Thursday, April 11, 2019

Seder trivia - 2019 / 5779 edition

For the last several years, I have collected unusual Pesach stories, and shared three such stories with the community: two true stories, and one fictional story. Participants then have to guess which two stories are true and which one is false. (If you have listened to Wait, wait, don't tell me, you get the idea, except that only one story is false.) You can see previous editions of this game on my web site here

Here are the stories that I shared at our congregational seder last year. Answer (and relevant links) at the bottom. Feel free to use it if you wish!



 American Jewish history is full of conflicts between Jewish tradition and sports. Hank Greenberg didn’t play in the World Series on Rosh HaShanah. Sandy Koufax didn’t play in the World Series on Yom Kippur. Many elementary school age kids get to relive these famous values clarification dilemmas on a weekly basis when soccer practice conflicts with Hebrew school. And for some University of Michigan fans I know, the 2018 Second Seder posed a real dilemma, with the Wolverines reaching the Final Four.

But… did you know about the Canadian version of this dilemma? Canada’s national sport, of course, is hockey. And before the lengthening of the NHL season, hockey fans often had to contend with the Stanley Cup playoffs or finals coinciding with the Passover Seders.

It was the Stanley Cup finals of 1953 which were the crescendo of this conflict between religion and sports.

Friday, November 9, 2018

After the Massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh

These are the thoughts I shared with the community on Saturday, November 3, one week after the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

In the Torah reading this shabbat, Abraham suffers the loss of his wife Sarah.
We read ויבוא אברהם לספוד לשרה ולבכותה - Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and cry for her.
But then Abraham has to begin negotiations to find a burial plot for his wife Sarah.
And so he approaches his neighbors, the Hittites, and says גר ותושב אנכי עמכם ger ve-toshav anokhi imakhem - I am a stranger and resident alien in your midst. Will you sell me a grave so I can bury my wife?
And they respond to him -- נשיא אלקים אתה בתוכנו -- nesi elokim atah be-tokheinu - Abraham, you may think of yourself as a stranger and resident alien, but to us, you are a leader. In fact, you are נשיא אלקים- you are raised up by God! We hold you in high esteem!
Well, if you read to the end of this passage, it turns out that the Hittites don’t end up holding him in high esteem - but Rabbi Harold Kushner has long used these two phrases to describe two different ways that Jews and others understand the Jewish community.
Sometimes, Jews see ourselves, or are seen by others, as גר ותושב ger ve-toshav. As strangers and resident aliens, not really belonging, not really accepted. And often persecuted and oppressed.
And sometimes Jews see ourselves, or are seen by others, as נשיא אלקים בתוכנו nesi elokim be-tokheinu - as leaders, those raised up, even respected for having a special relationship with God, fully welcomed into the societies in which we live, and having a responsibility to shape those societies.
And here’s the challenge: both were true about Abraham, and both are true about every Jewish community in Jewish history.
The assailant on Shabbat thought of Jews as interlopers who don’t belong, who are pulling the strings to create every disadvantage for the people he regards as authentic Americans; who are even perpetrating a genocide against European-Americans.
And his words and acts of violence are in sad continuity with thousands of years of antisemitic words and acts of violence -- because this is nothing new.
When we had discussions with our older Learning Center students about this incident, we said ‘this is not the first time you are hearing about this sad fact that some people don’t like Jews. You know about this from as far back as the stories of Passover and Purim and Hanukkah.’
And just as his words and acts of violence are in sad continuity with the history of antisemitism,
they are ALSO in sad continuity with hundreds of years of American home-grown racism and nativism, that labels various people INCLUDING Jews as dangerous outsiders.
Just confining ourselves to attacks on people at prayer: In recent years we have seen hate-filled murderous attacks on African-American Christians at prayer in Charleston; on Muslims at prayer in Quebec City; on Sikhs at prayer in Wisconsin -- all perpetrated by white supremacists. And had the Pittsburgh attack not happened, we would all be talking more about the Petersburg Kentucky attack, in which two people were murdered by yet another white supremacist solely because they are African-American -- and because the gunman was not able to get into the African-American church that was his real target.
And even THIS WEEK -- since this terrible incident - there are hateful slogans painted on a synagogue in Irvine CA; there are swastikas painted on a synagogue on Thursday in Brooklyn Heights, when there is a dramatic escalation of antisemitic chatter on social media celebrating last shabbat’s attack -- and the result is that many of us can feel flashbacks to earlier times in Jewish history.
How painful it is for me to hear more than one person say to me: “I am just glad that my {parent; grandparent; other relative} did not survive to see this happen in the United States.”
One of my friends asked: “Will the American Jewish community come to look back at this event as our Kristallnacht?
As you may know, this week we commemorate the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, referred to in German as Reichspogromnacht, the terrible Night of Broken Glass in 1938 that marked the beginning of the Shoah period.
Tor many German Jews, Kristallnacht was a wake-up call that the Jewish experience under the Nazis would be just as bad or worse than they had feared.
So my friend asks: is this Kristallnacht?
My answer is clear. Let’s look at some of the differences.
During Kristallnacht, the police were on the side of the assailants, providing no protection to the Jewish homes, synagogues, institutions and businesses that were destroyed.
And this week, four police officers are still in the hospital because of the bullets that they took as they subdued the assailant.
This week, even before the incident had been reported on the news, our own Chief of Police in Hoboken was informed and sent officers immediately to protect our synagogue and to send a message that they are standing by us.
During Kristallnacht, the Jews were isolated.
And this week, hundreds of thousands of people of all faiths and no faith came out to stand by the Jewish community in communities around the country - plus many more this shabbat.
On Monday night, less than 72 hours after the incident, our sanctuary was full to overflowing -- we had political leaders, as well as religious leaders representing Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and Sikh communities, standing with us, standing up to hate, proclaiming that what happened in Pittsburgh is the opposite of what is supposed to happen in a sanctuary, in a house of worship.
And that they treasure us for the ways we are different -
As we treasure them for the ways they are different.
And they know that in similar circumstances we have stood up for them.
(By the way: when people ask me why I spend so much of my time focused on interfaith cooperation activities -- part of the answer is that I feel that Jewish ethics and values demand this of me, but part of the answer is that there’s an element of self-interest. Truly, planning Monday night’s event did not take just 2 days -- it took several years of building and nurturing relationships.)
And you should see - - the bouquets of flowers, the bundles of roses,
The envelopes of letters and notes from our neighbors’ churches, some of which I have reprinted on the sheets that have been distributed;
The posters outside our neighboring houses of worship that announce prayers for the Jewish community -
The Pittsburgh Gazette front page headline that reads in Aramaic in Hebrew letters - יתגדל ויתקדש שמיה רבא - the opening words of the Mourner’s Kaddish. (That’s the kind of ‘dog whistle’ that I can get behind.).
I do long for a time when it could simply be expected that all political leaders would have the agenda of uniting the nation, especially at times of tragedy - helping us to come together and sense a common purpose rather than to sow division.
Not all political leaders today are interested in or capable of doing this, and we could use some help in forging more unity.
But apparently, when necessary, we know how to make the unity ourselves.
Sometimes we feel like the גר ותושב ger ve-toshav- the stranger or alien - but at other times we realize that in this society we are נשיא אלהים בתוכנו - nesi elohim be-tokheinu - we are treasured and raised up. We are a proud part of the mosaic of this country, sharing in the responsibility for its present and future.
And if we are both the strangers and the treasured ones -- it means we need to be vigilant but not afraid.
It means that we will NOT stop gathering in synagogues,
We will NOT stop practicing Jewish values as we understand them.
We will NOT stop emulating Abraham who welcomed strangers into his tent.
We will NOT stop fulfilling the Torah’s commandment to love the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.
We will NOT stop emulating Joseph and Esther and Daniel who ascended to leadership roles in their lands and then sought to make wise decisions that would benefit EVERYONE.
We will NOT stop emulating the prophets Isaiah and Micah who preached a message of peace for ALL nations.
We will NOT stop emulating Cecil and David of blessed memory, who would invite people every week into their spiritual home.
We will NOT stop emulating Jerry and and Richard and Bernice and Joyce of blessed memory, generous healers and sensitive teachers.
We will NOT stop emulating Rose and Sylvan and Daniel and Melvin and Irving of blessed memory, who built and sustained families and communities where the traditions of their ancestors could be passed on.
Each shabbat, when we recite the Mi Sheberakh le-holim, the prayer for people who are ill, we add six extra words, essentially to apologize to God that we are disturbing Shabbat by crying out on this day. We say: שבת היא מלזעוק ורפואה קרובה לבוא Shabbat hi mi-liz’ok, ur’fuah kerovah lavo. “Today is Shabbat, when one is not supposed to cry out in agony - and but we pray for healing soon.”
And this is our prayer today:
שבת היא מלזעוק Shabbat hi mi-liz’ok.
Today is Shabbat, when one should never have to cry out in agony - though we are crying out anyway.
May this and every future shabbat be a Shabbat Shalom, a Shabbat of peace, the peace that was tragically absent last week in Pittsburgh.
May it be a Shabbat of security, of community, of gratitude even at a terrible time.
ורפואה קרובה לבוא ur’fuah kerovah lavo.
And may healing come soon --
To those who are injured and remain hospitalized,
To those who are bereaved,
To those who are traumatized,
To those who are terrified,
To those who are sad and angry and exhausted.
May we find healing soon - because we have urgent work to do.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Hadasim / Myrtles: the branches that bind

See my other essays on the remaining plants of the Arba Minim (4 Species): 

Among the Four Species used on Sukkot, the myrtle branches (Hadasim) seemed to me to be the most innocuously pleasant.  The Etrog is fragile; the Lulav is dangerous with its sharp leaves; the willows quickly dry out. The myrtle branches are, in my experience,most likely to survive Sukkot intact without harming itself or others.  And the myrtle leaves have a fresh, vaguely Mediterranean scent  - best unleashed by crumpling up the leaves, or by scratching the myrtle branch itself.  In fact, unlike all the other parts of the Four Species, it is not particularly difficult to keep the myrtles fresh and fragrant for weeks and even months after Sukkot is over - just put them in a little bit of water.

The myrtle tree gives its name to Hadasah, the hero of the Purim story (better known by her Persian name, Esther).  That Jewish tradition describes a queen named after the myrtle should not be surprising; pliable twigs of the myrtle, together with the fresh scent of the leaves, make it especially appropriate for weaving into wreaths and victory crowns.  Maybe for a similar reason, the Talmud ( includes a small cameo role for myrtle branches, at the conclusion of the story of Shimon bar Yochai and his son, who spent several years studying torah in a cave to escape persecution by the Romans. When they emerge from the cave after twelve years, they are clearly unprepared to return to the regular world after such a period of ethereal seclusion. They return to the cave for one more year.  When they exit again, they see a person who is racing home, holding two myrtle branches.  When they inquire about why he has these branches, he informs them that they are special for Shabbat, and he has two of them to correspond to the two versions of the Shabbat commandment in the Ten Commandments.   Shimon bar Yochai and his son are cheered to see that the people of Israel are taking such pleasure in observance of the commandments (maybe they had feared the worst during their seclusion), and they consent to leave the cave permanently.  Maybe the myrtle branches reminded them of the simple sweetness that exists in the world - and maybe the branches help to bind them to the rest of the community.

A cryptic verse in the Hallel Psalms ( may also make reference to the pliability of the myrtle branches.  In what appears to be a “stage direction” in the midst of words of praise, we are told Isru chag ba-avotim ad karnot ha-mizbeach - - “Bind the festal offering to the altar with cords.”  The word translated as “cords” here, “avotim,” is the same word used to describe the myrtle branches in the book of Leviticus.  This could refer to the myrtle branches being used as a kind of strong twine in the time of the Temple.

Looking at the myrtle branches, smelling their scent, and thinking about how they have been used historically for tying and binding, I ask myself: how do I feel bound to the most ancient parts of my tradition?  How do I plan to keep the sweet scent of the myrtles alive well into the coming year?

Friday, September 14, 2018

"Through the narrow passage" (Sermon for 2nd day of Rosh HaShanah, 2018)

The story is told of a rabbi, a priest, and an imam who all receive a message from God.  The message is that God has finally had it with all of humanity’s sins once and for all. And in six months time, God is going to punish everyone with a flood, but there will be no Noah’s Ark this time. The religious leaders go to their people to share this grim news.  

The priest and imam say to their people:  “We now have six months to purify ourselves before we meet our God. We have six months to pray, to beg for forgiveness, and hopefully our God will be merciful to us.”

And the rabbi goes to his people and says, "Fellow Jews:  we now have 6 months to learn to breathe under water."

Why was I thinking of this old old joke throughout the summer?  Because of a story in the news that you certainly saw. In a year full of so many terrible news stories, with so much sadness and heartache, there was at least one news item that everyone could celebrate - even though it was so stressful when it was going on.  It took place in Northern Thailand.  As you no doubt remember, there was a youth soccer team in Thailand who spent what they were hoping would be a fun day exploring some local caves.  However, they got seriously lost, and then the rains came and the caves started to get filled up with water. For almost 2 weeks, there were intensive searches to find them. Many feared the worst, that they would not be found alive. But then, two expert cave divers discovered them, alive and relatively safe, but miles deep in the cave.

However, this is when the real international drama began. Because  so many of the cave passageways were flooded, and efforts to drill new holes into the cave were not successful, the initial plan was that the only way for them to get out of the cave was for them to engage in some of the most challenging cave scuba diving that could be done anywhere in the world, going through some narrow passages under water that were only 15 inches wide.

And so they started the process of teaching these kids the skills of scuba diving - skills that none of them had, but skills that it was expected that they would need in order to get out of the cave alive. Then in a remarkable demonstration of international cooperation of thousands of people,
after 18 days of captivity, all the boys and their coach were successfully rescued.  (As it happens, the boys did not have to put into practice any skills of swimming or diving, as it was decided that it would be safer if they would be entirely in the care of professional divers during their journey.)

There are so many implications of this incredible story that have spiritual import. The 25 year old coach, who had previously been a Buddhist monk, teaching the kids techniques of prayer and meditation so that they would consume less oxygen and have an easier time dealing with their lack of food day after day. (As someone who had engaged in a lot of fasting as a spiritual discipline, he was able to guide the kids about what fasting would feel like so they wouldn’t panic.)  After being discovered but before being rescued, the coach sent a note of abject apology to the parents, acknowledging that he had made a terrible mistake in authorizing this visit to the cave.  And the parents sent a gracious message back to him in the cave, to let him know that they were so relieved that he was there together with their children and that they were so thankful that he was keeping them safe.  (Which truly he was, in ways that the parents would not learn until after the rescue.)   And after their rescue, the boys spent several days taking temporary vows of Buddhist monkhood in memory of the Thai Navy SEAL who had died trying to rescue them, and also in tribute to the role that prayer and meditation had played in keeping them safe.

So all in all, this is a story about prayer and meditation and fasting and apology and forgiveness, and self-sacrifice and cooperation and generosity, and doing acts of kindness in memory of the deceased.

Or in other words, there is absolutely NO theme from the HH that is absent from this story!

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

"Listen to the Stories" (Rosh HaShanah sermon at the United Synagogue of Hoboken, September 10, 2018)

I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in astrology.  With one exception.

I find it very moving that the astrological sign for this time of year is Libra - the scales - which have been a symbol of justice for so many centuries.

One nickname of Rosh HaShanah is Yom Ha-Din - the day of judgment.  Throughout the high holiday season, our prayers use the image of a courtroom.  This is the day when, from the perspective of Jewish tradition, we each feel judged, and we make every effort to judge ourselves.  In the stirring prayer Unetaneh Tokef, we confront the elaborate metaphor that each of us has our verdict inscribed in a fearsome heavenly book, determining our fate for the coming year.

So for the sages of our tradition, who were more interested in the zodiac than you might have thought, it was no surprise that the astrological sign for this time of year is Libra - the scales of justice - which our sages referred to by the Hebrew name - ‘מאזניים Moznayim.’  For them, this was yet another demonstration that this is the time of year when all of creation passes before God one by one -   תעביר ותספור ותמנה ותפקוד נפש כל  חי - “You take note of and count and attend to every living thing.  ותחתוך קצבה לכל בריאה - and You determine the fate of every creature.”

As we stand today in the presence of these scales of justice, I want to tell you a story of how the scales of justice have a different meaning for me this year נecause of an troubling experience I had this year in an American courtroom.  This story, which some of you already know, has political implications.  But I am sharing this story with you not because of its political implications but because I think it helps us to better understand one of the themes of Rosh HaShanah.  Fortunately we’re not the kind of synagogue where people get up and dramatically walk out when the rabbi says something they disagree with.  (Or if we are that kind of synagogue, you have never done it dramatically enough for me to have noticed.)   But I want to promise you that, first of all, we have a politically diverse community and on this and other issues I respect where you’re coming from whether I agree with you or not, and I deeply believe that the story I am sharing with you can help you to better  understand Rosh HaShanah whether or not you and I are in sync politically.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Political Civility: Rethinking Bar Kamtza

After Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a Virginia restaurant earlier this month, I was asked: Is there any classical Jewish parallel to such an incident? I responded that a close parallel may be a story that is well-known to many Jews, especially at this time of year.

The Talmud relates that the city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Empire as the culmination of a series of tragic incidents that all began with an incident at a party. According to the Talmud: A certain man had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza. He once made a party and said to his servant, "Go and bring Kamtza." However, the servant got confused with the similar names and made the mistake of bringing Bar Kamtza. (In a study group I led this month, someone quipped: “That’s like if I wanted to invite Sarah Huckabee Sanders to my party and I invited Bernie Sanders by mistake.”)

When the host found him there, he said, "You are my enemy!” [alternate translation: “You tell tales about me!”] What are you doing here? Get out."

Bar Kamtza responded: "Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink."

The host said, "I won't."

"Then let me give you half the cost of the party!"

"No!" said the host.

"Then let me pay for the whole party!"

The host still said "No!" and took him by the hand and threw him out of the party.

Bar Kamtza then said: "Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against them to the Government."

Bar Kamtza then contacted the Roman Emperor and said, "The Jews are rebelling against you." When the Emperor was skeptical, Bar Kamtza proposed a test: he invited the Emperor to donate an animal for a sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem and see if the Jewish leaders would accept it. While transporting the animal, however, Bar Kamtza blemished the animal to render it unfit for sacrifice, with the knowledge that the Jewish leaders would probably refuse to offer it as a sacrifice, which would lead the Emperor to conclude that they were being disrespectful to him.

This is only the first chapter of a multi-part story, but it is the most famous part of the story. I have had numerous opportunities to teach this story to adults and children alike, and I always ask: what were the “off-ramps” that were missed in this story? What could each of the characters done to prevent the unfolding disaster?

Consistently, people answer: the host of the party is primarily at fault. He should have welcomed Bar Kamtza, or at least taken him up on his generous financial offer. Alternately, the rabbis at the party should have spoken up for Bar Kamtza to spare him the embarrassment of being thrown out of a party. The Talmud indicates that this was Rabbi Eleazar’s interpretation of the story as well: “Rabbi Elazar says: Come and see how great is the power of shame, for the Holy Blessed One assisted Bar Kamtza in destroying God’s Temple and burning God’s sanctuary.” (BT Gittin 57a) This story is often used as an illustration of the sin’at hinam, “causeless hatred,” that was the ultimate cause of the destruction of Jerusalem. In this story, a petty interpersonal conflict festers into a conflict between peoples and ultimately leads to death and destruction, because of the host’s intransigence.

As time goes on, however, I have started to think about this story differently -- and over time, my empathy for the host has grown, as my empathy for Bar Kamtza’s humiliation has diminished.

A first textual clue is that Bar Kamtza is introduced as a בעל דבבא ba’al devava - a phrase that is often translated as ‘enemy,’ but can also mean ‘tale-bearer.’ And in fact, that is what Bar Kamtza does: immediately after being thrown out of the party, he contacts the Emperor and makes a false report about the Jewish people.

Bar Kamtza’s later actions give us some indication of his character, his connections, and the role that he apparently plays in Judean society. That he has access to the Emperor places him at the upper echelons of society, aligned with those who already have a conflicted relationship with the leaders of the Jewish community. When Bar Kamtza has a grievance, he responds immediately by crafting a plan of deception and manipulation, with the goal of provoking a regional catastrophe, and he has the high level connections to make it happen. It is possible that some of these qualities are the reasons why the host was not excited to have him at the party in the first place.

This leads me to suggest an alternate reading of the story. Bar Kamtza is not at all “embarrassed” to be thrown out of the party. Rather, he is a political operative who knows how to exploit every mis-step of his opponents. Such a person is skilled at harnessing umbrage and using it for political purposes. I picture Bar Kamtza receiving the invitation to the party, realizing that it must have been received in error, and rejoicing that he has an opportunity to exploit his enemy’s mistake. Of course he is going to attend the party, and of course he is going to respond with crocodile tears when he is asked to leave, with the goal of provoking an overreaction by the host. And of course he is going to use the experience as a pretext to pursue the goal that he had already established - but this time with the appearance of the moral high ground.

What would have happened if the host had welcomed him into the party, or taken him up on one of his offers of payment? My sense is that Bar Kamtza would have found some way to exploit this as well. He might say, for example, that it is a sign that the host is unprincipled and materialistic. Or he might overhear some information at the party that he could use to pursue his goals. Or he might simply wait until tomorrow for another chance to pursue his goals. I used to empathize with Bar-Kamtza over his embarrassment at being disinvited, but now I feel that even if he is coddled, he will always manage to find something to take umbrage about, at a time and place of his choosing.

The implications of this reading of this classic story are challenging in light of the current debate over “civility” in the United States and elsewhere. I would still counsel civility as the wise choice in almost every interaction with people with whom one disagrees, even if the disagreement is vehement. A person like Bar Kamtza is trying to provoke an overreaction from the other side, which is a good enough reason not to overreact. But I am increasingly convinced that Bar Kamtza does not deserve our sympathy. And sadly, our world is full of those who will exploit apparent minor slights with the goal of magnifying them into serious conflicts -- and that, too, is a manifestation of the sin’at hinam, “causeless hatred,” that we are cautioned to avoid.

Friday, July 13, 2018

I never thought I would witness a mass trial in the United States (trip to Laredo TX, part 3)

Monday July 9, 2018:
I have no photos of the mass trial we saw, as photos are illegal in the courtroom, but this (illegally taken) photo published in June 2018 in various news publications accurately reflects the courtroom scene that we witnessed on July 9 in Laredo.  See 

On Monday morning, our group went to Federal Court in Laredo TX to observe immigration cases.
I have no photos of this because it is illegal to take photos in the courtroom, but please look at this (illegally taken) photo and article - - , as it basically accurately represents what we saw: a group of more than 70 defendants in a mass trial for illegal border crossing.

The first thing the judge had to do was arrange the defendants in the courtroom in rows so that the taller people were in back and the shorter people were in front. Defendants we saw were mostly men but some women, almost all of whom appeared to be in their late teens or 20s, from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Over the course of the morning, we saw some defendants wearing street clothes and some wearing orange jumpsuits; some were chained and some were not. (My guess is that this has something to do with whether it was a misdemeanor charge (border crossing as a first offense) or a felony charge (border crossing as a subsequent offense). The article says that the defendants were told to answer the judge's questions in unison - however, what we saw was each person answering the judge's questions, one by one, row by row: 'si si si si si si si si .....'. 'No no no no no no no ....'. (Defendants wore headsets for Spanish translation- though apparently some of them speak other regional languages and are not proficient in Spanish).

The article also says that the court-appointed public defenders have less than 2 hours to meet with all the defendants to prepare for the proceedings - translating to less than 2 minutes of individual time per defendant. This is exactly what we were told about the cases we saw on Monday, based on conversations with people who work at the court. (Yet every person, when asked 'do you fully understand the charges against you and the rights you are giving up by pleading guilty,' answered 'si si si si si si si si si si ....')

Obviously I am not a lawyer, and I have almost no experience in courtrooms, but I was disturbed by this scene that seemed so different from what I would expect from the American judicial system. The lawyers and law students in our group were especially appalled, with some saying that they felt they were witnessing due process violations.

All the people we saw pleaded guilty of illegally crossing the border between June 26 and July 6, by walking/swimming/taking a boat/raft/inner tube across the river (as they each pleaded guilty, one by one, they were asked to say how they crossed the border, and everyone answered using one of these means of border crossing), and the next step for them is 'removal proceedings' (i.e. deportation). It is possible that some of them will request asylum during that phase of the process. (from media reports, it seems likely that at least some of them are fleeing violence.) we don't know, however, about the quality of their legal representation and to what extent they understand this part of the process. As far as I can tell from my notes, 'asylum' was not mentioned even once in the court proceedings that we saw.

Presumably each of these people has a story that never got heard. Some of them may have been coming for economic opportunity; some may have been repeat border crossers but this is the first time they had been caught. Some may have been criminals or gang members. Some - especially those from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador- may have been fleeing desperate and dangerous situations in their home countries. But no aspect of their stories were part of these proceedings, other than their names, the dates that each crossed the river, and the means by which they did so. I presume that the court-appointed lawyers also did not have the opportunity to hear their stories.

When we asked Bishop Tomayo of the Diocese of Laredo how we can be most supportive to people in this region, he answered: "Tell their stories." This has been a theme of my trip here: everyone has a story. We met Border Patrol officers who were eager for us to understand that they are each individuals underneath their uniforms, and each one has a unique perspective and motivation for pursuing the work that they pursue. We met immigration activists who each have a story about how they came to be involved in this work. Even at the church in Sutherland Springs, not directly related to the rest of our trip, we met a number of people who were eager to share their stories of being in a community that is recovering from tragedy. And similarly, every person who makes the dangerous decision to cross the border illegally has a story of what brought him or her to do so. The first and most basic step is a small step - to listen to each person's story.