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…]

What makes a moment religious?

Comments written by Julie Norris, delivered by Kevin Norris on Rosh Hashanah 2015

What makes a moment religious?

What makes an experience feel religious?

Is it a glimmer of a feeling, or a feeling that encompasses you?

What is your recipe for a religious moment?

This July 4th weekend, I was so struck when I had an experience that I expected to be a lot of nostalgic fun, but which shifted into something that felt unexpectedly, but unmistakably, religious.

We took a train to Chicago to meet up with our adult daughter, for the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary, fare-thee-well concert.  3 nights under the stars at Soldier’s Field with 70,000 tie-dyed faithful.

grateful deadAnd it happened almost immediately – the awareness that somehow this felt religious. It never struck me as religious in the early 1980s as I followed the band up and down the east coast, but now, the awareness of the rituals and culture surrounding this music led me to think about some of the similarities between the shows and services.

First, the music. Many of us are so deeply moved by music. The melodies and harmonies you recognize from decades gone by and the knowledge that these same tunes are known and appreciated by millions. The verse and refrain that feel like coming home.

There’s the rhythm of sitting and standing in unison. How do 70,000 people know, without being told, when to stand but this crowd knew. And through 3-1/2 hours, 3 nights in a row, if you closed your eyes to sink fully into the moment, suddenly a recognized chord or phrase that you hadn’t realized how much you’d missed hearing would emerge and you’d be drawn to your feet. And when you open your eyes you see that everyone else has stood too, in a collective expression of joy and appreciation.

Then there’s the text or lyrics, full of poetry and meaning, full of space for interpretation. And as I gaze at my daughter, I see that these words have now been passed on from one generation to the next.

[Read more…]

Rosh Hashanah Readings (2015)

Yom Kippur Sonnet, with a Line from Lamentations

by Jacqueline Osherow, in Dead Men’s Praise (1999)

Can a person atone for pure bewilderment?
For hyperbole? for being wrong
In a thousand categorical opinions?
For never opening her mouth, except too soon?
For ignoring, all week long, the waning moon
Retreating from its haunt above the local canyons,
Signaling her season to repent,
Then deflecting her repentance with a song?
Because the rest is just too difficult to face –
What we are – I mean – in all its meagerness –
The way we stint on any modicum of kindness –
What we allow ourselves – what we don’t learn –
How each lapsed, unchanging year resigns us –
Return us, Lord, to you, and we’ll return.

The Journey

by Mary Oliver, in Dreamwork

One day you finally know
what you have to do, and begin,
though the voices around you
keep shouting
their bad advice –
though the whole house
begins to tremble
and you feel the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cries.
But you don’t stop.
You know what you have to do,
though the wind pries
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations –
though their melancholy
is terrible.
It is already late
late enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you leave their voices behind,
the stars begin to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there is a new voice,
which you slowly
recognize as your own,
that keeps you company
as you stride deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you can do,
determined to save
the only life you can save –
Yours.

Cold Feet

From Siddur Sha’ar Zahav

They say cold feet are a sign of turning back,
The failure of internal will –
But I say it can be the other way,
The body’s anticipation of things to come.
Whether demons are nipping at your heels
Or gnawing within, here’s the thing:
Settle quietly, close your eyes,
Then take the most deliberate, deep breath,
As though it were the very first (God’s breath) –
And when you can feel it penetrate every bit of your being,
Making the rest of your life possible,
You open your eyes
And take that first step out into the sea of reeds.
Watered feet are just the price of coming home.

Cruel Waters

by John Miodownik

Why, I asked? Why have all these seemingly friendly, well-mannered and trusted brooks and rivers, which we have grown up with, turned on us so unexpectedly, so violently, so destructively? What angered them? What provoked their rage to do us such harm? Why have these placid waters swelled to such a powerful surf rolling over our beloved Vermont villages swallowing homes, roads, bridges, trees, memories and dreams?

My son’s basement flooded full to the first floor threatening the very foundation of his home. All was sad, all was bleak, as the indifferent muddy waters invaded his life. But, at once, the small community rejected such harsh indignity. Regiments of neighbors hurried from near and far, armed with pumps, buckets, shovels, mops and endless energy to help stem the tide the best they could.

Left floating in the aftermath were personal belongings – clothing, bedding, old photographs, children’s treasured artwork, important files and valued documents. All were lovingly cleaned by strangers, and hung up on lines to dry. There, fluttering in the morning breeze, was one particular salvaged document. It was not signaling surrender but rather hope over chaos, cruelty and ruthlessness. By chance, it was my father’s official release paper from concentration camp Buchenwald.

Atonement Songs

by Judith Rafaela, in Another Desert: Jewish Poetry of New Mexico (2001) [edited and adapted]

The wild sounds of the shofar
pierce my skin and open my heart.
And I’m crazed for tunes in a minor key
that vibrate my tailbone and belly
and echo out across a shul packed
with doubters and believers
who come together
one day of the year to hear
archaic formulas and prayers.
Just for this moment
open us to rich tones –
Simple melodies that convey truths or fictions
about our fate.

What Can I Say

by Mary Oliver, in Swan (2010)

What can I say that I have not said before?
So I’ll say it again.
The leaf has a song in it.
Stone is the face of patience.
Inside the river there is an unfinishable story
and you are somewhere in it
and it will never end until all ends.

Take your busy heart to the art museum and the
chamber of commerce
but take it also to the forest.
The song you heard singing in the leaf when you
were a child
is singing still.
I am of years lived, so far, seventy-four,
and the leaf is singing still.

From Where Redemption Will Come

by Annie Dillard

Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in God’s holy place? There is no one but us. There is no one to send, nor a clean hand, nor a pure heart on the face of the earth, nor in the earth, but only us, a generation comforting ourselves with the notion that we have come at an awkward time, that our innocent fathers are all dead — as if innocence had ever
been — and our children busy and troubled, and we ourselves unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, failed, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak, and involved. But there is no one but us. There never has been.

High Holidays Appreciation

By Carol Lessure

Each year, we relocate to the Unitarian Universalist Church so that we can welcome anyone in the community seeking a place to pray together with us on High Holidays. We are committed to this effort and providing ticketless services so that it is easy and affordable for anyone to join us. Here is a very nice note sent to us by a first time guest about their experience at our Rosh Hashanah Services this year:

We are visiting our daughter and son-in-law, and we all came to services today … I wanted to let you know that I have been to many services over the years, and I’ve even liked some of them. But this is the first service that I thoroughly enjoyed. I felt comfortable and welcome. The congregation was warm, involved, intelligent. A perfect blend of academe and community, something that I’ve found is all too rare. We’ll be back, I’m sure, when we visit again, and I think you’ll be seeing the kids again, as well.

We are grateful to everyone who helped create our wonderful High Holiday services. We had beautiful participation with service and event leadership by Rav Michal with Torah services managed by Deb Kraus. Members and guests provided singing and music, personal reflections, meaningful readings, Shmita rituals, Yom Kippur workshops and opportunities to gather after services as well. Once again, Jen Cohen supported us with her able coordination and shlepping of stuff. We are deeply appreciative of all the ways that our community comes together to support AARC High Holiday services. We thank each and every one of you.

One more note to members and everyone on our mailing list: watch your inbox (and the Monday Mailer) for a link to a quick High Holidays survey. We invite everyone who attended services to share thoughts and help us in our planning for next year’s services.

A D’var Torah about the Akedah

by Margo Schlanger

ShofarThe traditional Torah portion for the first day of Rosh Hashanah is about the birth of Isaac and the near-death of Ishmael, Abraham’s son by a woman whose name we never find out – Hagar, the name given in the Torah, means “foreigner.”  Ishmael, of course, is the father of the Ishmaelites.  In the Muslim tradition, he is the Muslim patriarch, ancestor of Muhammed, and more generally of the Arab Muslims.

It’s the relationship between that first day’s parsha and the parsha for today, Rosh Hashanah’s second day, that I want to talk about.  Today’s parsha is Akedah, the binding of Isaac.  As we all know, it’s a difficult portion.  If the project of our Torah reading is to find inspiration and edification, that’s a tough undertaking from a story that seems to portray just about everyone behaving badly.

How can we reconcile ourselves to a God who says to Abraham “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and offer him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you”?  And if the answer to that question is, it’s a test, then that raises another question:  How can we admire an Abraham who is so bold, so compassionate, as to argue with God over strangers in Sodom and Gomorrah, but not bold enough and compassionate enough to argue with God about the command to murder his own child?  If it’s a test, didn’t Abraham fail, when he set so silently to obey?

These are not new questions.  [Read more…]

Erev Rosh Hashanah Message

Rabbi Michal Woll

Rabbi Michal Woll
Photo: Stephanie Rowden

Rosh Hashanah may be the most complicated of our holy days, for its identity is fractured. In biblical tradition it was simply “day of blowing the horn.” Over millennia other purposes and themes have been layered upon it – the new year, the day of judgment, the day of remembrance, the day of crowning God, the day the world was made. I was inspired some months ago to focus this year on the last one – RH as the anniversary of creation, and tomorrow we will read a traditional alternative to the conventional torah reading – the first chapter of genesis, the original creation story.

Jews don’t seem to need to argue so much with this version of creation. One possible reason is that our tradition recognizes that the world is constantly being recreated and renewed. We sang at the opening of the service – chadesh yameinu kekedem – renew our days as of old, like at the beginning. We find in the morning liturgy: b’tuvo m’chadeish bechol yom tamid ma’aseih v’reishit – with divine goodness you renew, each day, continually, the work of creation. We too are renewed each day, reminded with the elohai neshamah – each morning we find a pure breath, a clear soul, ready for a new imprint that we make with our daily lives.

And our obligation following the second biblical creation story – the expulsion from Eden, which will be read and discussed a few weeks from now – is not to atone for the mistake of Adam and Eve but to strive to repair the gap between the world as we find it and the original vision of paradise. Unfortunately our job is not as easy as God’s was. God exclaimed: let there be light, and there was. As we will sing in the morning – baruch she’amar v’hayah ha’olam – blessed is the one who spoke and the world was. Wow – like magic. In fact, this moment is imbedded in the common language of conjuring and magic. Abra-cadabra is not merely gibberish syllables, but Talmudic Aramaic. A’bra – I create – the same root as the first line of torah – breishit bara elohim – in the beginning god created. Dabra – I will speak – related to the most common phrase in torah – vaydaber adonai el moshe – and God spoke to Moses. Abra cadabra – I create just as I speak. [Read more…]