Find, Listen to, Hug and Bless a Champion Tree!

Written By: Clare Kinberg

American Sycamore –

For Tu b’Shvat this year (January 28, 2021), the AARC Beit Sefer invites the whole congregation to help us appreciate our amazing local trees.

Tu b’Shvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees, is on the full moon in the Hebrew month of Shvat. We celebrate the trees exactly 7 weeks after the first night of Hanukkah, when the celestial lights are dimmest. Seven weeks later, on Tu b’Shvat, the days have lengthened just enough for the tips of the trees to begin to send messages to their roots, “Begin to awaken….” It is cold outside, but the longer daylight tells the trees — and us — Spring is on its way.

Ann Arbor’s Champion Tree Program identifies and catalogs the largest tree of each species within the city. The program was created in 1995 to highlight and recognize these amazing trees and increase awareness and appreciation for outstanding trees that help make Ann Arbor “Tree Town.” There are currently 60 trees in the Champion Tree Registry. You can find them all listed on an interactive map, with information about each tree here. 

Our Tu b’Shvat plan is that during the week of January 23 through January 30, our member households will each pick one tree (or more if you are ambitious) from the registry, visit it, record in photos, drawings, or video what it looks like, and do the following:

1. Listen to the tree by putting your ear to the bark…can you hear the water beginning to rise?

2. Put your arms around the tree and give it a hug!

3. Bless the tree, as something beautiful, a natural wonder, and as something unique (3 blessings are below):

4. When you get home, write a few sentences describing your tree, and email them to Gillian, along with your photo or drawing, so we can share your experience in a future blog!

  • Blessing on Beauty

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’olam shekahcha lo ba’olamo.

Blessed are you, our God, Ruler of the World, who has such as this in the world.

  • Blessing on Seeing Natural Wonders (from Ritualwell)

God-as-masculine/traditional:

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, oseh ma’aseh v’reshit.

You are blessed, our God, Ruler of the world, Source of creation.

God-as-feminine:

B’rukha At Ya Eloheinu Ruah ha’olam, osah ma’aseh v’reshit. 

You are blessed, our God, Spirit of the world, Source of creation.

  • Blessing on seeing an unusual creature

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, m’shaneh habriyot.

Blessed are You, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who makes creatures different.

Beit Sefer Hanukkah Mitzvah Project

For the first two weeks in December, our Beit Sefer families collected warm blankets, socks, hats, food, and toiletry items for distribution to people experiencing homelessness in our community. Our youngest class, the Kitanim, and their dedicated and inspiring teacher, Marcy Epstein, initiated this project. Besides gathering the items listed above, the class packaged them in waterproof plastic bags and made sure the packages got to the people in need.

Marcy reported that we gathered over 75 items for the homeless and displaced. Her friend Heidi Alward, the Vice Chair of the Board of the Women’s Center of Ann Arbor (which made sure everything was given out), sent the Beit Sefer a message:

“Wow, thank you, Marcy (and the AARC Beit Sefer)! I am so moved by you and your students and their families’ generosity of spirit. Please tell them that their actions will move people they may never meet and have ripple effects they may never feel, but they have created a positive impact. Beyond the food and materials goods, we have given them a sign that people care, that there is compassion, kindness and love in an often unjust world.”

Marcy taught that giving to people in need can be drawn from the phrase in the fourth book of the Torah, Vayikra/Now God Called (also known as Leviticus) 25:1, “Now when your brother sinks down (in poverty), and his hand falters beside you, then you shall strengthen him (as though) a sojourner and a resident-settler, and he is to live beside you.”

Beit Sefer visits Barn Sanctuary

The month of Elul, when we prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashanah and the Days of Awe, begins with The New Year for the Animals, where we learn about compassion, care, and openheartedness. The Barn Sanctuary in Chelsea, where over 120 rescued farm animals experience love and care, gave our Beit students and teachers excellent examples of compassionate care.

Aharon Varady writes on OpenSiddur: What a better way to begin a month dedicated to humbling ourselves and repairing our relationships than by reflecting first on our relationship with behemah — the domesticated animals which depend on us for their care and sustenance. The category of behemah includes all animals historically bred by humans as domesticated creatures, both kosher and non-kosher, e.g. cats and cattle, dogs and donkeys, goats, pigs, chicken, and llamas. If we can imagine, empathize, and understand the dependency of behemah in our care, how much better can we realize our relationship with blessed Holy One, and the infinite chain of inter-dependencies uniting all living relationships in reflection of this Oneness.

Students and teachers alike were fascinated by the virtual tour. Aaron, Ava, and Noah Jackson

The mission of the Barn Sanctuary: We rescue and rehabilitate abused and neglected farmed animals by creating a safe haven where these individuals can recover and thrive. We envision a world in which farmed animals are seen as individuals and treated with empathy and compassion. 

We learned that turkeys can change the color of their heads based on their emotions, and that turkeys have “accents” so that Michigan turkeys sound different from turkeys from other places

Our virtual tour guide, Sarah Chouinard, did an outstanding job of introducing us to the animals, and attentively answering our students many questions. Sarah spent a full hour with us as we visited chickens, goats, sheep, donkeys and cows in addition to the pigs and turkeys.

We learned that they have about 32 pigs because last year two of the rescued pigs were pregnant, and now they have their (already 200 lb) babies!
As we met the farm animals, our students introduced their stuffed animals who they snuggled with while touring the Barn Sanctuary.

The Barn Sanctuary is a wonderful local organization that we hope you will support. Visit them at barnsanctuary.org

With safety in mind, Beit Sefer plans Jewish learning

AARC’s Beit Sefer will begin its 2020-21 year on August 23, the first Sunday in the Jewish month of Elul, when Jews around the world are preparing for the Days of Awe, the Yamim Noraim.

Beit Sefer will be different this year, of course. Instead of meeting in person at the Jewish Community Center, we will hold short Zoom classes on Sunday mornings with some dedicated time studying Hebrew with Shani Samuels. These lessons will be augmented by learning in “family chevruta,” for which each family is paired with another for backyard and other outdoor learning activities.

During Elul, our Beit Sefer will undertake an all-school read of Out of the Apple Orchard, a Rosh Hashanah story of mistakes and forgiveness set in the Catskills in 1910.

The school will observe the Rosh Hodesh ElulNew Year of the Animals” with a visit to an animal sanctuary – either in our family chevruta or virtually – and with a shofar blast to wake us up to the coming year!

Our Beit Sefer will also help with several items for the congregation’s “Tishrei Boxes,” kits to help with home celebrations of the High Holidays. We plan to visit a U-Pick orchard (again in our family chevruta) and create Rosh Hashana cards. We will also find and paint small smooth stones to include in each box for the observance of the Yizkor memorial service on Yom Kippur.

All this is just the first month! This Beit Sefer year will wow you with new learning, new creativity, and new togetherness. We look forward to making new experiences and new history with you.

Children in the Open Tent

by Clare Kinberg, Beit Sefer director

Rosh Hashanah Children’s Service 2019, photo by Nancy Meadow

For the Rosh Hashanah Children’s Service, I transformed our Community Chuppah into Abraham and Sarah’s tent, which was said to be open on all four sides in order to welcome guests. The theme for this year’s Beit Sefer is “Welcome.” We are learning to be welcoming of ourselves, new friends, new community members and immigrants to our country. Based on several Midrashim and a story told by Nissan Mindel on chabad.org, I wrote a story for our families:

Bruchim habaim, welcome to the tent of Abraham and Sarah in Beersheva. We are in the desert and our ancestors Abraham and Sarah have a beautiful garden around their tent, which is open on all four sides, just like this chuppa we sit under. This is a story about their open tent.

Abraham and Sarah were not born in Beersheva; they came from far away. They went on a long round-a-bout journey, walking thousands of miles to get where they finally built their tent and garden. While they were on their journey, some of the people they met were very kind and welcoming, offering them water and food and a place to rest.  Sometimes they tried to pass through places where people chased them away shouting “get away,” we don’t want you here.

When Sarah and Abraham built their own tent, they wanted it to be open on all sides to let people who were passing by know that they were welcome. Sarah and Abraham would sit in their tent and listen for travelers. They would welcome them into the tent and feed them.

Out in the garden surrounding the tent, there were two tall date palm trees. The leaves at the top of the trees could see and hear from many miles away. So the trees were the first ones who could see caravans of travelers when they were still far away. And the caravans could see the trees and know there was a place to rest from the hot desert sun.

The trees kept watch for Sarah and Abraham, and when the trees saw a caravan of people who seemed like they came from far away, people who dressed differently and spoke a different language, they would rustle their leaves with a special swishing sound.

When Abraham and Sarah heard the sound of the date palm trees swishing in the special way, they knew they had to do more than wait for the travelers to come to the tent. They knew the travelers might wonder if they would be welcome. So Sarah and Abraham would prepare food and water and they would run out of the tent to greet the strangers and offer them water, food, and good company.

A look back at Beit Sefer 5779

by Beit Sefer director Clare Kinberg

Building the Sukkah at Carole Caplan’s Farm on Jennings, a Beit Sefer tradition

I sent out a survey for parents last week seeking feedback on the past year of religious school, and in the process, I took a mental stroll through the year. It was a good one, with several innovations.

Collecting the s’kach, roof coverings.

For several years now, we have built a sukkah at Carole Caplan’s Farm on Jennings as a way to start off the year. This year we added an optional sleep over! For the sukkah building, a few new families joined us. Cooking out, putting up tents, having Beit Sefer outside, all of it was a lot of fun.

Rabbi Ora and congregants unroll our Torah scroll, believed to be over 200 years old.
Searching the scroll

For Simchat Torah this year we unfurled our Torah scroll at the JCC, with Rabbi Ora leading some Torah investigation. Parents and students got a close in look at our very old and unusual Torah.

Human Menorah

For Hanukkah we had some in class parties and latke making. Sufganiyot making at Clare’s house.

If fact, food figured into several lessons! We have a few challah bakers, donut makers, and latke fryers among our parents and teachers.

This year we joined the Jewish Cultural Society’s Purim Carnival in the gym for fun, games and shaloach manot/Purim gifts making.

Planting trees at County Farm Park

Finally, we had our first picnic/tree planting at County Farm Park. Back during the winter, when we celebrated Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees, the most we could do was think about planting trees. That’s when I hatched the idea to plan a tree planting expedition. With some great networking by Stacy, we got in touch with the County Farm Park Naturalist Shawn Severance. Shawn set us up to plant more than a dozen persimmon, paw paw, and plum trees.

Innovations in the classroom included, Aaron Jackson and madricha Rose Basch leading the G’dolim in making pin ball machines that tell the stories of the Golem of Prague and the Passover journey. Shlomit Cohen added a six week unit on Israel, and Rabbi Ora taught a unit on the Bedtime Shema.

Visualizing the Bedtime Shema

All in all, the greatest successes of the year included community building, camaraderie among the students, parents and teachers, and growing commitments to Jewish learning. Special shout out to our madrachim, Rose Basch, Avi Lessure and Zander McClain. After several years of being helpers in the classroom, Rose and Avi are moving on. We will miss them!

The story behind Haggadah Regatta

by Carol Levin

Haggadah Regatta, my new Passover picture book haggadah, launched this month. You’re all invited to a launch party at the JCC on March 10th, from 3 to 4:30 pm. The February issue of the Washtenaw Jewish News reviews the book about a seder on a little matzah raft. My website  shows a sampling of the art and publication details. For the backstory…

Summer 2016

A three-week visit to help my daughter’s family settle into their new Michigan home assures me that Ann Arbor is the place to be. This East Coast Grams has no doubts about her decision to move. My grandkids, Aaron and Julia, are then at delicious ages (one and three). Naomi and Ben, U-M geology professors, both have Michigander roots. In 1850, my Mom’s family, the Silbermans, founded Detroit’s Temple Beth El. Five generations later, their descendants enjoy the Apples & Honey fall festival for a first look at Jewish Ann Arbor.

Spring 2017

Naomi and I begin to plan for a seder at my house. We agree to make it kid friendly. We need a haggadah that works for us all. My Amazon search yields a riot of fun picture books for toddlers. I find family haggadot geared to older children. What’s missing from the book list?  A beginner’s haggadah for Aaron and Julia. I’m a writer, and an artist and a do-it-yourselfer. Decades ago, I wrote A Rosh Hashanah Walk, (Kar-Ben Publishers, 1987) . An idea for a new holiday tale sprouts. While kayaking on the Huron, I spy a matzah raft with some old friends on board. When I was little, I discovered talking shoes at my Daddy’s shoe store. These shoes are my crew.

In two-weeks time, I feverishly sketch, and write and weave seder essentials into the haggadah. Staples at Westgate produces the beta version. Aaron’s pal Jack and his folks, Brenna and Ben, join us for seder. The read-aloud gathers steam as we go around the seder table asking, “Who is?” and telling, “how” and “why” and having a foot-stomping good time.  When the seder is over, a year of revisions begins.

Fall 2017

Indie authors at the Kerrytown Bookfest point me to the Thomson-Shore table. The book printers &  publishers are having a fall open house. Touring the Dexter plant, I muse about self-publishing. I’m not there yet. The revisions continue.

Spring 2018

I upload files to Apple to print a full color book. The new  8”x 8” format is easier for little hands. Pastel crayon illustrations replace rough sketches. The original protagonist, a weathered captain, bows out. Two kids, a boy and a goat, now lead the seder crew. Digital goat tracks urge viewers on from page-to-page. Text is color-coded to cue readers.

Post-Seder brings more revisions: I focus on pacing and page-turns; I paint watercolor illustrations; I think the book is ready.  My Ann Arbor SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) group say, “It’s ready.” Query letters to agents and publishers are mailed. And I wait. I attend writer’s conferences. And I wait…

Summer – Fall 2018

I return to Thomson-Shore and meet with their Creative Director, Tamra Tuller. Tamra’s clear observations and feedback convince me to do it. Under her mentoring, I produce new illustrations, change layouts and select fonts. She guides me through the design process and skills needed to convert finished art into files. Wordsmith friends, Elaine Sims and Marion Short, help with final edits. Rabbi Ora refines phrases to suit a young audience. Clare Kinberg addresses sensitive issues as a librarian-educator-communicator. Phonetics maven Terri Ginsburg helps verify family-friendly Hebrew transliteration. Peretz Hirshbein (JCC Early Childhood Center Director) and Jessica Gillespie (PJ Library Director) facilitate the book launch and family Passover event. Thank you Ann Arbor.

Winter 2019

Shehechiyanu !!!

The ‘Border’ is around the corner

by Idelle Hammond-Sass

In Ann Arbor and the Detroit area, several churches and synagogues have become “sanctuary congregations.” Being a sanctuary congregation can include participating in a range of actions, from educating the public about immigration issues to becoming a haven for guests who need sanctuary to evade deportation.

Ann Arbor Friends Meeting recently accepted a guest in Sanctuary and a coalition of congregations is coordinating logistics. You may also be interested in reading about the guest and how he came to be in Sanctuary here: press release/sanctuary .

“Doorminders” are on 24-hour rotation to make sure the place is secure and to screen visitors. Washtenaw Congregational Sanctuary, which includes Ann Arbor Jewish Sanctuary (a group of local Jewish congregations) is a member of this effort.


Washtenaw Congregational Sanctuary (WCS) is an interfaith coalition of congregations, and unaffiliated individuals, throughout Washtenaw County who have joined together to support immigrants and their families in our community. The group is led by the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice (ICPJ) and the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights (WICIR). WCS formed in January 2017 in response to intensified and increasingly unjust activities of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in our community.

It Takes a Village

It takes a lot of people to maintain a 24-hour watch. Doorminders are scheduled in three shifts: 8am – 4pm, 4pm – 10pm, and 10pm – 8am. Training is necessary to be a doorminder, but is very short and simple. My experience as a doorminder was very positive, with ample support, information and comfortable surroundings (wifi, etc.). A large pool of people is needed in the event that a new guest arrives in sanctuary, and to enable shift splitting when necessary.

The next Doorminder Training is February 9th, 2019, at 1pm, Friends Meeting House, 1420 Hill St. Ann Arbor, MI. RSVP on Eventbrite is encouraged for the training. The doorminder signup is as simple as “Signup Genius.” Occasionally, there may be other needs, such as a ride to medical treatment.

In addition, I encourage you to join the Ann Arbor Jewish Sanctuary email list (a2jewishsanctuary@googlegroups.com) to find out about actions, such as rides to Detroit for check in to ICE, USCIS, and other types of support. AARC member Laurie White helps coordinate rides at lonawhite1@gmail.com. For more information see the website .

Ritual Lab & Learn

Brainstorming on the question, “What is ritual?” photo by Mark Schneyer

Introducing Ritual Lab & Learn: An adult education series

What makes something a ritual? Is it the act itself? The intention behind the act? How often it’s performed? Who performs it? On Sunday January 13, 2019, 23 of us gathered to explore these questions as part of the introduction to Ritual Lab & Learn, a new adult education series.

Ritual Lab & Learn will meet twice a month to learn about new Jewish home ritual. We’ll meet at the JCC on Second and Fourth Sundays, 12:30-2:00 pm. The schedule is (updated as of April 19, 2019 to reflect a few changes):

  • January 27:         Daily blessings
  • February 10:       Eating and drinking
  • February 24:       (Cancelled due to weather)
  • March 10:            Covering the head
  • March 24:            Mezuzah
  • April 14:              Shmirat HaLashon (speech ethics)
  • April 28:              Creating our own rituals

Why is the series called ‘Lab & Learn’? Because there are 2 tracks:

Just Learn: Attend any or all of the sessions. In each class, we’ll learn a new type of Jewish daily home ritual, including where it comes from, how and why it was practiced in the past, and how we might practice it today.

Lab & Learn: Commit to practicing the assigned ritual for a two-week period. During the 2 weeks, you’ll journal on your practice, and meet once with an assigned chevrutah (study partner) to discuss your practice.

Want to sign up for the Lab track, or have questions about which track is right for you? Email Rabbi Ora.

More on the topic of ritual:

Rabbi Ira Stone teaches that ritual practices are a way of ‘interrupting time’ to help us be more human.

Sigal Samuel takes a look at a design lab making rituals for secular people.

Tu BiShvat Seder Jan 20

It will come…..

I came out of a meeting yesterday at about 5:20pm, and the sun had not quite set. It was a glorious moment. But did you know that the sunrise in Ypsi/Arbor won’t be before 8am until next week? And did you know on the evening of January 20th, the 15 of Shvat, or Tu BiShvat, the sun will set at 5:34pm? The sun will have been in the sky just long enough to send a message to the bare-limbed trees that yes, Spring will come.

At Tu BiShvat seders, by appreciating the fruits of trees and arbors, we remind ourselves that, yes, Spring will come. The gardens will come back to life, whether we plan for them on not. Why not start planning?

Michal and Josh Samuel have graciously offered to host our AARC Tu BiShvat seder, Sunday evening January 20th, 4-6pm, as the sun sets and as our tradition suggests to us, the trees’ yearly cycle begins, deep beneath the frozen earth.

There will be fruits and nuts and wine. Some ritual and food to share. Details are still emerging (like the sun), but please RSVP here so the Samuels can set the table and be in touch with you about what to bring. The address and contact info are in the RSVP.

Our blog contains many wonderful pieces about Tu BiShvat, its meanings and how we have celebrated in past years. Click here to see them!