Holidays at Home with Friends

Lighting the candles on the last night of Hanukkah 5779 at the Belman-Wells

Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation started out as a havurah, a smallish friendship group of like-minded Jews who gather for Shabbat and holiday prayer services,  lifecycle events, and Jewish learning.  When we became a congregation and engaged rabbinic leadership, we opened up to growing in numbers and diversity, but we also wanted to retain the warm, low-key feeling of friends gathering.

Playing games at Patti and Clare’s on the third night of Hanukkah, while the sufganiyot dough rises

One way we’ve been able to do this is by organizing home-hosted Jewish holidays: Hanukkah candle lightings and Passover seders where old and new friends can gather to celebrate. Lucky for us, Jewish holidays that last many days create many opportunities for small groups. 

Sixth night of Hanukkah at Mike Ehmann’s, candles burning bright

The upcoming spring holidays offer opportunities for many different types of celebrations. For Tu b’Shvat this year (just a month away on January 20-21), we are looking for a member who’d like to host a seder in their home. We’ll celebrate Purim at the JCC, and we will again organize a Passover seder sign up so that everyone who wants to be at a home Passover seder will be able to. If you can host a wheelchair accessible seder for Tu b’Shvat or Passover, please let us know. We’ll celebrate Mimouna together again at the end of Passover, at the JCC. 

Clare’s instructions for making sufganiyot

Hanukkah is all about oil and resistance, so what better art project than wax resist painting. Molly Meadow made this one in Shlomit’s Beit Sefer class last week.

After about twenty years of annual sufganiyot making, I can share here my process and recipe.

First ingredient, a batch of kids to do the rolling, cutting, filling, sugaring and eating.

About 4 hours before the kids arrive, I pull out the bread machine.

Each batch of dough takes an hour and a half to make, and I make two batches of about 20-25 donuts each.

The ingredients for the bread machine are:

  • 2/3 cup milk
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1 egg
  • 3 cups flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 1/2 tsp active dry yeast

Other stuff you need:

  • Wok or deep pan for frying
  • Oil for deep frying. I use canola, about 1 1/2 quarts, enough to fill my wok about 4 inches deep
  • 3 inch diameter cutting tool (I use the ubiquitous  Ikea plastic cup)
  • Medicine dropper for squirting the jelly into the sufganiyot
  • Jelly filling. I use Kroger All Fruit, seedless variety of flavors, stirred with a tiny bit of water to make it easy to suck into the medicine dropper
  • Powdered sugar and sifter for shaking


Roll the dough to about 3/8 thickness, cut into 3 inch circles and place on baking sheets to rise, covered with a cloth. Recipe says let rise for 35-45 minutes. We put the oven on 170 degreee F, and put them in for 20 minutes while the kids played games. While the dough rises, heat up the oil to a medium heat until a small piece of dough bubbles when put in the oil. Fry 1-3 minutes on each side, until golden brown. I fry 5 to 7 at a time. Place on paper towels until cool enough to handle. Use the droppers to fill either the side or top of the fried donut, shake on powdered sugar.




Elliot Bramson’s Bar Mitzvah dvar on Toldot


Shabbat Shalom. The Torah portion for this week is  Toldot | תולדות | “[These are the] Generations” Bereshit, 25:19−28:9. This is the story of Jacob and Esau and how conflict changed their lives and relationship. This Torah portion also contains a story about Jacob and Esau’s father, Isaac, and his early life before his sons were born.

The theme that I noticed throughout this portion was conflict over resources. In Isaac’s early life, the conflict is about wells. This is a conflict over water, the most basic of resources. In the Jacob and Esau story, the two brothers fight for their father’s blessing, which promises an abundance of food and land. In a way, we can view the blessing itself as a resource that the brothers are fighting over.

The first conflict, over water, starts with Isaac in a wadi near Gerar. Isaac has just been kicked out of Gerar by Abimelech, the king of Gerar, because Isaac has too many people in his family. So he leaves Gerar, finds a wadi, and decides to settle there, and begins to dig wells. When Isaac’s shepherds dig the first well, the shepherds of Gerar wrangle with Isaac’s shepherds over who the water belongs to. Isaac names the well Wrangle, לְהִסְתַכסֵך (L’heestachsech). The second well they dig is argued over, too, so Isaac names it Animosity, אֵיבָה (Avah). The third well, however, they don’t argue over so Issac names it Rechovot meaning: “Now the Eternal has granted us ample room and will make us fruitful in the land.”

From my perspective, this story is about conflict – how random and unpredictable it is, but also how it can show up in multiple generations. In my Torah portion, Isaac happens to be digging for wells because of conflict with the people of Gerar. One generation earlier, Isaac’s father Abraham also experienced conflict over the resource of water when his wells got stopped up by the Philistines. It’s an endless cycle of digging new wells, then conflict over the wells, then a need to dig new wells. The conflict also seems so random. I think it’s curious how Isaac and the shepherds of Gerar quarrel over two wells, but not over the third one. Why is there conflict over some wells but not others?

So the first story of conflict in my Torah portion is about water. The second story of conflict is over blessings.

A few years after the episode with the wells, Isaac has two children, Jacob and Esau. Jacob and Esau, who are twins, start fighting before they’re even born. Their mother Rebekah feels them fighting in her womb and wonders, why this is happening so she asks God. God answers: “Two nations are in your womb, two separate peoples shall issue from your body; one people shall be mightier than the other, And the older shall serve the younger.”

After the twins are born, they continue to be in conflict. And as they get older it becomes apparent that they have very different personalities. Esau is a hunter and is very hairy, while Jacob stays home and cooks and is much quieter. Isaac favors Esau, and Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, favors Jacob.

These conflicts become much more serious one day when Esau is coming home from a hunt and is very hungry. He sees that Jacob is making a red soup and demands he give him some of it. Jacob agrees, only if Esau will sell him his birthright. Esau sells Jacob his birthright and eats the soup.

Later, when Isaac is very old and has bad eyesight, he decides it is time to give his blessings to his oldest son. Isaac tells Esau to hunt and bring him something to eat before he gives him his blessing. Rebekah overhears this and tells Jacob to go to his flock to get an animal to cook for Isaac. Rebekah cooks tasty dishes for Isaac and tells Jacob to dress up in the skin of the animal to seem that he is as hairy as Esau. Isaac then confuses Jacob for Esau and gives Jacob his blessing. After Jacob steals Esau’s blessing, Esau is enraged and wants to kill Jacob, so Rebekah tells Jacob to flee to her brother Laban in Haran.

This story is challenging from a moral perspective. Rebekah liked Jacob more than his brother and didn’t want Esau to get the blessing of the firstborn, so she planned that Jacob should steal his brother’s blessing. Not only was it wrong to steal the blessing from Esau, but Rebekah and Jacob also tricked Isaac and took advantage of him being almost blind.

Although Rebekah and Jacob clearly behave badly in this story, Jewish thinkers throughout our history have tried to portray Jacob as the good twin in order to encourage people to have sympathy toward Jacob, and maybe decide that it was ok for him to steal Esau’s blessing.

Rashi took this approach. Rashi was a Jewish commentator from Troyes (twah), in the Champagne region of France. He was born in 1040 and was best known for his commentaries on the Torah and the Babylonian Talmud. Rashi portrays Jacob as being meant to lead the Jewish people because Esau was always drawn towards idol worship, even before he was born. Rashi writes that “whenever Rebekah passed by a synagogue, Jacob moved convulsively in his efforts to be born, but whenever she passed by the gate of a pagan temple Esau moved convulsively in his efforts to be born.”

Chizkuni, another commentator who wrote about Jacob and Esau’s conflict, lived in France in the thirteenth century. His commentaries contained insights from other commentators, including Rashi. On the topic of Jacob and Esau, Chizkuni challenges Rashi’s interpretation. He says that God predicted that one child would be good and one evil, but that when they struggled in the womb it was not yet clear which one would prevail. It only became clear that Esau wished wickedness to prevail on earth and Jacob wished righteousness to prevail on earth once they were older, when Esau became a hunter and Jacob a philosopher. Clearly Chizkuni thought that being a hunter was a morally inferior occupation to being a philosopher.

Based on what’s written in the Torah, as well as the perspectives of these commentaries, Jacob and Esau were destined to always be at war. Their conflict started from when they were in the womb, and continued throughout their lives, even after they separated.

Although the Jacob and Esau story is old, it has relevance to a conflict we see today. The story of Jacob and Esau shows how a conflict over resources can start an endless war. A current endless war that also seems to be about resources is the Israel-Palestine conflict. The Israel-Palestine conflict is an argument over land and resources between the state of Israel and the non-Jewish Palestinians who lived there before the state of Israel was created. Many Palestinians believe that they were kicked off the land when the nation was created. Many Jews believe that they have a right to the land because they were there first, thousands of years ago.

It seems to me that we can think of the conflict between Jacob and Esau as a one-on-one version of the Israel-Palestine conflict. And if we apply the lens of my Torah portion to the Israel-Palestine conflict, then one message we could take from it is that shouldn’t be fighting our brothers, just as Jacob and Esau shouldn’t be fighting. But that’s a simple message to take away from this. A more complex take-away would be to think about how the Israel-Palestine conflict has been portrayed.

I did some research on the Israel-Palestine conflict and I found that many Jewish Israelis claim that they have a right to the land because it was promised to them by God. They feel that Israel is their homeland and it has always belonged to them, and some are afraid that their historic homeland could be taken away from them because of the Palestinians who claim that it is theirs. However, there are some Jewish Israelis who are sympathetic with the Palestinians and think that how the Israeli government treats Palestinians is wrong.

On the other hand, many Palestinians feel that they are being deprived of basic human rights, that the Israeli government’s laws are discriminatory towards Palestinians, and that the US government should not be funding Israel and its military. Many Palestinians think they were turned into refugees because the Jews claimed that their ancestors lived there thousands of years ago.

As Jews, it would seem that we’d have a natural sympathy towards the Jewish Israeli version of the conflict, in the same way we might feel a natural sympathy towards or connection to Jacob, in the story of Jacob and Esau. And, as I mentioned earlier, with the commentators Rashi and Chizkuni, it is possible to interpret a story of conflict in such a way as to justify any position.

Like in any conflict, the Israel-Palestine conflict is definitely being interpreted by the different sides in such a way that their actions seem justified and justifiable.

The questions that I want you to reflect on are: Do you think that you have a bias when you look at the two sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict? Do you think the Jacob and Esau conflict relates to other current events today? Feel free to raise your hands and give your opinion.

I would like to thank the people that have made this possible. Thank you Rabbi Ora for leading this service, and for helping me write this D’var Torah. I want to thank Deb, my Hebrew tutor for making learning my Torah portion and Haftorah so fun. Also, thanks for all the hot chocolate you gave me! I would like to thank everyone who came today from out of town and my friends and family. Lastly, I want to thank my parents for supporting me in having a bar mitzvah, helping me practice, and arranging my party. I can’t thank you enough! Shabbat Shalom!

Reconstructing Judaism: Convention Report

Last week, November 15-18, 2018 I joined over 700 Reconstructionists from around the world for an outstanding convention which was titled and themed “Deeply Rooted. Boldly Relevant.” The spirit at Kabbalat Shabbat and havdallah was really sweet and enveloping, I saw many old friends and made some new ones. Below is a short report on the sessions I attended. Your comments and questions are welcome.

Joint Israel Commission (JIC)

The Joint Israel Commission is made of 22 representatives of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, rabbinical students, and lay members (including me) of the movement (these three different constituencies account for the “joint” designation). We met for six hours on Thursday November 15. The JIC was deliberately constituted to include people who hold the widest range of views within the Reconstructionist movement, which means including supporters of the Israeli Defense Force and AIPAC on the more conservative end to Jewish Voice for Peace and anti-Zionism on the other end of the spectrum, with of course, a big middle bulge around the J Street positions.  Our challenge as a commission is to advise Reconstructing Judaism on ways that our movement, open to members with all of these points of view, can move, grow and act. In addition to the JIC meeting, I attended a “listening session” in which about 40 people were invited to express what they thought the JIC should be doing while we, the commission members, listened, recorded and took notes.

There are four clusters of activities JIC will be engaged in over the next 3 years.

  • Thinking and Writing about Israel and Zionism which includes curating articles or books that we’d recommend as bases for congregational discussions.
  • Recommending best-practices for creating “civil discourse,” that is holding congregational discussions about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in which each participant can express themselves, learn from others, and evolve.
  • Enhancing reciprocal relationships between our congregations and Israeli “Renaissance” groups (those exploring creative Judaism, the arts, and organizing for social justice, etc) and groups or individuals working on shared society, Israeli/Palestinian reconciliation and resolution of the conflict.
  • Curating and recommending adult and youth curriculum on Israel and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
RENA (Reconstructionist Educators of North America)

Membership in RENA is limited to current and past directors of education of Reconstructionist schools. I went to two RENA sessions. One was on teaching Israel and the other was led by the master Reconstructionist educator Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey Schein, Senior Education Consultant for the Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood. The session featured presentations by curriculum innovators on: outdoor education, teaching Hebrew in small groups outside of the classroom, building whole school curriculum around practice of middot (Jewish ethical values), and grief and suicide prevention. I was also introduced to “Kaplanian Report Card: An Evaluation Tool for Jewish Education,” which grades each lesson for transmission of five qualities:

  1. Understand and Appreciate Hebrew, Language and, Literature
  2. Practice Jewish Ethical and Religious Values
  3. Participate in Jewish Life
  4. Give Artistic Expression to Jewish Values
  5. Cultivate Jewish Ideals and Role Models
Congregational Programs on Racism and White Supremacy

This terrific session described programs of two different congregations, The Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC) in Evanston and Adat Shalom, near Washington, DC. The JRC program was a “Racial Injustice Trip to Montgomery, AL” where 29 congregants went together to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. The Adat Shalom program was a six session “Racial Justice Discussion Group” that over 60 people attended. They watched videos and had structured discussions on “White Privilege and Implicit Bias,” “The History of Racism in the U.S,”  “Wealth Disparity,” and “Racial Bias in the U.S. Justice System,” and then held two “Reflection and Next Steps” sessions. Here is a link to the reading and viewing lists.

Muslim-Jewish Women’s Dialogue Encountering Sarah and Hajar

Finally, I went to a session led by Rabbi Nancy Kreimer, who teaches at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Professor Homayra Ziad, a professor of Islam at Johns Hopkins University. They led us in discussion of sections from the Torah and the Qu’ran that both tell stories of Sarah, Abraham, Hajar and their sons Isaac and Ismail, looking at similarities and differences in texts and commentaries.


Welcome Marilyn and Len Kirsch!

Len and Marilyn Kirsch recently moved from Long Island, New York to Ann Arbor to be near their daughter Jennifer, her husband Peter, and their grandchild Jacob. Len is a semi-retired aviation and seaport attorney and Marilyn is a retired elementary school teacher. Jennifer is a psychologist in town, and Peter is a dentist working in South Lyons and Milan. Jacob is 19 months and attends the JCC three days a week. They reside near the Briarwood Mall, but will be moving to a Toll Brothers Town House on Scio Church Road in the Spring.  Len and Marilyn belonged to a Conservative Synagogue in Syosset, New York and Len was an elected member of the Syosset School Board for 11 years. They are excited to be part of a dynamic congregation and hope to help the congregation grow in size.

Welcome Jeff Siegfried!

Still photo from a video of Jeff’s dissertation concert Yizkor: In Memoriam, on November 18. Click on photo for the video. The recital was dedicated to the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. It features music that explores Jewish identity, including pieces by Leonard Bernstein, Yinam Leef, Ziv Slama, Ellwood Derr, Ödön Pártos, and Betty Olivero.

Hi! I’m Jeff. I’ve lived in Ann Arbor for a few years now and perhaps like many others I’ve been attending High Holy Days services at AARC only to disappear for the rest of the year. At Yom Kippur this year I realized that I am seeking a deeper sense of nourishment and community and I chose to become a member and to make Shabbat services a steadier practice for me.

I am a doctoral student in saxophone at UM and I live near campus. I grew up in Bellingham, Washington. Prior to my coming to Ann Arbor, I lived in Tucson and Chicago.

I am drawn to the progressive, inquisitive, and welcoming atmosphere at AARC and I look forward to getting to know all of you more. My partner, Ione, was also able to come to a Rosh Hashanah service and wants to come to more events as her schedule allows as well. As the occasion arises, I’d love to be involved in making music in and around AARC events.

My hobbies include cooking, bicycling, reading, and dancing. I can’t wait to get to know all of you better!

Resources for Responding to Pittsburgh Tragedy

Tree of Life painting by Yitzchok Moully, posted on Facebook with a “please share”

Last Saturday evening, in the hours after the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, I tried to prepare myself for facing our Beit Sefer students on Sunday morning. After consulting many other Jewish professionals and teachers of young children, I determined that the best way forward was to check in with the teachers, be prepared to reassure and comfort, and to let the students be the guide to how much information to share, by answering questions but not going into extra detail.

As it turned out, none of the younger kids brought it up and so we went on with our planned lessons. The oldest class did have a discussion about anti-Semitism, not really focused on Pittsburgh. I arranged for a room for parents to talk to each other, and I invited Laurie White to lead the school in song for the closing half hour.

All in all, I was over-prepared for last Sunday. But now, going on a week later, I have a sense that more of the Beit Sefer students will have heard about the massacre and may have further questions and reactions. I’m glad I began my preparation immediately.

I would really appreciate hearing from any of you who have questions, advice, or anecdotes to share from your family’s experiences in dealing with this tragedy. I saw many of you at the community vigil at TBE on Sunday evening, which I found to be moving and strengthening.

A huge crowd at the Oct 28 vigil at TBE

I have received many helpful resources for responding to the tragic attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and I want to share just a few of them here.

From Rabbi Joshua Lesser, “THE TREE OF LIFE: Navigating Conversations With Our Children After Acts of Violence and Anti-Semitism.”

From Moving Traditions and Rabbi Tamara Cohen, “Guidance for Jewish educators and parents: Helping Teens in the wake of Pittsburgh.”

Resources for Interfaith families on anti-Semitism.

An article by Jewish activist Dove Kent and AME Reverend Jennifer Bailey, “Charleston to Tree of Life: White Nationalism is a Threat to Us All,” reminds us that this week’s shooting in a synagogue is part of continuing terrorism, and that we have foundations of solidarity to build on.

A video from the Pittsburgh protest of Trump’s visit, organized by Bend the Arc, is balm.


And finally, the Jewish community worldwide is calling for Nov 2-3 to be a #ShowUpforShabbat shabbat. This article from The Forward reminds us that “this Shabbat is a good time to remember that racial profiling has zero place in Judaism and Jewish spaces.” AARC does not have shabbat services this Friday or Saturday, but our congregants are welcome at any of the area’s services, a list of which will be sent to you soon.

by Yehuda Amichai, translated by Chana Bloch:

“Poem Without an End”

Inside the brand-new museum
there’s an old synagogue.
Inside the synagogue
is me.
Inside me
my heart.
Inside my heart
a museum.
Inside the museum
a synagogue,
inside it
inside me
my heart,
inside my heart
a museum



Recap of Ayeka Café

Ayeka Café began meeting in January 2018 as a time for AARC members to gather together, ask each other and themselves the question ‘How are you?’ and listen to what emerged. After a good run, our last Ayeka Café meeting was October 4.

Rabbi Ora asked one of Ayeka Café’s regulars, Judith Jacobs, to write about her experiences over the past 10 months.

“The monthly Ayeka Café meetings, facilitated by Rabbi Ora, were an opportunity for Recon members to meet in a less formal setting. I attended these meetings since they began. I found that they offered me opportunities to explore different parts of me.  There were three types of activities in which I engaged. The first involved dyads in which we took turns at being a listener and a talker. Not only did these experiences let me learn about someone else, they let me explore some of my own feelings. A second experience that I enjoyed was a more artistic one. In this I used a drawing pad and colored markers to represent my world, including my two cats – Sonya and Amber. This was just for me and not shared with anyone else. Lastly, one evening I had a rush of words filling my head and took the opportunity to journal these ideas. Again, this was just for me. Each person who attended an Ayeka Café took from it an amplified version of what they brought to the meeting.”

—Judith Jacobs

Thanks to all who participated and shared of themselves.

Stay tuned for an announcement in the coming weeks about “Ritual Lab & Learning,” a new AARC program launching January 2019.

Making a Habit of Tenderness

Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Yom Kippur 5779 Sermon
by Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Making a Habit of Tenderness

Some of you know that before I moved to Ann Arbor to serve as rabbi of this holy community, I worked as a chaplain at a hospital in New Orleans. I was assigned to the oncology ward, so my weekdays, 8 to 5, were spent with cancer patients and their families. But at least once a week I would also work an overnight shift, which meant covering any death that happened in the hospital over a 24-hour period.

I ended up witnessing a lot of deaths – sometimes one per shift, occasionally as many as three. I rarely had time in the immediate aftermath of each death to grieve or process. But it was my job to show up, fully present, each time I walked into a hospital room. So I developed a ritual for myself: After each death, once the family had left the room and the body was taken away, I would take a few moments, alone, to wash my hands twice; first with soap and water, and then again, just water. It felt like this small ritual helped wash away some of the emotional residue that clung to me, so that I could show up for the next patient and family, with an open heart.

One patient who I remember vividly, in life and in death, was a man called Mikal (pseudonym)  in his early 60s. He was the proud patriarch of a large, loud, Armenian Orthodox family. He’d emigrated to New Orleans in the 1970s, raised a son and daughter there, and established a successful jewelry business.

During the two months Mikal spent coming in and out of the hospital for treatment, I could always tell when he’d been admitted because there would a stream of visitors – family, friends, customers – spilling out of his hospital room into the hallway, laughing and talking animatedly and bothering the nurses for more fridge space in the lounge to store dishes of homemade food they’d brought.

Mikal had an aggressive form of cancer, but he was a dedicated optimist. He never admitted, at least to me, that he was dying. But he passed quickly, within a few months of his diagnosis.

The morning that Mikal passed away, I’d just started my shift when I got a call from the head nurse telling me that Mikal had just died, surrounded by his family. When I walked into the hospital room, I saw Mikal’s 32-year-old daughter Tamar lying in bed next to her father’s body. Her right arm spanned her father’s chest, and she was kissing his cheek again and again and crying.

One thing I discovered in my work as a chaplain is that the length of time family will stay with the body of a loved one varies tremendously from family to family and culture to culture.

Most families will leave within an hour of their loved one being pronounced dead.  Tamar stayed with her father’s body, cradling him and crying, for more than four hours.

And I stayed with them in that room the whole time, because that was my job, to be there, to witness, to comfort. But I was uncomfortable. Because as a Jew, that kind of clinging to a dead body felt foreign and unsettling to me.

The Torah cautions us repeatedly not to touch a dead body, because it makes the living ritually impure. Many passages in Leviticus and Numbers warn against any contact with a corpse, and then outline how to cleanse oneself if contact does accidentally happen. But beyond these biblical, archaic prohibitions, even contemporary Jewish practices around death seem to communicate a hands-off feeling.

When someone dies, we bury their body as quickly as possible. After a funeral, all those who’ve attended are supposed to wash their hands as they leave the cemetery. And when Jews walk through a cemetery, we’re supposed to take care not to walk across any graves. So it seems like as Jews, we’re supposed to avoid contact with the dead.

But: this attitude doesn’t reflect the fullness of our traditions around death and mourning. Judaism also has a number of rituals that demonstrate deep tenderness towards the dead – rituals that seem to encourage care and physical closeness. I want to highlight four of these.

The first is the custom of the shomer – guard, watchman. After a Jewish person dies, their body is taken to a funeral home, where a relative, or a volunteer, or an employee of the funeral home sits with the body overnight and reads poetry out loud to it – usually Psalms. This ancient tradition came about because of the belief that a soul could become lost and confused right after death, and hover around the body until it was buried. The presence of the shomer was meant to be a comfort to the soul. And there is always a shomer until the funeral – the body is never left alone.

The second custom also takes place before burial, and involves a group called the chevrah kedisha, a community of volunteers that prepares bodies for burial. The preparation, known as tahara, is fixed, slow, and careful. First the body is ritually washed. As it’s washed, care is taken to preserve its modesty; only one small section of the body is uncovered at any given time. Then the body is dressed in white garments, wrapped in a tallit, and laid in a casket. At the conclusion of the tahara, the members of chevrah kedisha silently ask forgiveness from the soul for any indignity the body may have suffered during the ritual. They then ask God to gently receive the soul of the body they’ve just washed and dressed and tucked in.

The third custom I want to highlight is a more public-facing one: how relatives recite Mourner’s Kaddish for a year after a loved one’s death. This tradition dates back almost 2,000 years. The early rabbis believed that when a person died, their soul would go down to Gehinnom, a temporary purgatory. There, the soul would review their life’s actions and do teshuva. The more sins a person had accumulated in life, the longer their soul would stay in Gehinnom, with the maximum time being 12 months before the soul could finally ascend to heaven.

It was believed that having living relatives recite Kaddish could help speed up the soul’s process of teshuva. Some rabbis recommended that relatives stop reciting Kaddish after 11 months – to assume that their loved one had already ascended to heaven, and had not been so sinful as to have needed the full 12 months.

The final custom I want to share with you is that of visiting the graves of loved ones on yahrzeits and before holidays. Many Jewish families will take a yearly trip to the cemetery before Rosh HaShana and spend some time at each family member’s grave. At the end of the visit they’ll place a small rock on each gravestone, a way of marking ‘I was here’.

All of these rituals fall under the umbrella term ‘chesed shel emet.’ Chesed – meaning lovingkindess. And Shel Emet – meaning truth. Our tradition teaches us, with this name, that these acts of loving care for the dead are the truest form of compassion. Why? It’s simple: The dead will never be able to do the same for us in return. Chesed shel emet is considered true altruism.

What does all this have to do with Yom Kippur? Well, last night and this morning, we’ve been repeating the Vidui and Al Chet, doing teshuvah for this past year. And, as Dave said so eloquently last night, even as we reflect on the past, we’re also meant to be thinking about the future.

Audre Lorde once wrote: ‘We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes habit.’ I’m wondering what it would be like, in the coming year, for us to reach for the delicacy and tenderness of chesed shel emet. Not, God forbid, treating the living as though they’re dead. But seeing if we can be so tender with one another, and without waiting for our gentleness to be returned.

So what would our day-to-day look like, guided by the tenderness of the rituals I just described?

Well: The shomer serves a comforting presence to a soul that may be lost, disoriented, or afraid. And of course being a shomer isn’t easy, or joyful; sitting up at night, alone with a dead body is hard. But what if, similar to a shomer, we challenge ourselves to radical accompaniment: to sitting with friends and strangers and family, even when their vulnerability or their need makes us uncomfortable. Can we show up and stay there in the messiness, even if it makes us afraid? Can we show up knowing we might not be thanked or appreciated?

And the chevra kedisha, performing tahara, the ritual of cleansing the body, with so much gentleness and respect. We could treat each other with the most delicate of touches, knowing how easy it is to cause shame or embarrassment. Knowing that sometimes we’ll still need to apologize even when we’ve done our best.

And, guided by Mourner’s Kaddish? We would assume positive intent in others. We’d believe that if a person hurt us, that they’d been doing the best they could at that moment. We’d limit how long we held grudges, held onto hurt. And we’d try to believe that even if the apology never came, that the person who hurt us was, on some level, sorry.

And finally, graveyard visits: Literally, visiting people where they’re at. What if we showed up, from time to time, uninvited, on each other’s doorsteps, bringing a gift, leaving a note, reminding someone we care about: Hey. I’ve been thinking about you.

It’s so freeing to act out of love without needing it to be returned. This kind of chesed, tender loving kindness, can transform the person who loves and the person who is loved.

This new year, 5779, can we love like this? Can we take up Audre Lorde’s challenge to reach for tenderness until it becomes habit?

On Erev Rosh HaShana, I said to you: ‘If we choose life then we are obligated to remember that although daily acts of love do not win headlines love has always existed, it does exist, and it will continue to exist. Love is an endlessly renewing resource.’

And, this afternoon, I want to add: More than just a resource like water, more than that which flows from us and to us and through us, love – chesed – is the foundation of this world. Love is the ground that we build and rebuild with each gesture, with every small act.

One of my favourite Hebrew songs is called Olam Chesed Yibaneh. The lyrics are just these three words, repeated. Olam Chesed Yibaneh. Meaning: we will build this world from love.

Let’s hold onto this possibility for ourselves, and for one another. Olam chesed yibaneh – we can build this world out of love.

Join me.

Come Meet Us and Learn about Reconstructionist Judaism

Click on image for full size flyer.

On Sunday afternoon October 21st, AARC Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner, Beit Sefer director Clare Kinberg, membership chair Marcy Epstein, and board chair Debbie Field will  lead an introductory session on Reconstructionist Judaism.
“Come Meet Us” will be an excellent opportunity for individuals and families who want to learn more about our congregation.  At the same time our members can deepen their understanding of Reconstructionist values and conception of creative, participatory Judaism.

Come meet us!

October 21, 2018

2-4pm at the JCC

Please RSVP here to help with planning