CHARLOTTESVILLE, DACA, CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM IN OHIO

TEMPLE ISRAEL

YOM KIPPUR MORNING

SEPTEMBER 30, 2017

Rabbi Jon Adland

            About two years ago I received a call from a Reform rabbi in Ohio asking me to be a part of the leadership team of a new group that eventually would be called Reform Ohio.  Modeled after Reform California, our task would be to organize Reform Jewish clergy and their communities to work on effective, winnable legislation to help make Ohio a better place for all of us to live.  Led by Joy Friedman, a community organizer and staff member of Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center, we started holding monthly calls just to get to know each other better.  We were two rabbis from Cleveland, two from Columbus, one from Cincinnati, and one from Canton.  At least we covered all the C’s of Ohio.  We first had to coalesce as a group and then our mission would be to invite the rest of Ohio’s Reform Jewish clergy to join us.  AND we had to find an issue that has bi-partisan backing and is potentially winnable and we could use our position as clergy and Reform Jews on which to lobby.  Over the last several months, we settled on a Criminal Justice reform bill that isn’t a slam dunk, but has lots of support.

            Well into our second year of meeting, debating, arguing, and discussing, we also agreed to try and make this an issue that we would speak about on the Holy Days with rabbis in many cities focusing on the same issue, but with their own words.  I was all set to make this my sermon this morning and then everything changed with the march of haters beginning on Friday evening August 11.  Now I had two social justice issues to confront—Criminal Justice Reform and Charlottesville.  And then the president announced he would end DACA in 6 months if Congress didn’t come up with a solution.  We, Jews, connect with the immigrant community.  We have wandered for 2,000 years.  We have been less than welcomed on our journey.  We have been confronted by persecution, segregation, ghettos, camps, fear, expulsion and murder.  We see in many immigrant faces a bit of ourselves and we are moved by words of Torah—36 times—to care for the stranger.  Now I had three topics.

            Let me relieve your fears, I am not going to give three full sermons on these three topics, but I want to address each one as a unique mini-sermon.  One could come with all sorts of ways to tie them together, but let me say this—each one is a Jewish issue that has its roots in Torah, its ethics in Jewish thought, and its soul in our long Jewish story.  We are Jews and Jews care about others whether it is the oppressed in our Criminal Justice system, the undocumentable immigrant in our midst, or the victims of hate and prejudice. Throughout much of our history we haven’t been able to speak up and fight back because of our meager numbers or our position of weakness.  This land, the United States of America and its Constitution guaranteed us the right to practice and worship as Jews.  We were given citizenship which was something we didn’t get in so many other places whether in Europe under Christian rule or in Arab nations under Moslem rule.  Here, in this great land, we vote, we participate, we are elected to lead, we are equals.  It took a long time for the reality to catch up with the vision, but it is here and, now, we must use the words of Torah, the Prophets, the rabbis, and all the great Jewish thinkers, advocates, and leaders to help those who need our hands and hearts: the widow, the orphan, and the stranger in our midst.

Our Religion Action Center has the word “Chai” in Hebrew next to its name on its home page.  For a long time, its tagline was “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof—Justice, Justice you will pursue” from Deuteronomy 16:20.  Life is for all people whether it is the former convict who is now free and looking to make a good life or a drug offender who needs rehabilitation rather than more criminal incarceration.  Life is for all people especially the child who didn’t ask to come here and is now a contributing member of this society.  Do we really want to send away productive members of our society?  Life is for all people and no one should feel that they can’t walk out the front door of their synagogue because of fear or harm.  These people are so filled with hate and rage and anger that they forget why our parents, grandparents or great-grandparents fought a war against this hate and rage and anger.

            So first about the Criminal Justice Reform bill and the position we are advocating.  Second, DACA and remembering that we were once strangers in a strange country.  Finally, my thoughts in response to the ugliness of that weekend in Charlottesville with just a comment about taking a knee.

And Jonah came into the city...and he proclaimed, "In another forty days Nineveh shall be overturned!" And God saw their deeds, that they had repented of their evil way, and Adonai relented concerning the evil that God had spoken to do to them, and God did not do it.” (Jonah 3:4-10)

In Exodus 32, we read, “And now forgive this people’s sin, and if not, blot me out from Your book which you have written.” (Exodus 32:32)

On Yom Kippur we read from the book of Jonah to remind ourselves that complete teshuvah is attainable for each of us, from the mightiest to the weakest. We are all Ninevans; we are the descendants of those who built the Golden Calf. Our lives are dependant on the mercy shown to those who came before us. It may feel like people, opportunities and even God have completely written us off, but Jonah comes to remind us that the door is never fully shut- there is still a crack letting light shine in. Second chances and blank slates are the promise of this season. Yet, our criminal justice system operates in contradiction to the value of teshuvah. Today we have the opportunity to put our values into action by mobilizing in support of legislation that will expand eligibility for criminal records sealing and will lower the barriers standing in the way of returning citizens’ abilities to rebuild their lives.

Reform OH’s first issue campaign is aimed at returning the hope of real teshuvah to low level, non-violent, non-sex offenders. We believe that someone living in poverty with addiction and mental illness, found in possession of a small amount of drugs, should not have their life destroyed and civil rights stripped.

50,600 Ohioans are currently imprisoned in facilities built to house 38,600. Black Ohioans make up just 10% of our population but half of the imprisoned.  Our prisons have become a clearinghouse for the addicted, mentally ill and impoverished. A diverse, bi-partisan coalition across our state is standing up to say, “Enough; not in my name. Our $2 billion a year can better be spent inside communities alleviating poverty, treating addiction and mental illness rather than putting our most vulnerable citizens behind bars.” Reform Jews across Ohio are standing with them.

During these days of awe, teshuvah means a return to our true selves, a return to our community and ultimately a return to our Creator. Citizens returning and making teshuvah after prison face a period of probation and a permanent criminal record viewable by prospective employers, lenders, renters etc. When a convicted felon violates some probation rule they currently face a mandatory minimum of one year in state prison. The fastest growing Ohio population in this situation is women addicted to opioids.

SB66 returns autonomy to judges to treat probation violators within the community. It provides the options of intervention and treatment in lieu of conviction and makes time in prison for violating probation shorter and less likely. It also expands the overriding purposes of felony sentencing to include rehabilitating the offender. Another provision of SB66 is expanding eligibility for criminal records sealing- making access to loans, jobs, housing and education attainable once again. SB66 can rekindle the hope for teshuvah among low level offenders in Ohio.

On October 25th, I will join with other Reform Jewish clergy and lay people in Columbus to lobby in support of this bill.  I hope some of you will join me and correct this injustice.

DACA—Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—was all the news until two major hurricanes, two Mexican earthquakes, a final push to overturn the ACA, and the criticism of our president toward athletes’ right to protest became the headline news.  Regardless of whether this is front page or page 10 news, this is an important discussion and a resolution for these “Dreamers” to stay and continue to be productive citizens and be given a path to citizenship needs to be found.

Did you know that until the 1880’s, the laws about immigration were few and far between?  Laws eventually became crafted by congress and were targeted toward keeping people unlike the picture of Congress out of our country.  It was too late to keep Blacks out as we had brought Africans to this country by the millions as slaves and then fought a war to free them and many laws to liberate them from any number of forms of discrimination.  It only took about 100 years and if you look at society today it may not be done yet.  NO! the laws were directed at us—Jews—there were too many of us here and more trying to escape death.  I am not talking about the 1930’s, but the 1920’s.  Sadly those laws kept so many of our ancestors from fleeing death in the 1930’s.  We’ve enacted laws to keep out Asians, Latinos, Hispanics and now Muslims.  We are the xenophobia.

The “Dreamers” were brought here by their parents as minors.  They’ve gone to school, graduated college, entered the workforce, paid taxes, fought in the armed forces, and died for this country.  They stay, but on the margin as too many of us don’t want them, and our Congress is afraid to say they should stay and continue to make this an amazing country.

Jews are immigrants.  Whether it was our parents, grandparents, great grandparents, or great great grandparents, we came here from somewhere else.  We were told the streets were paved with gold.  We were told all possibilities existed here.  We were told we could be Jews without the fear of people exiling us again.  The parallel may not be quite perfect to the “Dreamers,” but it is close enough.  It doesn’t matter how they came here because they were children.  It matters that they are here, want to be here, and are a vital part of this country.  We need our Congress to take care of this situation.  Stop talking about walls and throwing people out.  Start talking about bridges and welcoming the stranger into our midst.

            Rabbi Rachel Schmelkin, the assistant rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, VA, began her Rosh HaShanah sermon with the following words:

It was a buggy, Wednesday evening on August 9th. I stood in the parking lot of Sojourners Church after attending a final non-violent direct action training prior to August 12th. There was a sense of fear and trepidation in the thick humid summer air. Perhaps you felt it too, wherever you were.

I had a plan for August 12th. I would stand on the steps of First United Methodist Church, often called FUMC, bear witness to the rally in the park, just across the street, and drown out the sound of hate, with music of peace and love. But I was afraid to station myself so close to the park. My Muslim friend who initially planned to sing on the steps with me, decided that it would be too dangerous for her to be visible wearing her hijab, so she took another important, but less public role that day. I wondered if I should follow her lead, and get out of sight. What if neo-nazis or white supremacists attempted to enter the church? What if they stormed the steps where I would surely be standing in my tallis and kippah?

So as I stood in the parking lot of Sojourners Church with Reverend Phil Woodson and others from FUMC, I shared my fears with them. I told them that I was afraid that I could be a target. I felt that lump in my throat, like I was going to cry, the pounding of my fast beating heart. But Reverend Phil looked at me and said, “I promise you I will not let anybody get near you on Saturday. In fact, I will stay on the steps with you as long as you are out there, I will not leave you alone.” I exhaled. My heartbeat slowed a bit. I’m not alone. I’m not alone. I’m not alone.

            It was the weekend of Rachel and Evan’s aufruf here, but I had one ear tuned toward Charlottesville.  And then the pictures began to play out, and then Heather Heyer was run over and killed, and then all sides were blamed for the problems, and then videos surfaced.  The words, “Blood and Soil” and “Jews will not replace us” blared out of our TVs penetrating to the scariest parts of our inner kishkes.

            It wasn’t that long ago that Nazi’s marched in massive rallies and 6,000,000 Jews and millions of others died.  It wasn’t that long ago that cowardly hooded men murdered Blacks and burned crosses and bombed churches and tried to turn a nation against Jews and Catholics too.  It wasn’t that long ago that White Supremacists threatened to form an army and march out of this country anyone not like them.

            I would love to say that we are living in an unnatural time, but for Jews we have seen this over and over and over and over again.  Every country in Europe expelled us at one time or another and if we didn’t leave, then many were murdered.  African-Americans were property of slave owners who could do what they wanted with these human beings and after they were freed and given the rights of American citizenship were murdered by people who feared them.  I look at the news today and read the stories and not much has changed.  Football players and basketball players are taking a knee to help the rest of us realize the continuing murders of people of color.

            Let me add this, without trying to be too political—our President missed the boat on condemning these haters.  Though I am no fan of violence or the tactics of the anti-fascists or barring people I disagree with from speaking on college campuses, it is nothing compared to the hate that spews forth from the mouths of people who align themselves with Nazis or the KKK or White Supremacists.  These people may take and use the first amendment, but they did not stand for or advocate on behalf of the principles of being an American.  We want to throw out “Dreamers,” are quick to incarcerate Blacks and minorities in disproportional ways, but it is these haters who need to truly be marginalized.  They need to be condemned and removed from the topic of any conversation.  No Jews should be afraid to go to their synagogue or walk out the front door.  No African-American should be afraid to walk down the street or drive a car or walk into a store.  What has happened to this nation whose motto of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” rolled off our lips?  Why do we hate and vilify the stranger in our midst?  Whatever happened to love your neighbor?  Whatever happened to protecting the widow, the orphan and the stranger?  Whatever happened to the beauty of the diversity and differences that united this nation?

            Yom Kippur is about t’shuvah—repentance.  The book and gates are open now.  We have much to make right, but it takes a nation, not just a village.  It begins with you and me.  Let’s start now.

Kein yehi ratzon—may this be God’s will.