A Pastoral Letter Condemning Antisemitism

ELCA Clergy throughout the region composed and signed a joint letter condemning antisemitism. We printed it in our bulletin on March 26, 2017. I drafted the initial letter. My colleagues (including a Jewish Rabbi) refined the language.

In 1994, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) pledged “to oppose the deadly working of [antisemitism], both within our own circles and in the society around us” (Declaration of ELCA to Jewish Community). Now that our Jewish neighbors have once again become the victims of antisemitic threats and vandalism, we are instructed by our Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, the Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton, “to speak out, to reach out, to show up, and to root out this deadly bigotry” (Letter to Pastors, dated February 22, 2017).

As Lutheran Christians, we confess our own history of antisemitism. We are implicated in the history of anti-Judaism spanning the history of the Christian faith, and in the memory and heritage of Martin Luther and his “anti-Judaic diatribes and the violent recommendations of his later writings” (Declaration of ELCA to Jewish Community). It is in this spirit of truth telling that we acknowledge our truth while, at the same time, point to the wider truth of God’s love for all of God’s people. The violent invectives of our past should not be the reality of the present or our future. We are inspired by our Christian faith in a God who becomes incarnate and moves closer to us to save us, despite our flaws and sin, and thus free us to move closer to others in fellowship and solidarity. As Christians, we are called to be “ambassadors of hope in the face of despair” (letter dated February 22, 2017) as a faithful response to the love of God in Jesus and to our call to love all our neighbors.

Therefore, we, the undersigned pastors of Lutheran churches of the ELCA, serving or supporting congregations in Bergen, Essex, Morris, Passaic, and Rockland counties, condemn antisemitism in the strongest possible terms. No Jewish person, institution, house of worship, or cemetery should be threatened with hate or violence. Bomb threats directed at over 100 Jewish Community Centers and Day Schools (including Tenafly and Paramus) and the vandalism at Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Rochester are deplorable acts. The rise in the use of swastikas and other Nazi imagery is abhorrent. Our condemnation of this violence and all antisemitic speech, threats, and actions is unequivocal. We will continue to speak out and confront the evil of antisemitism in our communities. We will stand alongside our Jewish neighbors, institutions, and places of worship. We call upon our elected local, state, and national leaders to repudiate all expressions and acts of antisemitism. We will continue “to work for the end of systemic racism and discrimination” so “all people in our communities, regardless of race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity…may flourish” (A Pastoral Post Election Letter from Northern NJ Clergy, dated November 23, 2016).

Signed:

The Rev. Wendy Abrahamson, Pompton Plains
The Rev. Hayley Bang, Paramus
The Rev. Arnd Braun-Storck, Elizabeth
The Rev. Carol Brighton, Ramsey
Deacon Abby Ferjak, Ridgewood
The Rev. Julie Haspel, Oakland
The Rev. Peggy Hayes, Dumont
The Rev. John Holliday, Old Tappan
The Rev. Lisa Holliday, New Milford
The Rev. Michael Linderman, Ramsey
The Rev. Jenny McLellan, Allendale
The Rev. Jeff Miller, Clifton
Vicar Paul Miller, Ramsey
The Rev. Will Moser, Montclair
The Rev. Robert Mountenay, Wayne
The Rev. Peggy Niederer, Teaneck
The Rev. Scott Schantzenbach, Oxford
The Rev. Joseph Schattauer Paillé, Wyckoff
The Rev. Wes Smith, Saddle River
The Rev. Roger Spencer, North Haledon
The Rev. Beate Storck, Tenafly
The Rev. Marc A. Stutzel, Woodcliff Lake
The Rev. Stephen Sweet, River Edge
The Rev. Ignaki Unzaga, Glen Rock
The Rev. J. Lena Warren, Pearl River, NY

Letter to the Emerson School Board

March 6, 2017

School Board of Emerson
Emerson Board of Education Office
133 Main Street
Emerson NJ, 07630

Dear Emerson School Board Members,

I am a parent of two young sons. My oldest will shortly begin his journey through Emerson schools. One month ago, I was in the gym at Memorial, signing him up for Kindergarten. When my family and I were looking for a home in Northern New Jersey, having access to a high quality education was important to us. We are excited to be living in Emerson and participating in Emerson’s schools.

I am writing to voice my support for the district policy (5756) regarding transgender students adopted by Emerson in June 2016. As a person of faith, I believe everyone is made in God’s image. People of faith are called to support all students, regardless of gender, race, class, social background, and sexual orientation. We have a vested interest in providing the best education to all students. A student cannot utilize the amazing educational opportunities available to them if they are not embraced for who they are.

I look forward to my children growing up in a school district that proactively affirms and supports transgender students. I want my kids to grow up in an environment where diversity is welcomed. A diverse school environment might make them uncomfortable when they encounter new ideas, experiences, and people. But a welcoming and inclusive school district will help turn discomfort into curiosity, conversations, and new friendships.

In light of the recent changes to the guidance about transgender students provided by the US Board of Education, I invite the Emerson Board of Education to continue its current policy. By supporting transgender students, the Emerson Board of Education supports all students.

Sincerely,

I wrote this letter in support of students. If you agree with this movement in civil rights, celebrate school districts who get it.

#IStandWithTheJCC Rally

On Friday, March 3, I might have been the only Christian clergy (I didn’t see other collars) at a rally against Anti-Semitism. Over 100 bomb threats against JCCs and Jewish Day schools have occurred in the last few months. At least two Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated. Nazi symbols are being spray painted and carved on church doors. The rally yesterday took place at the JCC on the Palisades and was publicized the evening before. I’m glad I was able to show up and be present. There’s much more to do.

#StandwithGrimm: A Brief Before the US Supreme Court

There is a case before the US Supreme Court pitting a transgender youth against their school district. The youth wants to use the restroom that matches their gender identity. The school district is saying no. A “friend of the court” brief was filed on behalf of over 1800 religious leaders supporting the youth. I’m on page 100 in the appendix of names. Gavin should be allowed to use the restroom of that matches his gender identity.

Save the ACA: In the Background

On February 25, the family and I attended a local SAVE THE ACA rally at the Bergen County Court House. We didn’t bring a sign but I did wear my collar. K has a nice image of all the signs. Several people in my community rely on the ACA for medical care. 50,000 people in Bergen County will lose their health insurance if the ACA is repealed and not replaced with something that has similar coverage. My faith compels me to desire and do what I can so all have health insurance. I’m in the background of a few of these shots. Next time, I’ll make a sign.

A Pastoral Post Election Letter

ELCA Clergy throughout the region composed and signed a joint letter condemning hate. We shared to our congregations in November 2016. The Rev. Michael Linderman composed the letter. His colleagues (including me) refined the language.

Dear friends in Christ,

In the days following this very presidential election, we are saddened by reports of increased vandalism, threats, and intimidation, some of an explicitly racist nature, throughout the country. Several news outlets, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, have reported a surge in such incidents, which have been directed mainly at Muslims, Jews, black and Latino people. The FBI recently reported that such incidents have been on the rise already in 2015, and that attacks on Muslims have seen the sharpest increase in frequency.

As Christian leaders, we find this both reprehensible and unacceptable. We are inspired by our Christian faith in a God who becomes incarnate and moves closer to us to save us, despite our flaws and sin, and thus frees us to move closer to others in fellowship and solidarity. We appreciate the support of our Synodical Bishop, The Rev. Tracie Bartholomew, who has instructed us that, “[r]egardless of who you or your parishioners voted for, we all must denounce this behavior. As the body of Christ, we are called to stand with those whom God loves and claims as God’s own cherished children…. We are charged to eradicate racism in all its forms, welcome the refugee and immigrant, and work for justice and peace in all the earth. There is no place for bigotry in our church.” (letter dated Nov. 14, 2016)

Thus we, the undersigned pastors of Lutheran churches of the ELCA, serving or supporting congregations in Bergen, Passaic, and Essex counties, want to assure all people in our communities, regardless of race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity, that we will seek to preserve and protect their rights and dignity, and promise to work for the end of systemic racism and discrimination. All people, but especially those who feel powerless or the targets of bigotry or scapegoating, should be treated fairly and with human decency, and as an enlightened community, we should all strive to address their needs so that together, we all may flourish.

Signed:
The Rev. Wendy Abrahamson, Wayne
The Rev. Hayley Bang, Paramus
The Rev. Bruce Bassett, Glen Rock
The Rev. Arnd Braun-Storck, Elizabeth
Chaplain Abby Ferjak, Ridgewood
The Rev. Maristella Freiburg, Newark
The Rev. Peggy Hayes, Dumont
The Rev. Julie Haspel, Oakland
The Rev. Lisa Holliday, New Milford
The Rev. Michael Linderman, Ramsey
The Rev. Jenny McLellan, Allendale
The Rev. Will Moser, Montclair
The Rev. Peggy Niederer, Wyckoff
The Rev. Scott Schantzenbach, Oxford
The Rev. Beate Storck, Tenefly
The Rev. Marc Stutzel, Woodcliff Lake
The Rev. Steven Sweet, River Edge
The Rev. Ignaki Unzaga, Passaic

In the News: Pascack Valley Regional High School District reintroduces transgender policy

This is a copy of a news article I appeared in on April 4, 2016. G (18 months old) and I are in the photo and appeared on the cover of The Record. Article by Andrew Wyrich. Photo by Amy Newman.

The Pascack Valley Regional High School District Board of Education voted Monday afternoon to reintroduce a policy that school officials say will protect the rights of transgender students, a proposal that had stoked strong emotions from people on both sides of the issue in recent weeks.

The policy would allow students to use restrooms and locker rooms based on their gender identity or to have increased privacy in some cases, among other provisions. While at least a dozen North Jersey districts have adopted similar policies over the past year with little public attention, the Pascack Valley proposal has come under scrutiny in recent weeks amid a larger national debate over accommodations for transgender people.

The Pascack Valley board had been prepared to take a final vote on the policy Feb. 22 but tabled it when some parents opposed it. Last week, when school officials held an informational meeting for parents, a conservative Christian group said in an email to the district that it might take legal action if the policy is adopted.

On Monday, the board introduced the policy again in a 7-1 vote with one abstention at Pascack Valley High School in Hillsdale. Afterward, a 2003 graduate of Pascack Valley High School, Hannah Simpson, held a forum attended by a small group of people to discuss her own experiences as a transgender person.

The board meeting, which began at 4 p.m., was attended by more than 50 people, including a large contingent of students who favored the policy. The district comprises two high schools, Pascack Valley and Pascack Hills, and serves students from Hillsdale, Montvale, River Vale and Woodcliff Lake. The board is expected to take a final vote on the proposal at next week’s meeting, scheduled for Monday night.

Two parents spoke against the policy in the public portion of the meeting. One woman said she was speaking for students who are afraid to come out against it. Another parent, Sam Girts, of Montvale, said that “this policy seems to disregard biology.”

Marc A. Stutzel, pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Woodcliff Lake, voiced his support for the proposal. “God sees the dignity inside each person,” he said adding that the proposed policy “sees that dignity that all students have.”

A Pascack Hills student, Jonathan Levin of Woodcliff Lake, said the policy “achieves the goals of our innovative district. I can tell you as a student it would be foolish to vote against it. … We cannot afford to live in the past.”

Several transgender students also spoke, with one saying the policy would be “incredibly helpful and incredibly meaningful” and “validated” the transition of students who are transgender.

Jeffrey Steinfeld, the school board president, said the policy was “one of the most important” discussed in his 13 years as a board member. Aaron Potenza, director of programs at Garden State Equality, and Joshua Cohen, regional director of the Anti-De­fam­a­tion League, both spoke in favor of the proposal.

Joseph Blundo, the only school board member to vote against introducing the policy, said he considered himself a liberal and a civil rights activist but was opposed to the policy’s provisions regarding bathrooms and locker rooms. “This is just about my belief that a 13- or 14-year-old should not be put in that position,” he said.

Board member Alfred Murphy, who abstained from voting, said he had “lost a lot of sleep” over the policy and was unsure how to vote because he did not “want to impose the law on the rest of the community” and did not want to oppose state law, which includes protections for people who are transgender.

Before the vote, Murphy said he was concerned about the privacy of students who might feel uncomfortable in a locker room or bathroom next to a transgender student. Superintendent P. Erik Gundersen responded that the school already has a policy in place where students who are uncomfortable in situations for any reason can be given alternative options.

“It’s a procedure we follow to this day, with or without a transgender policy in place,” Gundersen said.

Transgender policies similar to the one considered by Pascack Valley have been adopted this year by East Rutherford, North Arlington, Tenafly and Westwood. Bogota, Carlstadt, Clifton, Harrington Park, Mahwah, Pequannock, Upper Saddle River and Woodland Park previously adopted policies.

The Pascack Valley proposal appeared to be moving forward quietly until the Feb. 22 board meeting. Then, last week, the Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian legal aid group that defended Kim Davis when she refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses in Kentucky last year, sent a letter to school board members threatening legal action if they voted to adopt the policy.

Some parents have expressed concerns about privacy issues for students who are not transgender and about a provision of the policy that would prohibit the schools from notifying them about a student’s gender identity without the student’s permission.

Simpson told the school board Monday that adopting the policy would be “empowering and protecting students” who may not have the support of their families.

“There have been students who stood on this very stage … who did not have that family support and are suffering the consequences of that, unfortunately,” Simpson said.

She later held a forum at the Hillsdale Ambulance Corps building where a small group listened to her discuss her struggles as a young person. When someone suggested that as society evolves, it won’t be an issue in 15 or 20 years, she responded, “That’s beautiful for the people 15 or 20 years from now.” She added that it’s important to put a policy in place to protect transgender children who are now in school, a protection she said she had not had.

In the News: Passing the peace

This is a copy of a news article I appeared in on December 18, 2015. (see page 6). My colleagues and friends from the Upper Pascack Interfaith Clergy Team. Article in the Jewish Standard. Article by Joanne Palmer. Photo by Antony Morales.

More news about the event can be found from PIX11 here (includes a video with me) and Daily Voice: Pascack Valley.

Glass half full or half empty? Full-on war of civilizations or a chance for unlikely allies to come together? Hope or no hope?

In response to the massacres in Paris and even more in San Bernardino, a group of religious leaders of the three Abrahamic faiths came together in Temple Beth Or in Washington Township on Sunday night. They were joined by an estimated 350 to 400 others, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, who chose to gather, light Chanukah candles on the holiday’s last, most light-filled night, and demystify themselves to each other.

“We brought together 18 different communities of faith,” Rabbi Noah Fabricant, who heads Beth Or and who spearheaded the meeting, said. “The entire event was put together in about a week. Hateful rhetoric toward Muslims was increasing” — that was the week when Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump said that no Muslims should be allowed into the country, although he was not clear on what he would do with those here already — “and I felt a need for a community response.“So my congregation began to reach out to other local congregations, and I reached out to local clergy” through the Upper Pascack Valley Clergy Council. Rabbi Fabricant, who is Reform, also talked about the program with rabbis and cantors from the Ridgewood area, and he discussed it with members of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, the body that represents Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform rabbis. Some rabbis and cantors came from eastern and southern Bergen. His Christian and Muslim counterparts also talked up the program in their own organizations, and drew some people from outside the upper Pascack Valley.It was an intergenerational crowd; lots of teenagers as well as their parents and emptynesters came out for the program.The evening opened as the clergy members processed formally down the aisle, continued with readings from the sacred texts of all three religions, and culminated with the menorah lighting. “I created a text, a kavannah” — an intention — “for each of the candles, so that as we lit each of them we could express a commitment to our vision of unity and standing up against bigotry,” Rabbi Fabricant said.But real human relationships rarely grow out of formal structures. “We wanted an opportunity to socialize, so we had a reception, with lots of food, and we stayed and talked and met one another, and made the face-to-face connections that are so important to reducing fear.“It was wonderful,” he said.

“People said that it is one thing to read about interfaith understanding, and even to know something about it intellectually — but to form a relationship, to see people face to face, to hear the Muslim call to prayer from the bimah of our synagogue… That impressed them with the reality and the urgency of the situation in a different way.”
He had no idea what to expect, Rabbi Fabricant said. “All week I ping-ponged between worrying that no one would come and that we wouldn’t have enough chairs. And as people started to arrive I realized that what we had was the best possible outcome.”
He was moved by much of what he saw that evening, but two incidents stood out. “Two Muslim women came up to me after the service, and one of them said that in the last few weeks, since San Bernardino, she’d had trouble sleeping. She felt really afraid.
“Being at this event, seeing all those people standing with her, really brought her a sense of safety. A sense of physical safety and comfort. She said that she thought she’d sleep better that night. That was really powerful for me.”And then there was the ceremony itself. “As the clergy walked in, the congregation was invited to sing ‘This Land is Your Land.’” That, of course, is the haunting, camp-evoking, quintessentially American Woody Guthrie song whose lyrics go “This land is your land/This land is my land/From California to the New York island;/From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters/This land was made for you and me.”“Quite a few people said to me afterward that after that song, you could have stopped right there,” Rabbi Fabricant said. “That, right there, was the message.” Imam Moutaz Charaf and 25 to 30 of his congregants represented the Elzahra Islamic Center in Midland Park, one of the two mosques to send a delegation. His mosque is a cross-section of Muslim Americans, he said; some are American-born and others are immigrants. Their roots are in India, Pakistan, and across the Arab world; most now live in Midland Park and the small towns that surround it.The meeting was important, Imam Charaf said. “We are living in a difficult time for all people of faith, and all Americans, so we thought it was a good time for people of faith and their leaders to give a strong message of peace and unity and diversity, and of respect for each other.“We all stand together very strongly against all types of violence, aggression, discrimination, and hatred, and we felt that we need to send a strong message, and to show that we are standing together.“We have much in common. All religion calls for peace and love, and we should not accept any hate speech, or any discrimination against anybody.

“We are all people of God, and we were all created by the same God. So it was wonderful to read scripture together, to pray together, to listen to each other, and to see each other and break down some of the walls that some of us have built between us.

“It was good to see each other as human beings,” Imam Charaf said.The Rev. Mark Suriano of the First Congregational Church of Park Ridge went to the meeting, he said, “because, like Rabbi Fabricant, I was increasingly alarmed at how we used religion to separate ourselves from one another, and particularly from the Muslim community. So I was eager to go to emphasize the things that we hold in common. We are all religions of peace. And we all three are religions of the Book, and people who share at least some spiritual ancestry.” The evening was likely to be a success, he said, and he realized that, prosaically but tellingly, even before he went into the shul building. “I got there early, and I had trouble parking. It was going to start at 7, I got there at twenty to, and there were only a few spaces left. There already were more than 300 people there.“The camaraderie was amazing,” he continued. “No matter what faith they belonged to, people had a common concern and a need for better understanding. I saw people who were emotionally moved by the experience of being there.“It was overwhelmingly beautiful.”One of the things that most struck the Rev. Suriano was “the sign of peace.” It’s a Christian ritual, “a moment in the service where we are invited to turn to each other and say ‘Peace be with you,’ and the response is ‘Also with you.’“At this service, we were invited to find people we didn’t know and extend the wish of peace to them. We were encouraged to find people who didn’t look like us.“There actually was a great sense of people looking for people they didn’t know, and there was a great deal of excitement around it. It was very powerful.

“This is Advent,” he continued, the weeks leading up to Christmas when Christians anticipate the birth of their messiah. “I preached about it a few Sundays ago,” the Rev. Suriano continued. “It is not just being sociable. It is a prayer and a wish and a hope for peace. So to experience it yesterday, in another context, with a set of people for whom it is not a usual practice — there was a sense of earnestness about it. Watching how people were moving around, everyone was up and moving, all 350 or 400 of us — it was quite a powerful thing.”

And then there were the Chanukah lights. “What Rabbi Fabricant wrote was powerful,” he said. “It was a great way to summarize what we are about and what we have to do to bring peace. It was challenging — and it was inviting.” The Rev. Mark Stutzel is the pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Woodcliff Lake. He usually teaches a confirmation class to seventh- and eighth-graders on Sunday evenings; instead of holding the regular class, he suggested that his students and their families join him at Beth Or, and many did.“I had been at Temple Beth Or, but I had never worshipped there before,” the Rev. Stutzel said. “And being surrounded by so many different faiths, so many people — it was just a wonderful sign of solidarity. It was a way of examining what it means to live out our faith in northern New Jersey. What does it mean to speak out on issues of justice and peace? We are not a homogenous community, but we all call this place home. One thing that struck me is something that Imam Charaf said, that the point of creation is to get to know each other. I believe that we were living that out last night. So I was privileged and proud to be able to speak from the Christian tradition of the long history of loving your neighbor, of lighting injustice, of doing what we can so that our neighbors can live and thrive and we can all be the people God wants us to be.” Like the Rev. Suriano, the Rev Stutzel was struck by what he called “the passing of the peace.“People were encouraged to meet other people, to talk to them, and to share God’s peace with people they didn’t know,” he said. “What was amazing was meeting people from Temple Beth Or, or from the Midland Park mosque, shaking their hands, getting to know their names. Everyone had energy. They all wanted to do more, to meet more, to see each other more, to speak out more. And that struck me. We were giving a voice to something that already exists in the world.” There is a hunger for justice, and for loving your neighbor, and it was being spoken out loud and felt at the service on Sunday night.”