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David Cook

A mean, hardhearted Jewish boy is walking down the street when he sees his rabbi.

Since he's mean and hardhearted, he decides to provoke and trick her. (The rabbi's a woman, which stirs the boy up even more.)

"Rabbi," the boy says, "can you guess what's in my hand?"

The rabbi looks down at the boy's hand. His fist is closed. She looks closer and sees a tiny feather fall out of his closed fist onto the ground.

"I believe you're holding a bird in your hand," the rabbi says.

"Yes," the boy says, but wanting to test her more, he asks, "But is it alive or dead?"

The rabbi knows that if she says the bird is alive, the child will crush the bird, just to make a point. And if she says the bird is dead, the same thing could happen.

So she looks into the heart of the young boy.

"My child, I don't know if the bird is alive or dead," she says. "But I do know that it's in your hand. It's your choice. It's your choice between life or death."

To understand this story is to understand the life and work of Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, who has spent her years as one of the first female rabbis in Judaism trying to open the closed fist within the hearts of men and women across the world. We are all like the boy on the street, each with a decision to make.

Nonviolence or violence? Peacemaking or militarism? Community and understanding or fear?

"It is in our hand," Gottlieb says. "The future and lives of those around us, their well-being and their peace of mind and ability to thrive, it's in all of our hands. We have to set that bird of hope free."

Gottlieb is many things: storyteller, author, activist whose work calls for the end of Israeli occupation of Palestine. She's served as rabbi in two congregations, including one solely for deaf congregants. She was the first woman ordained rabbi in the Jewish Renewal Movement. She founded the Bat Kol theater troupe, which portrayed biblical women and other heroines. She's led Muslim-Jewish peace walks, works with the Shomer Shalom Network for Jewish Nonviolence, supports a boycott-divestment and sanctions (BDS) stance against Israel and has led delegations from the Fellowship of Reconciliation to Palestine, Israel and Iran.

"I like being able to provide a joyous and creative and serious and fun and meaningful environment where everyone is welcome and people can grow and learn," she says.

This weekend, she comes to town as the main speaker in a weekend organized around the study of nonviolence. Called "Justice and Peacemaking: From Gaza to Chattanooga," the weekend is sponsored by Campaign Nonviolence Chattanooga.

At 7 p.m. Friday at Mercy Junction's Justice and Peace Center on Union Avenue, Gottlieb will speak on the courage, wit and power of Jewish women around the world.

Saturday at 10 a.m., she'll lead a workshop on nonviolent social change. That evening, she'll share stories of ways Palestinians and Israelis are transforming the Holy Lands.

"The Jewish community has tended to witness the suffering of Palestinians, to some degree," she said. "Now it is the time to engage actively in interrupting the occupation through acts of nonviolent resistance that have been called for by the Palestinian community."

On Sunday at 11 a.m., Gottlieb will deliver the guest sermon at the Chattanooga Unitarian Universalist Church. In the afternoon, at Grace Episcopal Church, she will lead a banner-painting workshop for social justice campaigns.

Gottlieb was in 10th grade when her rabbi called her before the entire congregation and blessed her by saying that one day, she would become a rabbi; then, in 1973. When she was 23, she became the pulpit rabbi for Temple Beth Or of the Deaf in Queens, N.Y. Later, she co-founded the Nahalat Shalom congregation in Albuquerque, N.M.

Consistently, she has called for the end of militarism and violence, at home and abroad.

"We as believers have to question where our allegiance is. Is it to love and compassion? And faith in the power of love to transform hearts?" she asked. "Or is it in punitive measures that are grounded in fear-based thinking?"

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at David CookTFP.

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