Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood

Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood
Celebrating Havdallah

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Shelter of Peace

(January 20th Sermon delivered at the Reform Temple of Forest Hills, kicking off Shelter of Peace's weekend of prayer and learning)

I felt a lot of pressure preparing for tonight’s remarks. Silly, right? I mean, I’ve given sermons hundreds of times before. I’m not usually shy in front of a big crowd. I’m a decent writer and speaker. So what’s the big deal? It’s not like anyone’s life depends on this one particular message. Or does it?

The truth is, our Torah, our tradition, teaches us that sometimes lives are really dependent on words and messages. Take the Akedah – the binding of Isaac, for example. We read of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his only son. And at the moment that he lifts up the knife, an angel of God calls out and Abraham replies with his words “Hineini – Here I am.” These simple words stopped the action and ultimately save Isaac’s life. In the Joseph story, we know that Joseph was also saved by his words. He had been imprisoned for years in Egypt after being accused of touching Potiphar’s wife during his servitude in their household. But Joseph had a gift. He could interpret dreams. And instead of hiding this gift, he shared it with the world, first with his cellmates and then eventually with Pharaoh. He even got into Pharaoh’s good graces by advising him to be prudent during times of plenty so that times of famine would be easier to bear. Yes, Joseph’s words served him well and ultimately saved him, both from bondage and perhaps from death. In this week’s Torah portion, we learn of Moses’s most important words to a new Pharaoh in Egypt. Moses and Aaron repeatedly come before Pharaoh and say, “Let my people go!” These words aren’t just about freedom, they are about survival. The Jews were enslaved and were being killed, systematically. Their only chance for survival was to be freed, to be saved. And God had promised to protect them on their journey. All they needed to do was to use their words – to speak up for what they believed in, for what they could do to save their own lives and the Israelite existence.

So tonight, I’d like to take the opportunity, the chance, to help save a life. This weekend I join other clergy, both Jewish and non-Jewish alike, in spreading the message about teens who are in trouble. I don’t mean teens who have gotten themselves into trouble with the law, but teens who have nowhere to go, teens who have been kicked out of their homes and their lives, who have been cut off from their families. The homeless teens in our midst and on our streets this very night, who are in trouble and who desperately need our help.

This weekend, the Shelter of Peace, a faith based community initiative to end youth homelessness is engaging in a weekend of prayer and study all around the city to raise awareness on this issue. Shelter of Peace is a new organization that is a branch of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), a gay and lesbian congregation based in Manhattan. Shelter of Peace was designed to create awareness and stimulate advocacy among people of faith, regarding the high numbers of homeless youth in NYC without adequate shelter. From recent surveys we know that over 3,800 youngster on the streets every single night. And of those 3,800 – 40% - almost 2300 teens identify as being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender – the greatest single unifying factor of those out on the streets. Because of the dis-proportionate numbers of LGBT homeless combined with the fact that CBST is the largest synagogue in NYC for the LGBT community they do emphasize the specific problems faced by homeless LGBT youth.

Now I know that not all of us may feel similarly towards the LGBT community. I know that we may not all agree on issues of civil marriage, domestic partnership, or politics. I know that we all have differing views on the LGBT community and their agenda, and civil rights. But one thing I do know is that there are thousands of kids living on the street each night. And, ultimately, what unites us is our desire to create warm and safe spaces for these teens to continue to live, to grow and to thrive. And we cannot ignore one of the greatest unifying factors amongst these teens – that many of them are on the streets tonight because they were thrown out or ran away from home because of their sexual orientation.

This is not a sermon about gay rights. This is not a sermon about politics or civil rights. This is a sermon about helping our fellow humans who are in need. This is about speaking up and speaking out so that others might have a chance of survival.

Let’s go over a few facts: As I said, there are some 3,800 teens on the streets of New York every single night. This doesn’t count youth who are couch surfing, bouncing around from apartment to apartment, or staying in other unstable situations to avoid physically being on the street. I’d like to contrast that figure with the 250 beds that are available for homeless youth in New York each night. That means that even if a teenager gets themselves to a shelter for the night, they have a 5% chance of getting a bed to sleep in. Moreover, those teens who are LGBT might not even get to a shelter for fear of harassment, violence, or rejection based on their sexual orientation or identity. It’s estimated that 25% of those LGBT teens living on the street tonight are doing so because they were rejected by their family, treated violently, and harassed, by their own families when they revealed their true identity. They are scared, alone, and in danger of being hurt, either by themselves or by others. This is their reality.

I want to give you one other statistic: Right now, it is 30 degrees outside with a prediction of 1-3 inches of snow tonight. Living on the streets means more than being cold, hungry, and in danger of violence. It means not knowing if you’re going to live to see the next day. How many teens will we let die tonight, in this bitter cold, because they didn’t have a place to stay, warm clothes to wear, or a bed to sleep in?

We Jews have a moral obligation to help out those who are in need. We learn this week of God revealing God’s self to Moses. Employing the “four expressions of redemption,” God promises to take out the Children of Israel from Egypt, deliver them from enslavement, redeem them, and acquire them as the chosen people at Mount Sinai; God will eventually then bring them to the land promised to the Patriarchs as their eternal heritage. We have known enslavement and bondage and we have come through to the other side redeemed, chosen, and free. Now, it is our turn to help. Our turn to take out these children from the streets, to deliver them to adulthood safely, to redeem them from the horrors of being homeless and to acquire them as human beings capable of growth and great contributions to our city, our country, and our world.

So what can we do? We can speak out. We can remind others not to be complacent about these issues just because they are not at the forefront of our personal lives or minds. Every Friday night, for the last month or so, I have been welcoming you to our synagogue and commenting briefly on the weather outside. Well now, up until Pesach, the time of ultimate freedom and deliverance, we will be concluding each service with the temperature outside and the number of homeless youth on the street that night. That way none of us will forget about those who are in need. None of us will leave here taking our warmth, shelter, or safety for granted. And hopefully we will feel moved and called to action.

What else can we do? We can join the Shelter of Peace’s faith network and learn more about their action, their needs, and the ways in which we as people who believe in God and the good of helping our fellow in need can work together to mend the world. We are all children of God and our mission to protect these children is one and the same. By getting on their mailing list, finding out about them online, or donating to the cause, we can help those who are actively working to reach out to communities of faith and to help find homes and beds for all those teens out on the streets, each and every night.

Finally, we can take our own action. Shelter beds are provided by a combination of city and state funding. Over the last few years, this funding has been reduced significantly while the government tries to balance the budget. Shelter of Peace suggests that you call Gov. Cuomo and say, “"I support the Campaign for Youth Shelter. I am calling as a member of my faith

congregation and a New Yorker to let you know how important it is to us that you add to the Homeless Youth Services budget, every year, until all our kids have a safe place to

sleep every night." If you would like to take this action, feel free to pick up fliers that I have for you in the upper lobby with information and statistics, numbers to call, and ways to get involved. No matter what you do, do something, do anything. Because if it were you, if it were your kids, your friends, your relatives out on the street, wouldn’t you want others to help fight for their survival?

We learn from Pirke Avot, the “Sayings of our Fathers,” in Chapter 2, verse 22: Lo alecha ham'lacha ligmor v'lo atah ben horin l'hibatil mimena. It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to ignore it. There is so much in this world that needs our attention and it can feel overwhelming at times. But it is our job, our obligation, as Jews and as human beings, not to ignore these problems. Abraham did not ignore it. He responded with his words and so can you. Joseph did not ignore it, and he fought for a better life for himself and his family and his community. Moses did not ignore it, and he used his words, his message from God, and his actions. We cannot ignore those teens, those children of God, living in our midst, freezing and hungry and in danger on the streets each and every night. Use your words, use your faith, use your time and energy. After all, you might just be able to save another human being’s life. And that is the greatest mitzvah that any of us can ever hope to do.

May this be God’s Will. Amen.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

MLK Shabbat - You and I can change the world

As many congregations are preparing to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day this weekend during Shabbat services or weekend activities, I am struck by the juxtaposition of this week's parasha to our national holiday that celebrates and praises liberty, freedom, and rights for all humankind.

In the beginning of this week's parasha, Shemot, we learn about the enslavement of the Israelites under Egyptian rule, because Pharaoh was afraid of them. Terrible atrocities are to befall the Israelites as Pharaoh attempts to control and/or systematically annihilate them. But we learn of another person in this parasha - Moses. We know that with this man's help, resistance to Pharaoh will begin and change will occur. His leadership will be both thoughtful, comforting and (mostly) inspiring. Just like Martin Luther King, Jr., one voice is all that is needed to take a stand, to see the possibilities, and to take action towards liberation and redemption.

This Shabbat at The Reform Temple of Forest Hills, we are using our bimah Friday night to encourage our teens to speak their minds and engage their voices and calls for social action and social justice. In December, ten of our teens went on the Religious Action Center's L'takein program in Washington, D.C. During the four days they spent there, they learned, prayed, and actively lobbied to our congresspeople about issues ranging from global climate change, stem cell research, and civil rights. This Friday night, our teens will be reenacting that experience by presenting a "mock-lobby" to the congregation. Not only will the work they did be showcased, but they will have the opportunity to engage with our community as to WHY these issues are important to them, WHAT can be done about it, and the significance of raising one's voice and championing causes that are near and dear to them. Our teens, and all teens who engage in this sacred work, are a shining example of leadership, courage, inspiration and hope in our world. I am so proud of these teens, so grateful for the opportunity the RAC provides to our congregation, and looking forward to hearing our community engage with these issues on social action and justice.

No matter what you do this weekend - whether you engage with words of Torah or words of peace, justice, and action (OR BOTH!) take a moment to reflect on the power that one voice can have in this world.

Ani v'atah n'shaneh et Ha-olam

You and I can change the world