Unity of the Valley – Recipes

My message for the Unity in the Valley Event hosted at Pascack Valley High School on March 19, 2019. Unity in the Valley is a community organized gathering to encourage inclusion and fight back against recent examples of antisemitism and more.


I want to start my remarks tonight with a simple question: what’s your favorite recipe? Now, it’s okay to take a few moments to think about it because it might not be the easiest question to answer. I’m not asking you to name your favorite thing to eat or what restaurant you like to go to. No, what I want to know is: what’s your favorite recipe? What dish, or meal, do you love to make or, if you don’t cook, what recipe does someone make for you that reminds you you’re loved? Once you figure out an answer to that question, hold onto it, because we’re going to use it in a few short minutes.

Now, as person of faith who didn’t grow up with one, I’m fascinated by the stuff of religion. There’s the big things like the rituals, the prayer books, music, and art. But there’s also the little things – like what faith communities choose to post on their bulletin boards and what little booklets they keep by the front door that no one ever picks up. One of those things I sometimes find in the lobbies of many different kinds of faith communities is: that community’s cookbook. They were usually published at least 10 years before, the pages are now yellowed, and the whole thing is bound together by an oddly colored piece of plastic. In Christian communities, we usually make these as a kind of fundraiser, asking people to submit recipes they want to share with everyone else. And these cookbooks are always filled with recipes you can’t find anywhere else. Sometimes, you’ll read about a chutney or hummus that someone’s mom used to make. But you’ll also find things that are a tad…frightening. As a Lutheran Christian, those kinds of recipes usually involve a casserole dish, jello, a fruit you’ve never heard of, and a can of tuna fish. When you read these cookbooks, you’ll wonder if someone submitted something just to punk you. Yet, you’ll also discover something beautiful. You’ll be invited to make that pineapple cake that someone always brings whenever there’s a funeral. And you’ll be able to taste the rice and beans someone prepares every time a church member is in the hospital, leaving it on the family’s front porch with a note saying we’re thinking of them. These cookbooks are more than just a collection of recipes. They’re a collection of stories – passed down from generation to generation – meant to be shared during incredible celebrations and to bring hope in moments of incredible sorrow. Our favorite recipes do more than tell others what we like to eat; they show our neighbors a bit of who we are, where we come from, and what makes us, us. We all carry within us a cookbook of recipes that lets other people know the entirety of our story.

But the cookbooks we carry are not, I think, meant to be only for ourselves. When we eat, we’re meant to eat together. Many of our faith and cultural traditions are centered at the table, at the place where dishes are served and meals are shared. Because we are invited to do more than just eat. We are here to get to know each other. The recipes we share are an opportunity for us to be vulnerable, to share a part of our tradition, our history, and our soul with someone else. The table is where we get to be human and that creates an opportunity for unity that is honest with itself and its past. The meal we share is how we discover each other’s joys and struggles. But it’s also a moment for confession, when we finally see how our way of life has negatively impacted another. It’s there where we reflect on the fullness of our story and admit the ways we didn’t take seriously the story of the other. It’s at the table when our -isms and -phobias breakdown. Antisemitism, sexism, racism, islamophobia, homophobia, and every other wall we build to deny people a place at our table is undone. When we take seriously what it means to really share a meal with your neighbor, we’re no longer in a position to hate and harm each other. Instead, we’re called to feed each other, to serve one another, and to help each other thrive.

And that calling isn’t always easy. Sharing a meal together will always take risk. We need to be honest and to admit the ways we’ve hurt one another. As a Christian, I have to name, outloud, the ways my faith has been used to hurt and harm people. I have to acknowledge how we have, wrongly, denied people a place at our tables because of who they are, who they love, or where they come from. We haven’t done enough to live into the reality of our faith tradition, about a Jesus who kept getting in trouble for sharing recipes and meals with people he wasn’t supposed to. But we can, and we will, change that. We’re not here to deny someone a place at the table. Instead, we’re here to eat and to be fully human, together.

So what’s your favorite recipe? Who taught you it and why? Was it your grandma’s cookies, your brother’s chili, your best friend’s gluten-free mac and cheese, or that recipe you found online that you cooked all on your own for the very first time? I want you to turn to the person next to you and take the next minute to share that recipe with them, why it’s important to you, and how you’re going share your table with someone new.

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).


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.


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.

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.