Monday, August 10, 2009

Guest Post: The People Israel Is in Desperate Need of Wholeness

Grounded in her Judaism, Kerry Chaplin is an advocate for social justice. After devoting her collegiate experience to learning and educating about the intersection of oppressions, and subsequently representing janitors in the Service Employees International Union in St. Louis, she moved to Los Angeles for the weather, for women and for work as California Faith for Equality’s (CFE’s) first full-time staffperson. Now CFE’s Interfaith Organizing Director, she has helped to grow CFE from a staff of one to a staff of five, and from a network of 600 to a coalition of 6,000 diverse faith leaders and faith communities from across California. Kerry holds both a B.A. in Religious Studies and an M.A. in NonProfit Management from Washington University in St. Louis, lives in West Hollywood, and plays wing for her Santa Monica Women’s Rugby Club.

Moses said to the Lord: “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words . . .” and the Lord said . . . “Who gives speech? … Is it not I? . . . Now go, and I will be with you as you speak.” Exodus (4:10-12)

What is an appropriate response in words or in action to the tragedy in Tel Aviv? I don’t even want to call it a tragedy. I am embarrassed to say that I am angrier with the murderer than I am sad with the mourners. The murderer is no doubt a Jew, no doubt observant of the laws and traditions of Judaism, no doubt a killer, but therein is a profound cognitive dissonance. How can a Jew, especially one who studies and follows the laws of our people, commit an act so egregiously in violation of those laws by any denominational standard? And then how do we, as Jews, reaffirm our faith in one another and in our peoplehood?

I was nine years old when I visited the synagogue in St. Petersburg. Even though it was Shabbat, my family did not go there to pray. We went to be tourists to see the only synagogue the Nazis left standing, so they would know where to find all the Jews on Saturday morning. My mother, grandmother, aunt and the rest of the women sat in the upper balcony, while the men were close to all the action. While I was experiencing and really processing the sexism of traditional Judaism for the first time, my mother turned to me and said, “See you can go anywhere in the world, and the prayers are the same. It’s like being home.” I hadn’t even heard that they were reciting the shema, arguably the most central prayer in all Jewish prayer. I closed my eyes and used my ears, and the sounds were so familiar. I started singing along. Up high on that balcony, uncounted and only an observer to communal prayer, I was not home, but when I closed my eyes and used my ears, I was home.

My mother taught me a very important lesson: Wherever there are Jews in the world, you are home because we are a historied people. My experience taught me a variant lesson: Some Jews are more home together than others.

There are not many Jews left on this earth. Nearly one third of us were murdered during the Holocaust. So for one Jew to pick up a gun, target, kill and wound our youth is piercing. As a woman, and as a lesbian, I am reminded that even when I am home, in a majority Jewish and liberal-minded city like Tel Aviv, even among LGBT friends at an LGBT Center, I am never home.

The last sentence of the kaddish, which among other things is a prayer for mourners, reads Oseh shalom bimromav hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol yisrael. May the One who creates peace above the One, create peace upon us and upon all Israel. The word shalom, often translated as peace, connotes a sense of wholeness. May the One who creates wholeness . . . create wholeness upon us and upon all Israel.

In the aftermath of this event, the people Israel is in desperate need of wholeness. The many, many vigils for the dead and the wounded across the world reflect our desire for this wholeness, some might say G-d is creating that wholeness among us, and again giving us a chance to maintain it. We may not be able to answer the question why, or even to bring the murderer to justice, but we can come together in wholeness.

Note from UTF: The video below is from the vigil in Tel Aviv held over the weekend. Tens of thousands participated. Israeli pop star Ivri Lider performs.


  1. I appreciate your anger towards the killer and it is definitely more difficult to find closure whenever the perpetrator has not been brought to justice, but I do have a slightly different take on it that might not make the case as clear-cut. I think it is homophobia/heterosexism that killed these two young people. Until we can address the untruth and spiritual violence perpetrated by certain Orthodox traditions and fundamentalist religions of any kind, other killers will only emerge and the holocaust continues. Our work as people of faith and goodwill must always be to counter untruth with the power of our truth and counter fear/ ignorance with love.

  2. This is a lovely piece. I like the way you tie together oppressions using the concept of "home". This world should be a safe home for all of us. The work that you do is bringing that world closer to us. Not soon enough for these kids, but I know your anger will be an energy propelling you forward.

  3. Beautiful piece. I also love the way you tie in "home". Home is a very powerful word. A home should be a plave where everyone values and respects each other for who they are. While strides have been made in Israel, in the US, in the Jewish community, in the gay community, and in our own families for full inclusion of all people...WE ALL need to come together so that everyone can feel at home, wherever we are. Great piece!

  4. Thanks for such a contemplative piece. I read it a few days ago and it really stayed with me. Great guest blog.