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Clergy Column by Rabbi Jeremy Morrison


Should Congregation Beth Am Adopt the Practice of Land Acknowledgement?*
November/December 2021

This past High Holy Day season was suffused with the experience of reconnection. If you were able to join with us in person for worship, we reveled, despite our masks, in reuniting with one another and in joining our voices together in prayer. It was so uplifting to sing together!

Our reconnecting with one another was intertwined with our reconnecting to the land of our campus, a place where so many of us had not gathered together for services for a very long time. As a relative newcomer to Beth Am who grew up in a colder and more urban environment, the experience of worshipping in our Outdoor Chapel is consistently revelatory. The beauty of the surroundings inspires meditation; the diverse flora, and the presence of birds and breezes during our worship, deepens a sense of wonderment and an understanding of our prayers that praise Creation.

Often, as I look out towards the Los Altos Hills from the bimah, I imagine what they looked like before the construction of the homes and buildings that are now part of the landscape. And during this past High Holy Day season, I began to wonder: who dwelled on our land before we did?

I posed this question to our Executive Director, Rachel Tasch, who dutifully went to the bank that holds the security deposit box where we keep the original deed of trust that was signed on July 3rd 1958, by the then president of our congregation, Fred Neustadter. You might be interested to know that Beth Am’s land, all of its 9 acres, were purchased for $48,500 (!) from Henry and Martha Werle. Our land, like much of Los Altos Hills, was once part of Rancho La Purissima Concepcion, 4,436 acres granted to Jose Gorgonio and his son Jose Ramon in 1840, and then sold to Juana Briones de Miranda in 1844 for the sum of $300.

Jose Gorgonio and Jose Ramon were Ohlone Native Americans. Over 50 villages and tribes of the Ohlone existed in the 18th century, and It is likely that the Puichon Thámien Ohlone-speaking People, and the successors of the historic sovereign Verona Band of Alameda County, presently identified as the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area, were the original inhabitants of what is now Beth Am’s campus.

Our Jewish past has taught us what it means to lose one’s land, to be persecuted, and of the challenges intrinsic to minority religions and cultures. The Holocaust and its after effects should engender in us empathy for other peoples who suffer from the multi-generation impact of the trauma of displacement and oppression.

Increasingly, institutions in the Bay Area are engaging in a practice known as land acknowledgement: often a formal statement or ritual that recognizes and respects Indigenous Peoples as traditional stewards of the land and of the enduring relationship that exists between Indigenous Peoples and, in our case, the land on which we, the Beth Am community, now prays, works and learns.

Should we adopt this practice? And if so, in what manner shall we express our recognition and respect for the Ohlone People? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Rabbi Jeremy Morrison

*For more on Rabbi Morrison’s thoughts about this topic, please watch the video clip or read the text-based document of his D’var Torah for Parashat Lech Lecha from Friday, October 15, 2021.

Fri, December 3 2021 29 Kislev 5782