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.

Reflections on Tisha B’av

By Rabbi Nathan Martin*

Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to both teach and participate in a Hazon conference that brought together over 25 Jewish organizations doing innovative environmental work. In one study session in particular I spent time with a group of 40 other participants excitedly cramped in a yurt studying the Jewish calendar. The teacher, Zelig Golden, the Director of Wilderness Torah, noted that Tisha B’Av, the day in which Jews honor the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and other historical tragedies, coincides with the hot dry period of summer. (This year Tisha B’Av is commemorated one day late, on August 14, so as not to conflict with Shabbat.) Zelig argued that this is not accidental; it made sense culturally to mark human tragedy at the time when the earth enters one of its least productive moments. The outer barrenness corresponds to our inner brokenness. Similarly, the month of TisGreen sprout in parched earthhrei which includes both Rosh Hashannah and the harvest festival of Sukkot, 40 days after Tisha B’Av, can be understood as the moment when we are gathering together new growth, nourishment, and possibility.

This calendrical cycle that we travel through may not always correspond to our inner state. We may not always feel a sense of brokenness on Tisha B’Av and we may not always feel a sense of renewal on Rosh Hashanah. But these calendar moments do have an important inner logic. By setting aside a particular day of communal mourning on Tisha B’Av, the rabbis created an opportunity to have the Jewish community as a whole acknowledge the multiple layers of loss and oppression it has experienced over the ages. Allowing ourselves to feel heartbreak in the heat of the summer can perhaps allow us to step more deeply into a harvest of renewal and possibility in the Fall.

So as we prepare to enter this High Holiday season, I invite each of us to take some time this month to acknowledge the losses we have experienced as a people. What have we lost? How has it impacted us? How might you mark this ‘dry’ time?

May our dwelling in the loss, even for a short period, allow us paradoxically to let it go in order to create space for a more hopeful future. May we see and realize that all of us are part of the blossoming Jewish people. And may we come together on Rosh Hashanah carrying with us not only a reckoning of our past mistakes but also a deepening commitment towards our flourishing as a Jewish community.

*Click here for more information about Rabbi Nathan, who will be leading AARC’s High Holy Day services this year.

And click here for more information about our High Holy Day services, including times, places, and other details. Services are ticketless and open to all.  Please join us.  (Rosh Hashanah starts on the evening of Sunday, Oct. 2; Yom Kippur starts on the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 12.

Choosing Life?

Kol Nidre 5776 talk by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

MJ_Strassfeld_photo-B&WIn the Torah portion we read just before the High Holidays, God says: I set before you life and death, choose life. Seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it? Except in the most dire circumstances, we would choose life if we could. So what does the Torah mean when it enjoins us to choose life?

What is life? How would we define it? For Judaism, a core part of the answer lies in what we are doing right this moment. Not praying, not talking, not even studying, but doing any or all of those things together in community. As Robert Putnam, noted in his seminal book entitled Bowling Alone, fewer and fewer Americans are participating in civic and community life. Through an examination of bowling leagues and other forms of group activities, he found a serious change in the pattern of Americans as the role of the individual was elevated and the group demoted.

The internet has only made this issue more complex. Does the enormous virtual community created by social media diminish or increase peoples’ connections to one another? If you have 200 or 500 Face book friends—is that real connection even if it is only virtual, or is it a superficial “friendship,” or no friendship at all? Is it enabling connections you couldn’t possibly have face to face or is it a way of distancing yourself from others and controlling their access to your life?

In our contemporary world, Judaism is counter cultural when it suggests community as an essential aspect of religious life. The intimate act of pouring one’s heart out to God is not done in solitude but rather in the context of a minyan, a prayer quorum. The language of prayer, even the al het the confessional of Yom Kippur, is recited in the plural, though it is clear to most of us that the litany of sins we recite may have little to do with us. Shabbat and holidays are to be celebrated with family and friends.

While some religious traditions encouraged a renouncing of the worldly, Judaism called for an embrace of the world. Tikkun olam—repairing the world—may be a newly coined expression but love your neighbor as yourself has always been an essential teaching of Judaism. We are meant to live life in relation to other people—not in a cave alone, subsisting on a few berries. Don’t gossip, don’t put a stumbling block before the blind, don’t oppress the stranger because you were a stranger… all these injunctions found in the Book of Leviticus are about the challenges and opportunities for holiness in the everyday interactions with other people. Yes, we, each of us is created in the divine image/tzelem elohim. The Torah said it first: each human being is created with inalienable rights. Yet, those individual rights are supported and modified in the context of relationships. Caring and supportive relationships lead to community. [Read more…]

Torah Accompanies Us in Our Uncertainty

Rosh HaShanah 5776 talk by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

Editor’s note: The Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation wants to take this opportunity to profusely thank Rabbis Michael Strassfeld and Joy Levitt for leading our High Holiday observances, teaching us, and sharing the New Year with us.

MJ_Strassfeld_photo-B&WThere is a great deal of discussion these last few years in the Jewish community about its future. Based on recent surveys including the Pew study, there is concern about decreased participation in Jewish life by many people. The open society of America has led to assimilation.

A related phenomenon is a growing perception of religion as a force for intolerance and conflict in the world. What is and what should be the future of Judaism as a religion?

In pre-modern times, religion was a way to explain and understand a mysterious world. Why did things happen? Why did people get sick? Why did one side win a battle?

The answer: because God or gods created the world and controlled what happened. Over time, a belief in one God, a God of justice pre-dominated. It became the unified theory to explain the world. God punished sinners and rewarded the righteous. If the suffering of the innocent wasn’t completely explained by this notion at least there was some context for a way to strive to understand the world or a foundation to have faith that God had a plan even if you didn’t understand it. The world was not random but a world of purpose. But then over time, humans came to understand the world more clearly and discovered the laws of nature. Humans discovered germs and contagion, and disease no longer seemed either random or the scourge of God. Or as the atheist Christopher Hitchens wrote in 2007: “Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important.”

Does religion in general and specifically does Judaism still have a purpose? Is that why recent surveys show an increasing number of Jews who define themselves and their Judaism as non-religious?

Reconstructionism encourages us to ask what needs reconstructing in Judaism—not just tinkering around the edges—but what needs to be radically recast or reunderstood. In his time Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism, propounded a different understanding of the nature of God. In the face of the growing evidence of the decline in the adherence to Judaism, especially as a religion, I have come to believe that it is the fundamental way we think about Judaism that needs reconstructing. It struck me that part of the problem of religion in the modern world is that we both look to religion for certainty, especially in moments of crisis, and as moderns we rarely find that certainty. The theology of our ancestors, if it ever was their theology, simply doesn’t work for most of us. We don’t believe God saved this child fleeing from Syria because we don’t believe God caused that three year old to die on the beach in that terrible photo we all saw. We don’t think God gave cancer to that person, and let the other person recover from a heart attack. We just don’t organize our world this way. Religion for liberal Jews is not about certainty. [Read more…]

Preparing for Yom Kippur

MJ_Strassfeld_photo

Rabbi Michael Strassfeld

From Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, who will be leading Yom Kippur services:

We gather on Yom Kippur to engage in teshuvah—reflection and change both as individuals and as a community. The services will be a mixture of liturgy, contemporary readings, talks by the rabbis and by laypeople, music played, an original story for children and adults, and singing led by laypeople and by the rabbis.
Unique to Yom Kippur is the avodah service. Traditionally it recounts the ritual in the Temple on Yom Kippur in ancient times. Instead our avodah service will be structured around us as individuals, in relationships and connected to the world. We will also touch on these themes as raised in the talks by Deb, Anita and Clare from Rosh ha-Shana.

We will take some time as individuals and then in small groups to reflect on our selves and our hopes and visions for that self. The third confession will focus on our commitment to social justice climaxing with a liturgical poem made up of Biblical verses on the theme of tzedek—justice.

Yom Kippur will come to a close with a special Yizkor service at 5:30 with an opportunity to share memories of loved ones. Neilah, the concluding service (at 7 pm ) is the climax of the day as the themes and the music come together one last time. It feels like crossing the finish line of a spiritual marathon. We will end with a special havdalah ritual with lights carried by the children and the final blast of the shofar.

Yom Kippur Readings (2015)

These were some of the readings at our 2015 Yom Kippur services.

Who by Fire

by Leonard Cohen

And who by fire, who by water,
Who in the sunshine, who in the night time,
Who by high ordeal, who by common trial,
Who in your merry merry month of may,
Who by very slow decay,
And who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate,
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
And who by avalanche, who by powder,
Who for his greed, who for his hunger,
And who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent, who by accident,
Who in solitude, who in this mirror,
Who by his lady’s command, who by his own hand,
Who in mortal chains, who in power,
And who shall I say is calling?

The Kol Nidre Mirror to Our Soul

by Sandy E. Sasso, in All These Vows: Kol Nidre (Lawrence A. Hoffman, ed., Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011) [edited and adapted]

Life is filled with more than the scrapes and bruises of childhood that require nothing more than a kiss and a hug to make them better.  Life’s real issues are far more complicated and sometimes intractable.  Technology assures us a solution for every problem; medicine promises a pill for every pain.  But religion recognizes that we are mortal; we can’t fix everything.  Kol Nidre reminds us to forgive ourselves for it.

I recently learned that you can trap bees on the bottom of a Mason jar without a lid.  The bees fly in for the honey at the bottom of the jar and then they think they are stuck, because they never look up to see that the jar is open.  Life weighs us down.  Like the bees on the bottom of the Mason jar, we think that there is no way out of our situation, that we are trapped.  Kol Nidre – the High Holy Days – tells us to look up.

Technology is not so forgiving.  One of the problems of the Internet is that it does not forget; it keeps all our data – forever.  We cannot delete foolish e-mails or unflattering photos.  Our digital past remains indelibly with us.  How different is the Book of Life where tradition pictures God recording our good and bad deeds.  That record is erasable through t’shuvah.  If we regret something written in our own life’s book, atonement is our delete button.  The Rabbis teach that if individuals have repented, we are not allowed to remind them of their past errors.  Our past does not shackle us to the bottom of a Mason jar; we can look up.  We can begin again.

New Year’s Poem

by Rachel Barenblatt, http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com/blog/2006/9new_years-poem.html

I’m cleaning the cupboard
beside the stove, low to the floor,
where pots and pans hide
haphazardly.

Our kitchen is well-used,
baker’s rack gleaming
with neat jars of peaches,
string beans, preserves

but one swipe of paper towel
across this hidden surface
and I flinch at the grime
I never noticed before.

This is teshuvah: opening
every closed-up space. I’m
a window smeared with dust,
a cabinet in need of scouring.

It’s simple work, but
part of me resists, preferring
distraction to clarity.
When I make the leap

I suddenly can’t believe
I ever ignored the dirt.
Hot water blesses my hands
into action. God, help me

put my house in order,
begin the year in readiness
for the wonders I know
are coming, are always here.

God Was In This Place & I, i Did Not Know

by Lawrence Kushner

We go down into ourselves with a flashlight, looking for the evil we have intended or done – not to excise it as some alien growth, but rather to discover some good within it. We begin not by rejecting the evil, but by acknowledging it as something we meant to do. This is the only way we can truly raise and redeem it.

We lose our temper because we want things to be better right away. We gaze with lustful eyes because we have forgotten how to love the ones we want to love. We hoard material possessions because we imagine they will help us live more fully. We turn a deaf ear, for we fear the pain of listening would kill us. We waste time, because we are not sure how to enter a relationship. At the bottom of such behavior is something that was once good. On this sacred day, a day of communion and of light, our personal and collective perversions creep out of the cellar, begging to be healed, freed, and redeemed.

Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye taught: The essence of the finest t’shuva [turning] is that “deliberate sins are transformed into merits,” for one turns evil into good, as I heard from my teacher [the Baal Shem Tov], who interpreted the Psalm verse “Turn aside from evil and do good” to mean: ‘Turn the evil into good.’

The conclusion of true t’shuva, of true turning, is not self-rejection or remorse, but the healing that comes from telling ourselves the truth about our real intentions and, finally, self-acceptance. This does not mean that we are now proud of who we were or what we did, but it does mean that we have taken what we did back into ourselves, and acknowledged it as part of ourselves. We have found its original motive, realized how it became disfigured, perhaps beyond recognition, made real apologies, done our best to repair the injury, but we no longer try to reject who we have been and therefore who we are, for even that is an expression of what is holy.

We do not simply repudiate the evil we have done and sincerely mean never to do again; that is easy (we do it all the time). We receive whatever evils we have intended and done back into ourselves as our own deliberate creations. We cherish them as long-banished children finally taken home again, and thereby transform them and ourselves. When we say the vidui, the confession, we don’t hit ourselves; we hold ourselves.

On Jewish Identity

by Theodore Bikel (published in Moment Magazine, May/June 2010)

I consider myself to be a Jew in the vertical and horizontal sense. Horizontal, because I feel myself to be kin, relative and family of every Jew who lives today, wherever he or she may be. Vertical, because I am son, grandson and descendant of all the Jews who came before me; I am also father, grandfather and ancestor of all those who w\ill come after me. Am I special because I am a Jew?… I am not better than my neighbors, not nobler; I just carry a knapsack that is heavier with memory, with pain. As a Jew, I peddle the lessons of history. As for survival in the face of mortal threats, we who have repeatedly stared into the jaws of death are better able to deal with the threats than those who face them for the first time. But when we tell the world about survival, we are talking about creative survival, not mere physical survival. Everybody who is threatened with extinction fights for physical survival. Yet to survive as a moral people is as important, maybe more important. Far too often people forget this.

There is a Time

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven:
A time for being born and a time for dying,
A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted;
A time for slaying and a time for healing,
A time for tearing down and a time for building up;
A time for weeping and a time for laughing,
A time for wailing and a time for dancing;
A time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones,
A time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces;
A time for seeking and a time for losing;
A time for keeping and a time for discarding;
A time for ripping and a time for sewing,
A time for silence and a time for speaking;
A time for loving and a time for hating;
A time for war and a time for peace.

A Man Doesn’t Have Time

by Yehuda Amichai

A man doesn’t have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn’t have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes
Was wrong about that.

A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
what history
takes years and years to do.

A man doesn’t have time.
When he loses he seeks, when he finds
he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves
he begins to forget.

And his soul is seasoned, his soul
is very professional.
Only his body remains forever
an amateur. It tries and it misses,
gets muddled, doesn’t learn a thing,
drunk and blind in its pleasures
and its pains.

He will die as figs die in autumn,
Shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there’s time for everything.

I needed to talk to my sister

by Grace Paley, in Fidelity (2008)

I needed to talk to my sister
talk to her on the telephone I mean
just as I used to every morning
in the evening too whenever the
grandchildren said a sentence that
clasped both our hearts

I called her phone rang four times
you can imagine my breath stopped then
there was a terrible telephonic noise
a voice said this number is no
longer in use how wonderful I
thought I can
call again they have not yet assigned
her number to another person despite
two years of absence due to death

The Essene Book of Days

by Danaan Perry (Earthstewards Network, 2003) [edited]

Sometimes I feel that my life is a series of trapeze swings.  I’m either hanging on to a trapeze bar swinging along or, for a few moments in my life, I’m hurtling across space in between trapeze bars.

Most of the time I spend my life hanging on for dear life to my trapeze-bar-of-the-moment.  It carries me along at a certain steady rate of swing and I have the feeling that I’m in control of my life.  I know most of the right questions and even some of the right answers.  But once in awhile, as I’m merrily (or not-so-merrily) swinging along, I look out ahead of me into the distance, and what do I see?  I see another trapeze bar swinging towards me.  It’s empty, and I know, in that place in me that knows, that this new trapeze bar has my name on it.  It is my next step, my growth, my aliveness coming to get me.  In my heart-of-hearts I know that for me to grow, I must release my grip on this present well-known bar to move to the new one.

Each time it happens to me, I hope that I won’t have to grab the new one.  But in my knowing place I know that I must totally release my grasp on my old bar, and for some moment in time I must hurtle across space before I can grab onto the new bar.  Each time I am filled with terror.  It doesn’t matter that in all my previous hurtles across the void of unknowing I have always made it.  Each time I am afraid that I will miss, that I will be crushed on unseen rocks in the bottomless chasm between the bars.  But I do it anyway.  Perhaps this is the essence of what mystics call the faith experience.  No guarantees, no net, no insurance policy, but you do it anyway because somehow, to keep hanging on to that old bar is no longer on the list of alternatives.  And so for an eternity that can last a microsecond or a thousand lifetimes, I soar across the dark void of “the past is gone, the future is not yet here.”  It’s called transition.  I have come to believe that is the only place that real change occurs.  I mean real change, not pseudo-change that only lasts until the next time my old buttons get punched.

In our culture, this transition zone is looked upon as a “no-thing”, a no-place between places.  Sure, the old trapeze bar was real, and that new one coming towards me, I hope that’s real too.  But the void in between?  That’s just a scary, confusing, disorienting “nowhere” that must be gotten through as fast and as unconsciously as possible.  What a waste!  I have a sneaking suspicion that the transition zone is the only real thing, and that the bars are illusions we dream up to avoid the void, where the real change, the real growth occurs for us.  Whether or not my hunch is true, it remains that the transition zones in our lives are extraordinarily rich places.  They should be honored, even savored.  Yes, with all the pain and fear and feelings of being out-of-control that may accompany transitions, they are still the most alive, the most growth-filled, passionate, expansive moments in our lives.

And so, transformation of fear may have nothing to do with making fear go away, but rather with giving ourselves permission to “hang-out” in the transition between trapeze bars.  Transforming our need to grab that new bar, any bar, is allowing ourselves to dwell in the only place where change really happens.  It can be terrifying.  It can also be enlightening.  Hurtling through the void, we just may learn to fly.

Self Forgiveness First

by Donna Schaper

The first thing people do when restoring old chairs is strip — strip right down to the bare wood. They do this to see what the original might have looked like and to determine if the thing is worth doing over. They strip away all the years of grime, the garish coats of paint piled one on top of the other. They get rid of all the junk that’s been tacked on through the years and try to find the solid, simple thing that’s underneath.

I’m like an old chair needing that stripping process. Every now and then I have to take a really hard look at the illusions I’ve built up in myself and see what I’ve gotten myself into. Illusions? Yes, illusions; the excess baggage I carry around, the unnecessary; all that keeps me living off center too long. Stripping myself of all this is an intentional letting go of these illusions. It is a spiritual act of personal forgiveness. God lets us let go.

It’s hard work to let God forgive me. I have to discover the original under all these coats I’ve added, strip away all the cynicism and anger I’ve built up, get rid of the junk I’ve taken on, defy my disappointments, and find what is real again.

Compassion

by Kristin Neff

Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment? Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect? You may try to change in ways that allow you to be more healthy and happy, but this is done because you care about yourself, not because you are worthless or unacceptable as you are. Perhaps most importantly, having compassion for yourself means that you honor and accept your humanness.  Things will not always go the way you want them to.  You will encounter frustrations, losses will occur, you will make mistakes, bump up against your limitations, fall short of your ideals.  This is the human condition, a reality shared by all of us. The more you open your heart to this reality instead of constantly fighting against it, the more you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all your fellow humans in the experience of life.

 

Preparing for the High Holidays

by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld and Rabbi Joy Levitt

elul The process of change is a challenging one. The Jewish tradition considered that Rosh ha-Shanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) didn’t give us enough time to reflect on the past year and engage in teshuva–change or repentance–in preparation for the new year. Therefore the month before the High Holidays, the month of Elul, became the starting point of this engagement with change. The first of Elul this year will be August 16.

At AARC’s Elul Shabbaton (August 14-15), we will begin with a Friday night service. Three weeks before, on the 9th of Av, we hit rock bottom in the annual festival cycle. The fast of Tisha b’Av marks the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and the spiritual exile of Jews both as a people and as individuals. From that low point of existential aloneness, we move to reconciliation or more simply reconnection to God, to others around us and to ourselves. The rabbis found a hint of this in the name of this month, Elul. The Hebrew letters of Elul are the first letters of the verse Ani le-dodi ve-dodi li–I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. These words are from Song of Songs, a book of love and connection. Shir ha-Shirim/Song of Songs will be our overarching theme for the Friday night service.

The Shabbaton continues on Shabbat afternoon with a short minha/afternoon service. The Shabbat minha service has as its theme a sense of oneness underlying the universe. We also read a short Torah portion that focuses on a call to pursue justice/tzedek. After all, we are to engage in teshuva/change not just to feel better about ourselves but to engage in making the world a more just and compassionate place.

Following minha, the teens will meet with Joy to help plan children’s programming for Rosh ha-Shanah. Everyone else is invited to study with Michael some Hasidic texts about change/teshuva. Rabbinic Judaism’s attitude toward misdeeds can be summarized by the phrase “just say no.” Hasidism had a more complicated response. It suggested that transformation comes about by accepting the truth about yourself and then striving to change it rather than dwelling on your past failures.

Finally, both of us together will share our own Jewish journeys. It will be an opportunity to get to know us, and for us to get to know you. It will also be an opportunity for people to share pieces of their own spiritual journeys as we as individuals, and as a community, begin preparing for the High Holidays.

Please join us.


Click here for more information about Rabbis Levitt and Strassfeld, who will be leading AARC’s High Holiday services, as well as this Shabbaton.  Rabbi Strassfeld will also return for two other Shabbatonim this year.

All events at the JCC, 2935 Birch Hollow Drive.

  • Friday, August 14: Kabbalat Shabbat service and pot-luck, 6:15 (niggunim), 6:30 (service).  Pizza for the kids at 6:15; childcare is available.  (Let us know if you need pizza and/or childcare)
  • Saturday, August 15:
    • 2 pm: Minha, with Torah service: 2 pm (Molly Kraus-Steinmetz will read Torah)
    • 3 pm: Teens prepare for High Holidays and kids’ service.  Adults study Hasidic teachings about teshuva
    • 4 pm: Jewish Journeys conversation.

 

 

January Community Learning–Sunday morning

Everyone is invited to join the Beit Sefer students in their learning about mitzvot/commandments. Our study will dovetail with the second session of the guided reading series that began last week (yes, you can still join this!) We will explore the nature and history of Judaism’s system of laws and ethics, its evolution over the centuries and what our own relationships with this concept in our lives.

Join us at 10am on Sunday, January 18th at the JCC. Preparatory reading materials will be available via email in advance or at 9:30 that morning.  To receive/reserve study materials or for any other questions about learning at the AARC contact Rav Michal.

Rabbi Michal, Jon, and Sima Travel to Duluth to Talk Intermarriage

From member Emily Eisbruch and Rabbi Michal:

Rabbi Michal, Jon Sweeney and their daughter Sima recently traveled to Duluth, MN to participate in a Friday night presentation and a Sunday morning discussion on Intermarriage.  They were sponsored by Temple Israel in Duluth, which is affiliated with both the Union for Reform Judaism and Jewish Reconstructionist Communities.  We thought it would be great to learn about their experience in Duluth. They have kindly agreed to participate in a bit of Q&A for this blog.

JonAndMichalPhoto

Jon Sweeney & Rav Michal

Q: We know that you have spoken in the past on intermarriage and it was  the theme of your 2013 book “Crazy Mixed Up Love.”   How did the trip to Duluth come about?

A: Rabbi David Steinberg is a Reconstructionist colleague of mine and a friend of ours with an interest in the topic. The synagogue has an annual interfaith themed funded lecture program, which was officially our host.

Q: What were you expecting and what did you find in Duluth? Any surprises concerning the city or the congregation?

[Read more…]