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.

1 Name changed to protect privacy.

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 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 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

 

Beeswax Candles by Karyn Schoem

By Sarai Brachman Shoup, AARC Community Chuppah project coordinator.

Karyn Schoem is a Beth Israel member with quilting experience who has volunteered to put our community chuppah together. An artist, she also makes beeswax Shabbat candles – Or Haneshama (“Light of the Soul”). I bought some and thought they were really nice. They also smell great!

The candles are 100% beeswax from Lesser Farms in Dexter. They burn cleanly with no dripping and have an approximate burn time of 3 hours. No toxins are emitted while burning. She melts the wax in her kosher kitchen or in a solar box. She uses silicone molds. The wicks are 100% cotton and lead-free.

Since Karyn is contributing to our community through her volunteer work, I thought it might be nice to let people in the congregation know about her candles (It is OK with her).  They are $5 for a pair and $14 for a pack of six. She can be reached at karynschoem@gmail.com.

Karyn Schoem working on the AARC Community Chuppah.

Beit Sefer Gets Close in for Simchat Torah

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

Beit Sefer learning about Simchat Torah and preparing to search the scroll for specific words.

Searching the scroll

 

AARC board member and Beit Sefer parent Caroll Ullmann getting close to the Torah with her kids.

Dave Nelson sharing the Simchat Torah blessing.

 

Parading for Simchat Torah with our Etz Chaim tapestry in the lead.

L’chaim, Rosh Hashanah poem

by Seth Kopald

It amazes me that we know so little about birth until we become parents and how little we know about dying until we watch someone close to us reach the end of his or her life. It is as if we are protected from our impermanence. The fact that we were once ​not​ here and someday we ​won’t be​ is veiled, keeping us unaware that life is truly a gift that should be celebrated. There are many distractions to life. Of course there are the electronics and screens, but more than that, we often forget to live in the now. We spend our time worrying about the future or vexed in the past. By doing so, we overlook what is right in front of us – our children, our friends, our family, the beauty of the earth. So I wrote this poem hoping to inspire you to live now and be here for yourself and for those around you. L’chaim! To Life!

L’chaim!

Choose living
over distraction
consumption
hiding
numbing
running away

Choose living
over protection
anger
irritation
worry
fear

Be engaged
Pick life goals that align with your values
what you see as your purpose.
Goals without agendas:
like needing to be being perceived a certain way
Release the burden of assuming people’s expectations

Do you want to be rich?
First become enriched through your work and service to others.

At times we are not our best selves
we say and do hurtful things

It’s bound to happen
being human and all
We can count on our flaws
old friends, part of who we are.

Flawed
like a crystal has inclusions
Crystal clear is stunning for a moment
but inclusions are much more interesting
Imperfection is our beauty
and provides richness to our story

I’m sorry I hurt you
I’m sorry I was a jerk to you
I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you when you needed me
But I’m here now
reaching toward you
knowing that human connection
family connection
is a powerful earthly force

When we hurt others
invite in curiosity
humility
patience
Invite in 2 minutes of courage
apologize showing your precious vulnerability

When we lean in to life
Lean in
to our family
Lean in
to those that unintentionally hurt us
We release sparks of kindness
that season negative climates

You are the most important person
you standing in front of me
family, friends, coworkers, congregants
the one that might look like an other
You are the most important person
my attention present as if we are all that the I can see

There is no life
in what we think of as the future or the past
Life is only now

Time moves quickly
when we don’t embrace the present
We live in our next meeting
wrestling with self judgement in the past.

Time was extended in childhood
Living fully in the present

As we age
we need intention
Reminders
look through the eyes of a child
embrace our happiness and pain
be willing to show it, like a child, with freedom
See the extraordinary in the ordinary

Beit Sefer Builds a Sukkah 2018

This year, 2018, our Beit Sefer tried something new: A Beit Sefer Sukkah Building Sleepover. Beit Sefer families and a few prospective member families were welcomed by Carole Caplan and Michael Sosin to build our traditional sukkah, and then to sleep over under the stars at The Farm on Jennings. Five families, nine kids set up tents and spent the night. Then early Sunday morning had breakfast and welcomed the rest of Beit Sefer for learning about the four species in the lulav and other Sukkot traditions. Tremedous thanks to Matt McLane for many lessons in campout cooking, to Carol Ullmann for shopping, setting up my tent, creating the beautiful etrog suncatchers, and many other things. and to all the parents for making the Sukkot Sleepover happen. Hope the pictures convey the fun!

The sukkah building begins.

The frame of the sukkah goes up.

The sukkah walls go up

 

 

 

The decorating table.

Beit Sefer Director Clare Kinberg attempts to direct traffic during sukkah building.

Collecting the s’kach, roof coverings.

 

We learn the parts of the lulav.

The myrtle smells good.

After all the hard work, have some cookout dinner!

 

Parents relax and warm up by the camp fire.

 

The next morning: K’tanim learn about Sukkot on the farm.

G’dolim discuss how to make the sukkah a welcoming place for
ushpizin/honored guests.

 

Sukkot Sameah/Happy Sukkot Thanks, Fred Feinberg for all the photos.

Our new ner tamid, “Forest Dawn”

Forest Dawn, by Idelle Hammond-Sass. Photo by Patrick Young

AARC has a new ner tamid/Eternal Light to grace our aron hakodesh, the ark that holds our Torah. Two years ago, during Yom Kippur 2016, AARC then board chair Margo Schlanger gave a talk to the congregation about our need for a ner tamid to join our other community-made sacred objects: ark, Torah table, tapestries, yad, and Torah cover. Thanks to the artistry of congregant Idelle Hammond-Sass, we were able to welcome the new ner tamid during the High Holidays.

“In considering creating a ner tamid, or Eternal Light, I wanted to visualize how to use light as an emanation, coming from an unseen source,” Idelle wrote in her artist’s statement. “Before the sun rises, the light begins to glow and illuminate the world.”

Idelle in her studio.

Like the AARC logo, most of our sacred objects include images of trees and leaves. Idelle continues, “My ideas began with leaves and branches, but as the work progressed, these became backlit bare trees flanked by fold formed panels of copper etched with branch stencils. The light offers hope, the promise of a new day and the world being born anew, and of rekindling our connection to divine presence.”

To create our ner tamid, Idelle had to take into account some technical peculiarities. As Margo wrote two years ago,  “Our ark travels; it lives in our closet at the JCC, and comes out for our Torah services. So how could we have a ner tamid?” In addition, our new ner tamid has to work with our particular ark, made by Alan Haber, of cherry wood, in the dimensions given in the Torah. So the ner tamid Idelle created is very portable (with a beautiful storage case made by her husband Dale) and uses a battery powered LED light that can be on for several hours, but switched off for storage. Its dimensions and arched shape fit perfectly atop our ark.

We are very grateful to the AARC members who have helped fund this project: Margo Schlanger and Sam Bagenstos, and the Bramson and Gombert families, who contributed in celebration of their sons’ upcoming bar mitzvahs. Support for this project also comes from the Nancy Denenberg Fund, a memorial fund established in Nancy’s memory, which honors her creativity, and love of beauty.

In honor of our congregation’s new ner tamid and Rosh Hashanah being the symbolic “birthday of the world” during which we often teach the Torah’s creation story to the young people, Beit Sefer director Clare Kinberg wrote a story for the Children’s Service that connects the ner tamid with the primordial light.

Detail of Forest Dawn, photo by Patrick Young.

by Clare Kinberg

In the beginning of the beginning, there was nothing at all, there wasn’t even nothing, there was nothing before nothing. There was tohu vavohu, unformed emptiness. Except in the emptiness, there was one thing: there was the power of creation, there was the potential of creation. In this story, that is called God.

And according to the story, the very first thing that the power of creation said was “let there be light, yehi Or. And there was light, vayehi or. This was a very special light, because it was before the sun was created, and certainly before fire or electricity or batteries. It was the first light. And with the first light, everything could be seen, from one end of the universe to the other. Everything was light.

On the second day, God  divided the light and separated the waters of heaven and the waters below heaven.

On the third day of creation, the waters on earth scrunched up together, and dry land appeared on earth.  And the first light sparked the growth of grass, flowers and trees and fruits and vegetables. And here’s the amazing thing: In each blade of grass a little bit of the first light was hidden.

On the fourth day, the power of creation gathered the first light together and formed the sun and moon and stars, lights that could be seen and used. They are of the first light, but they are only part of the first light.

On the fifth day of creation, God created fish and birds and hid a little bit of first light in each one. And the fish and birds filled the oceans and the sky with sparks of first light.

On the sixth day of creation, God used all of the remaining first light to create millions of animals, dogs and cats and cows and deer and antelopes and monkeys and humans. Each is filled with first light, hidden within our bodies.

On the 7th day, on Shabbat, the power of creation took a rest and noticed how beautiful everything was, how each animal, plant and stone and river and ocean was its own self, yet if you looked closely you could see that bit of first light shining through.

Now all of the first light is still in us and around us, and it is called the Hidden Light, or ha ganuz.

The hidden, first light was God’s first creation, everything is made from it, and when we remember this story, we remember that we are all part of one another. This is a good thing, so there are many lights in Jewish tradition to remind us of the first light. One of these is the ner tamid, the lamp of the eternal light that we keep above the aron hakodesh, the ark where the Torah is kept. Our congregation just last night received a new ner tamid, made by an artist member of our congregation Idelle Hammond-Sass. For her, the first light in the forest reminds her of the first light of creation, and so she made a ner tamid called Forest Dawn Shachar b’yair. Look for it next time you attend an AARC Torah service.

 

“How can our water not be fine?”

Today makes 1660 days without access to tap drinkable water. What’s even scarier is there are places all around the country with water worse then Flint and they have no idea yet. — Mari Copeny (@LittleMissFlint) September 11, 2018

By Mark Schneyer

In her Rosh Hashanah sermon this year, Rabbi Ora urged us to “Choose Life,” and focused our attention on issues that prevent people from having access to clean water. I thought it would be useful to list some of the people and organizations mentioned in her sermon, as well as a few related ones::

Finally, Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician who stood up to advocate for the kids of Flint at a time when the state of Michigan claimed there was no problem with Flint’s water, has written a new book, What the Eyes Don’t See, telling the story of her fight and some of her own history as well. She spoke tonight in Ann Arbor, and said the title of the book refers both to the invisibility of lead in water as well as “problems we choose not to see.”

She described her inner dialogue when she was deciding to go public with the truth she was learning. “How can our water not be fine?” she said she asked herself. The government had experts testing and overseeing and enforcing the law, the water must be clean. But the evidence told her otherwise and she launched her fight.

 

Welcome Grayson Neff Family!

Our family is excited to join AARC! We are a family of four: myself (Adrianne Neff), my wife Carla Grayson, and our children Noah Grayson Neff, age 18, and Sylvie Grayson Neff, age 11. We have lived in Dexter for the past 8 years and before that were Ann Arborites for many years. Carla and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary this summer. We were married at TBE by Rabbi Levy in 1998, and he re-married us legally when it became possible in 2015.

We live in rural Dexter Township and have a property where we keep chickens and turkeys and enjoy gardening and watching the wildlife in our woods and small pond. I am a Physician Assistant working in urgent care. I enjoy cooking, home improvement projects, boating, and working with our pets and farm animals.  Carla is a lecturer in the Psychology Department at University of Michigan. She enjoys watercolors and coloring, yoga, and gardening.

Our son Noah graduated from Dexter High School in June. He will be with us for Rosh Hashanah at AARC, and then will be moving to Flagstaff, Arizona, where he will be joining the Conservation Corps and working on environmental restoration projects in national parks, forests, and our other public lands. Our daughter Sylvie is entering 6th grade in the Dexter schools. She spent 3 weeks at Camp Tavor this summer and met some other kids from AARC there. Sylvie plays lacrosse and field hockey, enjoys video games, photography, and playing with her pet cat and dog, and just started her own business selling eggs from our free-range chickens at the Webster Farmer’s Market.

Carla and I were married at TBE, Noah celebrated his Bar Mitzvah there, and the congregation was a happy home for us for many years. However, in recent years we allowed our involvement to lapse as life events moved us to become less involved with TBE and our Judaism in general. We are currently renewing our commitment to Jewish practice and community, and after much reflection, we realized that our desires, needs and values most closely align with the Reconstructionist movement, and we made the decision to join AARC. We are looking forward to being members of a smaller congregation.

Although we are new members, we already have deep ties to AARC including many dear friends and acquaintances who are members. We spent the High Holidays at AARC last year, and we loved the services and Rabbi Ora. We are eager to meet new people, make new friends, and join in the community and spiritual life of AARC.

Selichot/Rabbi Ora’s Elul Playlist

Music helps crack open hearts. This Saturday evening September 1, 2018, open up to the radical love and change available in this season with a musical Selichot service.

Together, we’ll learn two new niggunim (wordless melodies) that will be used as a refrain throughout Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur services. If you’d like a head start learning the melodies, here they are:

BeShem HaShem
‘Sheves Achim Niggun
Selichot Service  Saturday, September 1
8pm

each bring a candle (we’ll have extras if you forget)

 Touchstone Common House

(yellow building at the front right behind the Touchstone sign)

 560 Little Lake Drive (off Jackson Rd between Wagner and Zeeb)

please park on the street

More on Selichot here and here

 

And, if you’re looking for more music to accompany you through these last weeks of Elul, have a listen:

Joey Weisenberg and the Hadar Ensemble’s ‘Eil Adon

Leon Bridges’ ‘River’

Shir Yaacov Feit’s ‘Brokenhearted/Psalm 147

Aretha Franklin’s ‘Spirit in the Dark

John Moreland’s ‘Break My Heart Sweetly

A Hidden Niggun for Yidden

Birdtalker’s ‘Outside the Lines

Joey Weisenberg and Mattisyahu Brown’s ‘Yearning Niggun

Eitan Katz’s ‘Elul Niggun

Cry Cry Cry’s ‘Lord I Have Made You a Place in My Heart