Breaking bread with Rabbi Michael Lezak, newest member of GLIDE’s Center for Social Justice
In July 2017, GLIDE welcomed Rabbi Michael Lezak to its Center for Social Justice. This position, a Rabbi at GLIDE, was made possible by funding from the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, the Lisa & Douglas Goldman Fund and generous individual donors. Recently, we spoke with Rabbi Michael about what a rabbi at GLIDE does. Answer: He bakes!
It was about six months ago now that you relocated from San Rafael to San Francisco. What was it that made your coming to GLIDE possible? And what has that transition been like?
Rabbi Michael Lezak: I had been doing a lot of criminal justice reform work over the past four or five years. I’d read this book, The New Jim Crow [by Michelle Alexander], while taking the ferry past San Quentin. [After that] I brought my congregants regularly into jails and prisons all around the Bay. I was really fed by that work. Then Stephanie Rapp [Senior Program Officer at the Walter & Elise Haas Fund] took me on this tour, and I met GLIDE, and we fell in love with one another. What drew me to GLIDE was just this brand of what you imagine GLIDE to be from the outside, which was this justice juggernaut, a profoundly spiritual home for a broad cross-pollination of people across religion, races and class. So it was this brilliant move on Stephanie’s part to drop me here.
I see one of my major roles here is to build on-ramps for people to claim justice practices here at GLIDE.
I think recurring opportunities of getting proximate will change people’s lives and help us see that I didn’t just serve a meal, but I met my brother who is hungry. That is the opportunity that this place presents.
What does that look like?
ML: I think about those 85 volunteer slots every day, and I think about a Jewish community, 80% or more of whom don’t go to synagogue; they don’t go to the JCC. But a lot of those same Jews will run to serve a meal at GLIDE. There’s something about the Passover story and that we were slaves in Egypt that is wired into, not everyone, but a lot of our DNA. I think that’s why a lot of Jews hang out at GLIDE, because GLIDE walks the walk and the spirituality is totally meaningful. As soon as I landed here, many Jewish organizations within a 25-mile radius had called me and said “we want in.” I had three Jewish day schools come in, and I’ve gone to their schools to teach them. I think there’s one model of coming through and saying we served a meal, wasn’t that awesome, let’s go home. To me, that’s great, but I don’t think it changes us. It doesn’t engage the transformational power of this place. I think recurring opportunities of getting proximate will change people’s lives and help us see that I didn’t just serve a meal, but I met my brother who is hungry. That is the opportunity that this place presents.
What are some of the initiatives that have started to grow from this opportunity?
ML: The cycle of the Jewish calendar is a day of rest, six days of the week, day of rest… I had this friend in Jerusalem who took us to visit patients in the hospital on Friday mornings before Shabbat came in. A florist gave us free flowers. We walked through the rooms and said Shabbat Shalom and brought light to people who were in darkness. I love this idea that right before Shabbat comes in, we do some holy work. I think about that at GLIDE, how does that apply here? Jewish Sabbath starts Friday night. I’m trying to use this Thursday afternoon, Friday morning opportunity. I’d love to bring in a hundred members of the Jewish community here—I think we’re at 30 now, but we’re pushing—where we’re going to serve meals.
We had this crazy idea of starting to bake challahs. That idea came through Stephanie Rapp, who said we need to feed the people who feed people. We need to love them and take care of them and make sure that they are nourished and sustained. And I love baking, and I love this idea of hot bread. So one motivation is to get hot bread into the hands of GLIDE employees who are all working harder than we can imagine. Two, if we could get them skills that would get them a better paying job [someday]. The sixth day in Hebrew, you call it Yom Shishi. It’s this pivot point, where you pivot out of the craziness of the week into the slowness of Shabbat. I know this is not a synagogue, but I think there is a universal applicability of a pivot out of chaos into rest. Americans, we do that on Fridays. James [Lin, Senior Director of GLIDE’s Center for Social Justice] had this idea: What if we ritualize the distribution of challah? On Friday afternoons, when it’s hot out of the oven, we pull together the GLIDE staff, and we sit in a circle. And not only do we eat bread, but we reflect on the week. What was good, what was not good, what do you want to let go of?
What GLIDE has taught me, and teaches this city at its most aspirational, and can teach the world, is that we’re in this together and we’re responsible for one another.
I’ve got 18 spots reserved Friday morning for all of 2018—for people from the Kitchen or anyone from the Jewish community to come serve breakfast. Some people are showing up every week, really amazing, and that came out of this six-part proximate justice class that I taught. I need to give credit to my wife [Rabbi Noa Kushner] who said, you want to get Kitchen people to come serve at GLIDE, before you do that you have to teach them. And so James and Isoke [Femi, Maven of Transformative Learning, GLIDE Center for Social Justice] and I planned this six-part proximate justice class, which worked to help people feel both comfortable here at GLIDE and uncomfortable with the issues that GLIDE deals with. They came to the Tenderloin at night, which some of them would have been hesitant to before the rabbi landed here. We sang with them and taught them some sacred texts, and really pushed them to think about how the people we serve here are their brothers and sisters.
After the class, that Saturday morning 55, 60 people came and took a tour of the Tenderloin with Del Seymour, amazing tour, an intergenerational group. The next Thursday and Friday, groups came to serve dinner and breakfast. We baked our first round of challah right after that. They came to Sunday Celebration where I gave a sermon. And then we had another class after that, that bookended it. And James gave them some homework to think about how your brokenness is connected to some of the brokenness you witness on the street. I saw a lot of people just be transformed. People who used to walk right past homeless folks are saying that they now have new lenses, a real sensitivity and a sense of profound love for humanity.
That brings to mind something you hear from people who work here, that they will have someone come up to them and say, “When you saw me that one time, no one had seen me for a very long time and it changed things for me.”
ML: I think we all crave to be seen, wherever we are on the financial and class spectrum. And to be touched and to be loved. I can imagine that when you don’t have shelter or food, you don’t feel loved. Society is not loving you. We lost sight of the fact that we’re in this together. What GLIDE has taught me, and teaches this city at its most aspirational, and can teach the world, is that we’re in this together and we’re responsible for one another. That I think is redemption. GLIDE turns a life at a time, and then thinks about how to change those systems outside of it. I’m just radically inspired.
There’s this great line that I taught, from Psalm 118, which I call the San Quentin Psalm, which is the first time that I ever really taught it to people. It’s about redemption and there’s a line in there: “The stone that was thrown out became the chief cornerstone for the temple.” When I taught it at San Quentin this guy said, Rabbi, that sounds like the way society treats us, as disposable stones. What the psalm teaches is this capacity to turn human beings. Why I love the Harm Reduction people is, I don’t know who, but I know some of them used to be on the street themselves. GLIDE gave them an opportunity to turn, they have turned their lives around, and now they are reaching back. I can think of nothing more powerful. It’s telling a new narrative. There are seeds of hope everywhere.
Rabbi Michael Lezak came to GLIDE in July 2017 after 14 years at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, where he led the congregation in critical work on prison reform as well as engagement with local community groups and schools. At GLIDE, Michael is working to further GLIDE’s social justice mission—including our community education, advocacy, volunteer and justice initiatives—and to build on the involvement of the Bay Area Jewish community in GLIDE’s work.
Rabbi Lezak will be speaking at Sunday Celebration on February 11, March 18, and May 20.