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.

Parashat Bo and Poetry of Presence

Book cover in which several of these poems are published

During Ta-Shma (Come and Learn) and Shabbat morning service (Parashat Bo), Rabbi Ora used poetry and writings of all kinds to connect the parasha to our current lives (some of which led straight through to Sunday’s intro session of the new Ritual Lab & Learn, but that’s another post).
In case you were there and want to read and reflect a bit more, or in case you weren’t there but might still like to read a couple great poems and delve into an interesting article, here are the links. Thanks to Rabbi Ora for providing these:

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!

Creativity on Display in Community Chuppah

The Community Chuppah

The creativity and collaborative nature of our Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation (AARC) were on display at the joyous installation ceremony for Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner on December 15, 2018.

A beautiful Chuppah was decorated with thirty colorful cloth squares created by our community, forming the artistic centerpiece of the event.

Much appreciation goes to the Chuppah project coordinators:

  • Sarai Shoup – Installation Committee chair
  • Marcy Epstein and Eileen Dzik – selected and purchased chuppah materials, including the deep blue background for the squares and reverse side fabric reminiscent of a Talit.
  • Marcy Epstein – hosted several workshops at her home to help people with ideas. Techniques included crochet, embroidery, applique, fabric painting, needlepoint, attaching beads and stones, and more.
  • Kathy Kopald – cut the squares and prepared for mailing
  • Sherry and Steve Lessens – mailed out the squares
  • Karyn Schoem – sewed together the entire chuppah
  • Seth Kopald and Alan Haber – Seth made the poles from bamboo from Alan Haber’s yard
  • We are creating a record detailing who made each square in the Chuppah, along with their comments about the process and its meaning. If you contributed a Chuppah square, please add your information to this Google Doc by January 31, 2019.

    Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner at her installation, under our new community-created chuppah, photo by Eric Bramson

    The Nancy Denenberg Fund paid for the chuppah materials, and Nancy’s sister contributed a square in her memory.  Nancy, who passed away in 2006, was one of the founders of the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Havurah, which later became the AARC. The community Chuppah commemorates Nancy’s interest in the arts and in building a nurturing community.

    Rabbi Ora’s installation also featured music performed by congregation members, a Shabbat ceremony with thought-provoking dvars by Rabbi Ora and our guest speaker Rabbi Shelley Goldman.

    A delicious meal was catered by El Harissa and coordinated by Stacy Weinberg Dieve and Kathy Kopald. Deborah Fisch, Lori Lichtman, Bob Lichtman, Adrianne Neff and Nancy Meadow contributed challahs and amazing desserts.

    Our talented band added to the beauty of Rabbi Ora’s installation, photo by Eric Bramson

    We are looking forward to seeing how the Community Chuppah is enjoyed in the future as our congregation celebrates significant events and milestones. For more about the congregation’s ritual art pieces, see the blogs on the Torah Table, Torah Table Tapestry, Ner Tamid, and Yad. Additional blogs on the AARC’s other hand-crafted ritual objects are coming in 2019.

    Dreaming a Holy Community: dvar on Vayigash by Rabbi Shelley Goldman

    Rabbi Shelley Goldman

    Shabbat Shalom.

    This morning I’d like to focus on the Joseph story from the perspective of community organizing and the creation of holy Jewish space. This week marks the third and final Torah portion focused entirely on the exploits and escapades of Joseph. Today we read the dramatic conclusion of the story, where Judah, the fourth of Jacob’s son’s, takes responsibility for the wrong that all the brothers did to Joseph so many years earlier. Judah begs the viceroy of Egypt, who he does not know is Joseph, to take him, instead of his brother Benjamin. But I am getting ahead of myself. We will return to Judah’s impassioned speech in a moment but let’s first look at the dramatic beginning of the story, which we read two weeks ago in Parashat VaYeishev.

    The tale is familiar to all of us. Joseph, his father’s favorite, is sent to “see about” his brothers. We understand the complicated family dynamics at play when a younger sibling tags along with his older brothers. We can imagine how tricky it must have been to have Joseph, the son of his father’s favorite wife, hanging around with the sons of the other wives, Bilhah and Zilpah. It is not a stretch for us to think about what might happen when the favorite son shows up in the special coat that his father gave him (when no one else got any presents) telling tales about his dreams. Dreams that proclaim Joseph a future king, with his brothers and parents bowing low to him, first as sheaves of wheat and then as the sun, moon, and eleven stars. We know that this is not a story that ends well. Or does it? Right now I’d like to focus on four words in Hebrew in our story.

    As Joseph approaches, his brothers say to one another, “Here comes that dreamer! Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say, ‘A savage beast devoured him.’ We shall see what becomes of his dreams!” But when Reuben, the oldest, heard it, he tried to save him from them. He said, “Let us not take his life,” we can put him in that pit instead. Then Judah piped up and suggested that they sell him to the traders in the approaching caravan.

    The words that I’d like to focus on are “We shall see what comes of his dreams,” eight words in English or Nireh Mah Yeheyu Chalomotav, four words in Hebrew. These four words exemplify the beauty of Torah study. Words can mean one thing in their Biblical context, or as my Biblical Hebrew teacher Michael Carasik says, “their natural habitat,” and they can mean quite another thing once the commentator has finished her work. This tradition, of reading words wholly out of context and with your own purpose in mind, was begun by the rabbis of the Rabbinic Period, some 2000 years ago. The sages of the Talmud, completed in the year 500, made this style of commentary into high art.

    It is in this tradition of taking words of the Bible and flipping their meaning, that some years ago my teacher, Rabbi Shefa Gold, presented the graduating rabbis of that particular year with a chant, “We shall see what comes of his/her dreams.” In presenting this chant to a group of students who were moments away from becoming rabbis, and fulfilling a dream that was accompanied by years of study, the meaning of the words was flipped from the sarcastic sputter of a jealous brother to a loving send-off by a grateful community. When Joseph’s brothers’ say, “We shall see what comes of his dreams,” while he is lying, without his coat, at the bottom of a pit, the answer that they expect is, “Nothing. Nothing will become of his dreams.” When Rabbi Shefa Gold sings Nireh Mah Yeheyu Chalomotey’ha, “We shall see what comes of her dreams,” she is saying, “I can’t wait to see what you do next!”

    Two weeks ago I spent a few days on a retreat in Chicago dreaming with leaders from Faith in Action affiliates from Indiana, Ohio, Missouri and Minnesota. Faith in Action is one of the three major faith-based community organizing outfits in the country. We were taking a breath after the elections to evaluate our non-partisan get out the vote efforts of the past several months. We also continued to dream, this time focusing on the future. The central question of the three days was, “What do you want to see for your state in the next 2, 4, 6, 8 years?” It was a hard question, at first, but it got easier the more that we talked.

    The main “take away” that I left with is this: I hope to help change the narrative in our public conversations from what it is right now – one based on fear, fear of the other, fear of immigrants, fear of people of color, fear of poor people,and, yes, fear and hatred of Jews to one based on love. I want a narrative that says, “I am responsible for my neighbor,” and “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

    The current narrative holds that the job of government is to “stay out of people’s lives, except when it comes to law and order.” I humbly submit, along with my fellow dreamers, that the job of government is to protect people and lift us up.

    In this moment of installing a new rabbi in the community, it is good to dream together. What do you want for your community in the next 2, 4, 6, 8 years? What educational programs would you like to see? Are there social action projects that you’d like to undertake together? How do you want to grow and change? Dreaming of a different future, a better future, is a core component of community organizing and radical Jewish life. What will become of our dreams? No one knows, but we can hope that our wildest dreams come to fruition and work to make it so.

    Other core components of being good leaders in the struggle for justice and building Jewish community are the ability to see ourselves as the “guarantors of our fellows” and having the capacity for self-reflection and public confession. This brings us to this week’s Torah portion, Parashat VaYigash, which opens with Judah’s impassioned speech to the Egyptian controller of grain in the time of famine. The speech so moves Joseph that he finally gives up his ruse and admits his identity to his assembled brothers. Judah’s speech is beautiful and as Biblical commentator Avivah Zornberg points out, is striking in that it shows Judah’s development from a devious brother who could willfully lie to his father about his brother being torn to shreds by a wild beast, to a sensitive man, who has lost two children of his own, and does not want his aging father to lose the only other child of his favorite wife, Rachel. Judah becomes the leader of the brothers, even though he is the fourth out of twelve sons, because of his self-reflection and public confession.

    He says to Joseph, “we cannot return to our father without our brother Benjamin because it will kill our father for, Nafsho Keshurab’Nafsho, his life is bound up in his life.” Judah sees himself as responsible for Benjamin and responsible to his father, so much so, that he is willing to be the guarantor, to pay the price himself, for Benjamin’s alleged crimes.

    As I reflect this morning, on my good friend and study partner/hevruta, Rabbi Ora, I am thinking about her qualities as a sensitive and empathic leader. She has a deep capacity to connect to pain, the world’s pain and individual’s pain, too. This means that she is a wonderful conversation partner and pastoral care giver. Her depth and introspection inspire others to examine their own lives. How lucky you are to have her as your leader!

    Rabbi Ora is also a lover of words and books. As a student of fine literature, she weaves gorgeous d’vrei Torah and to this day when I sit down to write, I think about some of the pieces she presented in our Homelitics class.

    Rabbi Ora’s speeches weave together many different sources and are texts that are full of other texts, dazzling with connections.

    My blessing to you this morning, this Kehillah Kedosha, this holy community, is that as you install a new leader in your midst you also remember your individual power and responsibility. Vest your new leader with the authority she needs to lead you and also remember that you, yes, you, and every single one of us are the guarantors of our neighbors and the earth. It is our responsibility to dream, to reflect, to publicly confess and make amends when we have missed the mark. And as the Black Lives Matter Movement has brought to popular consciousness the words of Assata Shakur, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love one another and support one another. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” 

    Ken Yehi Ratzon. May it be so. In this community and in all communities.

    Shabbat Shalom.    

    Our mishkanic congregation: Rabbi Ora’s dvar at her Installation

    Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

    Shabbat Shalom.

    Those of you who were at the membership meeting two weeks ago may remember that Greg, in his role as outgoing treasurer, shared his opinion that our congregation is better off financially for not having our own building, and that we should never actually build our own synagogue.

    The saying goes, two Jews, three opinions. That’s certainly true in our community, and of course we could debate the merits of us having or not having our own building. But I don’t bring this up to open up that conversation today, or to challenge Greg’s opinion. I bring it up because Greg’s remarks, to me, were an invitation to consider what it means to be a congregation – literally, a place where people congregate – without a synagogue?

    What is a congregation without a permanent physical home?

    As I reflected, I realized that this question – sparked by one member of this community – had already been answered by another member. Two months ago, when we gathered in October to learn more about Reconstructionist Judaism, Marcy called our congregation ‘mishkanic’ – that is, modeled on the mishkan, the biblical portable resting-place for God.

    And that’s what I wanted to explore with you today. Beyond simply being without a physical home, what might that mean, to be a mishkanic congregation?

    First,we should go back to the source. What was the mishkan?

    The mishkan was a portable sanctuary that the Israelites carried through the desert for 40 years. Practically speaking, the mishkan was a large tent. It was made from gold-plated acacia wood and various curtains and tapestries. The mishkan housed a menorah, an altar for sacrifices, and, inside the kodesh hakodashim, the holy of holies, an ark containing the two sets of tablets of the ten commandments, both the broken and the intact, and a space between two golden cherubim where the spirit of God would rest.

    The mishkan was built to travel. There were six special wagons used to transport it. Each time the Israelites moved en masse, the ark would be carefully dismantled, and then reassembled at each new camp site. And you thought camping on Memorial Day weekend was logistically challenging.

    So the mishkan is a portable sanctuary, a place for holiness to travel alongside our ancestors. How did it come to exist?

    In Exodus Chapter 25, parshat Terumah, God lays out the plan for constructing the mishkan. God says to Moses: “Tell the children of Israel to bring Me an offering; of every man that gives it willingly with his heart you shall take My offering.” The Israelites are invited to contribute previous metals, fine cloths, and furs to construct the walls of the mishkan. Not only are these donations not compulsory, but they are acceptable to and accepted by God only when the donation is rooted in a generosity of heart.

    The mishkan was built purely through volunteer effort. It was constructed out of love, of materials freely and willingly given.

    And our mishkanic congregation? It also came together out of volunteer energy. AARC began as a havurah, a group of dear ones who came together to pray and learn and celebrate holy moments. And as this community has transitioned from a havurah to a congregation, we still rely on, we’re still rooted, in a generosity of heart that means ongoing investment of time and energy and care from members. And, like with the mishkan, our many sacred objects came from the hands of our incredible artists and artisans. Our Torah table, aron, ner tamid, Torah cover, decorative tapestries, yad – these are all objects of beauty that exemplify Hiddur Mitzvah, commandment to further beautify the sacred.

    The mishkan was a sacred space that housed beautiful objects. And the mishkan was made to be portable. And anyone who’s ever helped with set up for services – anyone who’s wheeled the siddur cart from our storage closet, or helped transport our sacred objects to the Unitarian Universalist Church for High Holy Days – can attest to our portability, and the effort that comes with being portable. But being portable also means being able to be flexible to meet the needs of an evolving community. Being portable means lighting Chanukah candles in different members’ homes every night of the holiday; celebrating Passover seders in each other’s homes; building and sleeping in a sukkah on a member’s farm.

    And being portable means not just that our things can be moved, but that we, too, are open to movement, to change. Throughout the life of this congregation thus far, there have been new worship spaces, new forms of leadership, both rabbinic and lay, a new name, new members, new collaborators within the broader Jewish and non-Jewish community. As a mishkanic congregation we don’t have to be rigid; we can be not just open to growth, but to hold it as a Jewish and a Reconstructionist value.

    When God first spoke to Moses about the construction of the miskhan, God said: ‘Va’asuli mikdash veshachanti betocham.’ ‘Make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell within it.’ When I’ve spoken about this verse in the past, I’ve pointed out how ‘betocham’ is grammatically odd here. It’s commonly translated as the singular, sanctuary, but actually is plural. If we look at the text, we see that God isn’t saying, ‘Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell in that sanctuary.’ God says, ‘Make me a sanctuary – and through your actions, by building this portable holy place, out of love, with a commitment to beauty and growth, I will come to dwell among you, within each of you.’

    The physical mishkan takes a back seat to the act of building it. It’s the action undertaken, the creation itself that opens up the hearts of the Israelites to be a dwelling place for God.

    This pasuk/verse is revolutionary. It takes holiness out of the context of space and even time and locates it in relationship. Holiness – the indwelling of God – becomes the outcome of a commitment to growth, to openness, and to being in relationship with one another.

    If we are, as Marcy suggested, and I agree, mishkanic, then as a community we are the place where holiness resides. We, coming together, figuring out how to be a large, messy, loving family, create a space for God to come in.

    I want to acknowledge what a blessing it’s been for me to enter into and be a part of this holy community this past year and a half – a community that is committed to growth, to openness, to flexibility, to relationships, to justice, to learning, and to beauty. I feel lucky to have been so joyfully and completely welcomed throughout the past 1.5 years and today. And thank you for embarking on this relationship of trust with me. Thank you for you trusting me to be your rabbi.

    Before I close, I want to acknowledge that the Torah that I referenced this morning is not from Vayigash, from this week’s Torah portion – it’s not even from the book that we’re currently in! The building of the mishkan takes place in Exodus, rather than towards the end of Genesis. But, because everything in the Torah is connected: In this week’s Torah portion, we read of Jacob traveling down to Egypt to see his long-lost son Joseph and to settle there. And in a midrash on this parsha, from Midrash Tanchuma, we learn that Jacob, as he prepared for his journey, collected seeds of the acacia tree in Canaan. And when he arrived in Egypt, he planted them there, and told his children and grandchildren that hundreds of years in the future, after their descendants had been enslaved and liberated, they would need the wood from these acacia trees to construct a mishkan in the desert.

    So my simple blessing for this community, at this moment in our congregation’s history, looking to the past, dwelling in the present, and looking towards the future: May we remember and celebrate the many moments of holy community that have led to the present. May we continue to create a resting place for each other and for holiness to enter. And, like our forefather Jacob, may we be visionaries of the future: may our actions, our learning, and our commitment to community plant seeds of holiness for generations to come.


    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.