Massachusetts: The Tide is Rising-Transcript

This is the episode transcript. You can listen to the episode here.

(Justin Regan) Welcome to American Rabbi Project. A podcast about American Judaism from the perspective of rabbis across the country. I’m Justin Regan.

(Regan) As I’ve mentioned before, I’m from an interfaith family. However, there was no major tension in that field while growing up. The first serious clash didn’t happen until I was on the road trip, when the Dodgers and Red Sox played each other in the World Series. My Dad’s family is from Boston, pious followers of the trinity of the Brady, the Bird and the Bobby Orr. My Mom’s family converted to the Dodgers when moved from Philly to L.A. I’ve had my identity struggles in the past. Which team is my favorite? Can I be a fan of both? People say the teams are in contention because one believes in the designated hitter and the other does not. In my soul, I really do feel closer to the Dodgers. And that’s nothing against my Dad, just that everyone has their preference. 

I really do love baseball, and I’ve heard the arguments that it is the most Jewish sport because of it’s quirks and being steeped in tradition. I’d go one further and say that the Dodgers, at least when they were in Brooklyn, were the most Jewish team. Heck, they were America’s team. Brooklyn was the immigrants’ burrow. Home to a diverse array of Jews, African-Americans, Italians and Irish. The Dodgers made a fitting foil to the Waspy Yankees uptown. Even though they lost to their uptown rivals, The Yankees, there were some times under the lerdership of players like Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Sandy Koffax that they won it all. But that narrative is not without its own flaws. The latino-majority neighborhood of Chavez Ravine was flattened to build Dodger stadium in L.A. And that whole story with the move and the neighborhood and Fernandomania is in itself worth a whole ‘nother podcast. 

(Regan) But for me on this trip I found it to be a unique blessing that by sheer luck I happened to be in the Boston area during the 2018 World Series. And yeah, the Dodgers got stomped. But I try instead to focus on how amazing it was that so many factors came together for me to be in that place for such a special moment for myself and my family. Because sometimes it’s not about whether you win or lose. It’s about finding the inspiration wherever you can. 

Episode 8: Massachusetts The Tide is Rising 

(Regan) Many people know the Brookline neighborhood in Boston as the Birthplace of President John F. Kennedy, a person who seems to be quite popular in New England. It’s also one of the big Jewish neighborhoods of the region and the location of Temple Sinai where Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman works.

(Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman) Hi my name is Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman. I am a rabbi in Brookline, Massachusetts at Temple Sinai. I think about my job as a facilitator of community. So I went to rabbinical school to learn and immerse myself in Jewish tradition and what Jewish tradition has to bring to the modern world and this particular moment in history.

(Regan) For Friedman there is a lot happening in this particular moment in history. Among her concerns include climate change, immigration issues, racism, poverty and inequality. So she’s part of many communities. That includes interfaith environmental activists. She’s advocated for renewable energy laws. At protests she’s sang, prayed, read Torah and gotten arrested for blocking construction areas. Friedman and her husband Yotam Schachter even wrote a climate activism anthem called “The Tide is Rising”.

(Friedman) And it has gone viral throughout the movement has been sung on many continents. And that song expresses a hope for us taking back some of the power that feels like it is being lost to us with the devastation of climate change.

(Regan) At her Temple Sinai community, Friedman spearheads the work in social justice issues. That includes helping to pass criminal justice reform laws, sponsoring a Syrian refugee family, advocating for transgender rights and working with an interfaith group that helps undocumented immigrants seeking sanctuary at a nearby church. 

(Friedman) The fact that there are people desperately fleeing for their lives and being turned away or coming into this country and being detained or incarcerated physically makes me nauseous on an existential level. Because, had that happened to my ancestors I would not be here. And so many people I know and love wouldn’t be.

(Regan) Friedman has dedicated her life to this work and she sees being a rabbi as essential for this path. 

(Friedman) There is something we talk about in rabbinical training which is being a symbolic exemplar. We mean that when we assume the role of a clergy person we are not only being ourselves we are also representing something else for other people. As a rabbi I can get bigger than my individual self and represent a sense of the sacred, a sense of connection to G-d, represent Jewish tradition in Jewish spaces, also in interfaith spaces, also in secular spaces. And that means when I show up I am coming with a certain ‘oomph’ behind me that I really appreciate.

(Regan) Friedman says since childhood she’s had what she calls an overwhelming sense of empathy for suffering in the world. Especially around the environment. And this mixed well with growing up in a family deeply connected to Judaism. 

(Friedman) So my parents were more or less of the hippie generation. They both were raised reform in the 50’s and 60’s and by the time the late 70’s rolled around they were looking for a depth of spirituality that they hadn’t found in their childhood.

(Regan) They ended up in Renewal Judaism. As mentioned in the Vermont episode, Vitamins and Juice, Jewish Renewal is a blend of the hassidic ethos of joy with concepts like egalitarianism, environmentalism, modernity and a willingness to learn from other spiritual traditions. Friedman’s parents were founding members of B’nai Or, a Renewal community in Greater Boston. They also ran a Judaica shop in Brookline. 

(Friedman)  So I grew up in these two Jewish spaces of a really beautiful, accessible Judaism. One represented by music and prayer movement, English and Hebrew side by side praying and my Dad was leading those services. And the other a physically and esthetically beautiful Judaism that had these beautiful objects on the wall and these beautiful ritual pieces made of metal and glass and ceramics and books. And I loved both of those spaces really deeply. Both of them represented a tradition that was made to be very relevant and meaningful in the world I was living in.

(Regan) In college, Friedman met other people who shared her beliefs and through that community found more ways to turn her empathy into action. She majored in Environmental Studies, worked for a food cooperative, did community gardening and founded a grassroots singing group. 

(Friedman) But it didn’t totally feel sustainable in my soul. And by the time I graduated college it was clear to me that the adults were not on top of this at all. Instead of things getting better they were just getting worse and worse. So I had a hypothesis that I needed to go into my own spiritual upbringing and tradition to find the strength in order to be engaged in depressing problems of our time without burning out and without falling prey to despair.

(Regan) So she became a rabbi. Not just for the ‘oomph’ of the title, but for the philosophy involved. Friedman says it’s important for her to be anchored in the ancient wisdom of religion. That it’s a way to prevent burn out. As her fellow religious leaders taught her, with their form of activism, it’s not so much about winning fights, but expressing faith. 

(Friedman) What these friends and mentors taught me was that just showing up to speak to pray to bear witness to put our bodies in the way of infrastructure we felt was directly contributing directly to the plague of climate change. That this is a form of prayer. That it would have impact beyond what we could measure. The only things we could know for sure was whether we were following our sense of calling to show up for this hurting world. And doing activism as an expression of prayer felt really different then doing activism as an expression of terror or needing to succeed. I can say as my training as a rabbi, you can’t really fail at prayer. Prayer is just a means of showing up with integrity to express oneself.

(Regan) Friedman’s work on environmental and social justice is weaved into her Judaism. But for others, their form of Judaism and spiritual connection might involve taking a break from the issues of the day. To not discuss “politics” in the synagogue.

(Friedman) So I completely emphasize with that view when it is wanting to give our place and systems a rest and to renew our connection to life force to vitality and get out of the sense of terror and tightness that can come from being constantly bombarded with news and politics. That said. I think there is ample room to have a powerful prayer service and to have a sermon that talks about pertinent issues of the day. There’s no way I know to engage in a religious community in a deep way if we’re not having our eyes wide open and our hands stretched out to the issues that are most pressing.

(Regan) Because like many rabbis, Friedman says it’s not about talking politics or preaching a party platform. It’s about focusing on the underlying values from her interpretation of Judaism.

(Friedman) So my Yom Kippur sermon was about immigration. My point in that sermon was a deeply spiritual point and my point was that we are all vulnerable. That we are all vulnerable people on the move seeking a good home. That is what it means to be Jewish that is so much of our history but it is also what it means to be human since the beginning, since we have been able to walk. And go across continents. That we have been on the move. And the immigration crisis is not just a crisis of enforcement gone rogue. It’s also a crisis of the value of what world do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a world where people that are fleeing for their lives get empathy? So that’s just not a question of public policy. It’s a question of what are we cultivating in ourselves? And if that isn’t your view of religion then I really don’t know what religion is. 

(Regan) As for her own vulnerabilities, Friedman says things are different then they were before the 2016 election. 

(Friedman) My own safety in this country still feels really secure. I don’t know if it’s that naive. I don’t know if that’s white privilege as a Jew with white skin gets, which is a lot. But the demonization of minorities is a very slippery slope. What it means to be a Jew in America toady is to recognize is to hold with great tenderness our own history of being persecuted minorities and to stand shoulder to shoulder with the folks who are currently being targeted. I don’t feel like the Jewish story is incidental at this moment, it feels incredibly relevant to what’s happening And at the same time I try not to wave the ‘oy, they’re always out to get us’ flag because I also don’t think that’s useful. But I don’t want to be naive. These old hatreds run very deep. There are places the human heart goes when it is really scared there are a lot of very scared people.

(Regan) Similar to Rabbi Jan Salzman in Vermont, Friedman believes the narrative of Jews finding haven and prosperity in America is inherently tied to the concept of whiteness. Many Jews can pass for white. And for Friedman, that concept of whiteness is also tied into the very narrative of the American Dream.

(Friedman) I think it’s an incredibly beautiful dream. And it has been true but it only has been true for some people under some circumstances. And it has only been true with intense government intentionality. So it was true for my grandfather because he served in World War 2 and was then given an interest free mortgage to move out to the suburbs and build a house and start a business. And the wealth that he generated is still partially sustaining my family today three generations later. But that wealth wasn’t created by magic. It was created by a government redistribution program that was offered to him because he was suddenly deemed white and wasn’t available to black Americans. And it was because of a huge tax on the wealthy that does not exist today.

(Regan) Friedman says as a rabbi a key role she can play in this narrative is being a facilitator of sorts to try and have a dialogue about how to make things better. And to approach this role with empathy. 

(Friedman) I feel really sad and I think so many of us and this is probably a place where the far right and far left could really come together if we could listen to each other that we feel deeply sad that this American dream that we were told as kids is not possible for so many of us. And I think that there’s a real reckoning we have to do with or national myth and a real reckoning we have to do with the fear and anger that people on the far sides of the spectrum are feeling. Where I actually think we can meet and make some, have some actual political conencus if such a thing were possible.

(Regan) As far as the future of Judaism, Friedman is optimistic. She’s not too concerned about issues like assimilation. Coming from a Reform Temple she says interfaith families and involved non-Jewish spouses make up the backbone of the vibrant community.  

(Friedman) I will also say that we at Temple Sinai see multiple requests a month, sometimes multiple requests a week of people interested in converting to Judaism. Way more than either I or my colleague can take as students. So there’s certainly from where I’m sitting an influx of interest in jewish practice and Jewish life.

(Regan) Like many other rabbis interviewed for this project, Friedman sees changes coming and she finds it inspiring. 

(Friedman) There are a number of really innovative Jewish projects that I can name off the top of my head that to me do not signal a dying community. Hadar, a place where people go to study texts in an immersive community. These are people my age and younger who are wanting to spend their time deeply immersed in Jewish learning. There is an organization called SVARA for queer Talmud study out in Chicago. There are communities innovating around social change and are forming around racial and ethnic and multicultural Judaism. I don’t think that kind of innovation would be expected in a community that’s withering away. I think Judaism has a huge amount to offer to the human project.

(Regan) She thinks the focus of Judaism should be on projects like those mentioned. Staying relevant and meaningful. Friedman says one area she is concerned with is the divisiveness around the conversation on Israel.  

(Friedman) But what is particularly sad for me is the inability to get de-triggered enough that we can engage with compassion with each other. Because that is driving a wedge in the community. It is driving a wedge and ostracizing many young people who are concerned, myself included, about Israeli’s government treatment of minorities, about the settlements. About the treatment of African refuges. About the destruction of villages. Some egregious things are happening under the Israeli government, that fly in the face of my values for sure.

(Regan) Friedman herself spent a year in Israel learning and listening to people on all sides of the conflict. And she says that’s really the best way to understand the situation.

(Friedman) The one thing I can say is ‘Go’. Go visit. And I’d say to your listeners if they are on the left side of the spectrum and don’t want to go, go. Because you can listen to so many more voices then you can here. You can visit the West Bank you can hear Palestinian voices you can hear Drus voices there are amazing programs to take us out of the insularity of the American gridlock and get our feet on the ground to try to form relationships with real human beings.

(Regan) Friedman has a lot on her plate. And the job of an activist can be a draining one. She’s mentioned how her religion helps her stay positive, but I also asked her, ‘What specifically from Judaism teaches her and motivates her to do what she does?’

(Friedman) I think one of the most important lessons I learned from Judaism is the potential for paradigm shift, for paradigm changes. When we think about where we are at right now as a civilization we’re sort of teetering on this brink of ecological collapse. And rabbinic Judaism came out of a total collapse of what was Israelite tradition. The destruction of the temple by the Romans in the year 70 of what was the common era. We can’t even fathom today what that meant for a people of whom the temple was the way to connect to G-d. It was a medium to connect with The Divine. Rabbinic Judaism was the product of asking ‘well, the world as we know it just ended. How do we take what is most meaningful and important and make it portable and make it work in what we would now call the diaspora?’The very ability of a religion to change so drastically over millennia in order to be meaningful to people is incredibly inspiring to me. Because in so many points along the way, Judaism could have died out. And instead of dying out it transformed and that is a lot of what I see is needed as we’re thinking about how to make vibrant human society functional and just. 

(Regan) One of the biggest lessons I took away from Rabbi Shoshana Meira Friedman is how it’s important to stay grounded in something meaningful so you don’t get burnt out in life. For me, that meant making sure I enjoyed myself on the trip as opposed to, or maybe in addition to, focusing so hard on this project. So I had a lot of fun walking around Boston the next day. Even though I wore my Dodger cap, everyone was nice to me. Probably because the series wasn’t even close. 

(Regan) You can listen to Friedman’s song “The Tide is Rising” through a link on the episode page of my website rabbiproject.com. American Rabbi Project Episode 8 Massachusetts: The Tide is Rising was written and produced by me, Justin Regan. Derek Povah deserves a beer for all the web stuff he’s been doing. Additional help was supplied by Jeremy Krones, Sarit Rathbone, Beth Vander Stoep, Dylan Abrams and my parents. And a special thanks to more people who hosted me on the trip, the Evans family, Ryan Moorman and Angela Spidalette. Please feel free to email me with any questions, comments, concerns to justin@rabbiproject.com. All other episodes and an index of Jewish terms can be found at my website rabbiproject.com. You can also follow me on twitter with the handle @rabbiproject and facebook.com/rabbiproject. And until next time, Shalom and Safe Driving. 


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