Our Recycling Challenge

As seems to happen at least twice each year, I spent a significant amount of time this week cleaning out the Cheder classroom. So much accumulated rubbish! I tossed out two large boxes of brochures about services for the elderly that were leftover from a Bagel lunch last year. I also tossed out dried-out paintbrushes, old construction paper, broken pencils–you name it. Some of the discarded stuff went into the red bin, but a great deal of the rubbish–especially all the papers–went into the yellow recycling bin.

A story on ABC’s website from March 3 of this year reported that in 2014-2015, Australians recycled 60% of our waste. That’s an amazing and inspiring statistic, but all that it means is that 60% of our rubbish went into the recycling bin rather than the red bin. Where that recycled rubbish ends up is only now coming into sharper focus. As we have learned, what happened up until the beginning of the year was that most of that potentially recyclable material–a whopping 600,000 tonnes–was being loaded onto cargo ships and sent to China. Now China has announced that it will no longer accept Australian recycling; around the country, warehouses are filling up with our discarded bottles, cans, paper and especially plastics. It turns out that Australians are very faithful about placing our recyclables in the right bin, but not prepared to think more deeply about our responsibility for dealing with those items after they’ve been thrown away. Now is that time of reckoning we’ve managed to avoid for so long.

The revelation that simply throwing recyclables into the correct rubbish bin does not magically cause it to be recycled has been quite an unpleasant revelation within my own family. I remember an episode within the last year in which I threw a plastic milk bottle into the regular rubbish. I think this might have been because the recycling bin was full and no one had bothered to take it out to the much larger bin outside, but that is another story. At any rate, both of my sons treated this incident with such severity that you would have thought I’d committed the original sin. Recyclables need to be placed in the recycling bin, they lectured, because then they are recycled.

It occurred to me at the time how neatly the action of placing items in the yellow bin absolved us for throwing it away. My sons earnestly believed that using recyclable items–especially plastics–meant that no waste was involved at all. Somehow they had conjured up a recycling system which operated with 100% efficiency. This meant that even though our yellow bin was full pretty much each time the recycling was collected, none of us bore any blame for increasing the amount of rubbish thrown away and the amount of raw products used.

And now we know that isn’t true at all. And that, I think, is a good thing. Because now we need to see ourselves as accountable for all the rubbish we use, whether it’s theoretically recyclable or not. That same ABC article cited an estimate from a European Union report that production of virgin plastic will account for 20 per cent of global oil consumption and 15 per cent of global greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. I invite you to collect all of the plastic that you discard in a single week and contemplate just how much plastic each of us are putting into the environment every year. In recent weeks I’ve been monitoring my own plastic use, and it’s appalling, even as I carry around my own water bottle and use reusable plastic containers to store food. I buy milk in plastic bottles, cheese in plastic sleeves, produce in plastic bags–and on and on and on.

It is an unpleasant truth that Judaism in the past did not have a particularly good track record when it comes to environmental advocacy. It is comforting to appreciate that this is true of just about all the world’s major religions, which mostly came about in eras when human beings usually had negligible impacts on the world around them even when they tried really hard. The good news is that, as Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan memorably noted about Judaism, “The past has a vote—not a veto.” It is possible to chart a new course, and Judaism has done just that in recent decades. Standing up for the environment takes us all the back to the second chapter of Genesis, in which God admonishes the first human to tend the garden in which he’s been placed. At the moment, we are doing the exact opposite of tending our garden. Another imperative to environmental activism comes through Judaism’s highest mitzvah: the saving of life. We see now that our lives are inextricably tied up with the health of the sea, the air and the land. So our highest calling is to save the earth, and our own lives with it. As I’ve said often, doing so will be difficult and will require much of us, but it is so important to do so. As the rabbis said, “It is not for us to complete the work, but we are not free to leave it to others.” Shabbat shalom!

Australia’s first Jewish same-sex wedding in a synagogue!

Okay–so this clearly isn’t a sermon, but it’s such a gorgeous moment recorded for history. (And the photo is from a renewal of vows, but still fits the theme.) L’chaim!

Making history: Australia’s first religious Jewish same-sex wedding

Making history: Australia’s first religious Jewish same-sex weddingWATCH: Ilan Buchman and Oscar Shub made history when they stood under the Chupah at Sydney’s Emanuel Synagogue on Wednesday. Dayenu Sydney Australian Marriage Equality Aleph Melbourne#MarriageEquality #YESvote LGBTQ@Facebook

Posted by Plus61J on Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Anzac Day 2018

This last Wednesday, I spent much of my day doing Anzac Day activities. No sleeping in for me! I didn’t get to a dawn service, but did go to the Torrens Parade Grounds at 9:30 for the march. This was only my second time at the march and my first time standing next to the dignitaries’ platform. That meant that I got to spend much of the two hours watching them. If you haven’t been situated here, I’ll tell you a bit about it: high-ranking representatives of the Army, Air Force and Navy were standing at attention on the platform as the veterans and their family members walked by. The governor Hieu Van Le and Adelaide lord mayor Martin Haesse stood as well. Marchers are required to face the platform, and I really enjoyed hearing even some elderly veterans bellowing at the top of their lungs, “15th Air Squadron…Eyes…Right!” There are so few World War II veterans left, and even fewer still able to walk the parade route by themselves. But for sure, those who can, do. I imagine these gentlemen, all well into their 90s, waiting each year for the opportunity put on their best suits, pin on their medals, and walk as erectly as possible down North Terrace and King William Street. I was very moved watching them march, but was also moved watching the governor watching them. I saw him wipe away tears numerous times during the morning as these elderly men passed by, but also as several dozen South Vietnamese veterans marched proudly in formation, smiling broadly at our governor. What a privilege to have this experience!

In the afternoon, I headed over to the Dunstan Playhouse for quite a different Anzac Day activity. Country Arts SA was staging a read-through of a new play Mewei 3027 by Glenn Shea. The theatre was pretty well packed out despite very little publicity other than an article in InDaily, which is how I found out about it. The play tells the story of a true but unlikely friendship between Roland Carter, a World War I digger from Ngarrindjeri country, and Leonhard Adam, a young German Jewish ethnologist. Carter was wounded in the shoulder and taken prisoner by the Germans early in 1918. Adam, who had been permitted to meet with soldiers from diverse ethnic backgrounds, began to interview Carter and learned a great deal about his language, his people, and his country on the shores of Lake Alexandrina. Over the months they spent together, they became friends. The play’s name comes from the Ngarrindjeri word for “soul” along with Carter’s prisoner number 3027.

When the Nazis rose to power in 1933, Leonhard Adam was stripped of his registrations and eventually fled to the UK in 1938. Labeled an enemy alien, he was shipped to Australia on the notorious Dunera in 1940. He lived out the remainder of his life in Australia, where he taught anthropology at the University of Melbourne. For his part, Roland Carter returned after the war to his home community of Raukkan, where he opened a movie house and dance hall. His daughter and other family members continue to live there, and the first read-through of the play took place in Raukkan a few days before the reading in Adelaide. Sadly, the two men never met again, although a beautiful letter of friendship from Carter to Adam was preserved and read out at the end of the play.

The day was a sobering reminder of the costs of war. I wondered at the stories locked inside the many thousands of veterans I saw march on Wednesday. How many watched friends die? How many displayed heroism in the face of absolute terror? How many shared their stories with their loved ones? How many have never spoken of what they witnessed? And also, How many formed unlikely friendships with people that they would never have met under other circumstances? But at what cost?

Early Friday afternoon, I spent an hour with 94-year-old Kitty Anderson. She showed me a photo of her first boyfriend John Asher. There they were as seven-year-olds on Kangaroo Island, arm-in-arm. Asher enlisted in the Australian navy and was one of only 21 soldiers killed during the Japanese submarine attack on Sydney Harbor in 1942. That photo of the two of them as children is the only picture Kitty has of him. Seventy-six years later, the loss still stings.

This week as we remember the many wars and conflicts that Australia has been a part of in the last one hundred years, we continue to pray for a time of peace—of shalom. I have often noted that the Hashkivenu prayer which calls on God to protect us with a sukkah of peace is impractical—a sukkah is the last place you’d want to be during an air raid. Shalom is more than simply the absence of war. We imagine a peace so great, so all-encompassing, that war is no longer conceivable. We are far from the vision. Let us continue to work for it. Shabbat shalom!

International Women’s Day

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, a day which is gaining increasing recognition around the world. Strangely enough, I first learned about International Women’s Day while studying for a year in Beijing. In 1984, this day wasn’t observed at all in the United States but was absolutely huge in China where, of course, there was a high level of systemic and cultural discrimination against women. This year’s Women’s Day packed quite a punch in the light of the #metoo campaign being waged around the world.

I was reminded of a program I participated in last winter which was sponsored by the Women’s Auxiliary of Ahmadiyya Islam. Ahmadiyya Muslims come almost entirely from Pakistan and India and believe that the messiah has already come. In short, kind of Messianic Jews, only Muslims. Their motto is “Love for all, hatred for none” and as a result, they run a multifaith program each year. Last year’s topic was the role of women in religion, and speakers from seven faith traditions shared our views. I was last.

I listened in to all the other speakers with more than a little cynicism. Each speaker talked about how progressive her faith group was when it came to the role of women. I was not convinced that Islam, or Sikhism, or even Buddhism had historically achieved equality of the sexes. It was then that I had a sudden revelation: I realised that the only reason why I was able to stand before this group as a woman rabbi was that Judaism had been through a reformation. It was a little more than 200 years ago that a group of male rabbis in Germany decided that the time had come to transform Judaism from a religion that had changed little in the last thousand years to one that mirrored the society in which it was practised. The early reformers introduced German—the spoken language of the land—into the service. They allowed men and women to sit together. They borrowed the concept of a sermon from their Christian neighbours, allowing the rabbis to speak on topics of current importance as well as on more traditional texts. They paved the way for later dramatic changes in Jewish life, including most significantly a far more public presence for Jewish women as rabbis, cantors, but also as active and involved members of congregations. Today at Beit Shalom, baby girls are welcomed into the community exactly the same as boys are. Bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies are identical. We are truly an egalitarian community.

That wasn’t the case for the whole of the Jewish world. Jews living in eastern Europe, north Africa and eastern Asia never saw a reform unfold. For them, Jewish practice continued as it always had been. Nor did the lives of Orthodox women and girls change significantly in western countries until just a few decades ago. I still regularly encounter women who grew up in Orthodox homes and never had the opportunity to attend Cheder. Their parents reckoned that since their only religious obligation would be to keep a kosher home, there was no need for them to learn to read Hebrew or study Torah. Their brothers went, and they stayed home. For many decades, only a small minority of Jews anywhere in the world enjoyed the benefits of Judaism’s reform. Now that’s all changed. Girls across much of the modern Jewish world are well educated, and there is a whole generation of modern Orthodox Jewish women who are out there making sure that girls learn as much as the boys.

But none of this would have happened without the Reform movement. Those rabbis of the early 19th century made it possible for the generations that followed to put every belief and practice of Judaism under the microscope. Sometimes the baby was thrown out with the bathwater, as happened in 1885 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania when the fifteen men who comprised the Central Conference of American Rabbis declared the following: “We hold that all such Mosaic and rabbinical laws as regulate diet, priestly purity, and dress originated in ages and under the influence of ideas entirely foreign to our present mental and spiritual state. They fail to impress the modern Jew with a spirit of priestly holiness; their observance in our days is apt rather to obstruct than to further modern spiritual elevation. And elsewhere: We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect neither a return to Palestine, nor a sacrificial worship under the sons of Aaron, nor the restoration of any of the laws concerning the Jewish state.” But that baby can always be rescued, and in 1999, the CCAR met once again in Pittsburgh—this time several thousand strong. Its members adamantly affirmed their support for the state of Israel and endorsed the idea that kashrut could be a way to elevate the act of eating.

Only two religious traditions have ever experience a reformation: Judaism and Christianity. Without reform, without renewal, change is slow or nearly impossible. We see that with the resistance from the Catholic church to very sensible changes that will keep children safe. We see it in the Muslim world when women’s rights are affirmed in theory but not always upheld in practice. And, sadly, we see it in the strange world of haredi Judaism, in which women are increasingly literally erased from view. Indeed, our present day sees the very real danger of decades of reforms for women rolled back—not only within our houses of worship, but in our working and family lives. Women in developed countries continue to struggle to achieve equality with men, while women in developing countries deal daily with huge economic and cultural disadvantages. Perhaps once a year for International Women’s Day is not often enough. We should be working each day for that time when all human beings can achieve their full potential regardless of their sex.

This week’s Torah portion is especially apt to the occasion. As work begins on the Tabernacle—the Israelites’ Temple in the desert—women join in the effort to create sacred objects of lasting beauty. It is the only instance in the Torah in which women are invited to work alongside men—to contribute their own unique gifts to the effort. I find it deeply meaningful that all Israelites who had talents to share were invited to be a part of this moment in the lives of the people. So may all women always have a place at the table, and may our voices ring out loud. Shabbat shalom!


The Daily PersianAdar 5778

Titillating news from the palace! The official spokesman for King Ahasuerus has reluctantly confirmed that the rumours are true: Queen Vashti has banished her king from the harem after learning of his ill-conceived affair with long-time harem manager Asha Farouz. The official also confirmed that Ms. Farouz is pregnant with the king’s child. Speculation has raged that King Ahasuerus facilitated Ms. Farouz’s recent transfer to the harem of the chief finance minister Haman. Were there such a thing as a corruption inquiry here in Shushan, one would surely be launched. Sources close to Ms. Farouz have revealed that the king has cut off the affair with her after learning of the pregnancy and so has ended any possibility for her little bundle of joy to make a claim on the throne. Shushan is abuzz with the anticipation that the king will soon be back on the market again.

These last months have not been easy ones for the king. His poll numbers have plummeted after the news broke of what is now commonly known as Shushangate. Shushan residents were appalled to learn that he had thrown a six month-long party that was so extravagant that it consumed the entire education, health, and infrastructure budget for the year. What really rankled the good citizens of Shushan was that they were not invited. Concerns were in no way eased when a shadowy benefactor named Haman the Agagite suddenly appeared to offer a loan on very reasonable terms. He insisted that the king present him with the plum appointment of the finance ministry as a token of the kings’ appreciation for Haman’s generosity. Many Shushan residents regard him with suspicion and worry that he’s up to no good. All of these various news items have been greeted with a sense of resignation by the good people of Shushan, who realise that they have little alternative other than to tolerate the king’s eccentricities.

There is no need to speculate about what has happened to Queen Vashti. Although she is clearly the victim in this unhappy affair, the king’s law is the law. She was told to clear out her desk and tossed out without getting to take any of her gowns. She has also signed a non-disclosure settlement with the king, and so this reporter sadly is unable to report on further details. Plans are just now taking shape for the king to search up a replacement. More news as this story develops!


For better and probably for worse, I am a Facebook user. I have a ridiculously large number of friends, including a few that I’ve never met and, embarrassingly, people I knew 30 years ago whom I don’t remember but who remember me. I have friends in Indonesia and Israel, but for the most part, about half of my friends live in Australia and the rest in the United States. On Thursday, there was a clear split between the two groups: Australian friends had painted their Facebook feeds rainbow colours and were crowing about the extraordinary vote in Parliament. The image of those four, barely visible MPs hunkered down on the “no” side of the House is now etched pretty indelibly on my brain. But the American, Israeli and even Indonesian side of my feed was all about Jerusalem.

Moshe Manakha, a proud Jewish leader living a humble life as an English teacher in the Spice Islands of Indonesia, posted, “To Trump who bravely recoqnises Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to his act of moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem: From the bottom of my heart I salute you.” My high school classmate Nigel Spier (yes, I do remember him!), living a modern Orthodox life in Florida, wrote, “I don’t need or want the least credible, most socially reprehensible, morally corrupt president ever to pronounce that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, only to exploit my people for the sake of the evangelical vote and to distract from his money laundering scandals. As the saying goes…”with friends like that…” For a bit more guidance, I looked to my rabbinical school classmate Sue Fendrick, who sometimes seems to spend all of her time posting and reposting on Facebook. She included this quote from Fordham School of Law professor Jed Shugarman: “Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel today is not accidental timing. It is a political act to stabilize the Christian evangelical base in the middle of disastrous Russia conspiracy news (especially Flynn and Deutsche Bank), and also to bolster Roy Moore. It is a pure wag-the-dog, but worse: create a foreign policy crisis to distract, but also to mobilize religious zealotry.”

Outside of Facebook, the commentaries raged as well. On ABC’s Breakfast program, Palestinian representative Mustafa Barghouti declared that Trump should not have recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, because it was the capital of Palestine. His wording was extremely unhelpful, but explained in a few words why Trump’s move was so incendiary. Long-time Middle East observer Thomas Friedman wrote a column for The New York Times entitled “Trump, Israel, and the Art of the Giveaway”–riffing on Donald Trump’s huge bestseller The Art of the Deal. Friedman wrote that never had a world leader given away so much in return for so little. He wrote, “Every Israeli government since its founding has craved United States recognition of Jerusalem as its capital. And every United States government has refrained from doing that, arguing that such a recognition should come only in the wake of an agreed final status peace accord between Israelis and Palestinians — until now. Today, Trump just gave it away — for free. Such a deal! Why in the world would you just give this away for free and not even use it as a lever to advance the prospect of an Israeli-Palestinian deal?” Friedman went on to discuss how Trump should have first demanded of the Israelis that they stop building settlements outside of the two areas in the West Bank already generally understood to be land that will be ceded to Israel in a final peace deal. After all, the more Jewish settlements are built in Palestinian areas of the West Bank, the further away we drift from a two-state solution. Mustafa Barghouti noted that the United States can no longer claim to be an impartial mediator working towards a two-state solution. President Trump’s unilateral and unprovoked endorsement of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital takes America out of the bargaining process, and that is really a shame. Who else can step in who will take act with impartiality towards Israel but also give the Palestinians a fair deal?

Of course Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, as anyone who has visited the country knows. It has been the capital of Israel since 1948. The Knesset was built in Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv. Foreign embassies are located in Tel Aviv, but most countries have a residence for their ambassadors in Jerusalem to save them the constant commute. And of course for the last 69 years, and especially since 1967, subsequent Israeli governments have lobbied the international community to recognise the reality. So you would expect me to rejoice at this endorsement.

But I do not. I worry, along with my friends living in Israel, that the American announcement may lead to renewed violence and terrorist attacks in Israel and beyond. Our gates are closed today for just this reason. But yielding to threats of terrorism is not a good enough reason. My greatest concern is that President Trump’s announcement plays directly into the hands of Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who is himself currently the target of a number of very serious corruption charges. I know that Mr. Netanyahu has a lot of fans, but I am not one of them. I fear that his government, which is now in its ninth year, is coming perilously close through a variety of policies towards passing the point of no return both for the peace process and for the future of Israel as a democracy. Netanyahu does need the United States to obey its every whim and command. It needs the United States to look at the challenges facing Israel as well as the Palestinians and provide much-needed balance. That no longer appears possible.

If you’ve been coming to Beit Shalom for a while, you’ll know that I almost never speak about Israel. The topic divides Jews in a way that no other issue does, and for me Shabbat is not about division. Today I am seeking to state my opinion so that no one will make assumptions about my views because I am a rabbi and care about Israel. In Judaism we have a concept called Shalom Bayit–peace in the home. The idea is that family harmony is so important that nearly any concession is acceptable in the cause of peace. I would argue that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is even more precious because it touches so many lives. I see the events of this last week as an obstacle to that peace, and I am deeply concerned. May we all have a peaceful Shabbat, and the same for those we love in Israel.

Panorama of Jerusalem, Israel. View from the Mount of Olives.

The Same Sex Marriage Survey

by Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky


It’s been a little over a week since we heard the announcement of the result of the Same Sex Marriage Survey. As several observers have noted, the results demonstrated exactly the same level of support for same sex marriage as polls have been showing over the last couple of years. We now look to the Parliament to finally legislate the same access to marriage to same-sex couples as is offered to heterosexual couples. Hopefully moderate voices will prevail and the conservatives who are threatening to employ every dirty trick to delay the inevitable will be shouted down. The Moetzah–the Council of Progressive Rabbis, which was meeting when the postal survey results were announced, issued a statement noting that they rejoiced at the result and looked forward to the legislation that would soon follow. I missed that meeting, but feel exactly the same way.

I went along last Wednesday to the gathering organised by the Yes campaign in Hindmarsh Square and awaited the results along with hundreds of others. It was a wet, windy and cold morning, and we all huddled under umbrellas as we watched Australia’s chief statistician slowly working his way through his statement. When he finally came to the main point: that nearly 62% of those who had cast votes had supported same sex marriage, there was a loud cheer from the crowd. But looking around in the minutes that followed, I was struck by how few people continued to smile. Most faces were sombre. A woman near me quietly wept. A friend of mine posted on Facebook how devastating it was to her to see that 38% of Australians had voted against equal rights for same sex couples. Other friends of mine shared how painful these recent months have been as they have felt all of Australia judging their long-term relationship to determine if it was worthy of recognition. It is the opposite of helpful that their own Christian denomination, which is liberal in many other realms, has no pathway for a religious affirmation of their love for each other.

I am so thankful that, for the most part, this has not been the case in the Australian Jewish community. Of course, both the Union for Progressive Judaism and the Moetzah were proactive in reminding our members that we have been on record for some time supporting marriage equality. The Moetzah has permitted its members to officiate at same-sex commitment ceremonies for nearly ten years, and some of us are champing at the bit for the opportunity to perform same-sex marriages that are legally recognised.

But the general endorsement for same-sex marriage has come from far beyond the ranks of Progressive Jews. The Orthodox Rabbinical Council of Victoria—the RCV–issued a statement in early September calling on its adherents to vote no in the postal survey. Within 24 hours, a backlash began. Seven rabbis, including the president of the RCV, distanced themselves from the statement and made it clear that the statement had been adopted without everyone’s endorsement. Then the Executive Council of Australian Jewry—the peak body of Australian Jewish organisations—declared that the Rabbinical Council had acted in an alarmist fashion. ECAJ president Anton Block said, “The RCV statement was issued without proper thought or understanding of the way Australia’s Constitution and legal system work”, Mr Block said. “Religious marriages are outside the scope of the Marriage Act, which relates only to civil marriages. It is alarmist to suggest otherwise, and wrong for the RCV to use its authority in religious matters in this way. All people are entitled to have their dignity respected, regardless of their ethnicity, religious affiliations and beliefs, sexual orientation, gender, or any disability.”

Ultimately, The Australian Jewish News ran a front-page story about the whole affair, with the headline “Same-sex Marriage statement rocks rabbinate” after Rabbi Ralph Genende, one of the best-known of Melbourne’s Orthodox rabbis, resigned from the Rabbinical Council to protest the statement. RCV president Daniel Rubin was quoted as saying, The statement has caused immense anger and pain and has alienated many who already feel isolated within the community. I deeply regret the hurt that has been caused and as president of the organisation I sincerely apologise for this.”

It is very gratifying to see what a transformation has taken place around this issue within the larger Jewish community. Who could ever imagined that many within Australia’s Orthodox Jewish world would condemn a statement seen as divisive and hurtful?! I wanted to share a bit of the text of the original statement with you, but when I visited the RCV’s Facebook page, I discovered the statement itself was nowhere to be seen.

Of course, there is so much work still to be done. I acknowledge that these recent months have seen quite a lot of hurt inflicted on members of the LGBTQ community, and I am sorry. I acknowledge that the postal survey is only one step on a journey that has already been going on for twenty years. I’d like to share what my friend Kathy Kaplan posted on her own Facebook page. It speaks powerfully to me, and hopefully will to you too:

To my LGBTQI friends … I’m sorry.
I’m sorry the validity of your relationships was publicly debated.
I’m sorry you were the target of hateful advertising.
I’m sorry your families were attacked.
I’m sorry your abilities as parents was questioned.
I’m sorry you had to go through the experience of ticking a box in an attempt to try and secure your equal rights.
I’m sorry so many politicians didn’t do their jobs to ensure the rights of all Australians are upheld.
I’m sorry some Australians voted for those politicians.
I’m sorry… you deserved better.
You deserve better.


Shabbat shalom!

Searching for an Ethical Phone


by Rabbi Shoshana Kaminsky

In my handbag is my trusty Sony Experia phone. It is small, lightweight, and has served me well over the last three years. It is also obsolete and rapidly becoming unusable. It has a tiny amount of internal storage and so no longer has space to update its software. It is prone to freezing up, even when phone calls roll in. I need to replace it.

This is not a difficult task to accomplish. There are dozens of different brands on the market–especially if you’re prepared to shop outside of Australia. Phones are readily available within my budget of $300 or less that will take fabulous photos, navigate me to my destination, allow me to check and send emails, and even make and receive phone calls.

However, shopping for a phone becomes far more complicated when I attach ethical conditions to my purchase. My demands at first glance would not appear to me particularly tough: I’d like to own a phone that I know was produced without inhumane labour practices. It’s that simple. And it has proven virtually impossible to accomplish.

I only buy fair trade coffee, and I try to purchase chocolate from fair trade or UTZ certified manufacturers as often as possible. It can be onerous for coffee and chocolate producers to trace their production line all the way back to the farm, but it’s by no means impossible. Coffee contains one ingredient. Chocolate contains a few, but only the cocoa beans tend to be sourced from plantations where the workers may be mistreated. But mobile phones contain dozens of components, and those components are supplied by dozens of different manufacturers. Tracing the ethicality of each and every component is incredibly challenging, and phone companies are not exactly falling over each other to make it easier. The vast majority of consumers are just not asking the questions. If we can have cool new phones with lots of bells and whistles for a remarkably affordable price, we tend to stay silent.

Mobile phones are the most ethically fraught possessions we own. They contain rare earth minerals which are, well, rare. It’s been a number of years since journalists revealed that these minerals were being dug out by labourers in the Congo with their bare hands. They’re still digging, often 12 hours each day for a daily wage of perhaps $5. Australia has rare earth minerals too, but that’s not where mobile phone companies are sourcing them. With little ethical scrutiny directed their way, these companies are unlikely to change their suppliers any time soon.

Mobile phones from all producers are overwhelmingly assembled by one enormous subcontractor: Foxconn. The company has dozens of factories in poorer countries all over the world. At least 1.3 million Chinese are employed by their twelve factories in China. Brian Merchant managed to sneak in to Foxconn’s largest plant and has recently published the results of his investigation in the book The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone. He interviewed workers regularly putting in 12 hours shifts and living in company dormitory rooms that slept eight people. Wages are low, working conditions are stressful and suicide, sadly, is very common. Chances are excellent that your phone was assembled here or in a similar plant. Overwork is the industry standard. The vice president of phone manufacturer Xiaomi was asked about working hours and replied, “Our company working hours are 9.30 in the morning to 9.30 in the evening, and that’s just the regular working hours, plus one hour for lunch. But show up in our office here at 11pm and you’ll see that 80% of the people are still around often because they’re working on something that they feel is so important that they need to spend extra time on it.”

One phone company, Fairphone, has attempted to produce a 100% ethical phone. It has one phone, which is priced at 580 euros. It is currently unavailable. Other phones are graded from C to F for their ethical records, but the truth is that this information is just really difficult to obtain. These producers know they have us over a barrel. Ten years ago, none of owned a smartphone. Now, none of us could imagine getting by without one. So we just don’t ask questions or even display much curiosity about one of the most important things we own.

In the end, I deputised my younger son and official geek Nadav to investigate. He learned that many companies offer phone recycling services–not because they’re necessarily interested in sustainability but because it’s much easier and cheaper to extract rare earth minerals from old phones rather than obtaining new supplies. (My colleague Rabbi Jonathan Keren-Black has chimed in to suggest that companies encouraging recycling also so that they can take those phones out of circulation and prevent them from being reconditioned and sold.) Nadav discovered a company Qualcomm that is one producer of the CPUs that are at the heart of our phones. Qualcomm has an entire area of its website dedicated to issues of sustainability and governance. I can’t guarantee they’re abiding by these claims, but at least they’re going through the motions. So too with the tech giant Lenovo, whose website promises us that they are looking after their employees and trying to be good corporate citizens. With very little additional information to go on, I ordered a Lenovo phone with a Qualcomm CPU. Following my son’s sage advice, I also tried to buy a phone with a powerful CPU, a lot of RAM and a lot of storage so that itt would last for as long as possible. I am very much hoping that I won’t have to draw on further precious resources any time soon. Of course, in this day and age, five years is a long time. I’m shooting for ten.

This week’s Torah portion includes one of my very favourite passages in the whole Torah. An outraged Abraham challenges God’s decision to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah, shouting, “Should not the judge of all the world act justly?!” From his righteous anger comes my conviction that we Jews have a proud heritage of standing up for what is right. It is not easy to do, and at times it seems almost impossible to do the right thing. But I don’t feel that excuses us. We must continue to try in all areas of our lives. Including our smartphones. Shabbat shalom!

Kol Nidre Sermon 2017

I have been busier professionally over the last year than I’ve ever been. Life at Beit Shalom has just hummed along, with a lovely succession of b’nai mitzvah, baby namings and other celebrations, along with our Cheder, teaching Torah, and visiting members who are ill. The main reason for my increased level of busy-ness has been the departure of the rabbi of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation. I am now for all intents and purposes the only rabbi left in South Australia. I get a lot of calls and requests. A lot. I have started saying no much more often, but there are still plenty of invitations that I feel I must accept.

Some weeks it seems like I just fly from one commitment to the next to the next.

Back in early August I had a particularly difficult three-day stretch. On Sunday morning, I tutored my bat mitzvah students and taught Cheder. Then I jumped in the car and drove down to Flinders University to be part of the annual multifaith day sponsored by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Women’s Auxiliary. Women representing seven religious faith traditions spoke. Most women remained well within the suggested fifteen minute time limit, but one speaker talked for a full 35 minutes. I was the very last speaker and so felt it best to limit my remarks five minutes at the end of what had turned into a 2 1/2 hour program. It was a freezing cold and very wet day, and I was pretty grumpy by the time I got home.

The following day I spent four hours at Parliament House at a roundtable for religious leaders to discuss the issue of violence against women. If domestic violence were treated and funded as proportionately as terrorism in Australia, I believe there would be a huge impact. In the meantime, making sure that religious leaders in South Australia are well informed on the issue and know what resources are available is critical and will hopefully make a difference. By the end of the four-hours, the conveners were already discussing what would
happen when we met again. Yet another thing to squeeze into the diary.

The day after that I hosted a meeting of the Spiritual Care Diversity Network at the synagogue. This began as an initiative sponsored by the Christian group Chaplaincy Services of South Australia to explore what spiritual care might look like if non-Christians were thoroughly integrated into the system. I applaud this project, but had become frustrated by how slow-moving and time-consuming it had become. That evening’s meeting was the third, with very little to show for it. My hope was that by the end of the evening, we’d have some clear and simple goals and clear and simple ways to achieve them.

Eight of us gathered for a shared vegetarian dinner: three Muslims, a Hindu, a Buddhist, and woman from the Kaurna nation. At sunset, the three Muslims headed off to a corner of the Rose Harrison Hall to pray. I’m not sure that’s ever happened in our building before. In the meantime, the Buddhist monk and Kaurna woman engaged in an intense whispered conversation. Afterwards, a conversation started up in which it was proposed that we focus on building relationships among each other first before we formulated any firm plans or proposals. The Muslim woman shared about some really wonderful initiatives she’d been a part of that had emerged from partnerships between the Muslim and Indigenous communities. The Kaurna woman offered to spend an evening speaking about her spiritual journey and her discoveries along the way. I thought about the upcoming High Holy Days and all the other things I had on my plate at the moment and considered backing out of the whole project. Could I find someone else from the Jewish community to take my place? What a bother that I was the only one with an extensive background in institutional chaplaincy work and an understandings of the systemic challenges.

Yom Kippur Sermon 2017

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. Our festival prayers speak of the season of our freedom—Pesach, the season for giving the Torah—Shavuot, and the season of our rejoicing—Sukkot. For rabbis, this time of year is וניתביתכ ןמז the season of our writing. I
attend to my usual activities, but in the quiet moments and the times when I’m caught up in busy work like cooking and housework, I’m thinking about writing. What are the ideas, the concerns, and the hopes, the aspirations that have particularly grabbed me this year? If I have only a few opportunities to share what is deepest in my heart, how should I use them? Moreoever, knowing that what I say in my sermons will shape the High Holy Days, what experience am I aiming to create? Do I want to leave people inspired or impassioned, hopeful or fretful, looking forward or looking back or some combination of all of these? So many different considerations to weigh and measure!
Much of what is said on Yom Kippur morning is driven by the messages of the texts we read. The passage from Deuteronomy—especially with the verses added in when the day falls on Shabbat—moves through many different emotional levels in a short space. It opens with the whole body of the Jewish people standing at attention before an aged Moses. Everyone present knows that these are among the very last words he will ever utter. He speaks not only to them but apparently to all future generations; the rabbis understood that every Jew who would ever be born or convert was standing that day either in body or spirit. Moses warns them, as he already has done on so many other occasions, that they risk dire consequences should they abandon their faith in God. Through a few tense verses, Moses sends the people into imaginary exile, far from their promised land, and then brings them back again through God’s compassion. He reassures them that the central teachings of Judaism are accessible—as close as their mouths and their hearts. And then comes the core of the Torah reading: “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life ” Every day, sometimes multiple times in a day, we can decide whether we will embrace the blessings or dwell on the curses. When we encounter adversity, will we choose to allow those events to close us down? Or will we choose life and remain open to all that it offers us, even with the obstacles and setbacks? As we pivot through this day of Yom Kippur, which way will we turn?
And then along comes the haftarah reading which lifts us out of our seats and gives us all a good shake. I have always wondered why the ancient rabbis chose this particular passage from Deutero Isaiah to be read out at precisely that time of the day when our hunger is really starting to bite. Its powerful message is that fasting is only an empty gesture unless we back it up by doing what we can to ease the misery of the most vulnerable in our midst and work to build a more just world. It is an affirmation that Yom Kippur is only partially about looking within our own souls and thinking about how we can be better human beings. It is also about looking beyond ourselves to a broken world and thinking what we can do to make a little bit better.
There is a third Yom Kippur text—not one from the Tanakh but one that is such an iconic part of our liturgy that it may as well be biblical in origin. It is the U’netaneh Tokef. Rabbi and scholar Reuven Hammer writes that although there are legends about how and when the prayer was written, its author remains unknown. The prayer was written first for use on Rosh Hashanah, known by the rabbis as ןידה םוי
The Day of Judgement. But of course it is just as effective on Yom Kippur—the day that begins with the solemnity of Kol Nidre and ends with a service named for the locking of the gates at its end. The words “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed” are inextricably linked with the High Holy Days for many of us. Leonard Cohen masterfully captured the capriciousness of Unetaneh Tokef in his song “Who by Fire,” which opens with these words: And who by fire, who by water, Who in the sunshine, who in the night time, Who by high ordeal, who by common trial, Who in your merry merry month of May, Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?
The high point of Unetaneh Tokef comes not with the grim list of all the bad things that might happen in the year ahead, but in the refrain: But teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah avert the severity of the decree. And in these words I think we have a further hint of how we should direct our hearts on Yom Kippur.
Tefilah is prayer. Curiously, the verb to pray in Hebrew l’hitpalel is a reflexive verb, implying that prayer is an internal action that takes place within ourselves. This may be correct grammatically, but that’s not how most of us understand prayer. We see prayer as that action that most directly connects us with God. On Yom Kippur, we seek to rebuild broken connections to God or strengthen the bonds that already exist. This day is about nourishing our souls through meaningful relation with the divine, however we understand it. Yom Kippur is more full of prayer than any other day of the year. We are urged to use this time of prayer wisely.
Yom Kippur Sermon
Teshuvah is usually translated as repentance but is closer in meaning to “return.” Our charming children’s machzor provides the image of a Yom Kippur mirror that we hold up to look unflinchingly at ourselves. But teshuvah is meaningless unless we include those whom we have hurt. As the rabbis of the Talmud say, “Yom Kippur does not atone for sins between one person and another until one has sought forgiveness from the one who has been hurt.” We tend to hurt those who are closest to us but may also lash out against those who mistakenly cross our paths on a bad day. In today’s world, where we are networked in with so many but often truly connected to just a few, it’s possible to cause great hurt and injury to those we have never even met. Yom Kippur calls us to bring healing to our relationships both close and distant.
Finally comes tzedakah. We are accustomed to understanding tzedakah as “charity,” but the actual meaning of the word is “justice.” Tzedakah is one means by which we strive to create balance in a world dominated by inequality. It is a mitzvah, and no one is exempt, no matter how poor. Poor people are expected to give as much as they can afford, and so too for the wealthy. It is effectively a voluntary system to redistribute income that long predates taxes.
It is rare that we give tzedakah to assist someone we know. A few of us may be fortunate enough to offer meaningful help to friends in need, whether that means assisting with food and other help when times get tough or even finding employment to help our acquaintances make a new start. But just about all the monetary donations we make go to complete strangers, sometimes on the opposite ends of the earth. Our Beit Shalom kids bring gold coins to Cheder each week. At the end of each term I invite them to nominate organisations they’d like us to support, and then they vote on where to send the money. They take this process very seriously, and I’m touched to see how much of an impact they believe our modest $50 donations will have. Of course one $50 donation may not make too much of a difference. But if one donation inspires another and another and another, who knows what might be possible?
Tefilah points us to God, teshuvah seeks to restore our relationships with those in our lives and tzedakah takes us far beyond ourselves to consider the whole world.
I ponder whether the message of Yom Kippur is to look inwards or to gaze far beyond ourselves, and I see the answer is YES. It is a big ask for one day. Thank goodness we have the whole year–indeed all our lives–to do both this inner and outer work. We cannot complete the task today, but today we can turn our hearts–towards a good life for ourselves, for those we love, and for the millions upon millions beyond our gaze whose lives can be bettered in so many ways. A reflection on Unetaneh Tokef in the machzor On Wings of Awe begins: “When we really begin a new year it is decided, And when we actually repent it is determined: who shall be truly alive and who shall merely exist.” Today, let us resolve to live fully and well. May we and the whole world be sealed for a year of joy and peace, good health and security. Together may we celebrate a year full of living. Amen!
Yom Kippur Sermon