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Dreams of Peace: Arabic for Interfaith Engagement

We are thrilled to announce an exciting new course this Spring at RRC for students and qualified community members. This Introduction to Arabic course will provide the tools needed to reach out to Muslim American dialogue partners and to Arabs in the Middle East.

We believe that learning a foreign language can be a powerful peace building practice.

The flyer below provides the details:

Arabic for Interfaith Engagement

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In the Depths: Prison Chaplaincy and Incarceration in America

The Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives proudly announces our newest initiative:  a workshop entitled In The Depths:  Prison Chaplaincy and Incarceration in America. For several years, students at RRC have been expressing interest in issues related to incarceration in our country. We are blessed to have in our city a unique resource, Phyllis B. Taylor, R.N, a Jewish woman who has served for over 15 years as a Correctional Chaplain in the Philadelphia Prison System. Phyllis has worked with inmates, families, and staff of all faiths. She brings to that work decades of experience as a nurse and a nationally known expert in the field of hospice, grief and bereavement.  In addition, Phyllis and has been an activist for social justice since 1961.

Phyllis will share her wealth of experience with prison work from two perspectives:  pastoral care/chaplaincy (Jewish and interfaith) and social justice advocacy. She will address issues of incarceration in light of race, gender, class, and family systems. Guest speakers will include a corrections officer, a former inmate, a crime victim, and an advocate for systemic change.

The workshop will take place at RRC on Wednesday and Thursday, January 29th and 30th from 9-4.  We welcome auditors from the community, especially rabbis and other members of the clergy.

Prison Chaplaincy Workshop

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“Orange is the New Black”: Incarceration in America

This post was originally published on Odyssey Networks - On Scripture.

“Orange is the New Black”: Incarceration in America (Shoftim, Deuteronomy 16:18–21:9)

Orange is the New Black“Heartbreaking and hilarious” is how Netflix describes its new series “Orange Is the New Black,” which premiered on July 11 (all 13 episodes are now available live to subscribers). Based on the 2010 memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, the show woos viewers with an exotic real-life premise: a beautiful blond WASP, a Smith graduate with a loving Jewish fiancé, finds herself with a federal prison sentence of a little more than a year, the result of a misguided love affair/drug-ring adventure almost a decade before. As one reviewerof the book put it, Piper Kerman “could be you. Or your best friend. Or your daughter.” 

But Piper Kerman is hardly a typical prisoner. The book and the series present a variety of other prisoners’ lives in ways that are compelling and, in some cases, devastating. These are people whose stories are mostly hidden from view, behind prison walls. In 1980, there were half a million Americans behind bars. Since then, the number has increased five-fold. America leads the world in the percentage of its citizens it incarcerates, with catastrophic numbers for racial minorities, particularly men. 

Our system of federal, state, county and city jails and prisons involves not only prisoners but former prisoners and their families, as well as those employed to maintain the system.  Those who read or watch “Orange”should ask themselves if housing Piper Kerman in the federal penitentiary was a good use of taxpayer money. They should go on to ask if our sprawling penal system is, in general, the most effective and humane means of achieving public safety.

This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, suggests that it matters how a society deals with those who break its laws. The portion devotes itself entirely to questions of criminal justice — the establishment of courts, the investigation of crime, witnessing, protecting the lives of inadvertent murderers from revenge, and rules of warfare.

The closing verses of the portion (Deuteronomy 21:1-9) raise a question: What happens if a slain body is discovered in an open field? The Torah explains that, in the absence of anyone to punish, the judges and elders from the nearest town must take upon themselves to arrange an elaborate sacrifice, after which they declare themselves innocent.

Perplexed by this rule, medieval Jewish commentator Rashiasks, “But would it enter one’s mind that the elders of the court are murderers?”  He goes on to explain: “Rather, they declare: ‘We did not see him and let him depart without food or escort.’” In other words, we failed to take proper steps to prevent this crime in the first place.

The idea of communal responsibility is an intriguing one. We must answer as a society not only for what we do, but also for what we fail to do. “Orange Is the New Black” should make us ask questions: How did we get to a situation where we have more crime than other Western countries and, far in excess of the amount of violent crime, more people locked up in prisons? There are beautiful scenes in “Orange,” moments of insight or camaraderie, moments that speak of redemption and transcendence. But the strength of both the book and the series is the clarity with which it makes its central point. Those moments occur despite, not because of, the way in which the prison is run.

Kerman’s book concludes with a list of organizations such as The Sentencing Projectand the Women’s Prison Associationthat offer the opportunity for further education and activism. The website for the Netflix series includes no such listing. This is unfortunate. What the series should provide is an opportunity for a conversation, not only about crime and incarceration, but also about the problems of reentry into society faced by those who have completed their sentence and now seek to establish productive, dignified lives.

For the real-life Piper Kerman, there was a Hollywood ending to her ordeal. She resumed her privileged lifestyle, she and her boyfriend eventually wed, and there was, of course, a book contract. Although Season One of the Netflix series ends on a much darker note, presumably all will work out for the TV version of Kerman, as well. Few of her fellow prisoners, however, will be so fortunate. 

One of the more powerful scenes in the series occurs in the penultimate episode when the violence and irrationality of the prison are reaching explosive levels. Taystee, a young African American woman, has returned to the prison after her release just months before. She explains to a friend why she got herself arrested again. “It’s better than going to three interviews a day for jobs I ain’t going to get and sleeping on the floor of my cousin’s two-room apartment.” And, she adds with a defeated shrug, “Here I get dinner.”

Hilarious? Not really.

Heartbreaking? Absolutely.

And we are all responsible.

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And Now a Word from the “White Lady”

Alpha Phi AlphaI recently had the occasion to speak at a prayer breakfast organized by the Philadelphia chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first African American, inter-collegiate, Greek-letter fraternity, founded in 1906. APA has become an important national organization, and this event was to honor the memory of Reverend Canon Thomas Wilson Logan Sr. the oldest serving African-American priest in the Episcopal Church, USA who died last year at the age of 100. The brothers of the Rho chapter were establishing a scholarship fund in honor of Father Logan, as APA has become a philanthropic, as well as service and activism organization.

It was my great honor to be part of the “warm up acts” that preceded the keynote speaker, the Reverend James Forbes, Jr.

Newsweek named Reverend Forbes one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English language, providing just one of many titles, prizes and honorary degrees the minister has collected over a long career. Although my expectations were high, Forbes’ sermon exceeded them. In addition to brilliance, wit and warmth, the man radiated genuine kindness and humility.

Among the pleasures of the morning was getting to hear my colleague Reverend Dr. Wil Gafney of the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia give a stirring meditation on the Biblical heroine Deborah. Wil had the good grace to post her words on her blog here and I recommend them to you. That said, you really had to hear Wil’s delivery to fully experience the power of her teaching. I am planning to avail myself of the next opportunity to hear Wil preach.

My own words for the occasion were far from notable. What was memorable for me was the experience of being in a large, very full room, and realizing I was the only white person there. (The only other interfaith invitee was an imam and he was black.) I am used to being a religious minority---the token Jew among a group of Christians---but being a racial minority was an unfamiliar experience. When the speaker before me mentioned the phrase “white lady,” I startled. In just another minute, I would be rising to deliver my words. I don’t think of myself as a “white lady,” but there it was, and there I was.

I realized then the burden of being a token in a society that is, despite claims to the contrary, very far from post-racial. I opened by saying “And now a word from the White Lady.” I added, in a phrase that I don’t believe I have ever used before, having heard it that morning from another speaker, “Lord, have mercy.” Fortunately, the audience laughed with me.

There is always so much to learn. As President Obama said in Jerusalem just last week, it is imperative to try, whenever we possibly can, to see how the world looks from someone else’s eyes.

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The Huppah and the Supreme Court: A New Year's Resolution

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page

HuppahBack in 1982, a young couple came to me with an unusual request. They wanted a Jewish wedding that included a public statement acknowledging what they referred to as their “heterosexual privilege.” They felt it was important while under the huppah to recognize that they were invoking a right denied gay people by every state in the union.

Just a few years before, I had been married with the blessing of the State of Connecticut and two Reform rabbis. Not a word was said about gays, lesbians or injustice. I knew only one person who had celebrated her same sex union with a “wedding ceremony,” but my cousin Frances Fuchswas way ahead of the curve, even for California. In fact, Frances recalls that her friends, gay and straight, thought it was “a little weird.” In those days, no movement in Judaism, including my own, knowingly ordained gay people, much less sanctioned their marriages.

I told the couple that I would marry them, and that they were free to say whatever they wanted about this issue. But I would stay out of it. The truth is: I had nothing to say. In my encounter with that couple, they were the religious leaders, I, the follower.

Today, I have something to say. Hence, my (secular) New Year’s Resolution:  to challenge others as that couple challenged me. Weddings are celebrations, not only of personal milestones, but also of communal values. I will no longer squander the opportunity to lead. Over the years, what once seemed to me an incongruous addition to the wedding ritual began to feel increasingly appropriate. At the start of 2013 it has become—for me—imperative.

Why imperative? Haven’t we come far enough already? Indeed, in some segments of our society, we have witnessed an astounding transformation. All the non- Orthodox rabbinical  seminaries now ordain men and women regardless of their sexual orientation, and many rabbis perform Jewish weddings for straight and gay couples. Even the stodgy New York Times marriage section now announces same sex weddings. A growing number of citizens live in states that recognize gay marriage. And this year, for the first time, the United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear two cases involving the constitutionality of denying gay people access to the same protections and privileges accorded straight people who commit their lives to one another.

Which brings us to why establishing gay marriage as a social norm is imperative.

First, most states still do not allow gay people to marry. Where I live, my gay rabbinic colleagues routinely perform weddings by “the power vested in them by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” a state that will not recognize their own marriages. Furthermore, our federal law lags behind and takes precedence over the laws in states that have gay marriage. Significantly, this spring the justices will rule on a case in which the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) will come under scrutiny. That Act defines marriage as between a man and a woman for purposes of federal law. Until DOMA is overturned, same sex couples marrying in one of the states in which it is legal still do not have the rights of a spouse to access federal benefits ranging from social security to treatment of their children to immigration status to inheritance taxes to health insurance. The listgoes on for eight pages.

Consider the analogy to interracial marriage. In 1966, Gallup polls. showed only 20% of the U.S. population approved of interracial marriages. There were still 17 statesin which such unions were prohibited. In 1967, the Supreme Court declared those laws unconstitutional in Loving v. Virginia. The struggle for a racially just society required the legal breakthroughs of the civil rights era. It also required—and still requires—changing hearts and minds. As we await the Supreme Court’s decision, one that may well take its place beside Loving v. Virginia as a landmark of justice, I want to move toward that landmark on the ground, one conversation at a time, one ritual at a time, until gay marriage becomes a legal right and a social norm.

My New Year’s Resolution:  Each time I plan a wedding with a heterosexual couple, I will initiate a conversation about marriage equality. To be specific, I will suggest that they include in their service a prayer for change. The particular prayer is not important, acknowledging the issue publically is. I will also challenge my rabbinic colleagues who do not already do so to include something similar in their own wedding planning routine. Here is my version, also posted on Ritualwell.org:

As we stand under the huppah today, we give thanks that we can marry with the blessings of our rabbi, our community, our state and our federal government.

At this moment, we turn our gratitude to concern. We pray for the day when our country recognizes and honors the marriages of our gay brothers and sisters just as it recognizes and honors our own.

We pledge to contribute to _______ (fill in organization) that is working toward that end.

May there soon be heard in our land the sound of gladness and joy as loving couplesall loving couplesdance and sing and celebrate.

May that time come speedily and in our day.

Amen.

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Life of Pi: Can a Movie Make You Believe in God?

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page.

Life of PiWhile there are many new films in the theaters this holiday season,Life of Pi” seemed to be required viewing for me. As an interfaith educator, how could I not see a film, whose protagonist, a boy named Pi, is born a Hindu, loves Jesus and practices Islam? While Pi’s co-star is a 450-pound carnivorous Bengal Tiger and I am not a fan of animal movies, the theme of interspirituality intrigued me. And as a person of faith, how could I pass up the opportunity to see a story that claims it will “make you believe in God”?

I went with my daughter and returned a week later to see it again with my husband. I will gladly go back a third time with anyone who will come along, if only for the magnificence of Ang Lee’s visuals, the brilliance of first-time actor Suraj Sharm, and the opportunity to hear if my companion agrees with the critics. I do not.

The reviewers seem to agree that Ang Lee’s gorgeous film, based on Yann Martel’s 1991 novel, is a stunning technological achievement. No argument there. The more sophisticated ones, however, refuse to be taken in by its alleged theology. The film “invites you to believe in all kinds of marvelous things,” says the New York Times, but “leaves you wondering if you saw anything at all.” Or to put it as Salon did, it is “radioactive hokum.”

I think the critics are missing something. The film tells a single story in two versions, only one of which is shown on the screen. At the end, it poses a question: “Which version do you prefer?” followed by the comment: “So it goes with God.” The New Yorker reviewercalled that, “the most howlingly presumptuous and vapid line of dialogue I’ve heard in a movie this year.” If I saw that exchange as the key to the meaning of the film, I might agree. And though I would not say it so arrogantly, I might also agree with the one line Twitter comment: “Ang Lee’s Life of Pi brings you closer to God the way Skittles bring you closer to rainbows."Fortunately, I do not think that is the point.

No doubt, the film does want to contrast, as Pi puts it, “dry, yeastless factuality” with the power of the imagination. On one level, the movie is—as some critics have noted—about believing in art. It is not incidental that the overall frame of the screenplay has the adult Pi telling his story to a novelist who is in search of a new plot. But the ability of stories to create transcendent meaning is just the start. I do think the movie is about God, but not the kind of God one chooses to “believe in” or not, who is featured in lush stories with animals rather than in dryer, flatter, more prosaic accounts. It is certainly not about a God who explains why people suffer and redeems all evil. This is not a God whose story one necessarily would “prefer.”

I understood the movie to be about living in relationship with the mystery at the heart of all life. Some call that mystery God, others use different names. But as the film itself reminds us, names are a tricky business. (Due to a clerical error, the tiger, Richard Parker, has a human name.) From an early age, Pi is drawn to the mystery. He reaches out to God in every language he can find, while his father, a rationalist of the New India, tries to impress upon him the value of cold, hard science. The young Pi also wants to connect with Richard Parker, at this point still a caged animal in Pi’s father’s zoo. Pi’s father does succeed in teaching him the danger of that particular longing. In the version of the story we see on film, as a result of a shipwreck, Pi finds himself on a life boat with the very tiger he both loves and fears. In awe of what soon becomes his only companion, Pi must figure out how to survive.

Richard Parker is magnificent, terrifying and inscrutable. Often, he is hiding. Pi soon despairs of ever fully taming Richard Parker, but, as Pi puts it, he tries to at least “train him.” At one point, Pi has the option to be rid of the tiger forever, but he chooses to take him back, knowing that his struggle with Richard Parker is keeping him alive. Pi wants more than to simply triumph over his companion or even to reach a détente, to endure. Pi wants a relationship.

Later in the film, Pi narrates another version of the story, not shown on the screen, one that is quite horrifying and lacks any wondrous animals. But, as Pi says, neither version of the story explains why the boat sank in the first place; neither version is without its terror. The story with the animals, presumably the “God” story, is no sweet pie-in-the-sky theology, as the critics seem to assume. The Slate critic asks: “If the tiger isn’t just a tiger but a stand-in for God or nature or the universal Other, do we still need to worry about him chomping off Pi’s arm?” I don’t know about you, but my God takes arms, not to mention whole persons, frighteningly often. This is not a simple story of the value of enchantment, a “sugar coated revelation.”

In one of the last scenes in the movie, Richard Parker reveals that Pi’s love for him is not reciprocated. In fact, he apparently has no interest in Pi at all. It is an absolutely devastating moment, one so powerfully realized that I completely forgot the tiger was only an animal, and a computer generated image at that. I wept. In the end, it is not about preferring one version or another, of “believing” in God or not believing in God. Like Pi, some people simply can’t help but see the universe as Thou, even if that Thou— at once gorgeous and terrifying—is largely indifferent to us. Nevertheless, the effort to connect sustains us.

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To Bigotry No Sanction

This post was coauthored by Seth Kreimer, Kenneth W. Gemmill Professor, University of Pennsylvania School of Law.

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page.  I would love to know what you think. Please post your comments on HuffPost.

Pamela Geller's "Support Israel, Defeat Jihad" ad campaign arrived in New York subway stations this month. The campaign strives to be as clever as it is malevolent. Geller claims it is simply a pro-Israel political statement. But the ad's text is a calculated echo of Ayn Rand'sslur that Israel's opponents, and indeed all Arabs, are "primitive…savages."

Not missing the point, the New York City transit authority first rejected the ad as demeaning, only to be forced by a Federal District judge to accept it because of the First Amendment right of free speech.

The issue of free speech is, however, a red herring. The campaign aims to distract and confuse Americans. Geller has played that game before. Concern for sensitivity to victims' families served as a cover for the anti-Muslim agenda in Geller's last major initiative, the controversy she helped create around what she misnamed the "mosque at Ground Zero."This time, Geller wants to link her ad campaign and its legal battles with free speech in America and backlash in the Middle East. She claims opponents of the ads are un-American. She is wrong. Opposition to bigotry is as much a core American value as freedom of speech. It is Geller's effort to set the two at odds that flies in the face of our ideals.

Geller's ads seek to provoke the behavior she claims to fear, and to provoke enough of it to create fear in others. Like Geller's other pet project, "Stop Islamization of America,"the campaign is designed to stoke anxiety that American Muslims do not understand and support America's freedoms. Geller posts provocative ads. She then reports on her blog---with great satisfaction---any examples of Muslim Americans reacting in ways that fail to appreciate the complex, messy business of freedom of speech in this country. At this, she cries, "The sharia-ization is beginning!"

Fanatics from my faith do not represent me!In fact, major Muslim American spokesmen responded to the ad altogether appropriately. CAIR national communications director Ibrahim Hooper said, "The First Amendment grants everybody rights, including to be a racist and a bigot."But you won't find that statement reported on Geller's blog. Nor will you find the pictureof an orthodox rabbi and a Muslim protesting the ad with a sign stating "Fanatics from my faith do not represent me!"

As Jews, we regularly expect Muslim and Christian friends to denounce anti-Semitism and terrorism within their own communities. In fairness, it is our duty to join others in stepping up when Jews are the ones promulgating hate. Geller knows well that apparent support for Israel is one way to package an anti-Muslim message that makes it tricky for Jewish leaders to offer unequivocal and unified denunciations. Her tactic, however, does not seem to be paying off across the board. Even Jews who do not usually agree on matters related to Israel are refusing to be distracted. The Anti-Defamation Leaguecarries on its website a condemnation of Geller, for "consistently vilifying the Islamic faith under the guise of fighting radical Islam." On September 21, the Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and Say No!issued a statement condemning Geller's ad .The same day, the Jewish Council for Public Affairsdecried Geller's ads as "Bigoted, Divisive and Unhelpful." Rabbi Rachel Troster of Rabbis for Human Rights North Americahas spoken out, as has the president of the Union of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

In his famous letter to the first Jewish synagogue in America, George Washington wrote that the United States government grants "to bigotry no sanction."But because our government does grant to all its citizens freedom of speech, it will protect the right of Pamela Geller to post her bigotry, just as it allows over 900 hate groups, including anti-Semitic groups, to operate. In America, the work of giving bigotry no sanction devolves on citizens. We are the ones with the liberty---and the obligation---to speak our own truths in the face of hate mongering. And Geller isn't clever enough to stop us.

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My Neighbor's Faith: Trouble Praying

This column is an excerpt from the book 'My Neighbor's Faith: Stories of Interreligious Encounter, Growth, and Transformation.'

"I envy you Jews," said the young German as he poured my morning coffee.

The year was 1980. I was the guest of a graduate student at Heidelberg University. My stay in his home was part of a month-long trip through Germany with Jews and Christians engaged in "post-Holocaust interfaith dialogue."

My host's statement surprised and bewildered me. I was just beginning my dissertation on the topic of anti-Judaism in Protestant "Old Testament" theology and I thought I knew a lot about the relationship between Jews and Christians. In fact, I was planning to devote my career to helping Christians see their complicity in the suffering of the Jews and to transcend the flaws in their theology. I could understand my host feeling sorry for us Jews. I could understand him apologizing to us. But I could not understand him envying us.

"Why in the world would you envy Jews?" I asked.

His reply changed my life.

"I envy you because it is easier for you to pray. You see, we young Germans carry the weight of what our parents and grandparents did -- or did not do -- during the war. It is hard for us to talk to God. We feel a little embarrassed." Although the conversation took place 30 years ago, I can conjure it up in an instant: the earnestness in my fellow student's voice, the clarity in his blue eyes.

I had thought, until then, that it was we Jews, the victims, who had trouble praying! There was something about the way he said it -- perhaps the phrase "a little embarrassed" -- that made it feel completely genuine. This conversation clarified for me my core belief, a very useful thing to discover at the age of 27. After that morning, I possessed an orienting idea, a place to check in regularly to see if my plans were aligned with what I believed.

I believe that we should live our lives so that our children won't be "a little embarrassed" if they want to pray. Until that morning, I thought that meant being a good daughter, a compassionate friend and a dutiful citizen. But now I saw something new: taking responsibility for the group from which I derive my identity, the group whose actions will lead my children to be proud or embarrassed before God. For me, that group was and is the Jewish people.

The immediate result of this revelation was that I changed my dissertation topic. Rather than looking at problematic Christian texts, I would study problematic Jewish writings. I would investigate the ways in which my own tradition misunderstands others rather than point a finger at the others for misunderstanding us.

That can be challenging. For example, today, when I choose to speak out about certain policies pursued by the State of Israel, colleagues -- including good friends -- e-mail me to say they disagree with my action. "You ought to be criticizing Hamas," they say. "There are enough non-Jews jumping on the bandwagon to condemn Israeli actions; we don't need rabbis doing it too!" "Besides," they often add, "however bad Israel's actions, many other countries have done much worse."

They are right, of course. But what can I do? I can learn as much as possible, consult Israelis I trust who know more than I do, and try to speak with humility. My commitment to Middle East work, like the interfaith work to which I devote most of my time, grows from my core belief to which I have tried to stay true. Being part of a community means being ready to argue with it, to critique it, to ask it to live up to its best self.

I say I do it for tikkun olam, to make the world more whole. But the deeper truth is that I do it for my daughters. They are now in their 20s, still figuring out their relationship to their Jewish heritage and to God. I want them to be able to pray without embarrassment. Although there is much to lament in the way some Christians and some Muslims have treated and continue to treat Jews, that is not my issue. My job as a Jew, as a mother, is to scrutinize my own faith tradition and my own community. Given that I have uncertain knowledge and limited power, all I can do is my best. But thanks to an encounter 30 years ago, I know what I am trying to accomplish.

This post was originally published on the HuffingtonPost - Religion page.  I would love to know what you think. Please post your comments on HuffPost.

 


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Shabbat Ha'Gadol: Setting the Table for Passover

passoverI recently posted a piece on Shabbat HaGadol for the Odyssey Network's new series of Torah commentaries on the HuffingtonPost. Here is the link on Odyssey Network and on HuffingtonPost.

The title sounds boring, but I promise you that it is not a conventional Passover message.

Please take a look and tell me what you think. I would appreciate it if you “liked,” tweeted and/or shared the post with others. You may also want to follow this weekly feature on Huffpost. There are some wonderful commentators lined up for the weeks to come.

With warm wishes for a sweet Pesach,

Nancy Fuchs Kreimer

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