D’var on Ki Tavo by bat mitzvah Jasmine Lowenstein

jasmine-lowensteinShabbat Shalom!

My parsha is Ki Tavo in the book of Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy, Moses is telling the people that once they cross the Jordan River and enter the Promised Land, there will be rules and laws that they will have to follow. If they follow them, God will reward the people with blessings, but if they disobey, curses will fall upon them.

In my portion I found that there were far more curses than blessings. The blessings are only in verse 28, but the curses take up most of my portion including a 55 line aliyah and then, finally, it ends with another blessing. Maybe when the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land they needed structure because the previous generation had come out of slavery in Egypt where they could not make their own decisions (because they weren’t free). Now they are free, but do they know how to make their own decisions?

On the journey from Egypt, they had G-d guiding them and they still made mistakes, as all human beings do. One of the times they were foolish was the incident with the Golden Calf. As you may know, Moses traveled up Mt. Sinai to receive the ten commandments. It took Moses a long time to come down from the mountain and the Israelites became scared. They thought he had died and they had lost their connection to G-d so they made a new deity, a golden calf. When Moses reached the bottom and saw the calf he was furious, so furious that he smashed the tablets on the ground!

In this example, the Israelites weren’t necessarily being foolish, they were just doing what they assumed was right based on what they saw, heard, and thought. Or didn’t think: The Israelites had always had someone leading them whether it was Moses or Pharaoh. So they had not learned how to critically think on their own.

As you can see in my parsha there are a lot of blessings and curses, but why should there be blessings and curses? I think there should be some rules, but I don’t think anyone should be cursed or die if they do something wrong. I think that everyone should get a second chance. Everyone makes mistakes; it’s just part of life. There is a difference between making a mistake and intentionally doing the wrong thing. Sometimes there are consequences for people’s actions and that is also a part of life. Even though there are consequences I don’t think that there should ever be consequences without thought to the surrounding circumstances. It’s not right or fair to that person, if someone does something by mistake and then gets punished just because there are set consequences. The world we currently live in is not fair. Punishments affect some people in worse ways than others. Different people, making the same mistake, can face different consequences because of the color of their skin, their economic class or sexual orientation, among other things. I think this is wrong.

People tend to like people just like them. In order to be fair to others, people have to be in environments where they can interact with each other and even make mistakes. The more people have an opportunity to interact with people different than them, the less they will discriminate against each other.

The LGBTQ community is an example of a community that has been discriminated against and still is. At the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, some people who didn’t know better and hadn’t been in contact with gay men thought that AIDS was a curse, inflicted on gay men, because people thought it was “bad,” “wrong,” or “disobeying to G-d” to be gay. Then when Ryan White, a boy with hemophilia, got HIV from a contaminated blood transfusion it really showed everyone that HIV wasn’t a curse or a punishment for something that people thought was “bad;” it was a disease that anyone could get. Babies were even born with it. People were wrong when they thought AIDS was a curse. Sometimes bad things happen to very good people. Long ago, the Israelites needed (or G-d thought that they needed) these blessings and curses that are in my Torah portion. Maybe in the 1980’s some people needed to think that HIV/AIDS was a curse; it might have been a coping mechanism to explain something scary.

Once people knew there was a scientific explanation, in other words, that you could get HIV/AIDS through blood transfusions, everyone realized it could happen to anyone: it doesn’t matter who you love, and it isn’t a curse. That is why for my mitzvah project I chose to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids, an organization that raises money through the theater community to help support people who have HIV and AIDS. I’ll be having a Broadway sing-a-long as a fundraiser–I’ll let you all know the details when they’re set. It will be a lot of fun!!

In my parsha something else really struck me. G-d says that G-d the Eternal has not given us eyes that can see, ears that can hear, or mind to understand. The first time I read this, I thought: if the Eternal hasn’t given us eyes, ears, or a mind than how come we go to school and take tests and quizzes and manage to get some–if not all–of the questions right? If we do not have eyes that can see, then how do we read the Torah? If we did not have ears to hear, G-d would not have been able to communicate with Moses, Isaiah, Abraham, Leah, Rachel and all of the prophets. If Moses couldn’t hear G-d Moses probably wouldn’t have lead the Israelites to the land of milk and honey. Instead they probably would have ended up in the land of milk and cookies!

But later when I thought about it, I realized that wasn’t what G-d was trying to tell us. What G-d is saying is that G-d gave us sight, but didn’t give us insight; hearing but not the power to comprehend everything to its fullest potential; G-d gave us a mind but no one knows everything inside and out. I think the true message in this is that no one is perfect and people make mistakes. I am a perfectionist and learning that everyone makes mistakes and that no one is perfect has been a big part of my growth as a human being. Making mistakes, reflecting on the consequences, and being more patient with the mistakes of myself and others has helped me to become a better person and less hard on myself. In this I am learning to be a critical thinker, just like the Israelites.

In my haftarah, God is saying there is always hope and your nation Israel is going to be the center of everything. It’s kind of the opposite of my torah portion in that it’s looking at the bright side of life. My torah portion looks at the reality of life and focuses on the bad things that might happen. My feeling is that it creates a mindset that could really affect your outlook on life. We can choose to be an optimist, like Isaiah is saying, or a pessimist, like Moses is saying. Interestingly, both are channeling G-d.

My haftorah is one of the 7 leading up to the high holidays. These haftarot are known as the haftarot of consolation, and are based on balance. I think that maybe G-d was trying to balance the optimistic views to the pessimistic. I have so many people in my life who have helped me to find this balance. I would like to thank everyone who’s here for making the effort to show up and being supportive here today.

I would like to thank all of my friends, whether from school, Young Peoples Theater, or dance–you give me a place to belong. I would also like to thank all of my teachers for teaching me amazing things and making learning fun in the process. I would like to especially thank my teacher since first grade, Ms. Tucker. You are the perfect teacher for me. Thank you for helping me to become less of a perfectionist! I would like to thank Sari Mills for preparing me to start preparing for my Bat Mitzvah by teaching me Hebrew–and for being so nice in the process. Rabbi Alana–Thank you so much for doing my Bat Mitzvah even though you have another congregation and are so busy. You’re so nice and always have a smile on your face and it makes me feel confident, which is important when you are preparing for your Bat Mitzvah! Deb, thank you for always keeping your cool and being so encouraging no matter what was happening. (I think it is good that my Bat Mitzvah tutor also happens to be a therapist.) I would like to thank all of the out-of-towners who travelled from near and far to be here.

I would like to thank my human cousins and my canine one for making all of the family vacations and get-togethers all the more fun. Even though none of you are my age you still make me feel included. Thank you Alex, Eli, Lily and Joey for coming from college to my Bat Mitzvah. Thank you to all of my aunts and uncles for always being so much fun and being like my parents except with no rules!! I would like to thank my grandparents for being some of the most–if not the most-caring people I know. You guys are my role models. Pops and Grandpa–you gave me my love of math and science. And Bubbe and Nana–you gave me my love of music and art. I love you guys.

I would like to thank my Dad for always being soooo great and staying calm even when my sister, mom and I are having breakdowns. And most importantly, feeding us!! You work so hard and are the best Dad in the world. I would also like to thank my mom for helping me relax and feel so much better about myself whenever I’m stressed. And through this process of preparing for my Bat Mitzvah, especially, you have helped me remember that I’m doing great and have nothing to worry about. You’re the best mom in the world. Last but not least, I would like to thank my wonderful, amazing sister Ruby for always being wonderful and amazing and all of the other adjectives that mean that–and for being patient with me even when I can be difficult or sensitive–and still finding time to hang out with me. It’s a great thing for my best friend to be my sister. You’re the best sister in the world. I have the best family in the world. I love you guys. Thanks!!!

 

Commit to Confront Racism

Kol Nidrei Sermon by Rabbi Nathan Martin

Nathan MartinIn August 2014, an African American man, Michael Brown, was fatally shot by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. One of my students at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College was experiencing considerable distress over the shooting. She is partnered with a person of color who is from Ferguson. At the time, I sought to respond as best as I could. I reached out to the student and together we composed an email about ways people could show up at demonstrations or to send tzedaka to the organizers of protests then happening in Ferguson. Yet, I still felt somewhat helpless and ineffective in the wake of it all.

For the last two years, we have witnessed a replay of this unfortunate type of violence again and again. Deb Kraus, in her introduction to the Unetane Tokef prayer on Rosh Hashannah, helped us to take note of the many black lives that have been cut short through police shootings.

As a liberal Jew, I grew up with a narrative of how Jews were allied with and instrumental in helping to fight for civil rights in the U.S, particularly the American south. And how we too, physically or symbolically, marched alongside our African American brothers and sisters to work for change. This remains an important part of my picture of American Jewish history of which I am proud.

And, I have come to realize that simply holding onto that picture is not enough. It’s not enough for this moment in which we find ourselves today. I have been asking myself what can I do to support our Jewish communities to be important players in the work toward eliminating institutional racism that people of color face everyday in America. Some of the hardest questions I have had to ask myself are: “what role do I play in perpetuating discrimination?” and “what can I do to make a difference?” These are difficult questions to face.

Part of my exploration has involved exploring ways in which I, as a white person, live with privilege that others don’t. I recently looked through Peggy McIntosh’s “white privilege checklist” –copies of which are in the back of the sanctuary—which asks you to note ways in which one carries privilege like, “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed,” or “I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race,” or “I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.” I could go on and list others, and encourage people to take a look at the list. But the point is that, as McIntosh notes, I as a white person carry around “an invisible package of unearned assets, which I can count on cashing in each day.”

I am aware that I have absorbed the biases and stereotypes that are the unspoken currency of American culture. I grew up in a primarily white, middle class suburb in Seattle. I went to Jewish day school. And because of this limited upbringing, I didn’t have the opportunity to experience the richness (and challenge) that comes with growing up in a more diverse community. Instead, I absorbed attitudes of distrust and fear of people who were different than me. And even today, when I read about yet another shooting of an unarmed person of color, I can see how challenging it is for me to stay engaged. I don’t want to have to face the imperfections of our country. I want to turn away rather than turn toward confronting potential bias. But now is the time to turn toward. I want to help create a country where my children, and their children, can grow up in less isolation than I did, and where we can eliminate the systematic privileging of whiteness.

And, I know that I am not alone in this struggle.

Our tradition reminds us daily to reach beyond ourselves. Our daily prayers ask us to imagine ourselves in the position of the most vulnerable in our society; they tell us that we were strangers in the land of Egypt and from our long history of experiencing anti-Jewish oppression we know what it is like to be harassed, expelled, and killed. Our tradition teaches us the radical teaching of “tzelem elohim” that we are compelled to remember that we are all created in the image of the divine, that we are all infused with divine goodness. Our tradition thus constantly calls us to spiritual transformation which is a core part of how we transform the world. One small exercise that I sometimes do, and not frequently enough, is to walk down the street and every time I see another person I say in my head “be-tzelem elohim” “in the image of God.” Spiritual practice such as this is one way to harness the wisdom of our tradition towards change.

We also get to reach for each other in this important work. For several years, I have been meeting regularly with a group of white men and women whose focus has been specifically on examining our own racism and how it limits us having the life we want to live. When we get together we listen to each other to share where it is difficult to notice our privilege, where we appreciate our efforts for combating racism, and talk about how we are doing building relationships with people of color in our lives. I also participated in a race dialogue last week as part of a training to facilitate challenging conversations where I listened to the messages that African Americans received about white people growing up. These are not easy conversations to have but they are important. And It is heartening to notice that more of these kinds of meetings and conversations are happening. What would it be like for more of us in this coming year to explore ways in which we can have frank and challenging conversations about race, whiteness, and the ways in which we have had to settle for less because of how we both experience and perpetuate institutionalized racism?

Finally, I am conscious that we are living in a moment of an important national conversation on race, a conversation that has coalesced around the Black Lives Matter movement, most recently with the issuing of the The Movement for Black Lives Platform. The platform, divided up into six categories, includes dozens of demands backed up by policy briefs, strategic plans, and links to model legislation and organizations working on those issues. It includes issues of mass incarceration and inhumane prison conditions which we will be exploring as a community tomorrow afternoon with Margo Schlanger and Ronald Simpson-Bey.

And while I do not want to downplay or diminish the hurt that many American Jews have experienced with regard to the platform’s position and wording around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the vast majority of the document is focused on some practical and some visionary ways that we can change American society for the better. I hope that we can hold this complexity in mind as we do the work of supporting change here at home while also voicing our hope that situations elsewhere in the world are not overly simplified or essentialized in their characterizations. We have an opportunity here to commit ourselves to standing up, in whatever way we can, for a new direction in our country. A direction where we work not only for our own welfare but for the welfare of those who face the daily indignities of personal and institutional discrimination.

Yom Kippur is an important moment in our Jewish year to not only take a close look at our individual drifting from the mark in which we set for ourselves. It is also a moment for us to take a careful look at how we as a society are fulfilling our obligations to support those who are vulnerable to discrimination. It is a time when we re-commit to act in addition to pray.

The Untene Tokef prayer which I talked about on Rosh Hashannah hints at this as well. The prayer notes that works of justice, of tzedaka, lessen the harshness of the decree. We need to enter this new year with the faith and the hope that our tzedek work, our work to right societal wrongs will lessen the harshness of the decree for ourselves and others in our country.

My challenge to all of us tonight is simple.

What is a concrete step you can envision taking in your personal and communal tzedek work that will move us towards a fairer, more just, and more loving and welcoming country for everyone? What can you see yourself doing in your own life to have the conversations about how racism has affected you? What would you need to do this year to be able to come back next high holidays and say, “yes, I made some important progress this past year. It’s not done, but I can be pleased with how I am contributing.”

There is a parable in the Talmud that seeks to answer the question of why the blessing over bread is given such high status among Jewish blessings. The parable talks of a king who has two sons, each of whom he gives an equal amount of harvested flax and wheat and is given the instruction to guard these items. One son builds a storehouse and puts the bundles of flax and wheat under lock and key. The other son takes the flax and processes it into a beautiful linen tablecloth and takes the bundles of wheat and processes them into two beautiful challot. The king rewards the son who took the time and attention to take the raw materials he provided and enhance their meaning and ritual beauty.

As a Jew one of the things I am particularly proud about is the way my people have made the righting of inequality central to our being in the world. The opportunity to do tzedek work in our world can be likened to the children of the king being asked to guard the wheat and flax. Will we take the opportunity to weave these materials into something more beautiful, to help create more equitable ways in which we can live together and share in the benefits of society? Or will we simply build walls around the status quo?

In the coming year may we all be called to harvest and transform the brokenness so that we may live into our commitment that all of us are created in the divine image.

Gut Yontiff

The Shofar blasts:  Waking up to something in a new way

a Rosh Hashanah talk by Patti Smith

patti-smithDespite a lifelong love of being the center of attention and performing, I am actually a very shy person. I am one of those unusual folk who would rather be in front of dozens or hundreds of people than talk one to one with someone. One-to-one makes me nervous. It is out of my comfort zone.

I did something this past summer that is also out of my comfort zone—I went to camp for the first time. Unlike most people raised in the same circumstances as me, I had never gone to camp. I was quite sickly as a kid and going into the woods with no air conditioning or access to doctors was not really possible. But I’ve grown up and medicine is better, and air conditioned cabins are now a thing, so I got a scholarship and off I went to a dance and arts camp in the woods.

The nerves started a few weeks before camp did. I casually mentioned to my husband that maybe I shouldn’t go. I only knew a few people by sight, and wouldn’t know most of the 120 campers and maybe I should stay home. He reminded me that I had gotten a scholarship that I had to honor.

I set off on a Sunday in August. As soon as I arrived at camp, my nerves started jangling—I didn’t know anyone and they wanted us to sit together at meals. I had to make small talk with complete strangers, most of whom were quite a bit older than me and who all seemed to know each other. I held my own but my stomach jumped all over like it always does when I have to talk to people one on one. I found a Wi-Fi signal and messaged my husband, suggesting that maybe I should come home. He replied by wishing me a happy evening. Drat!

At breakfast and lunch the next day, I felt the same uneasiness that I always have. I started to message my husband again when I heard a woman make an announcement. She was looking for people to perform at the daily gathering, the time just before lunch when campers could sing, dance, tell jokes, lead a sing-a-long, or otherwise show off their talents. I erased my message to my husband and went up to the woman.

“I’m Patti from Ann Arbor,” I said. “I do storytelling, if you could use me tomorrow.”

Her face lit up. “I’d love it! You can go first!”

The story I selected was called The Plant People, the theme of which is me being a very literal and very naïve child who literally thought that the plant people were going to come and eat us all.

So I got up there the next day and told my 5 minute story. It is very rare that I say this, but it really hit all the right notes. I normally sort of black out when I’m up there, but I was really in the moment and it went great.

And then something happened. People started talking to me, and I had something to talk to them about. The theme of naivety and childhood hit a chord with people who told me about their very literal son or their sheltered niece. By telling my story, I had empowered other people to share their stories. And in doing so, we had opened a door into a territory of common life experiences. Now we had something to talk about! And my shyness melted away.

Because I got up there and told that story, I met people who I probably wouldn’t have otherwise even met. We have all friended each other on Facebook and next year at camp, we will have lots of stories to share!

patti-smith-warrior-queenPatti will perform her storytelling on Novemeber 10th in “HERsay: An Evening of Performance Art” at Pointless Brewery & Theatre 3014 Packard St, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48108

It is already sold out, but may be a good topic to talk to Patti about next time you see her!

Teshuva: Averting the “harshness of the decree”

Nathan MartinErev Rosh Hashanah dvar Torah by Rabbi Nathan Martin

Shana Tova and Gut Yontif,

I first want to say what an honor and privilege it is for me to be celebrating Rosh Hashannah with you this year. When I started out my job in Ann Arbor in 2006 at the University of Michigan Hillel, I remember the feeling of having left a vibrant Reconstructionist Rabbinical College community and assuming that I would just have to settle for “less” community. And I remember the delight and surprise I felt when I started coming to the AARC.

  • There were God-wrestlers–people who thrived on challenging contemporary notions of Jewish theology trying to find their own unconventional theological path into the tradition
  • There were Jewish learners–people who simply wanted to soak up the various parts of Jewish tradition and find meaning in the voices of our ancestors
  • There were God Seekers–people who sought to integrate traditional and innovative Jewish practice to develop a meaningful Jewish path
  • There were Community Builders–I called these the “doers,” the folks who simply stepped up and made programs and community happen
  • And most of all, there was warmth and welcome. Without fanfare people stepped up and helped me and my family feel at home.

This Jewish diversity within the AARC is what makes you the strong and unique community you are. And my first blessing for the new year is that you continue to draw from these many strands to continue to build a caring and Jewishly diverse community for the future.

Rosh Hashannah is a powerful moment in our Jewish calendar cycle. We are stepping back to assess our past behavior and seeking to re-set our intentions for the coming year. We draw from the metaphor of rebirth–hayom harat ha-o’lam, today the world is born–to see if we too can renew ourselves.

Alongside the process of renewal is the time we take to recognize our own fragility. This is the essence of the “unetane tokef” prayer which we will be reciting tomorrow, a meditation on the fragility of life. The prayer confronts us with images of judgment and the uncertainty of what lies ahead. And then it takes an interesting turn with the words, “uteshuva, utefillah, utzedakah ma’avirin et roa’ hagzerah” –“teshuva, tefillah, and tzedakah avert the harshness of the decree.”

What does it mean to have the harshness of a decree averted?

teshuvah

Let’s focus tonight on the first word of this phrase: teshuva. While translated as “repentance,” the root of the word for teshvua has the meaning of “shuv” to return. I often translate “teshuva” as “returning to our best selves.” Rosh Hashannah and these ten days of repentance are a time when we try to reach for our best selves and imprint this behavior as a guide for the coming year. Often this work is done in the negative–at least liturgically. We recite litanies of mis-steps that we have done personally and as a community. But, the personal reflection moves beyond the liturgy. We each have our own personal spiritual curriculum for improvement. Here’s a personal example for you.

I have a habit of leaving my books on the dining room table–thinking that in the few free minutes I might have between dinner and bedtime I might do some reading. (Usually an overly-optimistic scenario.) When my partner Abby the other day said in a somewhat sarcastic tone “are you planning on leaving your books on the table again,” I could notice a variety of feelings come up that included: defensiveness, “Well I may read something;” guilt, “oy, she caught me;” shame, “I know I should have moved the books and I feel bad and embarrassed that I didn’t.” And, sometimes perhaps even humor, “Oy, there’s Nathan forcing his foibles onto the family.”

The smallest details of our lives can be challenging and worthy of introspection. The more we stop and look, the more we realize that we are constantly falling short of the ideal human being that we would like to be. This may be in the ways in which we take care (or don’t take care) of our bodies, in our lack of attention for those we care about, and the list goes on. But one thing I realized: when I dwell in my guilt, shame, and embarrassment on the ways I come up short of my ideals, I become both the judge and implementer of the “harsh decree” mentioned in the unetane tokef prayer. An important part of the teshuva process is also figuring out to how let go of the strong internal critique we carry that distracts us from refocusing our minds on healthier behavior and choices for the future.

The moment we are able to name and face that we are falling short–that is a moment of lessening the severity of the decree. The moment we are able to name for ourselves and others the person we would like to become–that too is a lessening of the decree. And of course, the moment we are able to translate these personal insights into repairing our important relationships with our friends and loved ones–that too is a lessening of the decree.

As I conclude my remarks tonight and we prepare to move towards the close of the service I want to invite you to think about the notion of bringing someone in close with you as you do your teshuva work this year. What would it look like to invite a teshuva hevruta, a close friend who can help you hold the best picture of yourself, into this important spiritual work? This hevruta could be someone who you could share your “teshuva list” of those who you want to reach out to and apologize to. You could even debrief how it went. This hevruta could be someone you could share your personal spiritual growth curriculum for the coming year–and you could even set up times to check in periodically how the work is going.

As my comments indicate, rather than seeing the world and ourselves being reborn anew in an instant in Rosh Hashannah, we can rather hold onto the metaphor that we are at the beginning of the year’s journey of growth and transformation and an ongoing teshuva practice. Thus, each day when we say the blessing in the daily Amida, “selach lanu avinu ki chattanu” “forgive us our Sovereign for we have strayed” we could actually have our teshuva curriculum in mind as a focusing point for our work.

May we use this time of the next day and during this week to wake ourselves up to new possibilities, define our personal curriculum, and deepen our relationships to support each other in this important work.

Wishing you blessings and sweetness–and growth–in the coming year.

Refugees and Returning to Our Best Selves

deb-fieldYom Kippur talk by Debbie Field

The Avodah service during the afternoon of Yom Kippur has its origins in an ancient temple ritual where the high priest sacrificed a bull to atone for the sins of himself, his household, and the world as a whole. In a radically reconstructed version of this service, I want to talk to you about a project of mine that engages all three levels of the Avodah: self, community, and world.

But before I describe that project, I want to reassure everyone here on two accounts. First, I am not going to talk about sins, but about atonement. And I am using the understanding of atonement that Rabbi Nathan provided in his talk on Rosh Hashanah; that is atonement as teshuvah, as a return to our best selves. Second, I have not redefined myself as high priest, and I am not speaking from an exalted position of holiness. Instead, I want to frame this talk with the line from Pirkei Avot/Sayings of the Fathers that many of you know: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work of creation, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.” So, I’m speaking to you simply as somebody trying not to desist.

I’m going to start with a story. I teach at a small college a little south of here. I have a very nice colleague in the chemistry department who is originally from Syria. One day a few years ago, he stood up in the faculty meeting and asked us all to pray for his country. And everybody said, oh how sad, how sad and then we went back to our lives.

But as the news got worse and the refugee crises began to intensify, I kept thinking about his plea for our prayers. There are lots of different kinds of prayers and ways to pray; for example, when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel got back from marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, he was asked if he had had time for prayer and he answered, “I was praying with my feet.” As Jews, we are obligated to help refugees: in the Torah there are 36 separate reminders that we must help the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. So, as a feet praying kind of Jew, I asked myself how I, as an individual, could pray for my colleague’s country and the people escaping from it. I also wondered how I could engage my campus community.

My first attempt was to suggest that our college house and feed a refugee family, as campuses around the country have started doing as part of a movement called Every Campus a Refuge.  I wrote a proposal that met with a curt refusal, so I redirected my energies. Eventually, the solution I came up with was to design a new course on Refugees in Modern History, which I am teaching this semester. The class includes a service learning component through a fledgling nonprofit organization called Paper Airplanes Tutoring. My students are tutoring Syrian refugees now living in various countries using Skype and Facebook. The goal is to help the Syrian young people improve their English so they can pass the language exams required for university admission. But Paper Airplanes Tutoring, and my class, also have broader goals.

According to the UN, there are 6.6 million refugees internally displaced within Syria, and over 4.8 million refugees outside of Syria, totaling over 11 million Syrian refugees. The United States has taken in just over 10,000; by contrast there are 2.7 million in Turkey. Last November after attacks in Paris, a Bloomburg News poll showed that 53% of Americans were against admitting any Syrian refugees, with an additional 11% saying they supported admitting only Christian Syrians. In the face of this huge refugee crises and our country’s opposition to helping, my aspiration is to change attitudes.

I have learned through many years of teaching that you can’t change people’s minds by railing at them. But through reading, discussing, and the investment in teaching one particular refugee, I hope that my students will see Syrian refugees as products of particular historical circumstances not of their own making, like the other refugees we have been studying in class: Jews and Palestinians, Vietnamese, Somalis, and Bosnians. More importantly, I hope my students will make individual human connections with their tutees and that the sympathy and understanding that results will ripple outward as they talk about their experiences with their friends and their parents and their communities.

I think this has started to happen. In her teaching log, one of my students described how surprised she was at how much she had in common with her student and she admitted she had assumed his culture would be alien and backward. She wrote: “We are so quick to judge others even though they are so much like ourselves; usually it is a mere difference in circumstances. I wish more people could see things this way, but I am glad that this opportunity of talking with my tutee has provided me with the human element to reevaluate my beliefs and change my current assumptions about other groups of people.”

What I’m doing is quite small. It comes out of my own desire to pray, if not with my feet, then with my syllabus, so that what I do every day can be part of repairing the world. There is so much broken in the world, but this Yom Kippur, I am trying to hang on to hope that my small, individual, pedagogical teshuvah is reaching outward to campus, community, nation, and world.

paper-airplanes-logo

Humility/Sovereignty by Anita Rubin-Mueller

by Anita Rubin-Mueller
Humility/Sovereignty: Rosh Hashanah Drash, 2016

anita-rubin-muellerBeing asked to talk about humility in the context of recognizing God’s sovereignty returned me to my spiritual roots, Al-Anon, 1981. In the 12 steps there is a clear relationship between humility and God. Step 1, admit we are powerless. Step 3, make a decision to turn our lives and our will over to the care of God. Step 7, humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings. And isn’t that exactly what this time of year gives us the space to do? Beginning with the new moon of Elul and culminating as the gates close on Yom Kippur, we are invited to deeply know ourselves, the whole truth of ourselves, and bring that truth before the Holy One of Being, whom our prayer book calls “author of creation, teacher of truth” whose sovereign power hopefully empowers us. Humility is about being in right relationship with ourselves and thereby being in right relationship with God.

There are many ways to approach this time of searching within. Sometimes we set out determined, with a particular structure of meditating, journaling, sharing. And sometimes awareness arrives in the midst of our pain, our suffering our challenges. And that can feel like a gift or a curse.

Here’s the story: I can’t remember what happened before, but if you were peeking in on us in the moment of the outburst, it would have appeared that my husband and I were fighting over something to do with a box of crackers. Whatever it was that was really happening, the result was an emotional explosion on my part that had me leaving the house in anger at 9pm to take myself on a walk.

For a while the anger stayed and my thoughts were oriented towards “he does this, and he does that, and it will never change, etc.” Then I remembered myself. That is to say, I realized that this angry, resentful woman was not the person I wanted to be. I remembered the soothing power of self-compassion and placed a hand on my heart as I walked and gently noted my pain. And then I got curious.  Why did this hurt so much?

In her newest book, Rising Strong, social work researcher and TED talk celebrity Brene Brown describes a 3-step process meant to guide us in rising from our fall, overcoming our mistakes, and facing our hurt. She gives a name to what I went through when I went for my walk after the fight with my husband: The Reckoning. Her name for the next step, The Rumble, is indicative of the wrestling that ensues when we are opened in curiosity and compassion to explore our self-justification and habitual stories and find what is really going in our mind and heart and soul.

As I settled into this calm and curious state, a wiser awareness arrived: this was about my 5 year old. Again. Often when I know that I am hurt, instead of feeling angry I am brought there: to the child needing loving attention, to the child needing to know she is lovable, to the child wanting to be held. Recognizing her presence then gave me an opportunity to soothe her and to listen more deeply to myself. I so desperately wanted to be “big” enough to go home, apologize to my husband and move on. But as I continued walking, I realized that my awareness could not yet translate into skilled words and that the best I could do was to say calmly that I didn’t have words yet, and helplessly go off to the basement couch to sleep.

One of the ways I experience humility at this time of year is recognizing that what I release into the river at Tashlich tends to repeat itself. So, as I awoke the next day I was quite aware that last year at this time I had vowed to love my husband as best as I could and for sure this meant giving up the idea that he should do what I do, want what I want, value what I value.  And that introduces the other player in this tale, the self -righteous teen who pops up to protect against the hurt, the sorrow and disappointment of the 5-year-old feeling unloved. She has always been harder for me to embrace, but at least the embrace does come.

To quote Brene Brown again: “The irony is that we attempt to disown our difficult stories to appear more whole or more acceptable, but our wholeness – even our wholeheartedness- actually depends on the integration of all our experiences, including the falls” She calls her third step in the process of coming home to ourselves “The Revolution” and describes it as being able to write a new ending to your story based on the learnings from the process of  The Rumble.

So I awoke to find Roger and my words.

In a letter from the Ramban to his son, quoted by Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs, he writes of humility: ”Let your voice be gentle and your head bowed. Let your eyes be turned earthwards and your heart heavenwards. Let every man seem superior to you in your own eyes. God alone knows the true worth of a man.”

As Roger and I took a morning walk and I tearfully shared my apology and realization, my pain and my hope for a different outcome, I could feel my whole being soften, lean in to this man that I have loved imperfectly for 30 years. And without asking, he shared his insights as well and we came to better understand the dance we have done for so long of triggering each other’s vulnerabilities and acting protectively in response. There is a saying in the Tai Chi principles: 4 ounces displaces 1,000 pounds. When I am corrected during morning practice it is often minuscule, but feels like a miracle, a small adjustment creating a significant shift.

I was sure this shift was here to stay, but “never again” are not the words of humility. Just last week I had yelled at my husband “I need you to meet me halfway”  and found myself heading for the basement couch again, where I looked up the Biblical definitions of humility and found this: “the quality that lets us go more than halfway to meet the needs and demands of others.” I picked up my pillow, returned to our bedroom, and snuggled in, grateful.

Humility is knowing that no matter how hard I try I will never be perfect. It is trusting that the Holy One of Being will have a lot more patience with my repeated mistakes then I tend to have. It is finding lessons mysteriously delivered in unexpected places.

I end with the wisdom of folksinger Steve Earle from a song called “God is God”

God, in my little understanding don’t care what name I call.
Whether or not I believe doesn’t matter at all.
I receive the blessings that every day on Earth’s another chance to get it right.
Let this little light of mine shine and rage against the night.
I believe in God and God ain’t us.

 

Marcy’s Break-Fast Pear Plum Kugel, with Ricotta and Thoreson Farm Apples

marcys-kugelby Marcy Epstein

This is a no-holds-barred, creamy sweet kugel (noodle pudding) that necessitates a good amount of improvisation. In other words, I made this up. There are two conventional kugels Ashkenazim have turned to for over a century– the sweet apple and raisin variety, and the even more common starch-salty kugel of matzah meal, potato, leek or just plain cream sort that serves as accompaniment to a main course.

Because I made this kugel toward the end of Yom Kippur, I aimed for the happy fusion between the two, the dessert you eat as an entree, something to fill a stomach after ten servings of contrition. I combined a salty, creamy starchiness with many eggs and the earthy tang of sweet and earthy fruits. I reconstructed the tradition of eating new fruit of the fall harvest, taking t’shuvah to mean the literal turning of the spoon, I prepared noodles, ricotta cheese custard, and a great combination of fruits I doubt can be exactly replicated: this year’s extra sweet fresh Italian plums, some Bartlett pears, and (learning from Nancy and Drake Meadow how to set up jars and jars of local fruit) fresh raspberries, strawberries from Tantre Farm, serviceberries gleaned from outside a hospice, and Lodi apples gathered from a wild edge of Thoreson Farm (ironically, this farm was first to cultivate cherries in Michigan, but I only had dried cherries about, and dried fruit Kugel is a whole ’nuther casserole.) As I mentioned, improvise. Look to this recipe with open invention, an invitation into the sweet coherence of a signature on baker’s parchment in life’s divine cook book. The secret of kugel is in its ingredients and coherence.

As for coherence, I had a spiritual and practical problem. Homemade noodles would have made this recipe sound that much more home grown, true to humble roots. But practically, it was already torture not to taste the kugel while fasting– to make homemade noodles would have done me in and tripped me up. (I read the al Chet while the kugel cooked.) Wide store bought egg noodles were used instead.

pawpaw5cropped

If you really want to stretch this recipe in another locavore way, hang out with Allison Stupka and Harry Fried, and perhaps you, too, can be enthralled to the seasonal Michigan Paw Paw and its light, complex custard– this fruit could carry the kugel on its own.

One more note: this is not the kugel of my humble roots–that is a fantastic suburban pineapple kugel that I used to make with my mother, Ruth. Among the many things I turned over with the spoon was how I missed making this kugel with her. Mind you, I did most of the making, and she would talk with me, take or make calls to people from our JCC, or tell me about her hayday of hosting Hadassah meetings with this and that. Those are the missing ingredients of my own kugel, the kavanah of turning and folding, the awkward but satisfying slops where the cream and salt hit the fruit. It is in the spirit of lost-ness and return that I dedicate this little kugel to my mother and to Karen, Debbie Zivan’s mother, whom we lost this past month. I was lucky enough to share the holy days with her, to eat kugel with her, and to feel her Jewish motherliness when I could not be with my mom. So this recipe is for them and for yours.

Ingredients:
Salt, one big pinch
Butter, salted, two pats
1/4 cup Olive oil
1 bag of wide egg noodles
1 healthy cup sour cream
1 healthy cup ricotta cheese
3 tbsp of strawberry cream cheese
3 tbsp of regular cream cheese
1/2 cup milk
6 eggs
Two pears, diced
8-10 Italian (prune) plums
One pint jar of preserved fruit: mine  was apples with raspberries and serviceberries. Apple sauce can work in a pinch.
Honey to taste.

Directions:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Set a couple of quarts of water with pinch of salt to boil. Add egg noodles when water is just at a boil, watch for 4-5 minutes, turn off heat and let sit. In a large mixing bowl, add cream cheese and microwave 1 minute till soft. To this, add and turn over a little milk, sour cream, a pat or two of salted butter, olive oil, eggs, vanilla, ricotta cheese, salt, and honey and cinnamon to taste. This mixture should prove to be nearly the mass of the noodles. Strain but do not rinse noodles. Add to a large casserole dish and have another smaller dish nearby in case you can make an extra for someone special. Core and chop pears. Pit and chop half the plums, leaving several halves intact. Fold cheese mixture into pan of noodles and turn. Fold canned fruit into the pan and turn. Fold chopped fruit into the pan and turn. Don’t worry about a topping for this kugel, the starch and oil in the recipe keep it from sticking (as long as you don’t over oil it), and it should have crunchy, pliant noodles on top. Bake for 40 minutes. Check to see if the custard has formed by putting in a knife and seeing it come out relatively clear of batter. Let the kugel sit a little before serving. It is best served luke warm.

Ideas for kugel are most welcome here on the AARC blog, and I can use suggestions before I expand this entry for my little Tumblr blog, New Jew Food.

 

Oct 16 Beit Sefer and All Congregation Sukkah Building

Last year, we build the sukkah on a beautiful day, hope it's as nice this year!

Last year, we built the sukkah on a beautiful day, hope it’s as nice this year!

Beit Sefer students really did the building. Come on out and help!

Beit Sefer students really did the building. Come on out and help!

This coming Sunday morning, Oct 16, 2016 9:30 to 11:30 during our regular Beit Sefer/Religious School time, AARC will be building a Sukkah at Carole Caplan’s farm, 6900 Jennings Rd. The students, teachers and parents will build the sukkah just like last year, and we welcome help from all AARC members and friends. We will scour the land for s’kach (raw, unfinished vegetable matter) roof cover; we’ll make decorations; we’ll sing some songs in the finished sukkah! Please give yourself enough time to arrive by 9:30 so we can get the sukkah built in time to enjoy it. The eight day holiday of Sukkot begins at sundown on Sunday Oct 16.

Our really delightful Children’s High Holiday machzor/prayerbook closed with the Ufros aleinu prayer which is part of the evening Hashkivenu prayer.  The prayer asks God to spread over us a sukkat shalom/shelter of peace. As Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt says,

“During evening prayer there’s an extra blessing added — extra because it doesn’t appear in morning or afternoon prayer — which asks God to shelter us through the coming night. We pray ופרוש עלינו סכת שלומך, ufros aleinu sukkat shlomecha, ‘spread over us the sukkah of Your peace.’” Here’s a link to her blogpost “Shelter and Peace.”

And here’s link to the Hashkivenu prayer as sung during St. Louis’ Central Reform Congregation’s evening service. Recording features a wonderful group of CRC musicians: Rabbi Randy Fleisher, Leslie Caplan, Marty Miller, Andrew John, and Steve Friedman.

When we build a physical sukkah together, we can bring the meaning of this even closer. Enjoy, and see you Sunday.

Who by water and who by [police] fire?

The Unetaneh Tokef prayer is unique to the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy. The first line is variously translated as ‘We shall ascribe holiness to this day” and “Let us speak of the awesomeness.” The poem contains the imagery of the book of life opening on Rosh Hashanah, and being sealed on Yom Kippur. A translation of the poem can be found in this blog post by Rabbi Reuven Hammer.

For our Rosh Hashanah service this year, Deb Kraus wrote this powerful introduction to the Unetaneh Tokef.

From last high holy days to today, how many African American people have died by police fire?

For smoking an e-cigarette, like Alfredo Olango

For reaching for a gun, like Che Taylor
For just having a gun, like Michael Moore and Nicholas Robertson and Corey Jones.
Or for refusing to drop a gun, like Sahlah Ridgeway and Sylville Smith

For waiting for his son’s schoolbus to arrive, like Keith Lamont Scott.
For having his car stall out, like Terence Crutcher
For speeding, like Moses Rubin and Doll Pierre-Louis
For riding a motorcycle, like Terrence Sterling
For stealing a car, like Paul O’Neal
Or for stealing an officer’s car, like Paterson Brown, Jr.

For running away from the cops, like Dalvin Hollins and Deravis Caine Rogers and Jabril Robinson and Rodney Watts and Akiel Denkins and Calin Roquemore and Ricky Ball and Jessica Williams and Miguel Espinal and Donte Taylor and 13 year old Tyre King.
Or for approaching the cops, like Christopher Goodlow and Javario Eagle

For shooting himself in his own wheelchair, like Jeremy McDole.
For being schizophrenic, bipolar, suicidal or mentally impaired in some other way, like James Anderson and Janet Wilson and Joseph Mann and Jawari Porter and Kevin Matthews and Carlumandarlo Zaramo and Tyler Gebhard.

For trying to help a neighbor, like Bettie Jones
For faking a prescription, like Keith McLeod
For selling CDs outside a convenience store, like Alton Sterling
For damaging a traffic sign, like Peter Gaines
And for road rage, like Delrawn Small and Clarence Howard.

For “refusing to cooperate” like Cameron Glover and Gregory Frazier and Nathaniel Pickett and Darnell Wicker, who, BTW, was probably deaf…
OR For doing everything the police said, like Philando Castile
For sitting in his bedroom looking threatening, like Levonia Riggins
Or trying to protect her five year old child in her own home, like Korryn Gaines.
For looking like someone else, like Colby Friday and Donnell Thompson, Jr.
For engaging in “suspicious activity,” like Dazion Flenaugh and David Joseph, and Greg Gunn
For fighting back, like Kevin Hicks and Junior Prosper
For turning around too quickly, like Antronie Scott

For panicking, like all the people above, Blue AND Black…

Although, a sign I saw Saturday summed it up:
“We live in a world where trained cops can panic and act on impulse but untrained civilians must remain calm with a gun in their face.”

Notice race was not mentioned in that last quote. I’ll say it again:

“We live in a world where trained cops can panic and act on impulse but untrained civilians must remain calm with a gun in their face.”

I know that none of these situations are as straightforward as I have presented it.

But this year, as we pray the Unetaneh Tokef, let us really try to comprehend the myriad ways those who have pledged to serve and protect can instead cause people to die by fire, just because of the color of their skin.

–Deb Kraus

For a long reflection on Unetaneh Tokef, written by Rabbi Toba Spitzer, for Rosh Hashanah 5762 (Sept. 18, 2001), please go here.

Our Yom Kippur Workshops in the Washtenaw Jewish News

As is our tradition at AARC, between services on Yom Kippur we have several workshops where we can together study, meditate, and discuss. This year, there will be three sessions.  From 2:15 to 3:30 pm Barbara Boyk-Rust will lead “Soul Nourishment: Meditation and Sacred Chant for the Quiet of the Day” and Ellen Dannin will lead “Yonah – It’s Much More than Just a Whale.” From 3:45 to 5 pm, Margo Schlanger and Ronald Simpson-Bey will lead a conversation about the modern experience of imprisonment, and what kind of conditions–physical and programmatic–create the best chance of t’shuvah.  All are welcome to join any of these workshops, whether or not you are attending services with us.

Thanks to Jonathan Cohn for writing this up for the Washtenaw Jewish News:

wjn-oct-16-web