Nancy Krop Sermon (delivered by Leslie Murveit)
I am honored to be here tonight speaking on behalf of Beth Am Women. As a lifelong social justice advocate, I am proud of Beth Am Women’s dedication to carrying on our timeless tradition of seeking justice. I am also very happy to be part of this wonderful community. I grew up at Beth Am. I was confirmed here, Rabbi Sidney Akselrad married me and my husband Mike here, and our son, Skyler, celebrated his Bar Mitzvah here.
Growing up in my family, in this synagogue, and in this community, I never knew that a commitment to social justice action was optional. As a young child, my parents - including my dad who is here tonight - instilled in me the four basics of human survival: eating, drinking, sleeping, and helping others. None of those was presented as optional.
So why am I talking about social justice tonight? Not just because it’s my passion. Tonight we are here to celebrate Tu B’Av, the Jewish festival of love, with wine and chocolate. As Tina Turner would ask, “What’s love got to do, got to do with it?” What’s love got to do with social justice?
Turns out - everything.
In our tradition, love is not reserved for our families and those close to us. As Jews, we are taught by the Torah to love our neighbors as ourselves, and to love the stranger in our midst. And by love, we don’t just mean the emotion. Our Sages realized you can’t command people to have feelings. So they interpreted “love” to mean “behave in a loving way.” The phrase “love them as yourself” means “behave in a loving way to them, for they are human beings like yourself.”
Maimonides wrote, in the Middle Ages, “this applies to their financial and physical needs. Whatever I want for myself, I should want for others, and what I do not want for myself, I should not want for them” [Mishneh Torah, Deot 6:3].
It is through love - love for our community, love for our neighbors and love for the strangers in our midst - that we find our voices for social justice. Love is the driving force behind all our efforts to seek justice and make peace.
We all know the saying, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” As a civil rights trial attorney, I posted that saying by my desk, to inspire my daily work. In our tradition, every Shabbat, when we light our candles, we are reminding ourselves we should be a force for light and goodness. As Rabbi Shelton Donnell writes, “the light of Sabbath candles is a symbol of our mission: to bring light to a darkened world, to work for the betterment of the human condition, and to strive for justice and peace.”
This is very personal for me. If you had told my high school or law school self I’d be comfortable speaking here tonight, or comfortable talking to juries as a civil rights trial lawyer, I would have keeled over in shock! I was the student hiding in the back row, hoping the professor would not call on me. I was terrified to speak in class.
So what happened? I met Barry. I met Barry as a certified law student, trying cases in state court. Barry was a 16 year old boy who had no one. A 16 year old boy with so much to offer the world, yet charged with his 6th juvenile criminal offense. It was love that unleashed my voice. Love for Barry, for children and for the less fortunate.
As a certified law student, I chose to work for the Public Defender’s office, representing children. We label them juvenile delinquents. My young clients typically came from a single-parent home, where the single parent was addicted to drugs or alcohol. I called them “no parent” homes. They had no capable adult caring for them.
When I first met Barry, he looked awful. He was dirty, downright grungy. Stringy greasy hair covered his face and his eyes. Dirty shirt, dirty jeans. His file, 6 offenses thick, was a foot high.
Barry sat down next to me as we reviewed his file. As we looked through the file, I noticed an interesting thing. Barry’s eyes reached the bottom of each page before mine did. This young man was a quick reader.
I asked Barry, “Where do you go to school?” He named a continuing education high school, for students removed from the regular public school. I asked Barry, “How are your grades?” “Fs” he replied. “How often are you graded?” I asked Barry. “Weekly” he said. I said to him, “If you show up with all As next week when we meet, I’d like to invite you to dinner with me and my 2 housemates.” That was it. It was just a line I tossed out, with no discussion. We then reviewed his file and the facts of his arrest.
The next week, when I showed up to meet with Barry, I didn’t recognize the young man in the room. I couldn’t believe my eyes. In the room waiting for me was a handsome Brad Pitt look-alike. Standing up tall, shoulders back, thick wavy hair brushed back, with a clean shirt tucked into a belt. Without a word, he handed me a piece of paper with his grades - all As.
After our meeting, Barry had dinner with me and my two housemates that night. He was the total gentleman. He helped set the table, pulled out our chairs for us, helped clear the table and do the dishes.
When we appeared in court for the hearing on his 6th offense, the District Attorney argued that Barry should be locked up in California Youth Authority. CYA is the harshest option for children. It’s the equivalent of a prison for children. After six offenses, she was ready to lock him up and throw away the key.
That’s when my social justice light turned on and I found my voice. I knew that if I didn’t speak up, Barry had no one else. Silence, sitting quietly at my attorney table in the courtroom, was clearly not an option.
There are no throw away kids. Not on my watch.
The court did not impose on Barry a CYA sentence. I told the judge the story of Barry that I just shared with you tonight. Of how a simple invitation to dinner morphed into straight A grades the next week. The judge knew of a program where there is one counselor for every two boys, and that is what he recommended for Barry.
There are lots of Barry’s out there. When kids like Barry have no one, and are in trouble, we label them juvenile delinquents. When I was a Public Defender, I was told 85% of the children we label “juvenile delinquents” go on to enter the adult criminal justice system when they turn 18.
This is preventable. As I learned from Barry, what our children really need are adults who believe in them and will speak up for them.
Which is why I am excited about the Beth Am Women social justice advocacy program focusing on children, and giving each of us a chance to speak up for them.
One Beth Am Women social justice initiative is advocating for universal pre-school in California. 60% of the children in our state are growing up in poverty. They start Kindergarten already behind their peers in language development, test behind their peers on the California standard second grade tests, and often stay behind, dropping out in high school. California has built 20 prisons since 1980, half full of high school dropouts.
When I helped out in my son’s Kindergarten classroom, I remember a boy I’ll call Kyle who wouldn’t start the class project. When I asked him “why not?” he replied, “I’m stupid. I can’t do the project.”
Horrified, I asked Kyle why he would say that. Kyle replied, “I don’t know my numbers, I don’t know my letters, I don’t know my colors. Everyone else does.” I then asked Kyle if he’d gone to pre-school. When Kyle said “no,” I explained to Kyle that his classmates learned those things in pre-school. I talked with Kyle and assured him that he was just as smart as them, and we’d catch him up.
No child should ever start Kindergarten believing “I’m stupid.” By truly loving our neighbors – and wanting for all children what we want for our own -- we can speak up to ensure every child in our state receives access to high-quality, affordable early childhood education.
Beth Am Women is also standing up for children, and for all the vulnerable, by advocating for several California gun safety bills. I know there’s no need to create awareness in this community on the need for gun violence prevention legislation. We all know the stories. The two children and young man recently murdered by an assault weapon in Gilroy, and the victims of horrific mass shootings in El Paso, Dayton, Sandy Hook, Parkland, our synagogues, and more.
In addition to the mass shootings, we lose children daily to neighborhood gun violence. A seven year old in St. Louis who was supposed to start second grade this week was shot and killed on Monday while he and sisters were playing in their back yard. He was the 7th child in his city to be an innocent victim of gun violence this year. Firearms are the second leading cause of death for American children and teens, and the first leading cause of death for Black children and teens. Thousands of children and teens In the United States die every year from gun violence.
When my son was around nine years old, I gave a friend of his a ride home after their basketball game and dinner at our house. He lived in a neighborhood where his street was sometimes roped off because of gang shootings. As we exited 101 to enter his neighborhood, from the back seat of my car he piped up, “Hello danger.” I’ll never forget that “hello danger.” It broke my heart.
No child should ever feel that way going home. I hope we can all work for the day when no more children will go home saying “Hello danger.”
Now here’s the good news. Beth Am Women offers all of us a very simple and effective way to speak up for children, to promote universal preschool and to protect our communities from gun violence. It’s through Click My Cause mobile alerts. Every time our voices are needed, each of us can act with just two taps on our iPhones using the Click My Cause Two-Tap app.
You should have received a handout on the Beth Am Women mobile alerts. If not, there are plenty more in the back. The brochure tells you how to sign up for the Beth Am Women mobile alerts by downloading the free Click My Cause app in the App Store.
Here’s how it works. Every time a child needs our voices, whether on gun violence prevention or for universal preschool, you’ll receive a Beth Am mobile alert on the face of your iPhone. When you see that red badge on the app or the banner notification, open your app.
It’s just two taps to act. Tap 1 is on the red “act now” button waiting for you. That tap displays the message Beth Am Women wrote about the bill. You can add your personal note. Tap 2 is on the “send message” button. That second tap sends your message to your state representatives, the full committee voting on the bill, and the Governor.
We know that speaking up works. Just this past week, Rabbi Marder emailed a call to action to oppose a proposed California school Ethnic Studies program that would have institutionalized an anti-Semitic high school curriculum. We flooded the CA Department of Education with messages opposing that biased curriculum. We were heard. The CA Dept of Education is now revisiting that curriculum, and changing the composition of the panel advising the state on the Ethnic Studies curriculum.
I’d like to especially recognize Felisa Ihly, a true champion of social justice, and thank the Beth Am Women board, for empowering each of us to speak up for young children and protect our communities.
Remember: Our voices matter. When we tap on a Beth Am Women mobile alert, with every tap, filled with love for all our children, we can make a difference in their lives. Together, we can shed a light for social justice.