Dean Hansell Drash at Beth Chayim Chadashim, September 23, 2016
Shabbat Shalom. I think the last time I stood on this Bimah to deliver the drash I had hair.
I want to start by paying tribute to my three judicial colleagues who are here with me tonight. They have each distinguished themselves on the bench and NOTABLY have all developed careers as jurists involved with the welfare and justice for our most vulnerable community, children.
Donna Groman is the Assistant Supervising Judge for our Juvenile Delinquency Courts in the LA Superior Court system. She was also instrumental in the establishment of the juvenile justice think tank at the Kenyon Juvenile Justice Center. Chris Marshall was the Supervising Judge of the children’s courts in San Bernardino County. And, Josh Wayser, who was appointed by Governor Brown last fall, has chosen to be a juvenile dependency judge in Los Angeles Superior Court.
To give you a sense of perspective on how important the work is that is done by Donna, Chris and Josh, L.A. County has the LARGEST number of children under its jurisdiction in the country, —-28,000—-these are on the whole kids who have no parents or as a practical matter have no parents because their parents are in prison or are mentally incapable of being guardians or who have serious substance abuse or sexual abuse problems.
The history of BCC judges started well before Donna and Chris. Did you know that the first openly LGBT judges in the U.S. were associated with BCC. Steven Lachs in 1979 and the late Rand Schrader in 1980 were the first openly gay judges to be appointed to the bench EVER in the U.S. And the late Jerry Krieger, who was very active with BCC, was also a very early openly gay judge, having been appointed to the bench in December of 1982. It was remarkably that these pioneers were among the first openly LGBT judges in the country, it was more remarkable that they were all Jewish and even more remarkable that they had an affiliation with BCC. Finally, many of my Bruin friends would add, they were all in the same UCLA Law School class.
Four other BCCers also play a significant role in the work of the courts. Diane Goodman is a well-recognized California expert on family law and wrote the definitive chapter on parentage in the leading book on family law read by all family law judges in the state. Robin Berkowitz serves as an advocate for the state in the Los Angeles mental health courts and is recognized as one of the leading attorneys in this area. Estaire Press is a children’s advocate from the Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles and provides legal representation to children of all ages in Los Angeles County. Finally, Bonnie Kaplan is a teach in the Contra Costa County Parolee Education Program. She has worked with at-risk populations for twenty years and was just honored as Teacher of the Year by the professional association on parole education.
Is it a coincidence that such a large number of members from a small congregation have devoted their lives to the pursuit of justice? Hardly. It is not just because we are a stiff-necked people who like to argue, as the prophets decry. (Although I think both characterizations are kind of true.) This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tavo in which Moses is engaged in a conversation with the Jewish people and reminds them what they are to do when they enter the Promised Land. Central to this section are the mitzot about what they are to do to serve justice for the poor. In Dt. Ch 26 is commandment that will be read in tomorrow’s Torah portion: “you have selected the Lord this day to be your God and to walk in God’s ways and to observe God’s commandments and ordinances.” Then Moses explains in detail what some of those ordinances and laws are. Central in Ch. 27 of Dt. Are the commandments to do justice for the poor and the powerless. “Cursed be he who misguides a blind person on the way. And cursed be he who perverts the judgment of the stranger, the orphan or the widow.
How these commandments are carried out is of course open to different meanings but we cannot avoid the questions. To me one of the most compelling Torah passages occurs just a couple of chapters earlier in Dt. 26, which commands “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof” or “Justice, justice shall you pursue. The only word that is repeated twice in the same commandment in the Torah is “Tzekdek” “Justice”. This is often explained that it is not enough to pursue justice in your own life but you must also pursue it in the world.
So what does pursuing justice look like? That’s the question I am wrestling with. As the newest judge in the room and the newest judge in Los Angeles County I am learning that the decisions we make on the bench are often made with imperfect information, sometimes misinformation, with limited time and mediocre or sometimes bad options. Unlike my three colleagues here tonight I for at least the next 18 months will be a family law judge. This give me immense power over the future of people’s lives. For example, this week I had to make the decision to take a child from a mother and give her to the father even though both were flawed options. Did I make the right choice? Was there more information that would have helped me make a more reasoned choice? Was there even an alternative to the choices I thought I had?
Another family law judge told me about a choice he had to make not long ago. He had to decide whether to place three girls, age 14, 11 and 9 with dad or with mom. First at the hearing he questioned mom. “Where do you live”, he asked? “Echo Park” came the reply from mom. “Do you live in a house?” she was asked. “No” came the answer? “Do you live in an apartment?” he then asked her. “No” again came the answer. “I live in Echo Park under a tree.” The judge then queried the father who replied that he lived in a studio apartment. “If it is a studio he was asked what are the sleeping arrangements?” “The 14 year old girl sleeps in the bed with me, as is my right,” he explained, and the two younger girls sleep on the floor.
What choice could my colleague have made that was the just choice? At least my choices last week were mediocre.
These are the types of questions I will have to wrestle with every day.
Not surprisingly one of the other factors that limits my ability to always do the just thing are the resources I have available as a judge. Many family law disputes call out for intense therapy and for co-parenting parents but what if both parents are poor? There are SOME but not many public resources I can use. The same thing i f I think a skilled evaluator is needed to each view each parent and the children. They are booked 6 months in advance. For poorer families often this is the only option. What do you do until that time?
All of these limitations are just challenges but should not deter me from doing the best I can. Nor can they excuse me from trying to do what is right. This gives more meaning to me to the Talmudic admonition that just because you cannot complete the work does not excuse you from going forward.
For a modest size congregation BCC in keeping with the Talmudic directive to pursue justice has an extraordinary number of members who have greatly distinguished themselves as “Rodphei Tzedekim” pursuers of justice.
As for me, time will tell. Will I be an accomplished pursuer of justice? I am barely in the first chapter of my book with many more stories to go. Stay tuned.