Abu Nasr Al-Farabi (z”l): Al Farabi was a ninth-century CE scholar likely born in Central Asia who spent most of his life in Mesopotamia. One of his greatest achievements is what he carried forward: the scholarship of Aristotle and Plato. It is no exaggeration to say that without Al Farabi, the works of Aristotle and Plato would be lost to us, and the foundation of Western thought and art would be forgotten. With the decline of the Roman Empire, the intellectual culture of Greek and Roman thought disappeared from where it was born, but was thankfully preserved in the writings of Arab scholars in Baghdad. Scholars like Al Farabi, who produced treatises expounding on Aristotelian logic, thereby preserving it for later thinkers like Maimonides, Avicenna and Averroes. It would then be passed back to the Italian peninsula and the European world hundreds of years later. In other words, there would have been no ‘re-birth,’ or Renaissance, of classical Greek and Roman thought had it not been preserved by the Arab and Muslim world in this critical period after its early ascendancy. Al Farabi carried important traditions forward that were not necessarily his own, L’Dor v’Dor.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (z”l): Proud Jew, champion of women’s rights, and legal titan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg had the Hebrew words from Parashat Shofetim (Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9) displayed prominently on her wall – Tzedek, tzedek tirdof; “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” She truly lived her life according to those words, making America a more just nation for women, People of Color, same sex couples, and those accused of crimes. She found her voice not only in the cases for which she was in the majority, but also in dissent – about which she said, “That’s the dissenter’s hope. That we are writing not for today, but for tomorrow.” Let us dissent with dignity as RBG did, and in her example hope for a better tomorrow.
Ray Frank (z”l): Right before Rosh HaShanah in 1890, educator and journalist Ray Frank happened to be visiting Spokane Falls (now Spokane), Washington. When she asked about attending services, she discovered that—despite a sizable and prominent Jewish community—there would be none. Such was the rift between the liberal and the traditional Jews, neither would join with the other to celebrate the hagim. Appalled, Frank could not believe a community would refuse to pray with one another. Her reputation was already quite strong—she was a fierce advocate of Jewish education, an unrelenting voice against anti-Jewish sentiment and action, an unapologetic op-ed writer calling Jewish religious and lay leaders to task—so an underwriter offered to sponsor services if she would give the sermon.
It’s hard to imagine how atypical that idea was. Women were rarely given public forums in which to speak and the middle and upper-class social codes actively undermined women who took on public speaking roles in mixed-gender settings. Even at political rallies and conventions related to suffragism, women who gave public speeches were eviscerated by the press. In Jewish circles in particular—especially at the turn of the century when anti-Jewish sentiment was tied to a growing anti-immigrant fervor—women were not encouraged to take on public roles.
Ray Frank not only preached on Rosh HaShanah, she let the Jews (and the non-Jews) in Spokane Falls have it. Isn’t there enough hatred in the world, she asked. Aren’t we fighting enough battles? Haven’t we learned the lessons of sinat hinam—hatred between people? Don’t you owe it to your children to overcome your differences and establish a permanent congregation? So effective and stirring was that speech, a non-Jew who listened that night donated the land on which to build a synagogue. Frank preached again on Yom Kippur and powered her way into the spiritual fabric of American Jewry. The “Girl rabbi in the West,” “the maiden in the Temple,” and “the Jewess on the pulpit” preached and sermonized, drash’ed and taught her way across the Northwest, throughout California, across the Midwest and up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Fiery and passionate, Frank refused to let Jews sit back and be passive about their roles in their own communities, their obligations to each other, and their responsibilities as American citizens.
Sometimes when I hear Rabbi Brous preach, or when I hear Rabbi Tsadok teach or Rabbi Lebell lead a service, I think about how amazing it is that—as extraordinary as they are as individuals—their positions as religious leaders and public speakers are totally normalized. I would love to have a meal with Ray Frank, to hear her sharp critique of the ways in which we still have not learned the lessons she taught 130 years ago and her warm praise of the ways we have, and to probe her on why she argued against women being accepted into the rabbinate. She was such an incredible badass, a genteel, proper, ladylike badass, who moved men and women of all faiths to act better—better to each other, to themselves, to their children. What a gift it would be to thank her for taking on that extra gig at the last minute like that.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (z”l): Few Jewish writers in the English language have influenced modern Jewish theology as deeply as R’ Heschel. His writings have shaped the way we think about God, about the Sabbath, and about the scriptures themselves. He introduced generations of American Jews to the rabbinic heroes of the Talmud. He also showed us that the mitzvot of the Torah are not only halakhic, but also involve making the world a better place. Heschel modeled Jewish allyship – marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr. who called Heschel “a truly great prophet.” Heschel was instrumental in cementing ties between Black Americans and Jewish Americans that remain strong to this day. In Heschel’s memory, we are called to study Torah, and to put the Torah’s revolutionary ideas into practice in our world.
Patrisse Khan-Cullors: An LA native, through her art and writings, Khan-Cullors challenges us to recognize the systemic racism, homophobia, and heterosexism that pollutes the very air we breathe. As one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, Khan-Cullors, like John Lewis before her, has spearheaded a movement that is actively making our world a better place. As an organizer for BLM and Reform LA Jails, Khan-Cullors is an example of how we can work within the system to do Tikkun Olam – repair the world – while at the same time seeking to build a new, better system. As a living and still very active member of the Los Angeles social justice community, we have the opportunity to support Khan-Cullors prophetic work today by voting for and working to pass Los Angeles County Measure J – which will direct funds away from law enforcement and imprisonment and toward programs and services in under-resourced communities.
Congressman John Lewis (z”l): Lewis was a fine orator and a brilliant man, but he wasn’t known for soaring rhetoric, rather for his fierce and unwavering moral vision. He was willing to stand up for what was right, even when it threatened his own personal safety – such as when he was beaten and had his skull fractured by police officers while marching for voting rights in Selma, AL. In his final years, Congressman Lewis led a sit-in on the floor of Congress to advocate for gun control; in his final days, he supported the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality. Throughout his life, John Lewis was a crusader for voting rights – which are under persistent and pernicious attack. In Lewis’s honor, it is our duty to protect our right to vote and to vote every time and on every single item on the ballot.
Jonas Salk (z”l): Jonas Salk made summers safe. On March 26, 1953, Dr. Jonas Salk announced a safe, tested, effective vaccine against polio, the scourge of summers and an ongoing terror for people of all ages and especially parents of young children. As the lead researcher and engineer of the vaccine, the New York City-born virologist changed the nature and experience of childhood in the US. By the mid-1960s, a systematic, comprehensive vaccination program essentially eradicated the disease from North America and Europe and greatly reduced its spread across the world.
I think about Dr. Salk all the time now. He was insatiably curious about viruses. He purposely eschewed securing a patent for his vaccine because he wanted nothing to get in the way of its usefulness. He chose to use a deadly virus as a base rather than a live virus, throwing off the wisdom and tradition of his field. He tested the vaccine on kids. He has been described as a person of great warmth—not a people person but a person who loves people. He created a world in which vaccines were normative, life-saving, even miraculous. I would love to meet him, to thank him for letting my mom and my siblings and me have a childhood without fear. I would love to hear his take on Dr. Fauci. But really, in my selfish heart of hearts, I would want him to go back to his lab and find a way to help me give my son’s summer back.