Tag : winter 2021

January 26, 2021 by

Social Justice Strategies •

Longtime activists Rabbis Susan Talve of St. Louis, Missouri, and Ariel Stone, of Portland,
Oregon, talk about strategies for social justice work, which, they emphasize, is a
marathon, a movement, and not a sprint. Citing Moses, who led the people of Israel out of Egypt, Talve says movements are messy and full of challenges. Take measures to be safe, bring a buddy, be an ally, show up and hold space for others, consider your different roles as individual clergy and as a congregational leader. The two rabbis’ conversation, held in anticipation of the aftermath of the 2020 U.S. election and the social justice work they anticipate will be needed, was recorded by T’ruah, the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.


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January 26, 2021 by

A Seal of Sustainability

A program designed to support organizations and communities working to create a healthier, more equitable and more sustainable world for all, links Jewish values to substantive action toward sustainability and climate-centered goals. Receiving the Hazon Seal of Sustainability means that your organization or community has committed to and taken substantial action on two or three projects focusing on greening initiatives or sustainability projects over the last 12 months.

Apply at seal.hazon.org/about.

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January 25, 2021 by

Breaking the Taboo

I’ve been committing adultery.  

Married Jewish Female with beloved but impotent husband seeks man to become friend with benefits. I am not young, beautiful, thin, or petite, but I’m still juicy and fun. Man sought is kind, literate, clean-smelling, on the chubby side, circumcised, drug- and disease-free, a nonsmoker, appalled by  Trumpism, and utterly discreet. Forty-year-old virgin okay. 

I never thought I’d post this personal ad. For one thing, where could it run where it wouldn’t attract responses from every creep, perv, and blackmailer within a hundred-mile radius? For another, what man with the least bit of sexual chemistry (who isn’t a creep or a perv) would want to get it on with a larger-than-life woman who, though she presents younger than her actual years, is undoubtedly of a certain age? Plus, my work life involves Jewish religious institutions, and the professional organizations to which I belong take a firm stand against violations of the Seventh Commandment. 

Mine is not the only sexless marriage in the world, of course, nor does my husband deprive me of affection, support, and devotion. He’s as loving and sweet as he was the day we met, more than 35 years ago. He has made possible everything I’ve accomplished during the past two decades. We have a nice, paid-for home and adequate funds. I have work that I enjoy and that brings benefit to the community. I am fortunate and blessed. Not having sex is definitely a first-world problem, and it seems churlish to complain about it. 

But I missed making love. I missed wrapping my legs around my husband’s big body as he thrust into me. I missed riding him, watching his face contort comically with pleasure. I missed the orgasms I didn’t have to produce for myself. Years past menopause, I had none of the dryness or lack of interest for which TV commercials offer solutions. In short, I was still ready to go. 

It has been more than 12 years since we last had sex. My husband and I both understand that this isn’t about lack of desire, but lack of ability. He has experienced physical issues during these 12 years that, while not directly related to erectile dysfunction, probably introduced factors that helped it along. Treatment with testosterone and two different brands of boner pills was ineffective. Other interventions are painful, invasive, or both. He doesn’t want to experience them. I don’t want him to experience them. 

Things were different when we were first together. We had sex again and again and again our first night together, which was also the night of our first date. Once, he was at my apartment erev Pesach, and we got horizontal 20 minutes before guests were due to arrive for seder. For many years, sex was a big part of how we expressed our love for each other.  

And then it wasn’t. 

Of course, there are other ways of achieving satisfaction as partners, but they aren’t happening much either. He doesn’t offer, and until recently, I wasn’t asking—in part because whatever he’s willing to do for me, I can do for myself. When all is said and done, I’m a cisgender heterosexual woman who likes good old, plain old, straight-up, train-into-the-tunnel intercourse. I’m not sheepish about it. The bod wants what it wants. 

Certainly some of this angst over not having sex was unresolved rage about the aging process. I knew we wanted to grow old together, but I didn’t think old was going to happen so soon. My husband’s days now revolve around weather reports and TV reruns; he’s 66 going on  90. Meanwhile, I’ve aged too, but after double knee replacement and regular gym workouts, I’m able to transcend the aches and pains that come with advancing years, and, baruch ha-Shem, I haven’t been afflicted with any debilitating health issue. And my lady parts haven’t aged at all. I wish I’d dried up and lost interest in sex after menopause. Instead, I’m a horny 32-year-old trapped in the body of a chubby crone. 

Jewish tradition doesn’t begin to address this problem. The Sages, in Tractate Ketubot 61b, state clearly that a husband is obligated to have sex with his wife and satisfy her regularly, as frequently as his occupation permits, but the Sages lived at a time when people routinely died before age 50; most husbands didn’t outlive their ability to stand and deliver. And while the Rabbis saw a husband’s failure to have sex with his wife as grounds for divorce, they certainly didn’t see it as an excuse for the wife to go outside the marriage. For them, a woman’s adultery was one of the really big aveirot, sins, up there with murder and idolatry, and punishable, at least in theory, by death. 

At the same time, the rabbis of the early Common Era found ways to support the role of the biblical pilegesh, a woman who would serve as a man’s bed partner without the sanction of marriage. For example, there’s a much-adapted story in The Sages of the Talmud, in Tractate about an itinerant rabbi who is assigned a “bride for the night” in every town he visits. By the medieval period, most commentators were restricting access to the pilegesh to kings, putting her out of reach for your average  Itzik, and almost all rabbis today declare taking (or being) a pilegesh to be forbidden or at least frowned upon. 

In fact, while non-Orthodox rabbis have become more lenient in recent years concerning premarital sex, they have pretty much held the line on extramarital relations. Not until 2001 did the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis issue a responsum acknowledging acceptance of premarital sexuality, and that same committee issued a concurrent statement asserting that adulterous relationships, whether conducted in secret or with a spouse’s consent, are sinful and forbidden. Attitudes may have become more gender-egalitarian in rabbis’ disapproval of adultery, but the prohibition against sex outside marriage looms large. 

I might have let the status quo continue indefinitely if I hadn’t experienced a significant libido surge. Out of nowhere, I began to feel an urgent desire to have sex again that I couldn’t ignore. After trying to ignore it anyway, I opened a new email account and signed onto a couple of dating sites, posting a smiling photo, my real age, and a profile statement much like the personal ad above—the one I’d been rewriting in my head for about five years. As I clicked on the button to activate each account, I felt a distinct frisson of “Am I really doing this?”—mixed with a sense of inevitability. 

Of course, the creeps and pervs popped up in droves. You wouldn’t believe the number of guys who asked if my husband would be interested in watching or participating. I fended them off and stuck to my criteria, adding more after I found out that men outnumber women by a wide margin on heterosexual dating sites. He had to be at least a little younger than I am and no more than two inches shorter. No one who had never been married. No evangelizing Christians. No country-and-western fans. He had to be willing to send me a photo showing his face. 

Among the weenie-waggers and weirdos, a few interesting men appeared: the ones who said they not only liked my smile but enjoyed reading my profile. I got props for good grammar and syntax and for honesty. One guy said he was happy to see a woman’s profile that didn’t read like a tortured ransom note. The most likely prospects seemed to be the men who were in a similar situation to mine: married but not getting any. If a first exchange turned into a lively online conversation, I would let the guy know that he was chatting with a graying, overweight woman enrolled in Medicare. The  usual response was “No problem.”  

About a month after I started on the dating sites, I connected with someone who was local, but not too local, and sounded like a nice man. We had a video chat. We met in person for a beer and talked for a couple of hours. He held up his end of the conversation and was pleasantly pudgy, with a friendly face. Two days later, I spent the evening at his place; he was married but, for work reasons, lived apart from his wife most of the time. The moment he entered me, something that had been broken inside was put back together. Sleeping with this man is the most life-affirming sex I’ve ever had. It may be the most life-affirming thing I’ve ever done. 

By the way, my husband knows all about this. Long before I hooked up with the Friend With Benefits, I told him that I needed to end the sex drought and was taking steps to do so. Through copious tears, I related how something just snapped, my sex urge was where it was when we first met, and I was going to go nuts if I didn’t find an outlet other than sex-for-one. I also assured him that he was my beshert: I loved him, would always love him, would never leave him. 

And he understood. He had seen this coming and didn’t know why I’d waited so long. He felt terrible that he couldn’t perform and said there wasn’t any way I could hurt him that life hadn’t already dished out. He wanted me to be happy. “I don’t want details,” he said, “but do whatever you need to do.” His sacrifice out of love only makes me love him more. 

So here I am, a mature woman working in religious life, having joyous, guilt-free extramarital sex. The relationship has been going on for several months, with no diminution of my enjoyment, my FWB’s ardor, or my husband’s tacit support. (Of course, it has to be kept secret from pretty much everyone except my husband.) After all these years, having sex is like a wonderful, unexpected gift: from my lover, from my husband, and, I can’t help but feel, from God. The reach of the Sages just doesn’t extend to my life and circumstances. If my husband understands, I think God does too. 

There’s another benefit to this new world: it’s been enormously healing. For the first 30 years of my life, I was told, explicitly and implicitly, that I was fat and ugly. My husband has always loved my face and body, but I figured he was an outlier, someone with quirky physical taste in women, and I was still fat and ugly. Then, on the dating sites, I found out that my husband’s taste wasn’t so quirky. I tapped into a well of men who like women with brains and big hips. For the first time in my life, I can look at myself in the mirror and like my body, even with the saddlebags and the long ribbons of stretch marks, the knee-replacement scars and the effects of gravity on my breasts and thighs. That’s almost better than multiple orgasms. 

I’m neither proud nor ashamed of looking for sex outside my marriage, of engaging in something so taboo. But it was difficult to undertake something that has such potential for harm, and I don’t recommend it to every woman who hungers for sex in a sexless marriage. Your spouse may not be as understanding as mine, and sneaking around is a drag. I’m not a parent; if you have kids, that might add an extra layer of secrecy and guilt. You may not be as lucky as I’ve been in avoiding potentially dangerous men and situations. Your fear of being exposed may outweigh the pleasure you receive. You may not be able to handle the emotional roller coaster that results from simultaneous intimate relationships with two people, especially if the FWB really is a friend and your spouse is your best friend—but not, in this case, one in whom you can confide.  

That said, I’m not sorry I went this route. Chalk it up to self-care, which religious professionals are repeatedly told to make an important part of their lives. I missed having sex, and having it makes me happy. The only thing that would make me happier would be if my beshert got his mojo back. Then all of me could devote myself to all of him, and only him.  

Art: Berthe Morisot, “Getting out of Bed,” 1885-1886

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January 25, 2021 by

Amy Coney Barrett and Me

As the world watched Amy Coney Barrett on display in the Senate judiciary hearings, I practically heard the sound of bewilderment erupting in viewers’ heads. It’s like the noise that your Waze makes when you make a wrong turn and then she has to adjust her entire plan. It’s that scratchy sound of reconfiguring

The disconnect has to do with the realization that Coney Barrett has two sides. She is on the one hand a smart, competent career woman, and on the other hand also a voice for repressive patriarchal ideas. 

But she is hardly alone. We don’t need to go all the way back to Phyllis Schlafly to find examples of WPPs—that is, Women who Protect the Patriarchy. We have plenty of examples of women like that today. I’m not just talking about the women on the public stage like Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Kimberly Guilfoyle, or KellyAnne Conway, women who have dedicated their public-facing careers to being mouthpieces for patriarchal power.  

No, I am referring to a different dynamic. I am talking about women for whom the patriarchy is personal. Women who live it while defending it. An Orthodox Jewish woman, for instance, maybe the head of the brain surgery department at a hospital but accept that she doesn’t count in a minyan and her voice can never be heard in public. She may even be a brilliant musician while accepting the reality that she cannot sing in front of men, or an outstanding athlete who would never run in anything other than long sleeves and a skirt.  

I know this stance well, because I lived it. I was expanding my horizons beyond what my female ancestors did—getting an education, working, earning money, speaking out—while at the same time finding my place in the women’s section behind the partition. Keeping my shoulders covered. Participating in ritual practices where I did not count and my voice could not be heard. My head was making that reconfiguring noise but it took me a while to notice the sound, or to figure out what it was saying to me. 

It makes sense: pushing back against your community and everything you’ve ever known often comes at great personal cost. Women everywhere pick and choose our battles. Look at how liberal institutions—women included—have tried to sweep #MeToo incidents under the rug over time. All women are in some kind of negotiation with the patriarchy. None of us has fixed our worlds yet, so we all choose to shut out the noise. 

The issue Coney Barrett’s hearings evoked, though, is that the stakes are greater when women who are protecting the patriarchy enter leadership. Then, the contradiction can take a sinister turn. Religious women can use their newly acquired power to keep other women in their place.

Coney Barrett especially reminded me of learned women like yoatzot halakha, women halakhic advisers, who are breaking barriers while using their platforms to protect patriarchal Jewish practices. Yoatzot have been among the first women allowed to take a role that for generations was the domain of male rabbis—advising religious women on ritual immersion and halakhic menstrual “purity.” No matter how you try to parse these laws or how many books are written about the “benefits” of these practices, there is no way to escape the fact that they are based on ideas that are terrible for women: that the purpose of our sexual lives is to procreate, that our menstruation makes us “impure,” that there is no such thing as non-sexual physical contact between men and women, that men cannot look at their wives without wanting sex, and that women’s most intimate body care is under the purview of rabbis. For generations, women have been showing their stained underwear to rabbis to rule about whether they could have sex with their husbands. The yoetzet position brought a welcome change: women with questions about their “purity” could at least show their underwear to a woman instead of a man.  

On a closer look, though, you will often hear learned women insisting that they are not making actual rulings but merely acting as vehicles for men, the genuine voices of Jewish authority. Like Coney Barrett, they are exercising “judgment,” and “power”  but only to support a sexist structure. 

I grew up with female gatekeepers. The Rebbetzin in my post-high school seminary who taught us that head covering was a law brought down from Moses at Sinai. The teachers who monitored the lengths of our skirts, who reminded us that we were not “obligated” to pray mincha because we were just girls. The nice young teachers who, in twelfth grade, took us on an exclusive and exciting field trip to the local mikveh, to school us in getting ready for sex in marriage. As if ritual immersion is all you need to know about sex. And then years later, the local Rebbetzin who gave me “kallah classes” that traumatized me in ways I could not articulate.  

It is hard to break away from the patriarchy, but even harder when you’ve been indoctrinated by women, women who appear warm, and speak about meaning, connection, tradition, and of course God. I call this Indoctrination with a Pretty Face. 

But female gatekeepers can also indoctrinate with force. My mother aggressively groomed us—my three sisters and me—for a life of servitude as wife and mother, and as an object that was pleasing to men. It wasn’t just my clothing, my body, my face, and my food that were managed and monitored. It was also my words, my behavior, my demeanor. A girl who ate too much, who spoke too much, or who stayed seated at the Shabbat table instead of serving, was bad. A girl who challenged her father’s ideas, who ate before her father ate, or who dared get up from the table before the father declared it done, was worthy of disdain. Embarrassing.  

All this was to prepare us for marriage. “Behind every successful man is a woman” were words that we lived by. And yet, even though we were taught that women’s open ambition was ugly, we were encouraged to get an education. The same way we were told we must get a driver’s license, as a kind of protection, but we were never expected to drive. Women’s driving was considered unnatural! My father mocked women drivers, including his daughters, and would never get into the passenger seat when a woman was driving. Nevertheless, my mother ensured that we got licenses, just as she wanted to make sure that we all got a Bachelor’s degree, and even a part-time job if we insisted. It was a back-up plan, not to be confused with a career. I mean, the idea of one of the daughters becoming an independent woman was almost as appalling as becoming fat.  

Somewhere in the back of my brain, hearing all this, there were screechy sounds trying to get my attention, but they were blocked by messages that we had the secret to women’s success. Plus, once you pay attention to the screechy sound, once you start to question the premise of your way of life, well, the whole thing can come down like a house of cards.  

That is what happened to me, though the process took 30 years. 

For a very long time, the idea that this whole identity was in conflict with itself was too hard to unpack. So I took down little pieces, one at a time. Took off my hat. Started sharing roles at home. Pursued a doctorate. Made kiddush. Sat down while my husband vacuumed. Fought for agunot. Added Miriam to the Seder. Drove while my husband sat in the passenger seat.  

But the thing is—and here is where it gets tricky—even while I was sorting it all out internally, externally I was still acting as a megaphone for the patriarchy. I taught religious high school girls, spitting out the same language that today I find intolerable, rhetoric about the beauty of women’s modesty, the wisdom of the halakhic system. Once when a friend of mine shared with me that she had stopped going to the mikveh, I reacted with horror. She still reminds me of that, just for fun.  

One day in my sophomore year at Barnard, I was in a lecture hall listening to a class about gender and politics. In a discussion about the evolution of ideas about women and child care, I raised my hand and said, “But everyone knows that children need their mothers. Everyone knows that a child who grows up  in daycare is going to be messed up.” 

You can imagine the uproar. People who know me today probably don’t even believe the story. But I came from a very different place. I could have continued on my path. Perhaps had things been smoother for me, I would still be there. I think that it is very possible that I could have been an Orthodox version of Coney Barrett. One of my sisters is a yoetzet halakha. Another sister wanted to be a doctor, but did not go to medical school because she kept saying (as I did that day in Barnard) that a woman cannot be a doctor and a good mother. Sometimes I would say to her, ‘Just do it, just go to medical school.’ And she would yell back at me, ‘I don’t need any of your feminism!’ Our conversations never ended well.  

Today, we are no longer on speaking terms. It was my choice. And yet my sister’s story is also my own. The messages she got are the same ones that I got. Marry early. Have lots of kids. Be a good mother. Dedicate yourself to everyone else. Oh, and do all that while being thin, pretty, perky, happy, smiling, and servile. 

Had I not been unhappy with my life, I would have stayed in that world. I challenged what I was living with not because it didn’t make sense but because I was being emotionally and sexually abused. And even despite that, I tried to make it work for a long time.  

It is not hard for me to imagine how a woman can be both a career-go-getter and also a defender of her religious patriarchy. In fact, these personality traits may even go together well. Religious women are often good students—smart, diligent, hard workers. And not even just religious girls. It takes a lot to manage the kinds of lives that working mothers of big families manage. It’s a lot of organizing and thinking ahead, attention to detail, multi-tasking, and problem-solving. To wit, in Israel, Haredi women are considered outstanding employees. They tend to be efficient and punctual, they get a lot done in a small space of time, they do not stand around drinking at happy hour,  and they are reliable.  

Maybe it’s no wonder women like Coney Barrett go far. In places where diligence is rewarded, religious women are well suited. You don’t always need to be creative to get ahead. You sometimes need to do what is expected. That quality fits in quite well with being an obedient religious woman. Her behavior at her confirmation hearings reinforced that impression—she hardly articulated any independent thought, and maintained a resolve that enabled her to get through the grueling process without getting her hands dirty or ever sharing a single personal belief. 

At the end of the day, Coney Barrett was well-rewarded for her performance as the perfect patriarchal woman. She demonstrated a deep and powerful reason why women—even smart, thinking, self-driven women—sometimes become the great protectors of the patriarchy. And that has to do with what they get out of it. For them, the system works. Not only does it work, but it offers compelling rewards. 

You know where to go and what to do all the time. And while a house full of kids is a LOT of work, it is also at times comforting in its busyness. Predictable trips to worship are vital for so many people—less because of prayer and more because of community. Coney Barrett may love her “People of Praise” group where her highest position as a woman might be “handmaiden” as opposed to “leader” because it gives her all the same kinds of benefits that women get in Orthodoxy—community, belonging, identity, friends, structure.  

Succeeding in the patriarchy offers what Viktor Frankel argued may even be more powerful than love: purpose. Gender equality is a nice idea. But then there is what really drives us.  

Not all of our choices are consistent. I hear accusations in feminist circles all the time. You cannot be both a feminist and a mother of lots of children. Or a feminist and financially dependent on a husband. Or a feminist who gets plastic surgery. Or a feminist and mother of soldiers. Or a feminist and a Zionist. Perhaps all of us, in some way, are gatekeepers for parts of the patriarchy. Maybe it’s unavoidable. After all, the patriarchy is the very water we swim in. But in that water, we still have choices. Coney Barrett made choices. My mother made choices. And I made choices.  

Yet if our personal choices are private, once they become public stances, it is a whole different game. If Coney Barrett chooses to embrace patriarchal lifestyles—such as her participation in “People of Praise”—she has every right to be in that place. But once she is a Supreme Court Justice, then she is not just a woman in conflict. She has ironically broken a glass ceiling, but only to use her position to inflict some great harm on other women. If the Supreme Court knocks down Roe v. Wade or cancels birth control coverage, then Coney Barrett becomes a damaging agent of the patriarchy. It doesn’t matter that she happens to be a woman.  

Photo: Kai Medina (MK170101 via Wikimedia Commons) 

Dr. Elana Sztokman is an award-winning author, researcher,  educator, and activist.

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January 25, 2021 by

From the Editor: How Are We, Really?

A former staffer in the Lilith office would always answer the perfunctory “How are you?” question with an enthusiastic, “I’m doing great, thanks. How are you?” These days, both the question and its cheery, upbeat rejoinder seem out of place. We’ve had to change how we say hello and goodbye.

“Sholem Aleichem” is the common greeting in Yiddish, with its reflexive response: “Aleichem Sholem.” I would hear this exchange as a child, both from elders via the Old Country and from younger folks paying their respects not as mimicry but with an understanding of how sweet the underlying sentiment is: “May peace be upon you; Upon you may there be peace.” I always loved the sureness with which this exchange was conducted. Identical in Hebrew, we traditionally chant the lines as an opening to Sabbath rituals. In Arabic the words are the same. The beseeching and its underlying wish are kindly, benign, sincere, maybe even a little banal. Fair enough. These days we would settle for such hopefulness with which to start any encounter.

But greetings like “How’s it going?”—or even “How are you?” which really demands no answer—feel off-limits to us now, as does that blithe “I’m doing great.” Now, we have to probe deeper. None of us can assume anymore that the person on the other end of any conversation is free from suffering, and I find myself beginning even a simple business email (maybe you do the same) asking for reassurance: “I hope this finds you well, as well as circumstances permit.” Our openings are fraught with the underlying assumption that all lives are under threat this very moment, not something most of us have had to consider during our lifetimes, and never for so long. Certainly after a terrible natural disaster, or 9/11, or—recently and horribly—attacks on synagogues, other houses of worship and peaceful demonstrations. But now the onslaught feels consistent, and long-lasting, with no certainty as to when, or even how, the pandemic will end.

Approaching the one-year anniversary of when the Covid-19 virus broke into our consciousness and our communities, I’ve been thinking about how my everyday exchanges signify a different kind of connectedness and concern than they did before. Even strangers now conclude a routine phone call with “Stay safe.” And we now attend to and value the labor of the grocery store clerk and the delivery person—to say nothing of health care workers and eldercare aides who make possible such limited safety as we are able to muster.

Traditionally, religious Jews respond to the pro-forma greeting “How are you?” with “Baruch HaShem,” thank God. Today, even for non-believers, this pious response may connect with how we’re feeling—and I don’t mean merely religion-by-rote, wherein this response can be as unthinking as saying “Bless you” by reflex when you hear a sneeze. (Of course, in our present circumstances, if anyone sneezed you’d run for cover and wash your hands.) What I mean is that I am perpetually conscious of feeling grateful. You too? Despite horrendous losses of life and of health, losses of jobs and prospects and plans for the future, we hear all around us “I feel lucky to have food to eat, or …a place to live, a friend to call….” Or for a book to read, a podcast for company, or a few minutes to spend with a kid talking about something other than the virus’s disruptions and dangers.

Along with recalibrating how we greet people, we’re redefining what constitutes happiness for us now. We’re grateful on this small scale at the same time as we recognize the poisonous behaviors from callow and careless officials who were entrusted with public health and safety and who instead cast aside science, good sense, empathy, responsibility and more to exacerbate our danger rather than ameliorating it.

So, how will our new greetings, with their concern for and gratitude toward others, translate on a larger scale? Dare we hope that even if our own prospects shrink we’ll nonetheless look for ways to help others grow theirs? You know that characteristically the poor give more generously to charity, as a percentage of income, than do the wealthy. Will those who have prospered begin to give more, both to meet daily needs and to drive our society towards justice? Will the gratitude for our own small and large blessings spill over into good deeds, so that we can be reasonably sure down the line of having good health and good government, more fairness and less bias, more food and less hunger, more safety and less peril? May it be so. And may peace be upon you. Sholem Aleichem.

Susan Weidman Schneider
Editor in Chief

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