Refugees and Returning to Our Best Selves

deb-fieldYom Kippur talk by Debbie Field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Our Yom Kippur Workshops in the Washtenaw Jewish News

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

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

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Join the 2016 AARC CROP Hunger Walk Team

Submitted by Cara Spindler

crop-walk-graphicOn Sunday, September 25 the Interfaith Council for Peace & Justice (ICPJ) is hosting the 42nd Annual Washtenaw/Ann Arbor CROP Hunger.  ICPJ has organized this 5k charitable walk since 1974, raising a total of $3.2 million over the decades.  Last year Washtenaw County walkers raised $48,500, with about 300 walkers participating.

CROP Hunger Walks are locally organized by businesses, schools, and communities of faith. “CROP” originally stood for the “Christian Rural Overseas Program,” a 1947 joint program between several church organizations to help with post-war poverty.  Today these community-wide local events seek to raise funds to end hunger and increase food security and food-related social justice in the U.S. and globally.  More than 1,600 walks take place across the U.S. annually.  About 25% of the proceeds go to local hunger-fighting efforts, and the walker can determine where the remaining 75% of their raised funds goes (choosing from a vetted list of global hunger agencies).

Please come and walk with us on September 25!  Call Cara Spindler ( 734-255-0939) if you want to coordinate more.  Our contingent will gather at Trinity Lutheran at 1:30 pm.  

STARTING LOCATION: Trinity Lutheran Church (1400 W Stadium Blvd., Ann Arbor, MI 48103)

DATE: Sunday, September 25, 2016, 1–4 PM

To sign up:

  1. Go to the CROP Hunger Walk website using this link
  2. Click REGISTER
  3. Fill out the form (or sign in using Facebook)
  4. When you get to “Create or Join a Team” choose “Join an existing team”
  5. Click “see list” next to the search box, and select “Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation”
  6. Click the “Join Now” button.

Your friends and neighbors can donate via the website (once you log in there’s lots of tools for soliciting donations and accepting payment)—or you can bring a check/cash to drop off at the Walk.

See you on September 25!

Yom Kippur Workshops 2016

It’s our Yom Kippur tradition at AARC to have several afternoon sessions where we can together study, meditate, and discuss. This year, there will be three sessions; two from about 2:15 to 3:30 pm, and one from 3:45 to 5 pm.

One of the 2:15 sessions will be guided meditation, led by our member, Barbara Boyk-Rust, who writes:

Soul Nourishment: Meditation and Sacred Chant for the Quiet of the Day.
As we fast and pray on Yom Kippur we are asked to be in more direct contact with our spirit and with our connection to God than any other day of the year. While we move toward this during the evening, morning, and late afternoon services, what assists us during the spaces between the services? A walk, a nap, a quiet conversation? Each may be of help. A different way of prayer is also fitting. It is a time of day when we may be longing for sustenance. Together we will create a form of soul nourishment through meditation and offering up a few sacred texts in chant. May this time augment and amplify the expression of our soul on this holy day.

Our member Ellen Dannin will facilitate a conversation about the Book of Jonah:

Yonah – It’s Much More than Just a “Whale”: We will share reading the story of Yonah / Jonah, with time for participants’ contributions, questions, thoughts. Feel free to bring your own texts.

At 3:45, you can choose between a walk, a chat with a friend, or whatever else moves you, and a session that uses Jonah, again, as a starting off point a conversation about solitary confinement. We’ll start with some materials from this T’ruah study guide (which is based on a Yom Kippur d’var member Margo Schlanger gave at AARC in 2013).  But we’ll move fairly quickly into the modern experience of imprisonment and examine the question, What kind of conditions–physical and programmatic–create the best chance of t’shuvah?  Our leaders for this session will be member Margo Schlanger and Ronald Simpson-Bey.

Ronald Simpson-Bey, leading Ann Arbor Yom Kippur workshop

Ronald Simpson-Bey

Ron is the Alumni Associate for JustLeadershipUSA (JLUSA), part of the steering team of the newly formed Collaborative to End Mass Incarceration in Michigan (MI-CEMI), and co-founder and advisory board member of the Chance For Life (CFL) organization in Detroit. He served 27-years in the Michigan prison system, where he founded many enrichment programs rooted in transformation, redemption, and self-accountability.  In the course of that time, he spent two years in solitary confinement. He was a jailhouse lawyer who got his conviction reversed by the courts and got himself out of prison.  He attended Eastern Michigan University, Mott Community College, and Jackson Community College, and he has worked as a staff paralegal at the former Prison Legal Services of Michigan.

On this day of atonement, join this workshop to better understand American imprisonment, and what kinds of change we need and can help with.

Report Back: “Community in Difficult Times”

community in difficult timesReported by Martha Kransdorf and Sallygeorge Wright

“Community in Difficult Times,” was a Jewish community-wide facilitated discussion hosted by the Jewish Community Center (JCC) on Thursday evening June 30th.  The purpose for the meeting, according to convener Karla Goldman (director, UM Jewish Communal Leadership Program), “was to create a space where people come together in community to be able to process recent events.  The catalyst was the Pulse tragedy in Orlando, which just seemed to combine so many different elements of the recent news: hate crime, hate speech, LGBTQ issues, immigration issues, gun violence and gun control, anti-Muslim rhetoric and terrorism issues in ways that cried out for response and yet no one has seemed to know how to respond.” About 65 people attended, taking advantage of this important opportunity to reflect about the tragedy in Orlando and the ongoing issues in this year’s election campaign.

Goldman, JCC President Prue Rosenthal,  and Hillel Director Tilly Shames, got things started.  They reviewed the meeting’s background and guidelines for the small discussions at each table.  Rabbi Kim Blumenthal helped establish the mood for the evening by leading us in “Hinei Ma Tov.”

We were reminded that each table had a facilitator, and needed to choose a note taker.  We were to respect different opinions, and each person’s privacy.  Individual’s remarks were not to be repeated afterward without permission from the person who made them.  And we could say “ouch” if something offended us.  There were three guiding questions for us to consider:

1)  What brought you here?

2)  What’s in your heart and on your mind?

3)  Is there something about this moment that calls upon us as Jews and as a Jewish community?

Report backs noted the need for education and outreach on issues including guns, mental health, and more. The need for concrete measures to show solidarity with LGBTQ and Hispanic populations were pointed out.  Examples included having social activities that would increase awareness of diversity in the community. People suggested an ad in a newspaper to express our outrage and concern about current developments, and publicity for efforts on gun control.  Final remarks focused on further get-togethers to look at where we might go from here.

The invitation to the meeting was issued by almost every part of the organized Jewish Community in Ann Arbor:  the Jewish Community Center of Greater Ann Arbor, the Jewish Communal Leadership Program, U of M’s Hillel, Jewish Federation of Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation, Beth Israel Congregation, Temple Beth Emeth, Jewish Cultural Society, Hebrew Day School, Jewish Family Services of  Washtenaw County, and the Orthodox Minyan.  According to AARC member Sallygeorge Wright,  the meeting was an important opportunity for people who had never met before, who were involved in different community groups, to find out what each other are already doing and to exchange ideas. Goldman summed up the outcome, “People at the event were happy that there was a way to come together as Jews for issues that were not centered on Jews but which mattered to us as Jews nevertheless.”

Rabbi Sara Adler closed the meeting with a beautiful Prayer for Peace that she had written. This prayer will be published in the forthcoming book, Not By Might, a publication by Rabbis Against Gun Violence and edited by Rabbi Menachem Creditor.

Prayer for Peace
 
God of our mothers and fathers,
God of tenderness,
God of lovers, teachers and children,
may we see the day when love conquers fear
when compassion overrides judgment
and the echo of gunshot is heard no more.
 
Let a great peace wrap its arms around our country,
and hold us tight.
 
Unite us-- people of all races, religions,
orientations and identities
in a bond of true fellowship.
 
Teach us to respect difference
and take pride in one another.
 
Let us learn that diversity makes us stronger,
that the healthiest forests are filled
with a multitude of species and birdsong.
 
God on High, let us find consolation
and comfort under Your canopy of peace.
 
May the memories of those assaulted by violence
inspire us to mend our broken world.
 
Let us grind guns into garden tools,
bend our weapons into bridges.
 
May we learn war no more.
Come, let us write a new covenant of kindness
an end to the flood of tears.
 
Seal this promise in the sky,
a rainbow to part the clouds.
 

Rabbi Sara O’Donnell Adler is a chaplain at UM Health System. She was ordained by The Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1999 and received her
Clinical Pastoral Education at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA. Prior to joining the staff of UMHS in 2008, Rabbi Sara worked as one of the rabbis with the
MetroWest Jewish Health and Healing Center in West Orange, NJ.

Two ads from this month’s Washtenaw Jewish News

AARC and Food, Land & Justice both had ads in the June/July/Aug. 2016 Washtenaw Jewish News.  Lots to tell the world about!

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T’ruah’s new Handbook for Jewish Communities Fighting Mass Incarceration

Jewish Protest Signs

T’ruah has just published a Handbook for Jewish Communities Fighting Mass Incarceration.  I’ve been waiting for months for it to be available–171 pages of facts, figures, stories, strategies, and inspiration for Jewish communities who want to help end American mass incarceration.  There are 2.3 million people behind bars in American jails and prisons tonight–2 million more than when I was born.  Treating people like throwaways tramples on so much of what Judaism teaches; it is inconsistent with recognition of godliness in family, neighbors, and strangers alike.  I’m really happy to have this resource to help communities like ours think about whether we can be part of the opposition.

For each topic the handbook covers–and there are dozens, including Poverty and Mass Incarceration, School to Prison Pipeline, Prison Labor, Solitary Confinement, Barriers to Reentry–it offers statistics and background, relevant Jewish texts, and contemporary accounts.  It includes materials for text study (I’m really proud that one of the study units is based on a d’var torah about Jonah I wrote for AARC’s Yom Kippur service in 2013).  And it has suggestions for Jewish community action.

I was particularly moved by some of the advice the handbook give rabbis:

Here are some of the ways in which we can draw on our Jewish wisdom to help change the narrative:

  • Move the conversation away from “how do we punish” to “how can we facilitate teshuvah?”
  • Break down the false dichotomy between victims and perpetrators; acknowledge that all of us may be both at one point or another in our lives, and that society must protect all of us.
  • Have honest conversations within your communities, in interfaith groups, and in public about race and its impact on incarceration.
  • If you’ve visited congregants or other people in prison, or served as a prison chaplain, talk about these experiences (without sacrificing confidentiality, of course). Help your community see incarcerated individuals as creations b’tzelem Elohim—in the divine image.
  • Talk about the ways in which other societal issues that your community may encounter through your social action work can have an impact on imprisonment, or can be affected by imprisonment.
  • Speak openly about mental illness. This will both make your community feel safer for members living with mental illness or dealing with mentally ill family members, and will also allow for conversations about the relationship between mental illness and incarceration.
  • Offer a prophetic vision of what could be. Don’t let people wallow in despair—show a vision of how we can move forward.

I’ve been struggling, a little bit, with how to join up my own personal commitment to criminal justice reform with my Jewishness. I feel better equipped now that I’ve read this handbook, so I wanted to share it with my community.

Purim Gifts: Welcome Baskets for Refugee Families

welcome basketAARC Beit Sefer teacher Sharon Alvandi is a student in the UMich Jewish Communal Leadership Program, and an intern at Jewish Family Service learning to work with refugee families. Sharon has been very inspired by our AARC congregation, particularly the ways that the Beit Sefer students, parents and other community members come together to share learning and activities, investing in the character of the children. Through her work with JFS, Sharon is organizing a way for us to practice the mitzvot of Purim, giving gifts of tasty treats to one another/mishloach manot, and gifts to the poor/mattanot le-evyonim (for more about how these two mitzvot are related see this). Sharon writes:

There are many reasons to celebrate Purim and sort through a narrative that’s truly unlike any other in Jewish scripture. On Purim- the holiday of “lots”- we celebrate more than simply the idea of chance. When we listen to Esther’s story, we collectively celebrate character, resolve, and integrity. By presenting her true self–her Jewish self–to king Ahasuerus to appeal for the fate of the Jewish people of Shushan (present day Susa, Iran), Esther is a model of advocacy for herself and others. As a developing social worker, this story helps me think  about what it takes to act in a way that integrates all parts of who I am.

Purim also commemorates what it means to survive genocide or the threat of genocide. Each day when I work at JFS, I have the opportunity to observe the strength of character of the clients and the meticulous work of the case managers to serve a community of refugees in making the best choices in their first days in the U.S.   

JFS has resettled over 350 refugees since 2009.  Countries range from Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Iran, Syria, and Burma. JFS is set to resettle 150 individuals by October 1, 2016. AARC can help with the resettlement of families by joining with JFS  to assemble and donate Welcome Baskets for refugee families in Washtenaw County. We can do more than discuss violence that is taking place abroad. We can  welcome those in our community who have found refuge in a new place. This Purim, we can help make a space of comfort for their true selves.

Sharon has put together a list of personal care and household items the new families need upon arrival to set up their new homes. Check with this registry to see what is needed. We ask that you buy these items new and when you have, check off the registry. We will assemble the Welcome Baskets some time during the Purim Shabbaton March 25-27.

Tu B’Shevat Shabbaton

TreeOur Tu B’Shevat Shabbaton was a great success.  Read all about the text study here, and the seder here.

 

 


 

We’re excited to announce a Tu B’Shevat Shabbaton, the weekend of Jan. 22, with three events, all led by visiting Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, Rabbi Emeritus of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism. The Shabbaton will be environmentally-themed throughout.

 

  1. Our regular Fourth Friday Kabbalat Shabbat service and potluck, at the JCC.  This will start with a Tot Shabbat gathering for preschoolers and their families, at 5:45 pm.  Childcare (and pizza for the kids) are available starting 6:15.  (RSVP to Clare Kinberg for either or both.) The service starts at 6:30.  Bring something for the vegetarian potluck dinner that follows.
  2. Saturday text study and discussion: 4 pm
  3. Saturday Tu B’Shevat Seder: 5:30 pm.  With vegetarian supper.  Free, but reservations are required.  RSVP at http://shabbaton-FoodLandJustice.eventbrite.com.  Note: there will be a separate kid-friendly event at the same time, done in time for its participants to join the full group for supper.

Rabbi Strassfeld explains: “The classic Jewish texts about the environment [Deuteronomy 20:19-20; Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings and Wars 6:8, 10] prohibit the wanton destruction of nature. The stress on wanton destruction implies that the destruction of natural resources is permissible if it benefits human beings. For the text study on Shabbat, we will study other Jewish texts to see how Judaism can help us to create a contemporary environmental ethic rooted in the value of all things.”

The Tu B’Shevat seder that will follow is structured around eating of four different kinds of fruit, coupled with readings, songs and kavanot/reflections. The  Kabbalists of Safed created a Tu B’Shevat seder in the 17th century, loosely modeled on the Passover seder. Over the past several decades, Jews across the world have used Tu B’Shevat as a time to focus on the environment. Rabbi Strassfeld notes, “Our Tu B’Shevat seder will combine the focus on personal growth of the Jewish mystics with contemporary ecological concerns.”  Detroit’s Congregation T’Chiyah and its Rabbi, Alana Alpert, will be joining the Ann Arbor community for the seder, as will several Hazon Detroit fellows.

The events are co-sponsored by AARC and the Jewish Alliance for Food, Land, & Justice.  They are a continuation from last year’s year-long exploration of the teachings of Shmita, and are funded by an impact grant from the Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor.  AARC and the Alliance welcome all community members to join any or all these Shabbaton activities; the events are free, but online registration is required.

Our flyer is below.  Please feel free to download, print and share it!

2015-12-Shabbaton-ad

MJ_Strassfeld_photo-B&WRabbi Michael Strassfeld is the author, editor, or co-editor of numerous books and articles, including three versions of the Jewish Catalog, A Shabbat Haggadah: Ritual and Study Texts for the Home; and Jewish Holidays, a guide to the holidays used in many Jewish households.  Since the 1973 appearance of the first Jewish Catalog, subtitled “a do it yourself kit,” Rabbi Strassfeld’s books have been the go-to publications for progressive American Jews seeking explanations, contemporary readings, and resources relating to traditions and holidays.

 

 

Harvesting Jewish learning to nurture an environmental ethic

Rabbi Michael Strassfeld leads Tu B'Shevat Text Study

Rabbi Michael Strassfeld leads Tu B’Shevat Text Study

Yesterday, AARC and the Jewish Alliance for Food, Land, and Justice hosted 50 people for two lovely events, led by our visiting Rabbi, Michael Strassfeld.  Tu B’Shevat–the “birthday of the trees”–provided us a great occasion to focus for the weekend on Judaism and the environment.

Another post will talk about the Tu B’Shevat seder.  In this one, I want to share with people who couldn’t make it to the afternoon text study some of the passages and insights offered by Rabbi Michael.

We started with two verses from Deuteronomy (20:19-20):

When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? Only the trees which you know are not fruit trees may you destroy and cut down, that you may construct siegeworks against the city that is making war with you until it falls.

It’s an interesting passage, with several ideas in it.  For starters, the text suggests that even in war, ethical constraints remain–and not just the most urgent ethical constraints, dealing directly with human lives.  Fruit trees take many years to grow, and of course they are important sources of food.  So this rule against their destruction may be founded on the obligations the current generation has to the future.

It’s a limited point, though; the explicit permission to use other, non-fruit-bearing, trees as battering rams and so on makes that clear.  This is not a modern environmentalism; it’s expressing something narrower. Still, we learned, Maimonides extended the concept somewhat:

It is forbidden to cut down fruit-bearing trees outside a (besieged) city, nor may a water channel be deflected from them so that they wither. . . . [This applies] not only to cutting it down during a siege, but whenever a fruit-yielding tree is cut down with destructive intent.  . . . It may be cut down, however, if it causes damage to other trees or to a field belonging to another man or if its value for other purposes is greater (than that of the fruit it produces).  The Law forbids only wanton destruction.  . . . Not only one who cuts down (fruit-producing) trees, but also one who smashes household good, tears cloths, demolishes a building, stops up a spring, or destroys aricles of food with destructive intent, transgresses the command Thou shalt not destroy (bal tashit). 

So according to Maimonides, the passage in Deuteronomy amounts to a comprehensive ethical ban on “wanton destruction,” whether in time of war or not, whether of a fruit tree or something else.  This is broader, for sure–but still very limited.  It reaches only wanton destruction: destruction that is for no appropriate purpose.  And the focus remains on present-day human purposes.  It seems to me the passage from Maimonides doesn’t quite capture the cross-generational insight from the original Torah passage.  But that’s what we moved to next. [Read more…]