Building My Cabinet

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

As President-Elect Biden forms his cabinet, it got me thinking. Who would be in my cabinet? What would their positions be–would I create a new cabinet position?–and who would fill them? Would those people be insiders with experience and already-formed relationships or outsiders who have a certain level of clarity? How much focus would be on how they work together? Should I be concerned about getting Senate approval more than choosing the women and men who I believe in my heart of hearts would do the best work for our remarkable country? Do our personalities have to complement one another in order for us to be effective?

While I’m not sure of the answers, I like the mental challenge especially since we all have “cabinets” as it were. We may not be in elected positions, but we have chosen the people who are “in our corner.” Who is in your corner?

Per Jewish values, I believe that the people in my corner must always be asking “If I am not for myself, what am I? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” (Pirke Avot) For it is keeping in balance of self and others with the ongoing imperative of now that I wish to live and I want others to help me live that way. My cabinet members should answer positively “Who is wise? One who learns from others” (Pirke Avot) For growth and depth comes from bouncing ideas off of others and respecting different perspectives and as they grow so will I. My inner circle must practice toch’cha–loving rebuke–which is exactly as it sounds: being able to offer me critique in a loving way that will help me grow. And my corner must have simcha (joy) because that is both energizing and life-affirming.

I will let you in on a secret. I don’t call it a cabinet but for years, I have had a pie chart and my family knows–and sometimes makes suggestions for new “slices”!–who is on it. It includes people I know personally and some I don’t but who I respect in some way. Some have bigger slices of the pie than others. So far, no one has left my pie and it is never at 100% because there is always room to add.

I invite you to look around even in our socially-distanced way at your “inner circle,” those “in your corner,” “cabinet” or “pie.” And if there is a position in need of filling, look around and bring someone forward so that you are getting the support and loving critique to be the best you. As you change, perhaps your cabinet will change. Simultaneously, give the gift of you and join someone else’s cabinet.

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“I” Statements

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

Our post-election Town Hall on Sunday, November 8 included a conversation about shared values: Who wouldn’t want good schools? Who wouldn’t want good health care or clean air and water? Who wouldn’t want safe neighborhoods and good jobs? Given the cut-off of many friendships and even within families, the question is: how can we learn to speak to one another, especially if we have differing views of the many issues that lie before us. We spoke about the Jewish values that can guide us, “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind,” “Justice, Justice shall you pursue,” “Love your neighbor as yourself” and others. To say this work is difficult is an understatement. No wonder our values are not optional but commanded.

Following the Town Hall, I began to think about the conversation and realized that we all have a way within reach to bridge the gap.

I was trained in marital counseling using a program called Prepare and Enrich. A large focus of it is on communication and key to that work, in my mind, is an exercise in which one of the partners shares a wish about the other partner using assertive language and the second partner is to be an active listener. Being an active listener can be difficult. It entails using one’s own words to repeat accurately what the speaker said; to really demonstrate that you heard. Speaking assertively – clearly, succinctly, using “I” statements but not being aggressive – can also be difficult.

I invite you to think of a difficult conversation you have recently had; a conversation in which you and the other party cannot hear each other, whether political or not. Now picture this: imagine starting with an “I” statement and following with an emotive word to express what you are trying to say. In other words, “I feel scared when…” “I’m sad that…” “I respect you when…” It is non-accusatory language. It is honest. It is a bit vulnerable. It just may open the door to a true dialogue.

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Thanksgiving Redux

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

I recently learned a lot about the origins of Columbus Day from

Including that the first documented observance of Columbus Day took place in New York City in 1792, on the 300th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Western Hemisphere but it wasn’t until 1934 that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared October 12 the first national observance, later to be moved to the second Monday of October. I also learned this: Columbus Day originated as an annual celebration of Italian–American heritage in San Francisco in 1869.

And I relearned that “Generations of Native people, however, throughout the Western Hemisphere have protested Columbus Day. In the forefront of their minds is the fact the colonial takeovers of the Americas, starting with Columbus, led to the deaths of millions of Native people and the forced assimilation of survivors.”

The article continues: “In 1977 participants at the United Nations International Conference on Discrimination against Indigenous Populations in the Americas proposed that Indigenous Peoples’ Day replace Columbus Day. Indigenous Peoples’ Day recognizes that Native people are the first inhabitants of the Americas, including the lands that later became the United States of America.  And it urges Americans to rethink history.” As of this year, 18 states and the District of Columbia now observe Native American or Indigenous Peoples’ Day, in place of or in addition to Columbus Day. Pennsylvania is not one of them.

If we move closer to home, specifically to the Christopher Columbus statue in Schenley Park we learn that Mayor Peduto recommended it be removed after the Art Commission voted 3-0 in favor of removing it. The move follows heated debates between Native American groups that say the statue represents genocide and slavery and Italian Americans who say it represents their contributions to the city. (Oct 12, 2020 KDKA)

Now there are protests. What both sides have in common, of course, is that neither holds the whole truth.

Think of how we rebel when groups say that Jews either were never connected to the land of Israel, or left and came back 2000 years later.  Neither is true. And hopefully we are as upset when Israeli history teaches that no one inhabited the land in the late 1800’s when the first modern waves of Jewish immigrants came to live. Neither narrative serves us well because neither narrative is the truth.

Is there a right answer? Yes. There is. Though Judaism and statues don’t mix, this is about far more than statues. It is about how we record and remember history.

Should the Columbus statue come down? Personally, I do not have much energy around that question but I do around this: Whether it comes down or not, what will tell the fuller story? Imagine Italian Americans and Native Americans sitting down to discuss it at a new kind of feast. That in itself would be worth celebrating…and just think of what food would be served!


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Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

I called the police twice in one day last week. The first time I called, it was because I witnessed an extremely dangerous driver and hoped to keep others safe. Later that day while walking our dog, I noticed that the lights were on in an odd way at a neighbor’s home, as they had been the night before. I called the police who came and learned that the owner had moved into a nursing home. I pray that he is well.

The first call was about a stranger whose behavior threatened others. The second was about a neighbor whose name I know, who I would wave to as I walked the dog, about whom I was concerned. Both are examples of “love your neighbor as yourself” – protect others, care about others.

As a commandment, as the golden rule, these words need to not be a mantra that flows off of our lips; but come with an action plan. How will you love your neighbors – the ones you know by name, the ones you know by face and the ones you don’t know?

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Between the Pages

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

Have you ever read People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks? It is one of my favorite books. Through clues, it traces the Sarajevo Haggadah through its history and owners. I highly recommend it.

I thought of it tonight, as I closed my Gates of Repentance for the last time as Yom Kippur drew to a close. I had thought I had done that last year since we had been gifted the Reform Movement’s newer machzor Mishkan HaNefesh to be used this year…until Covid-19 kept us in our homes. We had decided to stay with the familiar, the maroon book that was already on many of our shelves at home. But this was the last time.

Like Ms. Brooks’s book, there will forever be hints of our history within my volume: the many post-its that will remain with the names of congregants who led prayers and read Torah and Haftarah. In it are the cues for our choir–first led by Sharon Leibowitz, z”l, and now Norm Chapman. Tucked away within the pages were photocopies of readings I would share.

I have never been an e-book kind of person. I like to hold the text, turn the pages and close the book at the end, whether a novel or a prayer book and now I think of the history that is encased in my machzor, my own Book of Life.

L’shana Tova.

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5781: A Bite of Apple

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

A couple of weeks ago, Exxon Mobil got expelled from the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which is one measure of how the stock exchange is doing. It averages 30 large U.S. companies which track the stocks of many economic sectors. Exxon Mobil is the oldest member of the Dow, descended from Standard Oil which was John D. Rockefeller’s which merged with Mobil, another part of his empire. It means that neither lineage nor marriage for economic sake is sacred in the world of stocks.

Why did this happen? Apple split its stock. For every one share someone owns, they now own 4; each being worth one-fourth of its previous price or in apple language: one whole apple was quartered. Skin, seeds and all.

The lower price of Apple stocks make the segment of the tech industry smaller and in order to find a new proportional balance, huge companies including: Exxon Mobil, Pfizer, Raytheon are out and other software companies are in. They say it won’t affect their business though for Exxon Mobil, the glut of oil, consumer concern about global warming, and the drop in demand due to Covid-19 does.

What does this have to do with our final approach to the High Holy Days? Everything.

We can use the metaphor to consider how we value ourselves – is it in absolute terms based on how we are commanded by Torah and tradition or in relative terms based on how we are seen by others? Are we investing in wholesome and holy aspects of ourselves or spending time and resources on the opposite? Are we living in the past or the present? Are we investing in the future?

The High Holy Days are a time to ask important questions and strive to answer them mind, body and soul. The dividends are priceless.

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The Lunch Ladies

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

Mr. Rogers says to look for the helpers. Today, I looked and what I saw was a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

As part of the Monroeville Interfaith Ministerium’s work, we have a community arm called Community Network.  The mission of the Community Conversation is: “To strengthen the community by gathering information about needs and resources and addressing them through tools and information.” Included in our group are representatives of the school district, police, library, hospitals, houses of worship, RAMP, food pantries and others. Since the beginning of COVID-19, we have increased from meeting every six weeks, to meeting weekly.

Today’s goal was to bring a bit of joy coupled with resources. After gathering information about the United Way and programs to assist people with rent, we created a flier and during the Gateway School District’s food distribution at four sites over three days, we gave the flier together with a red, white and blue beach ball. I and my counterparts at the other sites were met with smiles and appreciation.

So who were these helpers? They were the Gateway maintenance staff who put up the tent and tables and they were the “lunch ladies.” For two hours, I sat near these three ladies who welcomed families, often by name, talked about how big the baby was getting, commiserated with current conditions and heard about job prospects. In-between clients, they talked and joked and shared concerns regarding the people who are not eligible for these meals. They talked about the “bad rap” that lunch ladies get, pinning it to the hair nets and the attitudes of previous generations.

Today, I thought that I was delivering a bit of joy but I came away with a smile and appreciation that is much fuller than an inflatable ball. Thank you, Gateway lunch ladies!

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Love Your Neighbor As Yourself

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

Love your neighbor as yourself.  We all say it.  Sometimes we live it.  Sometimes, we don’t know how to live it.  One way to begin is to learn about others.

For the past six weeks, I have participated in The Multi-faith Neighbors Network in which local rabbis, evangelical ministers, and imams are put into triads to learn together and to do together.  The latter is a challenge given the Zoom-limitations.  The goal is to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to learn through asking and wrestling with challenging questions and to bring our communities into these relationships.  The six weeks are only the beginning.

On our way from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati, we stopped at the Palace of Gold.  This Palace and its compound are nestled in the hills of West Virginia near Moundsville.  It is exquisite, from the gardens to the palace itself.  Per its website: “His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada (1896-1977) is widely regarded as the foremost Vedic scholar, translator, and teacher of the modern era. He is especially respected as the world’s most prominent contemporary authority on bhakti-yoga, devotional service to the Supreme Person, Krishna, as taught by the ancient Vedic writings of India. He is also the founder-acharya of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.”

Going into the Palace of Gold in ways was uncomfortable but so are some of the conversations in our triad.  However, if I stay home and don’t speak with others, ultimately I am more isolated.  I invite you to journey with me – even if while staying at home – and allow yourself to love your neighbor as yourself.

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Broken Glass Leads to Wholeness

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

As Debbie Jacknin, our resident artist, said to our students: when we as Jews think of broken glass, we think of Kristallnacht.  And while the shards of colorful broken glass that were to be used to create our memorial to the horror of October 27, 2018, she noted that while they would not become whole, together they would create something new.  And so they did.

Hand after hand – congregants of every age, neighbors of every age, skin tone, gender, religion, ethnicity, our elected officials and every single one of our religious school students placed glass onto our glass mosaic, designed by Debbie, inspired by our Remembrance Committee and based on the poem “In the rising of the sun and in its going down, we remember them” written by Rabbis Syvan Kamens and Jack Reimer.

The first to place the broken glass were Committee members who placed 11 stars for the 11 victims. The very first star was placed by the hand of Rachael Farber, great niece of Rose Mallinger (z”l) in the top right corner.

Carefully placing glass shards is healing.  As it was when I asked students to choose a piece of glass that reflected, through its color or shape, how they were feeling at that moment.  Red for anger; blue for comfort; red for violence… And then those emotions became art.

Thank you to Debbie, to our Committee, to all who joined us on Saturday night and to every hand that touched a piece of art that reflects brokenness and wholeness all at once.

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A Proud Moment

Posted on by Rabbi Barbara Symons

It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and I sat on the “bimah” of the Monroeville United Methodist Church along with the clergy and lay representatives of the Monroeville Interfaith Ministerium as we expressed our thankfulness and celebrated the diversity of America.

It was a powerful evening.

But it is the quiet moments that might count even more.  After the horrific shooting of a Muslim taxi driver in Pittsburgh, I texted my Muslim colleague to express not only my sorrow, but that our interfaith work is stronger than hate… but only if we express it.

As you wrap your Chanukah gifts, set up your chanukkiot, buy your potatoes and oil, and consider the beneficiaries of your end of the year giving, give the gift of tolerance.  One phone call, note or text at a time.


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