Category Archives: From The Rabbi

A Message from Rabbi Bass

Dear Etz Hayim family,

As we enter 2020, it is time for us to have a new vision. After much consideration and a process of discernment, it became clear to me that it is time for both Etz Hayim and for me to explore other paths. I will be leaving our congregation at the end of June.

It has been my honor and my pleasure to serve our congregation for almost 19 years. We accomplished a lot together! As we start a new decade, it is time for another rabbi with another vision to guide this congregation. The congregation has many opportunities, including the knowledge that Northern Virginia now has the largest Jewish population of the Washington DC Metropolitan area. There are many ways to take advantage of these opportunities, and the partnership between a new rabbi and the lay leadership will choose the new way for the congregation to go.

I am not clear yet on where the new decade’s road will take me personally. Yet reflecting on our time together, I am filled with gratitude, for me and for my family. You have welcomed Benjamin to this world, gave him support and a loving community, and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah with us. You celebrated my 10 years in the congregation with a beautiful quilt (that hangs in our Sanctuary), and you gave me a “Bat Mitzvah” celebration. Together we celebrated many wonderful occasions and helped each other through difficult times. I thank you for the opportunity of being your rabbi, and for the honor of serving you.

After I return from sabbatical on January 17, I will continue to work with the staff and lay leadership in all aspects of my position until the end of June.

May 2020 bring a new clarity of vision to all of us. I will be out of the office until January 17, and after that please don’t hesitate to reach out if you want or need anything.

B’virkat Shalom, Rabbi Lia Bass

Washington Nationals

In the last minutes of Wednesday night, October 30, I sat in my house praying that Daniel Hudson would throw the right pitches and bring the World Series Championship to Washington DC. This has been an incredible run by the Nationals, the team that taught me about baseball, and a lot about community.

As I see sports, baseball is the most intricate mixture of individual and communal efforts in group sports. The pitcher stands alone at the mound, pitching to the individual batter, who is at home plate. At that moment, the attention is focused on the battle between two individuals, the batter and the pitcher.

One might be tempted to think that they alone matter. Yet, being a group sport, there is more to the picture. Baseball is a group effort, and the team must have a catcher to pick up the pitch, and a defense positioned to stop the batter from running bases.

The game of baseball can be seen as a metaphor for a congregation: the individual can only excel with the help of the community. People come to services to experience an individual connection to the Divine, a moment when each of us can feel a deep bond with something greater than ourselves. We have to be present at the moment of prayer, ensuring that beforehand we had advanced preparation by studying, practicing, and engaging in our Jewish learning.

Just like the members of a baseball team, we train and develop individually to be able to stand in a congregation, ready to feel the connection with the Divine. But we do not stand alone. In the same way that an athlete had coaches and trainers and dedicated many hours a week to perfect their trade, we had rabbis and teachers, books, and a rich Jewish tradition to guide us in our Jewish journey. Individuals come together forming a community, supporting each other as we go through the good and the difficult moments of life. We practice as individuals and we connect with God as individuals, infused by our collective history, in the context and with the support of a community.

In a Jewish community, sometimes we are the pitchers, sometimes we are the catchers, sometimes we are batters, sometimes we are pinch hitters, closers, managers, and coaches. Our individual roles are best realized in the setting of our community.

On Wednesday night, I was very proud of the Washington Nationals. Being a sports fan, I have learned that as one falls in love with a team, one has to take the good moments with the bad, the struggles with the victories. And no matter how many years you supported the team, you might never experience the elation of being part of the supporters of a team that became the champions. Yet you enjoy all the fun there is in the process, in the ups and downs of the whole season. In the beginning of this baseball season, no one thought that the Nationals were going to make the playoffs. In May, their record was abysmal. They had the third worst record of the MLB, in front of only the Orioles and the Marlins. Then, they changed. They rallied together, the team and the managers supporting each other, encouraging each other to give their best, celebrating every hit, and not dwelling on errors or on their past. They loved each other like brothers and were having fun. They kept their sights on the important issues, coalesced into a true team, into a group of individuals that understood they were better as a whole – and as a result, won the greatest prize.

What an amazing example for our Congregation! We have much to learn from baseball and from the Washington Nationals. From baseball, we learn that individual and communal needs are always connected and that we can grow as individuals, but can only realize our full potential in a community. From the Washington Nationals we learn that to be the finest, we have to love and support each other, to encourage each other to give our best, celebrate every accomplishment, and not dwell on mistakes. We can unite into a true team, every individual committing to making this community all that it can be. The Washington Nationals believed that they could make it, and they did. We celebrate our team, and learn the lessons that they taught us this season.

5780 High Holiday message from Rabbi Lia Bass

Shalom Friends,

We are starting the Hebrew month of Elul. The letters of the name of this month are an anagram for Ani LeDodi VeDodi Li, which means “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” This quote from the Song of Songs is a metaphor for a loving romantic relationship; each one is central in the other person’s life, each gives a piece of themselves to the other, and each person holds within themselves a part of their beloved’s unique self. As we approach a new Jewish year, 5780, we can take this metaphor to a different direction.

As the New Year, and with it, the Days of Awe draw near, we begin the process of accounting for our actions in the year that passed.

  • Did we act mindfully in this world, giving everything we can to make this world a better place?
  • Did we achieve our goals?
  • Did we live our lives to the fullest, enjoying every moment and learning from our experiences?

As we think about these questions, we will recognize that probably most of our answers cannot be an unmitigated YES. As human beings we will fall short, we will sometimes miss the mark and we will make mistakes. We are not always able to be the person we aspire to be. Elul, if seen through the lenses of the things we haven’t accomplished, can become a month of trembling as we review our lives.

We can choose, however, to see this time as a time of reflection and rejoicing about the things we have accomplished. According to our tradition, the month of Elul is also a month of spiritual union between the people of Israel and the Divine. The Divine is our beloved and we belong to the Divine. We have a part of ourselves that belongs to the Divine and a part of the Divine that belongs to us. We are made in the Divine’s image, in Tzelem Elohim, and that connection has to be celebrated at this time of the year. Just as each partner in a loving relationship is able to see each other’s actions with tenderness and friendship, God gives us the opportunity to rejoice in our accomplishments, with tenderness, without harsh criticism.

With that insight in mind, reviewing the year doesn’t have to be a moment of dread. In the month of Elul, we review the past year and scrutinize our actions with the awareness that God welcomes our Teshuvah (repentance, turning back to God) with the love and fondness of a partner. In this month of Elul we are not supposed to be perfect; we are supposed to recognize our mistakes and ask forgiveness for them, while balancing this recognition with the enjoyment of the things we did right. We can truly look into ourselves and be confident that God is standing by our side, encouraging us to be better people. We eliminate the feelings of guilt over our shortcomings and we celebrate the accomplishments of a life well lived. We can trust in the love found in our relationship with the Divine.

I wish for all of us, at Congregation Etz Hayim, a truly balanced month of Elul. I hope that we can start the process of Teshuvah and trust that the Divine is cheering us on, helping us to have a balanced view of our past year. As we go through this process of spiritual growth may we be blessed with recognition of the tenderness, friendship, love and fondness, so we can truly celebrate our accomplishments, recognize our shortcomings in order to better ourselves and have a meaningful, balanced, and blessed new year.

Shana Tova U’metukah / A Good and Sweet Year / שָׁנָה טוֹבָה וּמְתוּקָה
Rabbi Lia Bass

Rabbi Lia Bass Speech from Rosh Hashanah – Day 2

Today in the Torah we read the story of the binding of Isaac. I have spoken about this story many times, since it is a story that tugs at my heart strings. This year, I realized that this is a story that happens among Hinenis.

There are 3 times in Chapter 22 of the Book of Genesis that our ancestor, Abraham, says the word Hineni, which means “Here I am”.  In the first verse of the chapter, we read (Translation by Robert Alter):

“And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham. And God said to him “Abraham!” and he said, “here I am – hineni!”

When God calls Abraham, he responds immediately with Hineni!– Here I am! I can almost hear Abraham saying: God, so good to hear from you! I am excited to hear your voice, and to know what you have in store for me.

Abraham and Isaac travel with attendants for 3 days, and leave the attendants behind, walking up the rest of the way, just the 2 of them alone. In verse 7, we read:

And Isaac said to Avraham his father, “Father!”, and he said, “Here I am, Hineni, my son.” And he said, “Here is the fire and the wood, but where is the sheep for the offering?”

There is kindness in this Hineni, as Abraham shows tenderness to his child, trying to respond to him, to be present, even though he knows fully well what lies in the future. After the altar is built, and Abraham binds his child to the altar, Abraham takes the knife, ready to do what he believes God commanded him, which is to slaughter his son. In verse 11, we read the word Hineni for the 3rd time:

“And the Eternal’s messenger called out to him from the heavens and said, “Abraham, Abraham”, and he said “Here I am”, Hineni.”

The messenger of God showed up just in time, and before he did the unthinkable, Abraham listened to him.

Abraham had 3 meanings for his Hineni: to be present and excited, to show kindness, and to listen.

What is your Hineni?

The word Hineni, Here I am! is a term that conveys readiness, presence, concentration, attention, and listening. It gives a sense of excitement, an exclamation point following the words. Hineni, Here I am, ready to participate, work, do things, be present! Hineni is about being “All in”. Being all in is to be passionate about life, to grab the opportunities that life presents us, to fully accept the challenge of living an examined life. To be all in is to act with the belief that there is potential in our deeds, openness for wonder, a commitment to participate and perform to the best of our abilities, a willingness to listen, and a desire to show kindness. Every day we pray the Amidah 3 times, and at every Amidah we recall our ancestors, Abraham Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. I take this to mean that just as my ancestors had their unique relationship with God, I must find my own relationship with God, my own Hineni, following in the footsteps of my ancestors. In our tradition, we are supposed to learn from the example of our ancestors – but not follow them blindly. We don’t follow Abraham’s example as a husband or a parent. We follow Abraham’s Hineni moments as a brave, spiritual, loyal, and gifted statesman. A few examples are:

  • Abraham doesn’t hesitate to change as he listened to God’s voice, to leave his place and go to the place that God showed him.
  • Abraham showed kindness as 3 angels (disguised as 3 men) approached his tent in the middle of the day.

He made sure to feed them and make them comfortable.

  • Abraham fought for his family, showing loyalty during the war between the Kings.
  • Abraham did not shy away from bargaining with God for the fate of the two doomed towns, Sodomah and Gomorrah.
  • And he trusted in God and God’s promise, again and again, even as he aged, and the promise of offspring seemed to be more and more difficult to come true.

We learn many lessons from Abraham’s journey.

As Abraham trusted in God’s promise, we can together trust in God’s message of love and understanding between all, and usher a time of peace, creativity, and joint abundance, even when that promise seems to be so elusive and far-fetched.

As Abraham bargained with God for the fate of the cities, we can speak truth to people in power and stand for the rights of all people.

We can also continue our long tradition of speaking to God and being in relationship with God as we pray together in our Sanctuary.

As Abraham fought for his family, so we together can fight for our human family, for ensuring that we do not demean, dehumanize, and humiliate others, instead propping the downtrodden, raising the fallen, providing a helping hand to the oppressed.

In the same way that Abraham opened his tent for the visitors, as a community of faith, we can remain loyal to his example and open our community to other people of faith. We can open our community to the poor, the needy, and the immigrant.

Most of all, as Abraham had the courage to change, we have to be able to change, too.

Rosh Hashanah, in the Jewish tradition, is a time where we examine our actions in the year that passed, take a hard look at the parts of ourselves that need to change, ask for forgiveness from those we have hurt, and when faced with a similar situation, don’t fall prey to the same bad choices. Our traditions praises our ability to grow and change.

These are a few of the ways we can be inspired by Abraham’s Hineni moments to create our own Hineni moments.

Let me share a Hineni moment with you.

I have been here for 17 years. I came here on August, 2001. A few weeks after I arrived, September 11 happened. Today, September 11, we remember the devastating blow to our sense of security, and all the people who lost friends and family members in that cowardly attack. Yet, this Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of my 18th year with our congregation. My Hay year!

As most of you know, the Hebrew letters of the word Hay, which means being alive, have the numerical value of 18. The 18th year is a time to take stock, and also the beginning of a new cycle of life. We all have had plenty of Hineni moments together in the last 17 years, and I believe that as we go forth and move into this new hay, this new life, we can have plenty of new Hineni moments together.

The Talmud, in Massechet Bava Metziah (28b), tells us that in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, there was a stone, called Even To’an, the Lost and Found Stone. Whoever found an object went there. Whoever lost an object did the same. The finder stood and proclaimed that s/he found something, and the other would call out the identifying marks of the object, and then receive it back.

In our lives, we all experience losses, from the banal –our keys – to the loss of our loved ones.

Sometimes we lose our hope in the future, and sometimes we lose our innocence when historical events of the proportion of 9/11 happen. A lot of times we have reserves of happiness and optimism that can be shared. Having a Lost and Found Stone– a place of meeting, a place of sharing what we find and what we lose – is an amazing gift. Our congregation can be our modern Lost and Found Stone, a cornerstone of gathering, of restoring relationships and our faith in each other, in the power of community, a place of being all in, in a world so unpredictable.

A solid rock that is a place for giving and receiving, for saying Hineni to each other.

As we starts our 18th year together, our hay year together, what is our Hineni, our all in? Can we be that Lost and Found  Stone, in this complicated world? Can we believe in a culture of possibilities for our congregation? Can we dream up a culture of love, creativity, growth? Can we create a true place of meeting, full of motivation, of beautiful tefillah, belief in the future, openness to change and growth?

I believe in us, and I believe that we are that Even To’an, that wonderful place of meeting where we share our best, worship together,where we prop each other up, where we follow in Abraham’s footsteps and say Hineni to creating a better world.

May we learn from all the positive examples of our ancestor, stressing all that we share.

May we create our own Even To’an, dreaming about the possibilities of all the things we can do together, committing to each other, being all in, opening our hearts, ears and capabilities to each other.  May this be a time of Hineni, of being all in, for our community, our people, our country, and our world.

Rabbi Lia Bass Speech from Rosh Hashanah – Day 1

Take another look to the beautiful words she said during our Rosh Hashanah Celebration!

The author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie delivered a TED talk titled “The Danger of a Single Story”, about how stereotypes limit and shape our thinking. At the age of 9, she had read only classic British books, about princesses and castles, long flowing blond hair and valiant princes. As she started writing her own stories, they all involved white, blonde, blue eyed people that talked about the weather – a very far stretch from her middle class, Nigerian reality, where you never needed to talk about the weather, since it was always the same.

She tells a story of speaking at a US University where, during the question and answer session, a student said that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers, like the father character in one of her novels. With a hint of irritation, she responded that she had just read a novel called American Psycho – and that it was such a shame that young Americans were serial killers.

The student had a single story about Nigeria – in his mind, based on his reading of a book, Nigeria was a whole country of people who abused and were abused. Ms. Adichie wanted him to see that her reality was as varied as his, and that one cannot create an image of a whole country based on a single story.

Our tradition is quite conscious of the dangers of a single story.

Let me give you an example. For Benjamin’s Bar Mitzvah, I made his tallit. In the Atarah, the neck piece, I quoted a verse from the Book of Deuteronomy: “And to Benjamin (Moses) said, you are a friend of God.”

In the end of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses blesses all the tribes, and since Jerusalem, and therefore the Temple, was in the territory of the Tribe of Benjamin, the tribe is depicted as a friend of God, and guardian of the Temple, our people’s main source of relationship with God during many centuries.

Yet, the Torah doesn’t want us to see a single-sided story. No one is one-dimensional.

In Chapter 49 of the Book of Genesis, Jacob calls his sons together before dying and gives each of them a “blessing.” I put quotation marks around the word blessing because while the Torah text defines it as both prophecy and a blessing, it is really more a curse. Here are the words to the Tribe of Benjamin: 27. “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the booty.”

What happened to the Tribe of Benjamin being God’s friend?

This description only makes sense when we know the gruesome story found about the tribe of Benjamin in the end of the Book of Judges, Chapters 19-21. In that part of the narrative, men from one city in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin are responsible for a savage attack on a young woman from the Tribe of Judah. That attack motivates a counter act from the other Israelites, escalating into a civil war. In the end, the tribe of Benjamin is almost wiped out from the people of Israel. Even in the Torah, there is no single story. The tribe of Benjamin has elements of both; a friend of God and a ravenous wolf. Had we only the Deuteronomy description, we would have a peaceful image of the Tribe of Benjamin. It wouldn’t be a full image. It would be a stereotype.

If we had only the story that uses the image of a ravenous wolf, we would be stereotyping, also, and we would be opening the possibility for a dangerous situation. The act was committed by some men, in one city, in the territory of one tribe. By depicting the whole tribe as animals that can be hunted, the Torah ends up creating fertile ground for a bloodbath. In the book Less than Human, Dr. David Livingstone Smith explains that when we equate people with animals, we limit our vision, and shape our perception in a way that has difficult consequences.

We dehumanize them, believing that while people may look like humans, where it really counts, they are animals, either vermin or beasts of prey that must be eliminated, one way or another. While we might be tempted to see comparisons of people to animals as mere talk, as nothing more than degrading metaphor, we must understand that dehumanization is not a way of talking. It’s a way of thinking that, sadly, comes all too easily to us. Dehumanization acts as a psychological lubricant, empowering us to perform acts that would, under other circumstances, be unthinkable.

We lose the perspective of what other people are: a collective of individuals that have an identity and community, people who can make choices, entitled to live according to their own goals. The danger of a single story, the danger of seeing people as less than human, is that it allows us the moral justification to commit atrocities and destruction. The psychologist and Harvard professor Herbert Kerman knew from bitter experience what happens when inhibitions against violence are lifted, since he survived the Nazi Holocaust. He concluded that there are psychological and social mechanisms that caused this to happen. The first is authorization: When people in positions of authority use demeaning language, and then verbally endorse acts of violence, the individual that carries out the savage act is less inclined to feel personally responsible, and therefore, less guilty in performing them. What follows is routinization. Following a rigid routine eliminates any need for making decisions, and with that no need to ask awkward moral questions. In other words, what we hear conditions our thinking, creates the single story that allows us to see others as non-humans, which then gives us the moral justification for their elimination. Before we say to ourselves that we don’t demean, dehumanize, and exterminate other people, we have to acknowledge the role of violence in our culture.

Professors Alan Page Fiske, from the University of California, LA, and Tage Shakti Rai, from Northwestern University, in their book entitled Virtuous Violence, explain that most violence is motivated by moral sentiments.

They write:

“Most people do not simply justify or excuse their violent actions after the fact; at the moment they act, people intend to cause harm or death to someone they feel should suffer or die.”

Most violence is intended to regulate relationships, and the one that does the violence, as well as the community around the perpetrator and the victim, perceive the action as correct, consistent with their cultural rules.

An example:

Many years ago, when my son, Benjamin, was 3 years old, I was in line at a children’s store to buy something for him. In the line right next to me, there was a mother, speaking to her children in a language I did not recognize. She had a sleeping baby in a carriage, a boy that seemed to be the same age as Benjamin, and 3 other older children. She was obviously not paying much attention to the 3-year-old, so he did what children his age do – jumped on the baby carriage, and woke up the baby, who started wailing. The mother immediately screamed at the boy, and slapped him hard across the face, sending him flying a few feet away. I was horrified. My first instinct was to scream at her, in moral outrage. After all, her hurt and broken child will be sharing this world with my child! Yet, not too long ago, parents and teachers had no hesitation to spank a child. Spare the rod and spoil the child, was the saying. After some reflection, I understood that I did not know the cultural norms for this other mother. I believe we were both acting according to our definitions of what is moral and what is not.

Today, all around the world, we are locked in a battle of moral claims, in points of view that accommodate only a single story.

And that is dangerous.

A single story is dangerous because it allows us to use language that dehumanizes the other, seeing them as not fully human. A single story does not give us the room to question the moral ground that regulates social relationships according to cultural norms. We forget that every group is created by human beings, that every human being is created in the image of God, and that we are not defined by one single story. We don’t celebrate the world for what it is – a mishmash of people, who live, learn, love, and breathe the same air we breathe, drink the same water we drink, eat the produce of the same earth we eat.

It is dangerous when people in positions of authority revert to a single story to define other people. It is dangerous to generalize and assign blame to whole groups, and not see people as individuals who are part of a group. It is dangerous to incite morally righteous violence. Today, in the world we live in, we must truly listen, and decide if we are listening to a single story, or a story that represents the full gamut of reality. Do we have a balanced point of view, or are we just listening to one version of reality? In our version, do we see others as just one monolithic group, defined in ways that can lead to their extermination, or are we seeing them as people like us? We can get stuck in the single story of hatred, name calling, and anger. We can get stuck in the single story of us versus them. In the vast majority of cases, no human being is purely good, and no human being is purely evil. No human being has the monopoly on acting perfectly, correctly, at all times. We are all motivated by our culturally-determined morals. We all have multiple stories.

In the Talmud, (Massechet Sanhedrin 37a) we read that witnesses in Capital offense cases were lectured sternly before they would give their testimony. The speech of the Judges centered around the idea that every human being was important. One of the examples they would give was that when people create coins from a mold, they are all the same. But when God created us, even though modern science tells us that 99.9% of our DNA is the same, we are still individuals, with different tastes, likes and dislikes, opinions, abilities, and dispositions.

Even though we are all created from the same mold, none of us has a single story. May we, in this coming year, use our mental capacities to listen to multiple stories. May we reject the stories that limit our understanding of the variety and potential of people, that incite violence, that generalize and erase the humanity of others.

May we take an active role in pointing out when and where the story restrains our capacity to love and understand our fellow human beings. And may we rejoice in the multiplicity of stories that makes our world more interesting, richer, and peaceful.

Introducing the Student Torah Reader Incentive Program!

We at CEH are introducing the Student Torah Reader Incentive Program! We are striving to support a number of critical goals. These include: increasing the ranks of available Torah Readers, encouraging the participation of young people in our services, and connecting young people with Jewish activities outside the synagogue.

The program works as follows: for every Torah portion or Haftarah a student in our Congregation reads, $18 will be added to a special account. This money will then be applied to the cost of Jewish activities, such as a Jewish Camp or a Youth Group Event. Eligible programs include trips to Israel, Jewish summer camps, Jewish youth group activities and any activity approved by the Rabbi. Students are eligible to participate in the program after they have completed their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, until they have graduated High School. There is no limit to the number of portions a student can read.

Please contact Rabbi Bass if you are willing to read Torah or Haftarah!

How to Use the Etz Hayim Kitchen

The following guide addresses how to properly use the Etz Hayim kitchen, as well as food rules for the building and for events held off-site. The complete guide can be downloaded from our Links/Resources page.


This Guide is addressed to all people who work or volunteer in the food services at Congregation Etz Hayim. Its purpose is to acquaint everyone with how the laws of kashrut are interpreted at Congregation Etz Hayim to provide our congregation with a kosher food service that the entire Jewish community will feel comfortable using. Only persons who are appointed by the Rabbi are approved to supervise Kashrut at Congregation Etz Hayim. Therefore this Guide is not intended to be a comprehensive or exhaustive study of kashrut, but a reference manual for maintaining a high standard of kashrut in our synagogue. As with every matter of Jewish law in the synagogue, the rabbi is our Marei d’Atra (halakhic authority) for all questions involving kashrut.

The Rabbi shall have sole authority for appointing mashgichim, other authorized supervisors or those allowed to work in the kitchen independently.


The rabbi is the ultimate halachic authority to rule on any issue that arises in kashrut supervision. In general, Congregation Etz Hayim follows the kashrut guidelines of the Conservative Movement. However, not all of the leniencies of the Movement are permitted in the synagogue kitchen, in order to ensure that more traditional members of the community will feel comfortable attending functions held at Congregation Etz Hayim.

Mashgichim and Authorized Users

Kashrut for the synagogue is supervised by mashgichim, or authorized supervisors, appointed by and under the authority of the rabbi. These supervisors are the only persons authorized to work without direct supervision in the kitchens. However, if an authorized supervisor is engaged in food preparation, it is desirable to have another mashgiach functioning as supervisor. Whenever possible the mashgiach should not supervise her/himself. A mashgiach must be present for all phases of food preparation in the synagogue, including (1) bringing food into the synagogue, (2) all food preparation and cleanup in the synagogue, and (3) all cleaning activities that occur for the purpose of kashering kitchen equipment.


Congregation Etz Hayim allows only kosher food to be brought into the synagogue (with the exception of foods brought in for personal use by the non-Jewish synagogue staff, and which may only be eaten in designated areas of the office). All packaged food must bear a heksher. All food and kitchen equipment that enters the synagogue must be inspected by an authorized mashgiach. Call the synagogue office at (703) 979-4466 to arrange for a mashgiach to be present when bringing food into the synagogue. Hekshered foods must be sealed when brought to Congregation Etz Hayim. Kosher packaging may not be opened before inspection by the mashgiach in the synagogue. All food served at Congregation Etz Hayim must be prepared at Congregation Etz Hayim or at another kosher facility. Food cooked at other kosher sites should be sealed under the supervision of a recognized mashgiach, marked, and then inspected by our mashgiach when brought into Congregation Etz Hayim.

Because we cannot be certain of the level of kashrut at an individual’s house, no food cooked in a private home may be brought into the Congregation Etz Hayim kitchen or used at any Congregation Etz Hayim function. Only foods made in the kitchen may be stored in the kitchen, refrigerator, freezer or stove.


The sole exception is for Potluck night, the first Friday of every month. At this event, food may be brought from individuals’ homes but may not be brought into the kitchen. This food must be dairy or vegetarian and come in a disposable container. Specifically designated serving utensils will be used and will be taken home by a designee to be washed after the event. These utensils are then returned to the custodian for storage.

Foods Allowed without Heksher

Fresh foods that have not been processed in any way may be brought in without a heksher. Fruits and vegetables brought into the kitchen must be whole and not pre-cut; only whole fruits and vegetables are allowed into the kitchen. This rule includes packages of frozen vegetables and fruit with no added ingredients: frozen fruits and veggies must be whole, or have a heksher mark on the packaging if they are cut or pre-prepared. Check with the mashgiach if there is any doubt.

Most soft drinks are kosher. All Coca-Cola products, all Pepsi products, Canada Dry Ginger Ale, Dr. Pepper, and all 7-Up products other than Cherry 7-Up are certified kosher. Any flavored waters or iced teas need to have a visible heksher.

Prepackaged cheeses which do not contain meat, which are made in the United States and served cold do not need to be hekshered.


In order to ensure strict adherence to our standards of kashrut, the Congregation Etz Hayim kitchen cannot be used without prior permission from the synagogue office or rabbi under any circumstances. All food preparation in the Congregation Etz Hayim kitchen must conform to the practices outlined in this manual. The mashgiach may stop any or all kitchen operations to prevent a violation. A big part of keeping our synagogue food services kosher is the proper use of the kitchen and careful food preparation.

A mashgiach must be present for all food preparation in the kitchen. If necessary, the synagogue office can assist in providing for the presence of a mashgiach. Congregation Etz Hayim’s kitchen is provided with separate dishes, pots, pans, utensils, serving trays, preparation areas, and sinks for meat and dairy. Mixing of meat and dairy kitchen equipment is absolutely forbidden. Meat and dairy foods are not to be prepared at the same time in the kitchen facilities. To avoid setting off the sprinkler system, fans in the hoods over the stoves must be turned on before using the stoves. Nothing can be reheated in the microwave, stove or oven unless it complies with the above rules.

The only parve materials are the challah board, knife, Kiddush cups, and handwashing cups/bowls. They may not be washed with, or stored with any other items.

Congregation Etz Hayim does not have any parve cooking utensils or cookware. Everything prepared in the kitchen becomes meat or dairy.

Common Hazards:

There are several common hazards that should be avoided to maintain the integrity of the Congregation Etz Hayim kitchen.

  • Make sure non-dairy creamers are served for coffee with a meat meal. Check the heksher carefully; not all “non-dairy” creamers are truly hekshered as parve. When storing such creamers in the kitchen, make sure they are separate from the dairy creamers and clearly marked.
  • Butter is always dairy. Parve margarine may be used with any meat meal.
  • Pay attention to the dessert planned for a meat meal; many desserts and candy are dairy by nature.
  • Meat and Dairy cannot be cooked in the same oven at the same time. Drippings must be wiped up immediately to ensure that other materials don’t contaminate the cooking process.
  • Meat and Dairy cooking pots may not be on the stove top at the same time. Pots may not rest on the stove top or in the oven while something else is cooking.

Equipment and Storage

Kitchen equipment is color coded. Red and Black items are meat. Blue and White items are dairy. The Kiddush cups, challah bread board and knife, handwashing cups, and wine glasses are parve. Each category has corresponding shelves. Dairy shelves are denoted by blue painter’s tape on the shelf supports. Meat shelves are designated by red painters tape and parve shelves are designated by green painter’s tape.

Non-colored items, such as pots and pans, shall be clearly marked by paint, marker, tape or other indelible method. Look for these markings on the bottom, sides and/or handles.

Any new equipment brought into the kitchen must be inspected by the mashgiach, determined if it will be used for meat, or dairy, and marked appropriately.

Minimal food storage is available and is color coded. Food must be stored in containers corresponding to the meal for which it was prepared and may only be used for the same type of meal. For instance, food left over from a dairy meal must be stored in dairy (blue or white) storage containers and may be used with dairy meals only. Food stored in meat containers is to be used with meat only.

Eggs and Vegetables

Eggs that contain a drop of blood are considered treife (non-kosher). To keep a single egg from ruining an entire dish, each raw egg should be broken separately in a small cup or bowl, inspected for blood, and then added to the main dish. Eggs boiled in the shell are allowed without individual inspection.

Many leafy vegetables may contain insects, and insects are not kosher. To prepare these vegetables, they must be soaked in a vinegar/water solution and then rinsed with clear cold water. “Leafy vegetables” include (but are not limited to) asparagus, cauliflower, broccoli, parsley, lettuce, kale, scallions, and any other densely packed leafy vegetable. If you have any questions on a particular vegetable you are using, contact the mashgiach or rabbi.

When storing leftovers, clearly mark the container with any restrictions (e.g. meat, dairy, parve) and store the container in the appropriate kitchen area. Disposable gloves are provided in the kitchen and should be used during food preparation.


Each side of the kitchen also contains its own dishwasher. However, care must be taken not to mix or confuse the racks. Blue racks belong to the dairy dishwasher and green racks belong to the meat dishwasher. The soap and rinse products used for dishwashing must bear a heksher.


On Shabbat, we are not allowed to do any melachah. I purposely use the word melachah because not every kind of work is forbidden on Shabbat. Melachah is a very specific kind of work. The Rabbis in the Mishnah (Shabbat 7:2) enumerated 39 kinds of work, called Avot Melachah, which are not to be performed on Shabbat. These melachot (plural of melachah) are understood as the kinds of work needed to create the Tabernacle, the moving structure that was built by and accompanied the Israelites while they were in the desert for 40 years. From these categories the rabbis derived other kinds of work that are not to be performed on Shabbat. To this day, we continue to shape our modern lives by reinterpreting these melachot.

Part of the 39 melachot relate specifically to cooking. For example, sorting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking, extinguishing a flame, lighting a flame, and carrying from one domain to the other are forbidden. From these melachot we derive the rules for our kitchen during Shabbat.

These rules are not exhaustive, and questions may arise about the use of our kitchen. Please do not hesitate to ask the Rabbi about any clarification you might need to be able to use our kitchen.

Carrying:  We are not allowed to bring in or take away anything from our Synagogue on Shabbat. That means that during Shabbat, no one is to bring in something they forgot to bring in before Shabbat for Kiddush, or alternatively, take home (or anywhere else) leftovers from Kiddush. Even if you plan to bring Kiddush leftovers to a shelter, that must be done after Shabbat is over.

Extinguishing and lighting a flame:  For the purposes of our kitchen, no one should be lighting or turning off the ovens. Foods may be warmed in our kitchen for Shabbat, in an oven that has been kept at a low temperature, lit before Shabbat started. The temperature of the oven should not exceed 200 degrees Fahrenheit during Shabbat. There is a Jewish legal fiction that allows a person of another faith to turn on and off an oven, if it is for their own benefit. In our Congregation, only our custodian is allowed to light or extinguish a fire, since we believe that this action will be done solely for their benefit and enjoyment. To be clear, no person other than our custodian may turn on or off the ovens during Shabbat.

Sorting, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking:  All of these activities transform grain into baked goods and are forbidden on Shabbat. For this reason, any activity in the kitchen that changes a food from inedible to edible through the use of heat is not acceptable on Shabbat. In other words, we cannot cook pasta, or bake, or even finish off a dish that is not at least ¾ ready on Shabbat. We can, however, cut vegetables, plate food that was previously prepared, and open packages and cans on Shabbat. Those activities are not considered melachot, and they can be performed on Shabbat without a question.

Other considerations regarding the use of the kitchen on Shabbat:  We are not allowed to write or erase on Shabbat, or to permanently glue things on Shabbat. For this reason, we cannot write labels to be put on leftovers during Shabbat, or write an explanation of the food to be served. Pre-written sticky labels may be used, as long as they do not permanently seal any package.


Food Brought In for Personal Use

The only non-kosher food that may be brought into the synagogue is the food intended for the personal use of non-Jewish synagogue personnel. Such food may only be eaten in the designated area of the office. Any food brought into the synagogue for personal use of Jewish staff or congregants must be dairy or parve, in new unopened packages with acceptable kosher certification or directly from approved vendors. No meat prepared in one’s home or any non-kosher facility may be brought to the synagogue. No food brought into the synagogue for personal use may be carried into the kitchen of the synagogue. Utensils from the kitchen are not to be used with such food.

Nothing can be reheated in the microwave, stove or oven unless it complies with the above rules.

Other Kosher activities in the Synagogue Family

The laws of Kashrut are observed in all activities of the congregation that are held outside the building. So, for example, if Congregation Etz Hayim holds a picnic, or a Shabbat service at a congregant’s home, the food provided would follow the rules outlined in this manual. See the mashgiach or rabbi for exact details on any situation that you may encounter.


There are well over 800 different heksher marks used worldwide, and it is impossible to list them all here. There are also changes going on at any given time; not all hekshers are trusted at all times. If you are in any doubt, contact Rabbi Bass. A list of acceptable hekshers is available in the full guide (download here).

The mark of a simple “K” is not considered a trustworthy heksher. Because there is no trademark on a “K” (a single letter cannot be trademarked) there is no way of knowing what authority stands behind this mark. Products marked only with a K cannot be brought into Congregation Etz Hayim unless the specific product has been verified by the rabbi as kosher. (Such verification cannot be done at the last minute, so in general the use of such products should be discouraged.)

From the Rabbi: Prayer of Responsibility

The following prayer was offered during Etz Hayim’s Special Prayer and Meditation Service Against Gun Violence on Saturday, February 24, 2018.

Prayer of Responsibility:

Parkland, Florida; Stoneman Douglas High School. A disturbed young man took up an assault rifle and took away 17 lives and injured 14 others.

He did it because he was angry: about a girlfriend, about other people who did not support him, about the ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend…

He destroyed the lives, the dreams, the hopes of friends and families.
I wonder why it is the girlfriend’s, or anyone else’s responsibility that he felt the way he felt.

I wonder why, in the world we live in, in our country, we feel entitled to place the responsibility for our feelings and emotions on other people. I wonder when the idea that “my reactions to other people’s actions are not my responsibility” took hold.

Everyone must be responsible for their own feelings.

Everyone must be responsible for their personal reactions.

God, help us never lose the perspective that every life is important. God, make us conscious that no persons’ feelings are more important than someone else’s life.

God, help us be responsible for our feelings. Eternal, Source of Wisdom,
guide us to find the pathways to end gun violence in our country.

May people of all races and creeds find a way to live together,
in peace and harmony, responsible for their feelings and actions,
holding up other people’s lives with the same regard they have for their own.

Help us demand from our authorities that we are safe and that people with a history of mental illness have no access to weapons. May no interest or political position be more important than anyone’s life.

In God’s name we demand that in our country, it is clear that more than any other right, we have the right to be alive.

Yom Kippur Sermon 5778 by Rabbi Bass

This sermon was delivered at Yom Kippur services on Saturday, September 30, 2017.

Spoiler alert: For those of you who didn’t see “Wonder Woman,” I will be giving away major plot points.  This summer I watched the movie “Wonder Woman” — three times. I also now own the DVD.  I absolutely loved it. It was fun, hugely entertaining, and made me feel great.  “Wonder Woman” is smart, charming, playful, and glamorous—things that we don’t often say about superhero movies.  I absolutely loved seeing Gal Gadot, a former Miss Israel and Israeli actress, work her magic on the screen.  She lights up the screen with her presence, and is unabashedly Israeli, even down to her accent.  The movie is well-made, with beautiful colors, great music, and great double entendres, as well as very funny lines.  The fighting scenes, which usually leave me bored, brought me great pleasure.  I will confess that I found great comfort in watching a powerful woman in a golden tiara and thigh-high boots beat hordes of terrible men. Oh, what fun!

I don’t profess to be knowledgeable about comic books.  Indeed, I only found out a few years ago that people who know comics divide themselves into Marvel or DC titles.  Prior to watching the movie, I learned a little bit about Wonder Woman’s origins.  According to historian and Harvard professor Dr. Jill Lepore, in 1940, after critics complained that Superman and Batman were too violent, All-American Comics hired as a consultant a lawyer and psychologist named William Moulton Marston, who lived with two women, Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne, in a polyamorous relationship.  Both women had graduate degrees in psychology; Holloway was also a lawyer.  With their help, he pitched a comic book featuring a female superhero whose enemy is inequality.  A press release explained: “‘Wonder Woman’ was conceived by Dr. Marston to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; and to combat the idea that women are inferior to men,” because “the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women.”  As you might imagine, within a year “Wonder Woman” comic books were banned, allegedly on claims of indecency.  She then became the secretary for the Justice League.  When all the men went out to war, Wonder Woman stayed behind to answer the mail.  She would call out: “Good luck, boys! I wish I could be going with you!”  Her original creators were furious!

In 1975, Lynda Carter became Diana Prince in a television series.  The series took place during World War II.  According to the series press release, when the forces of evil threatened the nation, Diana would spin to transform into Wonder Woman, armed with a magic belt that gave her tremendous strength, bracelets that would stop any bullet, a tiara that could be thrown as a returning weapon and an unbreakable magic lasso that would force anyone to tell the truth.  It was a hit throughout the world.

In the movie, Diana grows up on the Island of Themyscira, watching other Amazons do hand-to hand combat and savage sword play to pass the time.  Her mother, Hippolyta, doesn’t want her to learn to fight because she knows that Diana’s destiny is to fight Ares, and she dreads the coming of this day.  Diana’s aunt, Antiope, has different ideas.  She believes Diana should know what to do when the situation arises.  She teaches Diana how to fight, until she becomes the strongest fighter on the whole island of the Amazons.  Now Diana is a grown woman, World War I is coming to an end, and her island is invaded by Steve Trevor, an allied spy, followed by boatloads of German soldiers.  Fighting ensues, the German soldiers are defeated, and the Amazons have suffered many casualties.  Diana feels she must go away with Steve to save the world. She sees a single monster as the sole obstacle to a world of peace and justice, and she seeks to defeat him.  Yet, she is very conflicted.  While she feels she needs to fight Ares and make sure humanity is saved, she knows she can’t have her mother’s blessing.  Her mother doesn’t want to lose her, and doesn’t want her daughter to be hurt.  Hippolyta explains to her daughter that, in her view, human beings don’t deserve her.  Diana confronts her mother saying that she must go and fight Ares, the God of War.  Hippolyta, with a pained look on her face, says to her daughter: “If you choose to leave, you may never return.”  To which Diana responds: “Who will I be if I stay?”  When I heard that line in the movie, I immediately thought about the maxim of the 1st century BCE Sage Hillel, in Pirkei Avot:

If I am not for me, who will be?

If I am for myself alone, what am I?

And if not now, when?

The traditional commentators see this in the following way:

  1. If I am not for me, who will be? That means people can only attain virtue through their own strivings.
  2. If I am for myself alone, what am I? That means selfishness and disregard for others are traits of inhumanity.
  3. And if not now, when? That means moral obligations must be carried out as occasions arise and must not be postponed, lest the opportunities pass by.

While I like the traditional interpretations, I feel that there is more to this equation.  The traditional interpretations see the three questions as separate entities, barely connected to each other.  I do feel, however, that this is a literary unit, and as such its message is not in the separate questions, but in the amalgamation of the three.

If we see the three questions together, they point out that uncertainty is at the heart of every human enterprise.  How can I balance the need to take care of myself with the need to take care of the world, with the correct timing for my actions?  All our actions have many angles, many inner motivations, and many prisms.  When we accept that we all live with uncertainties, open to the many possibilities, we cannot see things in simple terms, in distinct and clear categories of right and wrong.  When we ask ourselves, am I taking care of myself, while taking care of others, at this moment in time, we do live a richer, and more difficult, life.  There are always many, competing perspectives that are constantly tugging at our emotional and intellectual strings.  These three questions are potent because they point out to us the power of uncertainty, the idea that we can grow from being open to the many possibilities of living.

Living with the power of uncertainty can be dizzying at time, and can make us feel at a loss.  Those are the moments that we feel tempted to see things in one way, and one way only.  We are tempted to find certainty in every one of our actions.

When we have certainty, we close ourselves to other possibilities.  When we see things in one perspective, and have our minds made up that the way we think and act is the only correct way, we find ourselves locked in the prison of single perspectives.  Life loses its color, and our outlook is bleak.  There is a saying, attributed to Mark Twain, that clarifies the issues that arise with having complete certainty.

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

In other words, when a person is absolutely certain that s/he knows something to be absolutely true, without a shadow of a doubt, with certainty, that is when a person gets in trouble.  When we think we know the right way, and the only right way is our way, we close ourselves to other opinions, to other perspectives, and our reality becomes shriveled, sad, limited.  Without the ability to be open to questions, to different perspectives, to asking ourselves at the same time, is this good for me, for the world, and is this the right time, we incur the sin of certainty.

On Yom Kippur, we beat our chests and pronounce a list of sins.  We say: Ashamnu, Bagadnu, we have trespassed, we have dealt treacherously, a full alphabet listing of things that we have collectively done wrong.  This year, as we ponder our responsibilities through the list of actions, we must reflect upon the three questions that together point the way to the truth of the moral dilemma of living life on this earth.  Maybe we will have to add this additional sin to our list: the sin of certainty.

One might ask, but if I am not certain about something, how can I act in this world?  How are we to decide what to do, and not be paralyzed by doubt?  How are we to balance the power of uncertainty with the sin of certainty, and still do something in this world?  The answer to this question is found in the question I have been asking myself the whole summer: What would Wonder Woman do?

At the end of the movie, Diana finally discovers that she is the weapon that will destroy Ares.  The two are in an intense fight.  Steve Trevor, the man Diana rescued and fell in love with, dies, by flying away with a plane full of mustard gas and sacrificing himself so that London would not be destroyed.  He held in balance the three questions and came to the realization that he must do something that went beyond his personal interest.

Diana is devastated, and wants to spread her inner devastation on everyone around her.  She holds up a military vehicle in order to kill Dr. Poison, the mad scientist who created the vicious gas that killed the man she loves.  Ares, taking advantage of Diana’s pain, goads her about killing Dr. Poison, saying that after all, humans don’t deserve Diana, her courage, and her fight for their lives.  At this moment, Diana thinks about Steve, lowers the military vehicle she was going to smash on the mad scientist’s head, and says: “It is not about deserve. It is about what you believe. And I believe in love.”  And then she proceeds to destroy Ares.

I don’t have to tell you that at this point in the movie I was sobbing.  Okay, I am known for having cried at commercials, but I was really moved to tears here.  “It is not about deserve. It is about what you believe. And I believe in love.”  This is the answer to my quandary.  The answer to the three questions, the answer to not falling prey to the sin of certainty because of my fear and discomfort with uncertainty, is to act according to my beliefs.  It is not to act based on a value judgment about what other people deserve.  The way to act with integrity in this world is to stay centered, understanding that what we believe is the true motivation for our actions.  It is not about deserve.  We all act out of deeply held beliefs and perspectives.  If we are open to the fact that we are all acting this way, we can understand and hear with compassion other people’s perspectives.  The way we see and experience the world is highly personal, and if we accept the power of uncertainty we can recognize that other people’s ideas, while different than ours, have their place.  We will all come to conclusions about whatever we think is right or wrong based on what we believe.  And I believe in love.

I believe in loving other people as myself, as we learn from the Book of Leviticus.  I believe in caring, in listening with compassion, and in multiple perspectives.  I believe in seeing things from a kindhearted, loving point of view.  I believe that every human being has the potential of doing good and being good, and when I am proven wrong, I add this to the list of experiences I have, knowing that I am growing as an individual, because it is not about deserve.  And even when I am pained by choosing the wrong answer to the quandary, I know I acted out of love and compassion, and that my actions reflected my beliefs.

In this new year of 5778, let’s beat the sin of certainty out of our chests, embracing the power of uncertainty, and acting according to what we believe, not judging what others deserve.  And may we all believe in love.

Rosh Hashanah (Day 2) Sermon by Rabbi Bass

This sermon was delivered at Rosh Hashanah (Day 2) services on Friday, September 22, 2017.

I came to this country in 1989 to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, after spending my first year in Israel. In between my year in Israel and coming to America, I went to the American Consulate to get my student visa, and had my interview with one of the consular officials. Some of you who are here today are familiar with this procedure, since so many people in our congregation work for the State Department. The official explained to me that I was not to work outside of the seminary in my first year of school, but that in my second year I could work in fields that correlated to my studies. In my second year in the USA I had my papers signed by the school’s registrar confirming that I could be employed, and went to teach religious school in a Manhattan synagogue. One day, I received a call from that religious school office saying that two officers from the Immigration and Naturalization Services had just come over to the synagogue and were on their way to see me. I was to wait for them in my dorm room to show all my papers and documents, proving that I could work in the United States. Apparently, Immigration had received an anonymous call saying that I was working illegally in this synagogue in Manhattan.

I knew everything was in order, and I waited in my dorm room. The two officers came to the seminary gates, a male and a female. They were led to my dorm room. They flashed their badges. Immigration and Naturalization Services, it read. They came in, and were rough and intimidating. They were shouting at me. I could not understand why they were treating me as if I had committed some kind of crime. I clumsily offered if they wanted to sit down, they declined and ordered me to bring out my passport and visa. I was nervous and intimidated, and with trembling hands gave them what they had asked for. As soon as they saw my papers, it became clear to them that they had received a false tip. There was nothing in my dorm room that could be considered even slightly suspicious, and my papers were absolutely in order. To my horror, at this point they bordered on abusive. The male officer brusquely asked that my papers be copied. I said that the only place we could copy the papers was in the library, hoping against hope that these officers would go away. I dreaded the idea of having to walk into the library flanked by two immigration officials. Well, he was not to be dissuaded. I grabbed my library and copier card, and the three of us went to the library, the female officer in front of me, the male officer flanking me in the back, giving the impression that I was being arrested. I felt the eyes of every student, faculty member, and personnel of the seminary on me. I copied all my papers, and they snatched it away from my hands. At the end of the ordeal, they were both visibly upset that there was nothing for them to do with me, and still very intimidating and rough.  It was a horrible, unnerving experience.

I understand that I was one of the rarest cases that these officers had in their lives. Yet, I had a personal glimpse of how scary it can be to deal with seasoned officers who have seen everything. I understood how one might feel on the receiving end of an immigration raid. I understood the helplessness and fear one has when dealing with the immigration system in the US. I believe there is a lot of misinformation on the issue of immigration in this country, and today I will share with you a few personal insights.

I recognize and appreciate that there must be a lot of vetting of who comes into the United States. I know that our country, (and I am proud to be an American citizen, part of this wonderful country) is maligned in many countries in the world, and that there are people constantly trying to bring harm and destruction to us. I also know that the vetting process that immigrants go through is very thorough. It took me 9 years from the moment that I applied for my green card to the moment that I swore my allegiance to the USA as a citizen. It was a long process, and it only wasn’t longer because I was aided by lawyers throughout the process. The lawyers and the majority of the officials that I met through this process were highly competent people. It is just that immigration law in this country is complicated, antiquated, and impossible to truly enforce. The political discourse, which jumbles immigration, refugees, and work visas into one crisis, is very confusing and disheartening.

Our tradition, however, gives us an unequivocal mandate regarding the treatment of immigrants. In the Torah, the term used for immigrant is Ger, which is commonly translated as stranger. The Ger is someone who is not native to the tribes of Israel, but that for one reason or another joins the people of Israel. Just like contemporary immigrants and refugees, they joined the people of Israel because of family ties, love, better work opportunities, or a true love of God. A few verses from the Torah can inform our perspectives about immigration.

Exodus 22:20

20. You shall not wrong an immigrant, nor oppress him; for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.

Exodus 23:9

9. Also you shall not oppress an immigrant; for you know the heart of the immigrant, seeing that you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.

Leviticus 19:33-34

33. And if an immigrant dwells with you in your land, you shall not wrong them.

34. But the immigrant who dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Eternal your God.

Numbers 15:15-16

15. One law shall be both for you of the congregation, and also for the immigrant who dwells with you, an ordinance forever in your generations; as you are, so shall the immigrant be before the Eternal.

16. One Torah and one code shall be for you, and for the immigrant who dwells with you.

Deuteronomy 10:17-19

17. For the Eternal your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, mighty and awesome, which favors no person, nor takes bribes;

18. God executes the judgment of the orphan and widow, and loves the immigrant, giving them food and garment.

19. Love you therefore the immigrant; for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 24:17-19; 24:22

17. You shall not pervert the judgment of the immigrant, nor of the orphan; nor take a widow’s garment as a pledge;

18. But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Eternal your God redeemed you there; therefore I command you to do this thing.

19. When you cut down your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go again to fetch it; it shall be for the immigrant, for the orphan, and for the widow; that the Eternal your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.

22. And you shall remember that you were an immigrant enslaved in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this thing.

Take a moment to reflect on the passages you just heard. These are but a few verses, only in the five books of Moses, that inform our understanding of the treatment of immigrants and refugees. These verses demand empathy from us, demand that we do not forget our origins, and that we protect others in the way that we would have liked to be protected and cared for. From all these verses, we can infer that according to the Torah, Israelites must treat immigrants in a respectful and loving manner, because once we were immigrants. We had to immigrate to the land of Egypt, because of famine, and a lack of appropriate conditions to raise our families. In Egypt, we were treated poorly, we were enslaved. We built the big monuments that came to symbolize the prosperity of that country. The Torah reminds us, again and again, that we know the heart of the immigrant and the oppressed, and because of that we are to treat them as we would like to be treated. We have to provide for them, together with our own poor.

Immigration Law in the United States has always been complicated. Quotas established in the US Immigration and Nationality Act of 1924 strictly limited the number of immigrants who could be admitted to the United States each year. That act was tinged with racial undertones, trying to keep certain nationalities, and Jews, from immigrating to this country. From 1924 to 1965, the system of quotas meant to make it impossible for large migration. In the midst of these years, there was WWII, and the Holocaust. We, as Jews, were caught stranded in Europe, without a place to go.  That is when the episode of the St. Louis happened.

Since Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass”on November 9–10, 1938, many Jews realized the danger they were in and wanted to emigrate. On May 13, 1939, the German transatlantic liner St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, for Havana, Cuba. There were 937 passengers. Almost all were Jews fleeing from the Third Reich. The majority of the Jewish passengers had applied for US visas, and had planned to stay in Cuba only until they could enter the United States. The passengers held landing certificates and transit visas issued by the Cuban Director-General of Immigration. However, just a week before the ship sailed the Cuban president invalidated all recently issued landing certificates, because of a corruption scandal. When the St. Louis arrived in Havana harbor on May 27, the Cuban government sent away 908 Jewish passengers, refusing to admit them or to allow them to disembark from the ship. On June 2, the Cuban president ordered the ship out of Cuban waters.

Since they were so close to Miami, some passengers on the St. Louis cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for refuge. The State Department and the White House decided not to take extraordinary measures to permit the refugees to enter the United States. A State Department telegram sent to a passenger stated that the passengers must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.”

In 1939, the annual combined German-Austrian immigration quota was 27,370 and was quickly filled. In fact, there was a waiting list of at least several years. US officials could only have granted visas to the St. Louis passengers by denying them to the thousands of German Jews placed further up on the waiting list. Public opinion in the United States, although ostensibly sympathetic to the plight of the refugees and critical of Hitler’s policies, continued to favor immigration restrictions. The Great Depression had left millions of people in the United States unemployed and fearful of competition for the scarce few jobs available. It also fueled antisemitism, xenophobia, nativism, and isolationism. A Fortune Magazine poll at the time indicated that 83 percent of Americans opposed relaxing restrictions on immigration. President Roosevelt could have issued an executive order to admit the St. Louis refugees, but this general hostility to immigrants, the gains of isolationist Republicans in the Congressional elections of 1938, and Roosevelt’s consideration of running for an unprecedented third term as president were among the political considerations that militated against taking an extraordinary step for an unpopular cause.

Roosevelt was not alone in his reluctance to challenge the mood of the nation on the immigration issue. Three months before the St. Louis sailed, Congressional leaders in both US houses allowed a bill to die in committee that would have admitted 20,000 Jewish children from Germany above the existing quota.

Following the US government’s refusal to permit the passengers to disembark, the St. Louis sailed back to Europe on June 6, 1939. The passengers did not return to Germany, however. They were distributed through many European nations, and 254 of the passengers perished in the Holocaust.

The episode of the St. Louis makes it clear that there was a lack of political will, coupled with laws that did not reflect the demand of the times, resulting in the mass extermination of Jews who were caught in Europe without the ability to save themselves and their families. It is important to notice that there were anti-Jewish, as well as anti-immigration sentiments in the nation, fueled by an economic crisis.

In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act created a different reality by eliminating the racialist immigration quotas that were set by the Immigration Act of 1924. Since 1965, many things have changed, and immigration again needs a re-focusing.

Right now, there is legislation introduced in the Senate called the RAISE act, (Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy Act). There are many things this bill will do, but there is one that feels very personal. The bill will remove pathways for parents, siblings and adult children of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents to apply for permanent lawful residency status in the U.S., limiting the family path to spouses and minor children only. If this would be the case when my mother moved here, she would never be able to have a green card or be a citizen of this country. Like her, there are many older immigrants that have their pensions from another country, and end up paying taxes both here and in their country of origin.

From what I learn from the Torah, and my experiences, I believe that our country needs to take a hard look at the motivations of new legislations, and the effect of limiting immigration in general. I do believe that Congress can find a path for immigration that will work to the benefit of our country, because I believe in this country, in our Government, and in the democratic process. And I believe that with courage our representatives can start finding real solutions that will open our country, wisely, to a path of sustainable immigration.

I hope that today I was able to give you a different perspective on issues of immigration. I hope that you take my words in the spirit in which they are meant, which is to show that behind big policies there are hundreds of thousands of individuals who, like me, have productive lives in this country we call home, but are afraid that things can change at the drop of a hat.  I hope that my words today open a dialogue on issues of immigration, in our congregation and in our community.

May we be able to find positive pathways to make our country, our community, and our individual lives more productive and better in the coming year.


1) All the information about the transatlantic liner St. Louis came from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

2) All the information about the RAISE act came from the bill in Congress. ( S.354 — 115th Congress (2017-2018))