Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
When my friends ask me how I like my new job, I halfheartedly complain that it’s interfering with my protest schedule. Now that I’m teaching full-time, I’m mostly limited to weekend rallies. Just this week, I saw pictures on Facebook of my colleagues at the State Capitol and felt sorry that I couldn’t miss school to be with them.
This weekend, however, I was reminded of the importance of making an impact within one’s own arba amot, four cubits, which I’ll define as “sphere of influence.”
The amah is an ancient measure of length–roughly 1 1/2 feet–the space from the tip of your longest finger to your elbow, the distance from your heart to your hand, your reach. The rabbis defined one’s personal space as four cubits, about six square feet. Perhaps they came up with this measurement based on the behavior of Rav Huna son of Joshua, who reportedly never walked four amot without having his head covered in recognition of God’s presence above him. (Talmud Kiddushin 31a) Rav Huna understood that going beyond one’s private space meant making a public statement.
I often think of the classroom as my arba amot, where my reach extends just beyond the self to each of my students, where I have an opportunity to influence those outside my family and close circle of friends. This is where I’m most comfortable: using my teacher voice to inspire other people’s teenagers. But in times of crisis, when called to use my prophetic voice to impel others to act, I learned to stretch to my limits and speak out publicly.
During the last two years I’ve spent my free time doing advocacy work for SOJOURN: The Southern Jewish Resource Network for Gender and Sexual Diversity, and for their partner organizations Georgia Equality and Georgia Unites Against Discrimination. In particular, we were fighting discriminatory legislation, so-called Religious Freedom bills, which would have harmed LGBTQ+ people and other vulnerable citizens in Georgia. This weekend, I was honored along with my friend and Rabbis Without Borders colleague, Michael Bernstein, to receive the Michael J. Kinsler Rainmaker Award for our advocacy efforts and for making our places of work and worship inclusive and welcoming to all people. We took a break from protesting to celebrate at SOJOURN’s annual costume gala, Purim Off Ponce.
SOJOURN’s Executive Director invited my daughter to introduce me and, while I didn’t know what she would say, I knew I’d be crying by the end of her remarks. Receiving applause when she thanked me for asking my students their pronouns along with their names on the first day of class, she departed from her script to note, “it’s the little things that add up to make a big difference.” She reminded all of us that everything we say and do, even within the confines of our personal arba amot, can reach far and wide if we recognize God’s presence above us and see God’s image in the people around us.