Zichronot/Memories

Memories by Josh Samuel, on Rosh Hashanah 2017

My family moved to Israel when I was eleven. Israel is built on shared memory.

The memory of the Holocaust permeated my coming of age in Israel, building a wall of justification.

Memorial ceremonies in white shirts on Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers, the day before Independence Day, with wisps of flute music snatched by the wind and solemn poems about the youth being a silver platter on which the country was served.

But there was an earnest sense of belonging, a feeling that our path was right. I remember standing with friends in a clutch of bicycles, shortly after the Yom Kippur war, discussing seriously what we would do if we were invaded and how we would resist.

Years later, at my farewell party in Albuquerque NM, heading back to Israel after my two-year postdoc, we heard that Yitzchak Rabin had been shot and killed. We returned to Israel, but that sense of belonging had evaporated.

There is a hole where that feeling of belonging was, like a missing filling, huge when probed with the tongue, but seemingly imperceptible when viewed from the outside.

I no longer celebrate Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s independence day, nor do I celebrate the 4th of July.

There is a sense of loss when a place leaves you, or maybe it was never actually there from the beginning.

I fight against the cynicism and anger that the loss of belonging to a country can invoke.

I strive to find belonging in a community for myself and my family.

Because that is all there is.

and it is enough.

[Editor’s note: Each year we extend the learning from the High Holidays by publishing some of the talks given during services. You can find other Rosh Hashanah talks from past years here.]

 

Miriam Chava Berman Stidd dvar on Bereshit

Shabbat Shalom!

My parsha is Bereshit, which as most of you know, tells the story of the creation of the world. We read today the first chapter of Genesis, verses 1 through 23, which takes us from Day 1 through Day 5, from the creation of light and darkness all the way through the creation of birds and fish.

I wanted to read this last Aliyah because it reminded me of the Marc Chagall stained glass windows in Nice, France, at the Marc Chagall Biblical Message Museum, which feature birds and fish. These stained-glass windows mean so much to me because they are by one of my favorite artists. His art pieces about creation almost make me think they are not just about the creation of the world, but about Marc Chagall creating himself through his art, because his visual interpretation of the creation story tells you so much about who he was as a person. It wasn’t just that Chagall was expressing himself, he was creating who he was right then and there, in that moment.

So, who was Chagall? Born into a very religious Jewish household on July 6, 1887, there weren’t any pictures of anything, because according to his family and tradition, any representations were idolatry. Despite his parents not wanting him to, he still left his home in Belarus and went to art school in France and eventually became a great artist. (This clearly shows the importance of listening to your parents). He is well known for his paintings and stained-glass windows that depict biblical stories and other things. This was a way he displayed his spirituality.

Out of respect for his parents, he didn’t want to display them in his art, so the fish represented his father (he sold fish at a local market). His mother’s name in Yiddish sounded like the Yiddish word for chicken or rooster, and if you look closely, there is a rooster in almost every one of his paintings. Chagall is creating himself through including these elements by letting you see a piece of his parents’ and his childhood, which are still a part of him at the time he creates the art. [Read more…]

The Call of the Shofar: Rena Basch on Activism

Rena and Jeff Basch at our 2017 Annual BBQ. Photo by Stephanie Rowden

by Rena Basch, from her dvar on Rosh Hashana

Often people hear a distinct, sharp call to action. Something happens; something shocking or traumatic happens to you, your family, your community, or your nation. We hear these calls to action. They’re often loud and clear. Yet, we struggle with what actions to take. We hear the call. But then what?

There are also softer, more subtle calls to action. You’ve heard something over and over again, but then one day, the same words sound different. Something crystallizes in your head. “Aha,” you say. You hear the call.

For me, current events of 5777 provided an unrelenting cacophony. Deafening calls to action. I sifted through the noise, adjusted priorities, and chose a path for tikkun olam. I’m fortunate and grateful for being able to do this: hear the call–consider, contemplate, plan–then act. I have learned how to do this from all of you. Our community sounded the shofar, then taught me how to hear it. You’ve showed me how I can be useful, can help change the world.

Here are just a few examples:

A pair of our founders, my friends Aura and Aaron Ahuvia, extend an invitation to me–a call to an unaffiliated, uninvolved Jew: Come to our Reconstructionist Havurah. I’m like, “What’s a Reconstructionist Havurah? Sounds like a cult.” They took the time to explain, and Aha! I’m in. This is Judaism to me.

Over the years, these subtle calls to action continued from our community members. A very young Sarah Kurz–I will always remember her empathy. Back when the Hav was still meeting in the basement of a church near the law quad. A special aunt of mine had died. I’m crying during services and Sarah comforts me. I hear the call: I need to do that too – comfort those in need. Stop being afraid to reach out.

Again, a few years ago – Marcy Epstein says “let’s plan Shmita. Let’s plan Shmita for the Jewish community of Ann Arbor and southeast MI.” And I say, “Huh? What’s Shmita? Never heard of it.” Then, “that’s too devout, that’s too spiritual, that’s too big an endeavor. I can’t.”

“Of course you can,” she said. “Food! Land! Justice! Shmita!” Aha, I hear the call. She and Carol, and Idelle and many others made me see how I was needed to help us study and celebrate Shmita.

Last year, Rabbi Alana spoke at the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice 50th Anniversary dinner. Here’s what I heard her say–more or less: “You old activists need to listen to the young activists to understand today’s issues, to understand today’s methods. And you young activists need to learn from the old how to build infrastructure.” Aha! A clear call to action. I can help with that. I can learn from different generations. I can help build bridges.

Again, this past year, right now really–the cacophony. Bells are ringing loud and clear. The shofar blowing every morning in the form of daily news. Fresh assaults on our values nearly every day. The antithesis of tikkun olam. I heard, I hear this shofar. Most of us here today hear the call to action. And our community, like usual, we’re hearing that call–we’re listening, processing–the are wheels turning, and we’re helping each other find our way to action.

I decided in November to become “An Activist.” (Because I need yet another career path, another to-do list, right?) I’ve been listening to my mother saying over and over again–“gerrymandering is tearing apart our nation.” Aha! The light bulb goes on, the idea crystallizes, I hear the call. I can act to fix that.

I look around our congregation and see role models everywhere, activists of all sorts, hearing the call, living their values, giving their skills and time, acting to make the world a better place in a myriad of different ways. I tell Rebecca Kanner I’m going to work on redistricting reform. I ask her to teach me how to be an activist.  She says “you already are.” What? Huh? ……Aha! thank you. Thank you for giving me the confidence to say, yes. Yes, I am an Activist.

So thank you, my Ann Arbor Reconstructionist community for giving me the support, the role models, the opportunities and the confidence to truly heed the shofar. We all hear the call. We are all acting.

 

Isabel Ahbel-Rappe’s bat mitzvah d’var on D’varim

Shabbat shalom.

In my portion, D’varim, the Israelites have arrived on the other side of the Jordan River, near the Promised Land, after spending 40 years wandering around in the desert. Moses is talking to the people, telling them the story of their whole journey, from Horeb to their current location on the other side of the Jordan. First Moses told how God had said to them: Go to the Promised Land and claim it, take it away from the Amorites. God promised this land to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their heirs.

Moses then reminded the people of how the time came when he couldn’t handle all of their complaining. As their leader, he had been in charge of judging all their disagreements. Moses suggested each of the 12 tribes pick a representative or chief to be the judge for their tribe. The people said that was a good plan and the representatives were appointed.

Moses gave each chief important instructions—to be kind and fair to each other and to strangers, and to treat everyone equally. Moses told them if they had any problems in the tribe and the chiefs couldn’t handle it, they should bring that problem to him. Next Moses reminded the people of how they left from Horeb and traveled through the terrible but great wilderness to the hill country of the Amorites. They went there because Moses was following God’s command to go to this land that had been promised.

When they neared the Promised Land, the people wanted to send scouts ahead to check things out. Again they picked a representative from each tribe, and sent them to the hill country to spy on the Amorites. When the spies returned, some of them said it was a really wonderful country that God was giving them. But the people refused to go into the Promised Land because other scouts said that the people there were stronger and taller, with large cities with sky high walls.

Moses said, You guys aren’t listening to the Eternal our God. God will go first to help you with everything you do. God’s the one who got you out of Egypt. Moses compared God watching over them to how a parent watches over their child. But the people didn’t have faith in God or what Moses was telling them.

God was listening to the people complaining and refusing to go into the land, and God got angry and vowed that none of that generation would see the Promised Land. Not even Moses. The only exceptions were Caleb, because he remained loyal, and Joshua, who took over for Moses as leader.

The people were sorry and some now wanted to fight. But it was too late. God didn’t protect them because they hadn’t trusted God. The Amorites crushed them like bees.

The people wept for God to help them, but God did not help them because they weren’t loyal. Instead, God ordered them back into the wilderness, where they were to stay for 40 years. Moses himself complained that, although he hadn’t done anything wrong while they were deciding whether to go in the Promised Land, God was still furious with him. Moses would be banished to the wilderness along with all the other adults.

One thing that got my attention in my portion is the idea of God speaking and acting. The whole time I was reading it, I imagined God as a little cloud over Moses’ ear. How can you show that God would protect the people against the Amorites if they were loyal, since there is literally nothing to represent God? Or what does it mean to say that God was speaking to Moses?  How God was telling Moses where to go and what to do?

I think God is sort of like your mind, because you can choose where to go and what to do. God being like your mind is not when you decide to do something you shouldn’t do, and it is not like your parents telling you what to do. God doesn’t tell you what to do, but God helps you through problems, especially when you are making a major change or getting ready for a new life. God always believes in doing the right thing.

I also thought about what the “Promised Land” means. I think it’s a place in your mind where everyone can be safe no matter what. In God’s Promised Land in my portion, only good people made it to the Promised Land. In my Promised Land it doesn’t matter if you’re good or bad, you can still live there.

The idea of treating everyone fairly reminded me of my work at High Point School. I attend Honey Creek Community School. Our school shares a building with High Point, a school for children and young adults with disabilities. Almost every Thursday during the school year, I work in a High Point classroom. High Point students communicate in different ways, like with movements and facial expressions. If one student pulls on her jacket, that means she wants her jacket off. If she’s smiling, that means she’s happy. We learn a hand-over-hand method. For example, for baking, you put your hand on top of their hand to use a spoon.

I really like working in the High Point classroom. Some of my friends can only say hi to High Point students in the halls between classes, but I get to spend a good amount of time with them and make friends with them. In our school, High Point students are treated the same as other students–they just learn differently. I learn differently, too. I am a visual learner.

For my service project, I did extra work at High Point, and I am going to make a donation to them from my Bat Mitzvah gifts.

I would like to thank: Deb, for helping me learn Torah. Reb Aura, for helping me prepare for the service and for leading the service. Members of our Havurah, my family, and my friends for being here to support me. My parents, for always being there for me and supporting me on my Bat Mitzvah journey.

Shabbat shalom.

 

Peter Cohn’s Bar Mitzvah Dvar: B’midbar, Who is included?

Shabbat Shalom! Welcome to the final bar mitzvah in this generation of Cohns! Interestingly enough, we will be talking about Kohanim, our tribe, as it were, in a moment.

But first, I’d like to give you a summary of my portion. A little explanation on that: each week is associated with a portion of the Torah, and it takes one year to read the whole thing. And our tradition at AARC is for me to ask you a question, and I’ll do that later on–so pay attention.

My portion is in the first part of B’midbar, or the book of Numbers. In the portion, God orders Moses to take a census of all the Israelites. Well, not all the Israelites. But I’ll get to that later.

Moses is taking the census, and it’s kind of funny to think about him with a clipboard and pen in hand, walking from tent to tent. (Of course, that’s not quite what it was like.) Anyway, the Torah spends some time talking about the numbers of people in the different tribes and where they are camped, and then the focus moves to Aaron and his sons.

Aaron had four sons, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. Eleazar and Ithamar were still alive, but Nadab and Abihu were not. They had perished when they were not taking their ritual responsibilities seriously enough while they were at something called the “tent of meeting.” This tent of meeting, the ohel moed, is another focus of my portion. I find this appropriate, since my last name is Cohn, and the portion repeatedly brings up the Kohanim, the priests–Kohein, in Hebrew, means priest.

But let’s focus on the census Moses is taking. Here’s what I found interesting about it: the census that Moses is taking doesn’t include a lot of people. For example, the census excludes the Levites. The census excludes women. The census excludes men under 20. Put it all together, and you’ve left out more than half of the Israelites.

You are taking a census of all the Israelites, except you’re not; you’re picking and choosing who gets to count in the census. It’s kind of ironic that, after being treated so horribly for so long when they were in Egypt, because of their identity, some of the Israelites were now marginalizing some people within their own midst.

But hold on to that thought–and now zoom ahead a few thousand years. See, excluding people is a pretty common theme in history, and that includes the history of this country. Think about Philadelphia, in 1776, during the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Famously, it says that “all men are created equal.” It doesn’t say anything about women. And just a few years later, those same Founding Fathers wrote the U.S. constitution, which–just as famously–included the three fifths compromise, in which a slave counted as three fifths of a person. This is literally deciding who counts and who doesn’t.

My own family history touches on the way groups have been excluded in more recent times. For example, my grandmother Mimi is Irish; genealogically, I am one fourth Irish. I learned that when Irish immigrants first arrived in the U.S. in the mid 1850’s, they were the first huge wave of immigrants to ever come en masse. The U.S. wasn’t ready for it. They reacted badly and considered the Irish as the new “lowest rung” in society. In fact, at a time when being “white” meant being accepted, the Irish were considered non-white–which is pretty funny if you just look at my complexion — do you know how much sunscreen my relatives and I go through?

The same thing happened to my Jewish ancestors; when they first arrived, they faced discrimination and exclusion. And of course they came here in so many cases because they were fleeing persecution from abroad as well. Sometimes, being from a marginalized group makes you more aware of others facing similar problems. Many Jews were involved in efforts to fight discrimination and I’ve heard the story many times about how my great grandmother, Nana, was pushed in a baby carriage during suffrage marches. And my grandmother helped to integrate the New Orleans schools. But one of the things that struck me as interesting was that German Jews who immigrated to the United States around the same time as the Irish considered the later arriving Russian Jews as not Jewish — much less white. They settled in different places, had different trades and formed different branches of Judaism.

And actually after the Irish settled here, sometimes they acted in ways that marginalized other people–if not other Irish, than other groups of new Americans.

So when we talk about who counts and who doesn’t, sometimes the people who don’t count will turn around and exclude other groups–or even people within their own midst. It’s a little like that census Moses took thousands of years ago that excluded half of the Israelites. It makes you wonder, why anybody ever gets excluded in the first place. Or to be more direct, what really makes one person count less than another.

Think about another example from American history–relatively recent American history. When segregation was legal in the United States, there was a so-called “one drop rule.” It said that if any of your ancestors were African American, so were you. In other words, if one of your grandparents were African American, but the other three weren’t, you still were considered African American. That makes no sense!

The funny thing is, scientifically speaking, humanity originated from one place: Africa. In that sense, all of us have at least a little African blood in us. The whole idea of race, as we know it, is something that humanity constructed as a way to sort and categorize people. Of course, many people take great pride in their ethnic or racial backgrounds, and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging diversity. But all too frequently, we have defined groups in order to treat some worse than others. And all too frequently, even those of us in historically marginalized groups have not paid enough attention to others facing the same kind of treatment.

What groups would you like to recognize that haven’t been mentioned today or historically?

As it happens, I had a lot of chance to think about that with my mitzvah project. For those of you who aren’t familiar, part of the bar mitzvah process is picking a mitzvah, or act of goodness, to perform–and it has be from a list of 613 mitzvot to choose from, which are found in the Old Testament.

The mitzvah I chose was “To love the stranger.” When I chose this before November, I had no idea how important it would become,which is to say, I had no idea how the political environment would change. I didn’t know that we would be in a country where so many people had reason to be nervous they didn’t count anymore.

Today, I feel, it is more important than ever to “love the stranger.” On January 21, I participated in a women’s’ march in Ann Arbor, and I attended a protest of the immigration ban at the Detroit airport. This is the poster I carried, by the way. It says…

My family and I donated to the rebuilding effort for the Ypsilanti Mosque when it burned down in March. And in December, I went with my mom to her church’s feast day of service to make baskets of cleaning supplies and other necessities for Syrian refugee families. For the main part of my mitzvah project, I sort of replicated that with a twist; it was boxes geared towards kids, containing books, art supplies and welcome notes. My brother Tommy drove me to Jewish Family Services (the same organization my mom’s church coordinated with) to drop them off.

This is the idea of “loving the stranger,” caring about what happens to people you don’t know as fellow people and citizens of the world.

You’ll also find this theme in my haftarah–although you’ll have to read between the lines a little bit. It’s the famous story about King Solomon and the two women who claim to be the mother of the same baby. Solomon has asked God for wisdom and this is the first instance of how he uses that wisdom.

(This is not the traditional portion assigned to my Torah portion, but the one that is assigned, which is about the prophet Hosea’s wife, has more mature content than I was comfortable with. So I followed the lead of a fellow congregation member, Jacob Schneyer. He chose this portion five years ago at his bar mitzvah to go with the parsha because he was talking about how the Levites were excluded from the count, and raised the general question about what does God want, which, as you will hear, is the question that Solomon wants to know: give me the wisdom to know what you want. And wisdom in general.)

At this time in our history, as we are still as a nation grappling with issues of inclusion and exclusion, we really need to think wisely about how and why we make those distinctions. We need to bring our wisdom to the table and realize or insist that no one should be excluded because everyone has been excluded at some point. And that’s always looked ridiculous afterwards or retrospectively.

We all want to be on the right side of history. And we need wisdom for that.

 

What would Ruth deserve?

A woman harvests barley.

by Margo Schlanger

We read Megillat Ruth every year for Shavuot, which starts this year in the evening of May 30. Ruth was an illegal immigrant to Judah. Inspired by her kindness and her boldness, I’ve written a piece for the Tablet — it’s here — about Ruth, loving-kindness, chutzpah, and illegal immigration.  I hope you’ll read it and post any thoughts you have here.

Pirke Avot tells us:

עַל שְׁלֹשָׁה דְּבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֶד: עַל הַתּוֹרָה, וְעַל הַעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים
Al shlosha d’varim ha’olam omed: al haTorah, v’al ha’avoda v’al g’milut chasadim.
The world is sustained by three things: Torah, worship, and loving kindness.

I hope we can do as well as Boaz and Bethlehem and match the kindness and chutzpah of Ruth and of her modern-day brothers and sisters with our own.

What can we do?

  • Support WICIR, the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights: Like them on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/WICIR/) and you’ll see posts for rallies, information sessions, and actions that support immigrant families.
  • Email Ruth Kraut, ruthkraut@gmail.com, if you want to join the Ann Arbor Jewish Sanctuary planning group. For information on Sanctuary Synagogues, see http://www.truah.org/campaign/mikdash-the-jewish-sanctuary-movement/ .
  • If you speak another language well—especially Spanish, Arabic, or French—there are opportunities to do interpretation. Ask the folks at WICIR about how you can help.
  • Give time or money to MIRC, the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, http://michiganimmigrant.org/. They train people to do Know Your Rights sessions and their “Let’s Do More” campaign is working to raise money for an additional staff attorney to meet the dramatically increased need since President Trump was sworn in.
  • If you see or hear ethnic or racial epithets or bias, speak up! Go over in your mind in advance what you would say/do. Here are the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Six Steps to Speaking Up Against Everyday Bigotry.

Dan Gutenberg’s Bar Mitzvah dvar on Ve’era

Good morning and Shabbat shalom!

My parsha is Va’era, Exodus 6.2-9:35. It tells the story of the first seven plagues; blood in the nile, frogs, lice, flies, diseased livestock, boils, and hail. I’m reading the part that most interested me, which was the first time in my portion when God said God would harden Pharaoh’s heart. Another part that caught my attention was Pharaoh’s stubbornness or arrogant attitude towards the Israelites throughout the portion. And as we will find out, even before my portion.

So in some ways Pharaoh already had a hard heart and in other ways, God hardened it some more. In a sense those are related, but I was more interested in the differences.

When do we first see that Pharaoh might have an arrogant or stubborn or some other kind of bad attitude towards the Israelites? It’s back at Exodus 1:8: “A new Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph.” He enslaved them out of fear that they would become too numerous and join Egypt’s enemies. This is not the Pharaoh that loved Joseph so much in Genesis. It’s a new guy. The old Pharaoh loved Joseph for his ability to interpret dreams which resulted in averting a potential catastrophe from the famine. Joseph becomes his right-hand man, the second in command, overseeing wheat being both distributed to the people and saved for the lean years, the famine. Egypt would not have survived without Joseph. [Read more…]

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

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.