February 25, 2020

Rabbi Brings Her Vision to Sheriff Oversight Panel

When Rabbi Heather Miller visited a jail for the first time in February, the conditions took her by surprise.

“I saw grown men who society demonizes as villains, like in the movies, [holding] their arms inside of their shirts because they are cold,” she said.

Refrigerator space was so scarce that incarcerated mothers who were pumping breast milk had to have relatives retrieve it every other day.

Thinking additional fridge space would provide a simple solution, “I was surprised by the amount of resistance expressed over this idea,” Miller said.

Now she is working to solve such problems. Miller, 38, is one of nine members of the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission, a panel created by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors last year in the wake of a corruption scandal that led to a prison term for former L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca.

The commission, which first met in January, aims to foster transparency and increase trust between communities and the Sheriff’s Department. It advises both the Board of Supervisors and the Sheriff’s Department but does not have subpoena power.

“She sees every person as inherently valuable.” — Priscilla Ocen

Each of the county’s five supervisors appointed one commissioner, with community groups nominating the other four. Miller was nominated by the Coalition to End Sheriff Violence in L.A. Jails, which is part of Dignity and Power Now, a group of 19 community organizations fighting jail violence and mass incarceration.

Mark-Anthony Johnson, the coalition’s director of health and wellness, said the group suggested Miller because she “has strong moral and ethical precision, ties to community organizations and a clear barometer for justice.”

A Los Angeles native, Miller is a rabbi and director of education at Beth Chayim Chadashim in L.A. She also works at Temple Israel of Hollywood as a b’nai mitzvah educator. She was ordained in 2008 at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. She also serves on the advisory board of the Liberty Hill Foundation — which donates to grass-roots organizations supporting social justice — and is active in the Black-Jewish Justice Alliance of CLUE-LA (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice).

Miller’s work on the oversight panel has earned high praise from fellow commissioner Priscilla Ocen, a Loyola Law School professor. “The way that she talks to people, the way that she sees every person as inherently valuable, I think that speaks to her religious faith in a way that quoting Scripture can’t,” Ocen said.

When the commission had open positions, Miller wanted to make sure the panel encouraged former convicts to apply. “She is concerned about having an equitable commission, top to bottom,” Ocen said, “not just in terms of our public presentations and our public positions, but in terms of how we are constituted.

Miller has long been interested in social justice issues. Before rabbinical school, she delved into peace studies, Jewish history and Africana studies at Wellesley College. She said her motivation for serving on the commission derives from the tradition of Abraham in Genesis taking a stand by uttering, “Hineini” (“Here I am”) in response to God.

“My work as a commissioner is first and foremost about being present, getting out in front of all the stakeholders involved and hearing their experiences,” she said in an email.

Miller believes it is a “sacred experience” when members of the public who have faced injustice find the strength to share their stories with the commission. She recalled listening to a woman whose son had died after allegedly hanging himself in jail. The mother brought the noose, which was made from thick bed sheets, to demonstrate that her son could not have made the noose himself without a pair of scissors.

The Sheriff’s Department “alleges that he hung himself in the noose,” said Miller, who noted that the mother asked commissioners to “question every single custody death described as a suicide.”

Miller said hearing such stories makes her feel the weight of her responsibility and the trust placed in her by the public, adding that she draws on her rabbinical training in her work for the commission. “Rabbis are trained in judicial discernment of facts, arguments and logic,” she said. “I use these skills to parse cases presented to me.”

Trump’s immigration order elicits action from Jewish community

President Trump in the Oval Office on Feb. 8. Photo by Joshua Roberts/REUTERS

Jewish leaders around Los Angeles have begun speaking out —  some more forcefully than others — against President Donald Trump’s immigration ban. And many temple congregants are doing more than merely listening.

“People are stepping forward because they see a direct call to their Jewish values in this moment,” said Senior Rabbi Ken Chasen of Leo Baeck Temple. “The values in the Torah and rabbinic literature are clear, and they are now being threatened. [Activism] feels like a very organic way to live out our Jewish values.” 

Trump’s effort to restrict entry to immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran and Iraq, has touched off protests around the country and a legal war that is likely headed to the Supreme Court to determine if the ban is constitutional. One protest in New York this week led to the arrests of about 20 rabbis affiliated with the liberal group T’ruah, according to The New York Times.

No arrests have occurred in Los Angeles, but the ban and other Trump actions have sparked outrage among many Jewish groups.

More than 200 Leo Baeck congregants participated in the Women’s March in Los Angeles the day after the inauguration, and large numbers attended a pro-immigrant demonstration at Los Angeles International Airport the following weekend. Chasen said he’s taking calls daily from people who ask what they can do to get involved.

Rabbi Sarah Bassin of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills said 65 congregations participated in the Women’s March, and last week, the synagogue hosted a class on immigration and refugees from a Talmud and Torah perspective. An American Civil Liberties Union representative talked to the group as well.

Bassin said she encourages her members to speak up and participate, even if she personally doesn’t have the same political views.

“I just gave a sermon on how we’ve channeled our civic engagement into yelling on social media and how that’s not civic engagement,” she said. “I don’t care where people are on the political spectrum as long as they responsibly and thoughtfully lend their voice into the public sphere from a place that’s motivated by Jewish values.

“I think Judaism has deeply woven into it the connection between politics and faith,” she added. “It’s very important that people have a safe space to articulate their values.”

“I think Judaism has deeply woven into it the connection between politics and faith.” – Rabbi Sarah Bassin

Rabbis Lisa Edwards and Heather Miller of Beth Chayim Chadashim are infusing their sermons and prayer commentaries with news and have added a weekly prayer for the country.

Edwards attended two meetings for interfaith clergy at the Islamic Center of Southern California, “aimed at what our communities can do in particular to help support Muslims and undocumented immigrants” and at the Holman Methodist Church, organized by Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice-Los Angeles and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She learned that, “People are afraid and anxious. Anxiety is the more operative word than fear. People feel very aware about possible deportations.”

IKAR’s founder and Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous is also collaborating with other faith communities. The weekend of the inauguration, she organized events involving congregants from her synagogue as well as those from the Islamic Center mosque and All Saints Church in Pasadena.

“We have very robust and growing multi-face community relationships we work on and continue to prioritize right now,” Brous said. “We’re much more effective when we join together with mosques and churches.”

Brous, who spoke at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., said the history of Jews as immigrants should prompt action.

“Our sacred texts demand that we stand up and fight for the most vulnerable people in our midst,” she said. “This is not about political preference. This is about moral imperative.”

Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, distributed a letter by email in which he did not take a position for or against the president’s executive order, but detailed Federation’s work with Jewish immigrants and refugees. The letter said that since 1973, Federation has helped more than 27,000 refugees.

Other Jewish leaders made their feelings known through letters to their congregants.

Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback and his fellow clergy at Stephen Wise Temple indicated that “… because our Torah calls upon our Jewish people to be a moral light unto the nations, we feel it necessary to voice our profound protest to the President’s recent executive order that has the effect of banning people from certain Muslim majority countries, as well as all refugees for a period of 120 days, from entry into this nation.”

They reminded members of the temple’s namesake and his work for compassion and social justice: “We proudly commit ourselves to advocating for a society that embodies the teaching of our Torah: ‘The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love the stranger as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’”

For the past year and a half, Temple Beth Am has had a refugee task force. In a letter to his congregants, Senior Rabbi Adam Kligfeld said Trump’s executive orders “trouble me, to say the least.” But he acknowledged the complexity of the issues: “No country willy-nilly flings its doors open to anyone who wants in. There are reasonable fears regarding how the wrong immigration policy could enable terrorism, as some recent events in Europe have sadly shown. We have to take it seriously. Deal with it in some meaningful way. But we cannot let it paralyze us.”

Senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom found inspiration for his letter by imagining his zayde confused, sitting in a detention cell at LAX. He called Trump’s order “destructive” and said we must be inclusive and “welcoming to those seeking the freedoms we cherish.”

Representatives of four religious groups — the Academy for Jewish Religion, California; Claremont School of Theology; University of the West; and Bayan Claremont, an Islamic graduate school — collaborated on a statement, saying, “As interreligious partners, we live the dream of inclusion, understanding, and compassion. We know there is a better way — better than building walls and banning human beings based on religious beliefs or country of origin.”

Without addressing the ban or taking sides in his letter to congregants, Senior Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple encouraged people to volunteer with the Karsh Family Social Service Center and to help build houses for the poor.

“Although I will not assume the role of political pundit, upholding the extremely high value Jewish law places on Shalom Bayit — maintaining a peaceful home and community — is a role I cherish,” he wrote.

Rabbis welcome chance to officiate same-sex weddings

In 2012, Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am, married two Orthodox Jews. Recounting the experience in Variety this summer in the wake of the United States Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage, Kligfeld wrote: “I married them because their rabbi wouldn’t. Their rabbi couldn’t even be asked; he didn’t even know it was taking place. That’s because Orthodox rabbis don’t marry two men, and some Conservative rabbis don’t.”

Kligfeld, on the other hand, announced himself as “a traditional Conservative rabbi who has and will officiate at same-sex weddings … to welcome others out of the closet into our community, into a Jewish life that has a place for them.” He still remembers the wedding itself, saying it contained overflowing joy for a couple for whom Judaism is central and sacred.

“The opening blessing was changed to reflect the gender and situation. There was a ketubah. They stood under the chuppah and they broke the glass,” Kligfeld said. “It passed the smell test. It looked and smelled very much like a Jewish wedding, and that was very gratifying to me.”

Views on same-sex marriage have come a long way in the years leading up to the Supreme Court’s June vote legalizing same-sex marriage, although consensus remains elusive. Orthodox tradition does not recognize such unions, while Reform and Conservative branches have been quicker to embrace them. 

In the meantime, there are couples of all genders who still want to get married under Jewish law in front of their families, friends and loved ones. In a city such as Los Angeles, with its wide range of diverse congregations, finding an officiant and creating the ceremony of one’s dreams is far less challenging for an LGBT couple than it might have been in years past.

Rabbi Heather Miller and her wife, Melissa de la Rama, have been through the process more than once: They had a domestic partnership ceremony in 2009; a spiritual wedding in 2012; and a legal wedding on July 1, 2014, after a federal court overturned Proposition 8, which had put a hold on gay and lesbian marriages in California. 

“My wife and I always say that we are going to be one of the last generations of LGBT folks to have multiple anniversaries, said Miller, rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim, founded in 1972 as the world’s first lesbian and gay synagogue. “Now people are going to be able to have all three ceremonies in one day, and that’s a special thing.”

She recalled waiting for a marriage license in 2014 at the Beverly Hills Courthouse, and overhearing another gay couple wondering where they could find someone to marry them. She volunteered, and married them on the steps of the courthouse.

For such ceremonies, the language of traditional elements such as the Sheva Brachot (Seven Blessings), the ketubah and the chuppah have long been customizable to be in line with a couple’s wishes. Rainbow flags have been incorporated into designs for the chuppah or the ketubah, as well. 

Rather than having the bride circle the groom seven times, same-sex couples sometimes elect to circle each other or have their family members form a circle that they will then join. Sometimes, couples elect to smash two glasses. To some, that second glass smashing highlights the dissolution of barriers that they have faced, according to Rabbi Denise L. Eger, founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami, a Reform synagogue in West Hollywood. 

In planning their Nov. 1 wedding, Patricia Murphy and Lori Leve identified several specific elements of the traditional Jewish ceremony that they wanted to use. The couple wrote and assigned each of the Sheva Brachot blessings to family members, and they circled each other.

Leve was raised Jewish, while Murphy grew up Irish Catholic. Despite her upbringing, however, Murphy had attended Jewish weddings and found much in the ceremony with which she connected. They worked with Miller to plan the perfect ceremony, which, in addition to being a same-sex wedding, mixed traditional Jewish elements and Irish blessings.

“Starting with the chuppah, the idea of it being a home that you invite people who are important to you, there was something remarkably significant for me in that,” Murphy said. “I love the fact that there was part of the Jewish religious experience open to us being gay and accepting of it. Having someone like Heather, who is so deeply connected to her own faith, really brought a level of legitimacy.”

That sense of connection and community tends to be significant at same-sex weddings, Eger said.

“Unless somebody is on their deathbed, everyone comes to show their support for the couple,” she said. “These days, it’s rare for someone not to come because a couple is gay. People show up for LGBT weddings to show that they’re there as an ally.”