Is memory important?

Zichronot/Remembrances: Is memory important? 
Rosh Hashanah 2016 Talk by Nancy Meadow
Judith Tendler , Dec 30, 1938 - July 25, 2016

Judith Tendler Dec 30, 1938 – July 25, 2016

I have loved and lost many women in my family to dementia or Alzheimer’s.

My maternal Great Aunt Sarah who, in dementia, read the same novel for ten years and loved ice cream.

My paternal grandma Alice who, in dementia, swore like a sailor and loved ice cream.

My mother, RoseAnna, who in dementia was not at peace unless she was ‘creating something’– even if it was folding the same two washcloths for hours on end. And who liked to mix her raspberry sherbet with potato chips.

My mother’s best friend, Sarah, who in dementia was tortured by interactive visions of evil people and deeds her clients suffering from trauma had shared with her over decades of a career in social work.

My mother’s sister, Aunt Judith, a beyond brilliant writer and academic who in her dementia would not stop walking even when her body could no longer do so, who corrected people’s grammar long after she could hold a conversation, who was not at peace unless she was holding a book/journal/few sheets of paper in her hands … and who loved ice cream.

I watched the disease slowly but relentlessly steal every single memory and every single piece of knowledge from their beings. Every bit they had spent a lifetime collecting. First to go was often words. Not all of them, but the beautiful, specific ones that communicated just exactly who they were, what they were thinking, how they felt, and what they wanted. As the memory pillage continued they lost the ability to sequence, connect, and feel safe in space. This is when trouble with keys, locks, codes, and doors began. Then difficulty with transitions began, small transitions like walking from tile onto carpet or through a door way, and big transitions like choosing a different route home or a new doctor. As the battle for memory marched further forward they lost names of people they loved, they knew. Every single one. From today, from yesterday, from generations before. Then the ability to care for their most basic needs, then their own name, then the ability to swallow, then to breathe.

When I was young, and I lost family members who were two generations older than me, I thought about how sad I was and how wrong it was that I could not have them in my life anymore. When I was an adult and lost my mom I thought about what mental habits I could adopt, ASAP, that might help me escape such a cruel death.

Then I lost mom’s best friend, and then Aunt Judith started to fail. Through Judith, I lost many beautiful people I fell in love with, those who lived with her while she was in an assisted living facility and then the Memory Care Ward. Then, this past July, I lost Judith – the last of her nuclear family.

Now I presume I will die from Alzheimer’s or some other dementia. I already love ice cream. The doctors object to such certainty, and perhaps it is the raw grief, but after witnessing all these strong, smart, feisty women fall who am I to think I could escape it?  

So I am here today, asking: why do we place such value on memory? Is it really so important?

When my grandmother was living with us the last six months of her life, I remember sitting on the couch with her for hours looking over family scrapbooks. I remember how happy I could make her by rattling off the names of dead friends and relatives I had never met but were in those picture books. I remember sitting at the piano with her while she played and sang a particular song from her Eastern European childhood over and over – drilling the melody and words into my childhood memory bank. My mother was caught up by the genealogy bug. She “found” over 1,500 relatives and took me on a roots tour that included visiting a shtetl in Ukraine, a street in Antwerp, and a sleepy town in Norway. My mother and grandmother clearly thought it important to remember the past.

Since my twins’ birth, I have told the story to Mollie and Isaac about how their great-great grandparents escaped from Ukraine–and who begat whom–until we get to their own birth story. I’m doing what I am supposed to do, passing along the history. But I am sure I don’t have all the facts “right,” and now there is nobody left to tell me the “real” story. I watched my mother and aunt spend decades arguing over whose version of what their parents did and thought was “correct.” I know that my sisters and I have very different ideas about people and things that happened in our common past. We each have our own versions.

So, here I am today, asking: is memory important?

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

a Rosh Hashanah talk by Patti Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teshuva: Averting the “harshness of the decree”

Nathan MartinErev Rosh Hashanah dvar Torah by Rabbi Nathan Martin

Shana Tova and Gut Yontif,

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

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

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

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

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

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

teshuvah

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humility/Sovereignty by Anita Rubin-Mueller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I awoke to find Roger and my words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Thing with Name Tags

Me with my new name tag

Clare Kinberg with new name tag

One of the first tasks I was assigned as Events and Communications coordinator for AARC was to make name tags for new members, including teenagers who had would soon become bnei mitzvah and therefore full-fledged members of the congregation. And for Rosh Hashanah, I make replacement name tags for members who’ve lost theirs over the course of the year.

Now in my second year of working for AARC, I see the annual “Name Tag Check” as an important part of “taking stock,” preparing for the High Holidays. Over this past year, I’ve made four new name tags for bnei mitzvah and I’ve made five for new members….and this week I made 27 name tags for members who have lost theirs, including one for myself. Members: When you come to services for the High Holidays, be sure to pick up and put on your name tag. And put it back when you leave.

What’s with all this name tag business? Besides gently helping with our sometimes over-taxed memories for the names of people we know but just can’t pull up at the moment, name tags are an important part of reminding us of our responsibility toward welcoming others who are newer to our community. Our High Holiday services are open to all; many people come to pray with us once a year, and others who are considering joining a congregation come to check out the feel of the community. Our community is informal and pluralistic, welcoming to newcomers from a real diversity of backgrounds. If you are new to services, or attending as a non-member, I hope you will talk to people wearing AARC name tags. And members, let your name tag remind you to strike up conversations with someone you don’t already know!

I know my Name Tag Check next year will include several bnei mitzvah. I hope it will include many new members, too! (And if you lose your name tag in the middle of the year, no need to wait till High Holidays for the replacement; just let me know and I’ll make you a new one.)

Shana tova

Your Story Adds to our Shofar Service on Rosh Hashanah

Cover of Rachel Barenblatt's machzor/high holiday prayerbook

Cover of Rachel Barenblatt’s machzor/high holiday prayerbook

Deb Kraus is looking for several people to tell 3-5 minute personal stories as part of the Rosh Hashanah day (October 3, this year) Shofar Service. Deb offers some explanation and background:

The Shofar Service, which happens in the later part of the Rosh Hashanah Service, is divided into three parts:  Malchuyot (majesty/sovereignty), Zichronot (remembrances) and Shofarot (call to action). For the last few years, AARC congregants have offered short 3-5 minute personal stories to introduce each section of prayer. This has been a really meaningful way for our members to participate in communal leadership and share an important part of themselves with the community.  For example, in past years, Kevin Norris shared about a health challenge (Shofarot) , Dina Kurz talked about higher power (Malchuyot), and I talked about hiking in the alps (Malchuyot) and (another year) how my daughter Molly and I shared memories of our old house in an attempt to get it sold (Zichronot).  Last year, this is where Clare called us to welcome Jews of all colors (Shofarot). So,  do you have a story to share? Contact me (drdebkraus@gmail.com) with your story idea, and I’ll try to fit it into the service.

In this blog on her site, the Veleveteen Rabbi, Rabbi Rachel Barenblatt introduces each section of the Shofar Service with a poem, directing our hearts to open to the prayers. Another resource on the Shofar Service is offered by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, with these kavanah/intentions for Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot. These may help you get started on finding your story.

Our Kahal, Our Sacred Community

Rosh Hashanah talk by Margo Schlanger

margoHi, I am Margo Schlanger, and I’m the chair of the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation. I’m here to welcome you, whether you’ve been a part of our community for its full history of 22 years, or this is your first time spending time with us, or—as with me and many others—something in between.

My two children are 15; it’s been two-and-a-half years since their b’nei mitzvah. There was something about that morning that really epitomized AARC for me. Something, in particular, about the Torah service. The kids read Torah—the parsha was Mishpatim, laws—and they gave drashes in which they talked about the function of some of those laws at the time they were promulgated, and how we need to notice and critique the Torah’s failures with respect to equality in particular. Those of you who know my kids know that they have strong views about religion—like pretty much everything else. I was really proud of them—their moral and intellectual seriousness, their sustained engagement with Jewish texts and tradition, and their Hebrew skills. All that was nourished here in our AARC community. As usual in our services, someone else also read Torah, too—in this case, it was my sister-in-law, Ellie. Ellie is orthodox, and she had never read Torah in a mixed gender congregation before. We invited her, and she accepted, as an act of bridging her orthodoxy with our more liberal Judaism. It was about shared family feeling, and shared Judaism. I was really proud of her, and proud to be her sister-in-law, both because of her evident erudition, and because she was willing to participate, just for a few minutes, in our community that is so very unlike hers.

Anyway, back to why I’m standing here before you. To me, what happened at my kids’ b’nei mitzvah—both with them, and with Ellie—was the essence of our kahal, our sacred community. As it did during that Torah service, AARC during High Holidays and all year round offers a space and community where so many different kinds of people can gather, and can share whatever it is about Judaism that is most meaningful to them. Whether that is prayer and communal services, on Fourth Fridays, Second Saturdays, and holidays; connecting at our monthly pot lucks that follow Fourth Fridays; social justice projects; book club, Beit Sefer. For different members, different families, the draw is different—but we have created a kahal, a sacred community, out of all of us together.

And so now I get to the ask. Our community depends on you. That means both money and effort; we count on both, in so many ways. For many of the folks here, we depend on your membership, and your efforts on our behalf, and your membership dues. For non-members, perhaps you’d like to take the (very easy) plunge and become a member. But even for non-members not interested in membership—and we love having non-members come to our services, including these lovely High Holiday services—we depend on your support.

So welcome to our service, and welcome to this next year in our community. We will this year, together, enjoy many events and activities and meals and study sessions. We’ll do that with rabbinic leadership—Rabbis Strassfeld, Levitt, and Alpert—and with lay leadership, as we conduct our more permanent rabbi search. Please support this community—your community—as generously as you can.

L’shanah Tovah

[Editor’s note: You can easily renew your membership online right here.

Eyn Od/There is Nothing Else

Rosh Hashanah talk by Deb Kraus

FullSizeRenderI’ve been thinking a lot recently about the passage of time. I’m turning 60 in a few weeks, and a few months back, my daughter Molly turned 20 (I know, right?) and while writing this up north, a place where time seems to both stand still and pass much too quickly, the frustration of not being able to just stop time at the parts we like, to slow down the passage of our lives, hit me pretty strongly.

I think it hit me particularly strongly because of an experience I had while hiking in the Alps this summer. Lest this sound as pretentious to you as it does to me, let me explain a little about this trip.

Looking back, I’m not sure why I thought this middle-aged amateur hiker—late to the notion of exercise in any form, from a long line of people who were entirely sedentary—could do it. Obviously the idea of hiking 102 mostly vertical miles through three countries—literally into three countries—with the backdrop of majestic mountains, the sound of cow bells, the taste of cheese, chocolate and baguettes, and the bragging rights that would come with completing something as difficult as the Tour du Mont Blanc, all of this appealed to me, and as many of you can attest, training for this trip over the past year had given me a new sense of competence and strength.

And while it was beautiful—and yes, tasty—to be in this part of the world, the hiking was much, much harder than I anticipated. And I’m not even going to talk about the punishing downhill part! As I tried to scurry up the inclines to keep up, depriving myself of photo opps because “the slowest one should not incur the wrath of the group any more than is absolutely necessary,” two things happened.

First, I got teachable. My friend sat me down after the second day and quite harshly told me to “follow the leader” who had been trying to slow me down the whole day, but in French words I didn’t understand. How counterintuitive to be told to go slow, slower than I could have ever imagined, up each long (several hour!) incline. Don’t look up to see where you are going; that will only freak you out. You’ll lose your breath.

And yes, it’s all about the breath. And as I followed the leader the next morning, I found that my friend was right: when I focused on my breath first, and matched my step to that, amazingly I was able to get up every incline on the trail. After a while, I could even look up to see where I was going, and then look back down and focus on where I was. Eyn Od

Breath by breath, then Step by step. A walking meditation.

A very looong walking meditation.

The second and more universally applicable thing I learned is what happens when I did this, when I did slow myself down.

The phrase that kept coming to me, over and over, was Eyn Od. There is nothing else.

Just this breath. Just this step. Just this moment.

As a psychologist who is current on neurobiology, I have known for a long time how important meditation and mindfulness are. I just never took the time.

But on the mountain, there was nothing else to do.

Eyn Od. There is nothing else.

But here’s the most remarkable thing: the slowing down has continued. I no longer want to be so busy all the time, to run from thing to thing, to always maximize my productivity, to wonder what I should or could be doing even as I’m working as hard as I can already. To play mindless computer games that continue the racing thoughts when I could be resting. Well, OK, that last thing I really do want to do, but I’ve been told it’s really bad for me, and from the vantage point of what I learned in the Alps, that makes total sense.

So it’s still a struggle. Much easier, on the mind anyway, to take my time when all I have to do every day is to hike from point A to point B, or point F to point G. Harder when I juggle work, community responsibilities, the responsibilities of a home and neighborhood, and all the other things I do. I still am reaching for that #*($&# game between clients or when someone is two minutes late. There is a part of me that is truly addicted to that sense of busy-ness.

But I’m finding out, each time I slow down, I can put myself back in the Alps or floating down the Crystal Rver, and when I do that, in comes that same phrase,

Eyn Od. There is nothing else.

Just this moment.

Nothing to be afraid of. Or impatient about. Or judgmental about.

Just this moment, and then the next. Just like each step on the trail in the Alps.

Eyn Od.

There is nothing else.

Jews Come in All Colors

Rosh Hashanah 2015 talk by Clare Kinberg

The Jewish Multiracial Network visited the White House in July 2015

The Jewish Multiracial Network visited the White House in July 2015

When our daughters were infants, my wife Patti and I made commitments to them and to ourselves that to the best of our ability we would not put the girls in situations in which there are no other African Americans, in which they are the only ones. Given the very high level of social and organizational segregation in the US, this has been a very difficult commitment, and one that has affected our family in countless ways. A wonderful effect has been our seeking out of organizations of Jews of color such as the Jewish Multiracial Network. And there have been times when other commitments have drawn us to break this commitment. For instance, three years ago when my older daughter was in 9th grade, I wanted her to participate in the Ann Arbor/ Nahalal student exchange in which she went with a group of 20 Ann Arbor 9th graders to Israel for 10 days. My unease with knowing she would be the only black student in the group was heightened by several exchanges we had with Israelis we met in Ann Arbor who felt compelled to warn my daughter to prepare herself for Israeli racism. She didn’t know what to expect, and really neither did I. I figured one thing that may happen is she will be asked the ubiquitous, unwelcome and invasive question foisted on non-European appearing Jews, “How are you Jewish?” I thought I should tell her, just say “my mother is Jewish,” and leave it at that. But being the kind of mother I am, before advising her of what to answer, I asked her how she would respond to the “How are you Jewish” question. Her 14 year old answer? “I’ve celebrated becoming bat mitzvah, and Jesus is not my best friend.” I decided she could handle it, and left it at that. And in fact, we found that when embedded in a Federation delegation, her Jewishness was not questioned.

But I want to talk more about that “How are you Jewish question?” because it is a good stand in for all the many barriers in the Jewish community from full participation by Jews of color. The catch phrase of the Jewish Multiracial Network is “Jews come in all colors.” Once we awake to that simple truth, we can touch on its corollary: if you look around at a Jewish communal event such as this, and you don’t see a mixed multitude, you are seeing racism at work.

Fortunately, there are people in our community over the past twenty years who have come to understand this, that American racism is manifest in our communities when there are no or only a few Jews of color. The luminescent Rabbi Susan Talve, at Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis is one such person. You may have heard of her as one of the rabbis who has been on the front lines in protesting police brutality and seeking racial justice in Ferguson, MO. I want to share with you some words from her magazine article from a 2010 issue of Reform Judaism titled “Breaking the Color Barrier.” She wrote:

1997 was a transformative year in our congregation: The beautiful Josephine was born to a white Jewish mother and a non-Jewish African American father. There was no question that her parents would raise her to be a Jew. And when I held her at her naming ceremony, I promised her: By the time you begin to notice how you fit into your surroundings, we will have a community that includes others who look like you. You will see yourself reflected in the diversity of our temple. Your parents’ good intentions [to stay active in the synagogue] and our own [to treat you with respect] are not enough.

Jews of color were starting to find their way into our sanctuary.

Some of these Jews attended services at various area congregations. A few attended Orthodox congregations and day schools where, by their own accounts, they felt marginalized. Another two Jews of color had grown up in white Jewish homes before CRC was founded. In third grade they’d noticed they were different. By junior high they felt they had to make a choice between being black and being Jewish; there were no role models for being both. They couldn’t choose not to be black, so they stopped identifying as Jews.

Her article then goes on to detail the many specific, organizational, spiritual, steps the congregation took to change. In my opinion, this article should be studied like words of scripture. I have printed a couple copies you could grab on your way out. Rabbi Talve concludes her article:

About 20 of our active adult members are black and many of them have children. On some Friday evenings, African drumming and dance are part of our Shabbat service, and a growing number of African Americans worship with us. I’ve even officiated at a marriage of a biracial couple who decided to raise their kids to be Jewish because of us, because they have a place to do this. Still, I know that we have a long way to go to keep my promise to Josephine, who will celebrate her bat mitzvah next year. But for this congregation, situated in the city just a few miles from the Old Court House where the slave Dred Scott lost his case for freedom, I have hope that we are chipping away at the racism that plagues us.

In our prayers for Shabbat we read:

To pray for a Sukkat Shalom is to pray for a full house; a shelter that reflects creation in its glorious diversity. As we continue the holy work of uprooting the scourge of racism from this and all communities, we look forward to the time when our Jewish family will embrace Jews of all colors. Then, our Sukkat Shalom will become truly multi-racial as it was always intended to be.

May it come soon.

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…]