was on a cruise and when she was coming home, which I thought was pretty insightful. There are some photographs up – mostly of her great-grandchildren, my generation’s children, plus her wedding photograph, and a painting I had made for her when I was 14.

So I’m standing at my parents’ dining room table, in the condo they bought once they’d sold out house, making several photo collages of old photos of my Bubbie, her clear cursive on the back. Winter, 1945, cousin Irene. Barbara, 1967.

She is losing her most recent memory, but her older memories are still intact, for now. I want her to look around her room and see people she recognizes. I want her to see her life and remember, who she is, that she had joy, that people love her. I give a special frame to an enlargement of a photo of her and my grandfather, kissing in their kitchen. He died a few months after I was born. In the photo, Bubbie is, impossibly, younger than my mother is now. Continue reading

Revealing Our True Selves on Yom Kippur: Kol Nidre 5774


Revealing Our True Selves on Yom Kippur
Kol Nidre 5774, Congregation Dorshei Emet
In response to Bill 60, the Quebec “Charter of Values”

There is a legend, alluded to in our machzor and elsewhere, that the words of Kol Nidre have a hidden meaning.

“Biyeshiva shel ma’alah ubiyeshiva shel matah…Anu matirin lehitpalel im ha’avaryanim.”

“By the authority of the heavenly court, and by the authority of the earthly court; with the consent of the Everpresent and with the consent of this congregation, We hereby permit to pray with those who have transgressed.”

“Anu matirin lehitpalel im ha’avaryanim.”  – According to Jewish legend, ha’avaryanim, those who have transgressed, is a word play on iberyanim, Spaniards, referring to the Jews of Spain who were forced to convert to Christianity during the time of the inquisition in the 15th century.

So: we begin our Kol Nidre service by declaring not only that we permit praying with sinners (‘cause how else would any of us be able to come to shul if sinners were not permitted here??) but, and this would have had special
meaning in the 15th and 16th centuries, also we permit praying with Conversos, with those who have been converted to Christianity, with those who have seemingly turned their back on Judaism but actually, secretly, still hold the desire to be at Kol Nidre service. Still hold on to their hidden identity as a Jew.

After all, who can know anyone’s true reasons for what they do? We can outwardly pledge something for political or social gain but hold our true beliefs on the inside. Jews have had to do this throughout history – from the times of the Roman persecutions when Jews had to study underground or face execution, to the Inquisition and generations of secret Jews who lit Shabbat candles despite their publicly sworn Christianity, to the refusniks of the Soviet era who risked their lives for a piece of matzah to hold seder. Continue reading

The King and the Invisible Gates: Rosh Hashanah 5774


Sometimes, the obstacles are imaginary.

The King and the Invisible Gates
Delivered Rosh Hashanah Evening, September 4, 2013
Congregation Dorshei Emet
Rabbi Julia Appel

I want to tell you a story, a story I learned from my teacher Rabbi Art Green. It’s a story of the Baal Shem Tov, the first Chassidic rebbe – a mystic, a healer, a miracle worker.

It’s a story about a king.  A king all alone, sitting in his throne. The king sighs. “All I want is to be close to my people!” he says. “I know! Maybe no one knows I am here! I will bring my throne right up to the street, right where anyone can find me.” So he brings his throne right up to the street, right where anyone can find him. But no one comes.

The king sighs. “All I want is to be close to my people!” he says.  “I know! I will create an optical illusion – I will make the people see something that isn’t really here. I will make them see towers, ramps and moats, and gate after gate between them and me. And next to each of these imaginary gates I will place a treasure.”

So the king creates the illusion, of towers, of ramps and moats, of gate after gate leading up to his throne, that aren’t really there. And he sends out invitations to his people: “Come! Everyone is invited to visit me! But you must go through gate after gate to reach me, and whoever does, will get to visit with me!” Then he scatters treasures around each gate. It is a test.

What a challenge! The people begin to come, to try to make it through all these gates to see the king. The first one, the cook, comes and makes it to the first gate, but she stops there and looks down. “Oh my! What beautiful kettles made of shiny new copper and what beautiful oiled wood handles!” She picks up a kettle and carries it home, whistling as she walks. Continue reading

The Cry of the Shofar: Rosh Hashanah 5774

My sermon for the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5774.

Shofar image

The Cry of the Shofar
Congregation Dorshei Emet
Rosh Hashanah Day 1: September 5, 2013
Rabbi Julia Appel

The Torah describes Rosh Hashanah in the following way: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts.”

We see here and elsewhere that the oldest name for the holiday is not “new year,” but “Yom Teruah,” the day of loud blasts, the shofar blasts.  The shofar defines the day, which otherwise is like every other holy day of the Torah. So the shofar is important. It has a message for us. What is the shofar trying to tell us?

On Rosh Hashanah, the rabbis of the Talmud teach, the shofar trumpets to announce the re-coronation of the King, of God. We shake with fear and awe as we proclaim the Greatest Sovereign’s reign anew. They quote God telling us to recite before God on Rosh Hashanah “verses of Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot. Malchuyot (kingship) in order that you crown me over you; Zichronot (remembrance) in order that your remembrance should rise up before me for good; and with what? With shofar.” (RH 16a) There is authority, power, control.

The far away King, grand and stern. The trumpeting ceremony, the sovereignty. The Ruler deciding our fate. These become the meaning of the day and of the shofar. But what if these images are unrelatable? It makes the holiday unrelatable as well.

Today, I want to offer a different take on the shofar. It’s a counter text, a narrative of the holiday that is equally present in the texts and traditions of Rosh Hashanah, and yet is the very opposite of the far away king.

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