23 March 2010


We spent tonight with the leaders and supporters of EJI--the Equal Justice Initiative--one of the country's most selfless organizations that is led by one of the country's most inspiring and dedicated leader, Bryan Stevenson.

Among its many causes--seeking to overturn wrongful convictions, especially for those facing the death penalty, we heard moving testimony tonight about the astonishing number of young people across the United States, ages 13 & 14, who face prison without parole for crimes they commit as children with no hope for release or at least, rehabilitation.

Full disclosure: Rachel spent the summer of 1995, when she was in law school, working at EJI in Montgomery, Alabama, and ever since, the organization and its cause have been very close to our hearts.

Listening tonight to the speeches by Bryan Stevenson, by Stephen Bright, President and Senior Counsel of the Southern Center for Human Rights, and George Kendall, a pro bono lawyer who has devoted much of his career to the preservation of habeas corpus, I felt transported back in time to the days of the composition of the Mishnah, when legal rulings of life and death really truly mattered and when the greatest minds of the Jewish world were concerned with epic questions of moral, ethical and historical dimension.

And I wondered what it might mean for a pulpit, for a synagogue, to have an ongoing relationship with one organization seeking justice in particular. To dig in for the long-haul. To recognize that the true test of devotion and faith in a final outcome can only begin to be realized from steady support year in and year out.

I heard the testimony tonight of a middle-aged woman who had been wrongfully imprisoned for six years and in her own "witness" she spoke with a feeling and determination of total conviction that God had sent her the lawyers from EJI. I was so deeply moved by the expression of faith and I couldn't help but think that as an organizing principle of our synagogue, ought we not to strive for a similar vision? What might it mean for our values to line up so well with our determination to see their realization in the world and when that confluence of aim, purpose and realization occur, to understand that this is, fundamentally, the will of *God*, however defined.

The last time I heard Bryan Stevenson speak was at the memorial service for a family friend who died. This friend delivered, over the course of nearly twenty years, a number of pro bono legal briefs on behalf of severally wrongly convicted prisoners whose lives were being wasted, waiting for death or execution. At that service, Kaddish was recited not longer after Bryan spoke and the sense of the sacred was prevalent--not only for the memory of the deceased but for the devotion of the living to the cause of life itself.

Similarly, this evening, when the dinner drew to a close, I had a sudden desire to rise and recite Kaddish d'Rabbanan (recited not for mourning but after learning) where this special Kaddish is in gratitude for teachers and their devoted insistence to uphold not only the law but the very order of existence.

Teachers of the law, practitioners of the law, and their disciples--without whom the very foundations of our society would crumble.

If I can one day be as relevant in my work as a rabbi as the lawyers in the room tonight to those for whom they have literally granted life, my work will one day, God wiling, merit someone rising to offer thanks not to me but to God.

I truly humbling experience of the power of faith and law, to which I thank our friends at EJI.

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