Jews and Social Justice: Neither synonymous nor in conflict, but up to you

poverty wages are not kosherAARC visiting rabbi, Alana Alpert, is spearheading a fundraising campaign to launch Detroit Jews for Justice and is asking all of us to help. “Detroit is an incredible place full of courageous and resilient people who I feel so privileged to learn from and to struggle with,” she says in a crowdfunding video. “What happens in Detroit matters not just to the people here.  We are not just a symbol, but a microcosm. What we win or lose here has impacts across the country.”

Rabbi Alana is a gifted young rabbi, and a skilled community organizer. But, she says, “There was a time when I thought I had to choose between my Jewish identity and being a social justice activist. And then I realized that not only were they not in conflict, but they could make each other stronger.” Detroit Jews for Justice is carrying on the Jewish traditions of activism in the women’s, labor, and civil rights movements, and bringing them into this moment in history. Since 2014 DJJ has organized and participated in a long list of activities including support for #blacklivesmatter, protesting the Detroit water shutoffs, and supporting fast food workers and Wal-Mart employees in their struggle for fair wages and decent working conditions. Take a look here at what DJJ has already accomplished.

In a counterpoint to Rabbi Alana’s pre-rabbinical school feeling that she had to choose between her Jewish identify and social justice activism, one commenter on the crowdfunding video wrote, “There was a time when I thought Jews and social justice were synonymous.” There’s some food for good discussion. But, right now, Detroit Jews for Justice has picked up the baton to strengthen the tradition of Jewish involvement in social justice activism. With ten days left, the crowdfunding has raised two thirds of its goal of $18,000. You can become a Founding Supporter here.

Deep dive into Hanukkah themes

themes of Hanukkah imageLast year at this time, I wrote an article about the complex, often contradictory, Hanukkah themes in children’s books. I looked over about 200 children’s Hanukkah titles and made these very general observations: Many older Hanukkah books focus on the Maccabees as brave Jewish warriors. While physical and moral courage continues to be a common theme, others include a focus on faith, “not by might but by spirit alone;” religious freedom; and being Jewish in a Christian majority country, including authentic friendship between Christians and Jews.

And then there are the books, maybe the majority of them, which emphasize Hanukkah as the Jewish midwinter holiday, the light in the middle of winter, with warm family gatherings, and the generosity and thoughtfulness of present exchange. The point of many of these books seems to be to familiarize Jewish kids with the symbols of the holiday: the dreidel, the menorah, gelt, and of course, presents. Included in these is the Hanukkah around the world theme: Hanukkah in Alaska, Antarctica, the prairie and even under the sea! These books convey the message that Jews are like everyone else….just with a little twist. Others that do this are the ones that riff on familiar folktales to tell a Hanukkah story: the gingerbread man becomes the runaway latkes or the runaway dreidels; Scrooge becomes Scroogmacher; the Jewish sorcerer’s apprentice can’t stop the pan from frying latkes….you get the point. I concluded that perhaps it is the proliferation of “Hanukkah in Chelm” books that do the best job of conveying the spirit of Hanukkah for children. The wise fools/foolish wise ones are uniquely Jewish, timeless, faithful, and oh so brave in their foolishness.

This year, however, I’ve found myself looking with a much more sober eye at various versions, for adults, of the “true meaning” of Hanukkah.  As we are daily confronted with religious zealotry in its present expressions, what do we hear in the echoes of Hanukkah? As AARC member Benji Ben Baruch writes in “The Stories of Hanukkah,” the significance of the Hanukkah story was reinterpreted many times over the generations reflecting the “particular political group at a specific point in time with conflicting visions of the present and future needs of the Jewish people.” It appears to me that we are in an era of transition from the late 20th century glorification of the Maccabee’s fight for independence into a cautionary era, focusing on recognizing the dangers of zealotry and the potential devolution of power to tyranny. In a lecture by Yehuda Kurtzer titled “On Terrorism and Nationalism, Reflections on Hanukkah in Light of the 20th Anniversary of the Rabin Assassination” (part of the 5776 Rabbinic Holiday Webinar Series from the Shalom Hartman Institute), Kurtzer repeatedly refers to Matisyahu Maccabee’s actions in the core Hanukkah story as acts of “terrorist, nationalist violence” (induced by a sense of powerlessness and combined with a conviction to Divine will), pointed language in our particular time. I cannot possibly summarize this profoundly important lecture here, but if you have an hour to devote to deep Jewish learning, I highly recommend it. Other recent, and briefer, reflections on Hanukkah for our time are here by Judith Seid and here by David Wolpe.

I asked several AARC members for their own top Hanukkah themes. Responses included:

  • From darkness to light/faith in the light returning
  • Rededicating ourselves to our beliefs
  • Rekindling hope
  • Courage to be who we are
  • The right/need to fight for your religious freedom
  • Jewish perseverance
  • Inspiration to fight against tyranny
  • Strong faith/spirit as a tool to win anything
  • A great leader is like the shamash candle: serve, light others fire, and caring/watching from above.

I hope these words inspire additional reflections on the meaning of Hanukkah for each of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WJN article about our Tu B’Shevat Shabbaton

Here’s the article in the new issue of the Washtenaw Jewish News about our upcoming Tu B’Shevat Shabbaton.  Led by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld, and co-sponsored by the Jewish Alliance for Food, Land, & Justice.  More info here.  Please join us; the events are free, but RSVP required for childcare (email Clare Kinberg) and for the Seder, at http://shabbaton-foodlandjustice.eventbrite.com.

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And here’s the advertisement.  Feel free to download, print and share!

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Human Rights Activism is a Source of Light

truah_logo_web_no_RHRNAFor our Shabbat morning service during Hanukkah this year, December 12, AARC will be joining hundreds of other congregations around the U.S. in a focus on human rights activism.  “T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights,” an organization with a long history of Jewish ethical and social justice leadership, organizes this annual Human Rights Shabbat. Rabbi Alana Alpert, rabbi at Congregation T’Chiyah in Oak Park and community organizer with Detroit Jews for Justice–and our visiting rabbi this year–is among the 1,800 rabbis who are part of the T’ruah network. She will be leading our service on December 12 and we’ve invited members of T’Chiyah to join us in Ann Arbor.

T’ruah offers organizational and intellectual support for Jewish work on issues such as ending mass incarceration, justice for farmworkers in the U.S., and standing against Islamophobia.   Rabbi Robert Dobrusin of Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor is a recent past Co-chair.  At its website  are abundant excellent study, worship, and advocacy materials (including one study guide based on Margo Schlanger’s AARC d’var torah from Yom Kippur services a couple of years ago).

The roots of T’ruah as an organization go back to the early 1970s, when a cohort of Reform rabbinic students at Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati brought their anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights activism into their rabbinic training. Some, like Rabbi Myron Kinberg z”l (my brother), as undergraduates in the ‘60s, had trained with Clergy and Laity Concerned to do counseling with conscientious objectors. Others had been Freedom Riders, helping to register Black voters in the South. When they became rabbinic students in 1967 and 1968, they read the texts with those fresh experiences. The T’ruah website quotes one key text newly understood as a call for racial justice and human equality: “Beloved is all humankind for they were made b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God). Doubly beloved are they, for they were told that they were made in the image of God. As it says: ‘In the image of God was humankind made.’” (Genesis 9:6) Mishnah, Pirkei Avot 3:14.

Upon ordination in 1972, one of this cohort of students, Rabbi David Forman z”l, made Aliyah. While leading the struggle for religious pluralism in Israel as director of the Israel office of the Union for Reform Judaism (1976-2003), he also founded Rabbis for Human Rights in 1988, in Israel. Another of the group of HUC students, Rabbi Bruce Cohen z”l, ordained in 1973, was sent to Israel to do peace work by his New Haven congregation in 1976 following the murder of five Israeli Arabs during protests in Nazareth, northern Israel. Rabbi Cohen co-founded, with Farhat Agbaria, the organization Interns for Peace, which for many years focused on bringing American Jewish college students to Israel to work on projects with Israeli Arabs and Jews. One such college student was Israeli’s Rabbis for Human Rights long time and current President, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, who worked with Interns for Peace in 1981-1983.

In 2002 Rabbis for Human Rights-North America was founded as a multi-denominational network of rabbis and Jewish communities to protect human rights in North America and Israel. Renamed T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, in 2013, it continues to continue to call on its supporters in North America and around the world to educate and advocate for an Israel embodying our highest Jewish values.

Human rights movements gain their strength from the power of the people as a whole, the soul of a movement rather than the individual bodies who take part. As individuals we might tire, our bodies might weaken, but it is the light of our collective power – which grows brighter and brighter over time – that gives us the strength to go on. Likewise, charismatic leaders come and go, and we might think it is their light that inspires us and produces change. But they, too, are bodies, which wane and dwindle. A truly wise leader nurtures the souls of the movement, builds towards a systemic victory. He or she lets their light burn with others, rather than standing aloft as the shamash.

 – Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster from a Human Rights Commentary on Chanukah

Please join us on Saturday morning, December 12, as we celebrate this Human Rights Shabbat along with congregations across the country.

Yom Kippur Afternoon Programming

medium_laronwilliamswebAs always, AARC will have afternoon programming on Yom Kippur, in between the Morning and Torah service (10am-2pm) and our evening non traditional Yizkor service (5:30-6:45pm). The afternoon programming is 2-5pm; come to one part or all, as you choose. At 2, there will be an hour guided meditation–or take a break, perhaps for a walk through the beautiful grounds of the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation building. From 3-3:50pm, we will host a workshop on institutional racism and insider/outsider status by Ann Arbor activist La’Ron Williams, and at 4-4:50pm Rabbi Michael Strassfeld will lead a discussion of the Book of Jonah.

This year we are trying something new: having a respected and honored guest lead a Yom Kippur afternoon workshop that will draw us to use our open and vulnerable condition to make meaningful change. La’Ron Williams conducts workshops – with schools, business organizations, and non-profits – on the fundamentals of creating inclusive communities across a number of lines of diversity. His workshops are always informative, entertaining, and filled with opportunities for personal growth and organizational development. La’Ron is also a nationally acclaimed, award winning storyteller who, for more than twenty-five years, has toured extensively presenting highly participatory, music-spiced programs composed of a dynamic blend of original and traditional tales. He is known for his pronounced commitment to justice and peacemaking – a commitment made concrete through his involvement with the Racial and Economic Justice Task Force of the Ann Arbor based Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, and via his work with Washtenaw Faces Race, an all-volunteer, inter-racial, interdisciplinary group that consciously and consistently works to dismantle racial hierarchy and promote racial equity in local institutions within Washtenaw County.

La’Ron describes the Yom Kippur afternoon workshop:

In the main, America’s understanding of racism remains stuck in the 1960s. Most of us only recognize it when it shows up as it did in the June shooting at the AME Church in Charleston – in overt incidents of violence, or as easily identifiable, interpersonal acts of discrimination backed by the ill will of a few individuals.

Because we think of it that way, the remedies we envision for it are part-time, incidental, and situationally applied to those we identify as its victims. In truth, 21st century racism cannot be remedied in our spare time. It lies deeply imbedded in all of our institutions; operating constantly, continuously, and “invisibly” — to perpetuate, in hundreds of ways that remain largely unmentioned, unidentified, and unexamined, a hierarchy of White advantage.

This presentation is designed to help its participants begin to recognize and understand the pervasiveness and effects of this contemporary “stealth” racism. Using a blend of storytelling, lecture and dialogue, we will focus on concept building, increasing our awareness of our personal racial identity development within an already racialized milieu, and identifying the major illusions that act to thwart our efforts to achieve inclusion.

MJ_Strassfeld_photo-B&WThen at 4 o’clock, Rabbi Strassfeld will lead a discussion of the Book of Jonah, traditionally read on Yom Kippur afternoon. What a one-two! As commentator Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg writes in The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on Biblical Unconscious,  “The enigmas that enrage and sadden Jonah are not riddles to be solved. They remain; God invites Jonah to bear them, even to deepen them, and to allow new perceptions to emerge unbidden. In a word, to stand and pray.” And as Maya Bernstein comments on this: “And so we, Jonah-like, enter the synagogue as he entered the fish, and as we stand in the dark, unseeing, we call out to our Creator. We do not answer these riddles; rather, we immerse ourselves in them and let them take us over.”

Preparing for the High Holidays

by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld and Rabbi Joy Levitt

elul The process of change is a challenging one. The Jewish tradition considered that Rosh ha-Shanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) didn’t give us enough time to reflect on the past year and engage in teshuva–change or repentance–in preparation for the new year. Therefore the month before the High Holidays, the month of Elul, became the starting point of this engagement with change. The first of Elul this year will be August 16.

At AARC’s Elul Shabbaton (August 14-15), we will begin with a Friday night service. Three weeks before, on the 9th of Av, we hit rock bottom in the annual festival cycle. The fast of Tisha b’Av marks the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and the spiritual exile of Jews both as a people and as individuals. From that low point of existential aloneness, we move to reconciliation or more simply reconnection to God, to others around us and to ourselves. The rabbis found a hint of this in the name of this month, Elul. The Hebrew letters of Elul are the first letters of the verse Ani le-dodi ve-dodi li–I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine. These words are from Song of Songs, a book of love and connection. Shir ha-Shirim/Song of Songs will be our overarching theme for the Friday night service.

The Shabbaton continues on Shabbat afternoon with a short minha/afternoon service. The Shabbat minha service has as its theme a sense of oneness underlying the universe. We also read a short Torah portion that focuses on a call to pursue justice/tzedek. After all, we are to engage in teshuva/change not just to feel better about ourselves but to engage in making the world a more just and compassionate place.

Following minha, the teens will meet with Joy to help plan children’s programming for Rosh ha-Shanah. Everyone else is invited to study with Michael some Hasidic texts about change/teshuva. Rabbinic Judaism’s attitude toward misdeeds can be summarized by the phrase “just say no.” Hasidism had a more complicated response. It suggested that transformation comes about by accepting the truth about yourself and then striving to change it rather than dwelling on your past failures.

Finally, both of us together will share our own Jewish journeys. It will be an opportunity to get to know us, and for us to get to know you. It will also be an opportunity for people to share pieces of their own spiritual journeys as we as individuals, and as a community, begin preparing for the High Holidays.

Please join us.


Click here for more information about Rabbis Levitt and Strassfeld, who will be leading AARC’s High Holiday services, as well as this Shabbaton.  Rabbi Strassfeld will also return for two other Shabbatonim this year.

All events at the JCC, 2935 Birch Hollow Drive.

  • Friday, August 14: Kabbalat Shabbat service and pot-luck, 6:15 (niggunim), 6:30 (service).  Pizza for the kids at 6:15; childcare is available.  (Let us know if you need pizza and/or childcare)
  • Saturday, August 15:
    • 2 pm: Minha, with Torah service: 2 pm (Molly Kraus-Steinmetz will read Torah)
    • 3 pm: Teens prepare for High Holidays and kids’ service.  Adults study Hasidic teachings about teshuva
    • 4 pm: Jewish Journeys conversation.

 

 

Is there a new Jewish back to the land movement?

green-things-logo-1Is there a new Jewish back to the land movement? Let’s talk about it together on June 14th when we gather at Matthaei Botanical Gardens for the Farm Education and Sustainability Food Fest and take a tour of Green Things Farm. Certainly Nate Lada, who with his wife Jill Sweetman are the owners and operators of Green Things Farm, sees a connection between his Hebrew Day School education and his commitment to sustainable agriculture. When he was a guest speaker at a UM Hillel Tu B’Shvat seder in 2012, Nate talked about the importance of agriculture and respecting the Earth as central to the Jewish tradition. Twentysomething graduates of the UM where they both studied Environmental Science, Nate and Jill have taken advantage of several opportunities created by longtime Ann Arbor environmental activists such as the Ann Arbor greenbelt program, a thirty year investment voted on in 2003. With the goal of starting a family farm, Nate and Jill spent two years (2011-2012) as part of the first cohort at Jeff McCabe and colleagues’ Tilian Farm Incubator Program. There Nate and Jill learned many of the basics of the business of farming while taking advantage of the program’s land, equipment, farming mentors, and community support. The land they bought to start their own farm, on Nixon near Warren about 5 miles north of downtown, was also part of the greenbelt program, in which the city of Ann Arbor bought development rights on the properties, making the land affordable for farming. [Read more…]

“We heard God’s words without using our ears.”

Shuli and Me“We heard God’s words without using our ears.” So Shavuot is described at the end of Shuli and Me: From Slavery to Freedom, the storybook Omer calendar by Joan Benjamin-Farren you will hear at the AARC havdallah and Shavuot observance. The story, told from a freed slave child’s point of view, imagines those first seven weeks in the desert. We have been following the cloud. Today we are camped at the foot of the mountain. We’ve washed our clothes. We are waiting.

After havdallah, Rabbi Michal will lead us in a discussion of approaches to the concept of torah; the capital “T” Torah, the five books in our traditional scroll, and other uses of the concept of torah. A couple that speak to me, for instance: In a Kol Nidre sermon Rabbi Mona Alfi quoted the medieval scholar, Bachya ibn Pakuda: “Days are like scrolls, only write on them what you want to be remembered.” She explained, “In essence, what Bachya ibn Pakuda was saying is that each life is a Torah for future generations to examine and learn from.”

A description of Carol Ochs’ book Our Lives as Torah: Finding God in Our own Stories, says “Through the process of seeing our experiences in relation to Biblical stories, we begin to recognize our lives as part of the ongoing story of the Jewish people–as Torah.”

Let’s meet there, at the mountain, and discuss: May 23rd 7:30pm till ? At the home, still, of Rabbi Michal and Jon Sweeney, 2960 Lakeview Drive. Dairy, dessert potluck. Early evening all ages, after havdallah for adults, childcare available. Email Clare or Rabbi Michal.

Teach-Ins: 50 Years Ago and Today

teach in 50Fifty years ago this week, AARC member Alan Haber helped to organize the first anti-Vietnam War “teach-in” on the campus of the University of Michigan. In February and March 1965, the United States had begun sustained bombing of North Vietnam (and, secretly, Laos and Cambodia), and the first ground combat troops landed. As a co-founder and the first president (1960) of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Alan had been organizing against the war for years. According to recent articles recalling the events, a few UM professors wanted to call a one day strike, but amid backlash decided to use their positions and the university’s resources differently. The first 12-hour teach-in (8pm-8am March 24-25, 1965) in campus spaces and involving two hundred professors and thousands of students, was a significant escalation of the anti-war protest movement. This coming weekend, March 27-28, the UM is hosting a “Teach-In +50: End the War Against the Planet.”

In a prelude to the weekend’s events, Alan and many other longtime peace activists are spending the week assessing lessons from the past and applying them to violent conflicts that still plague our world. You can still catch two panels on Thursday, March 26: On today’s wars in the Middle East, 3:00-5:30pm, Room B780 School of Social Work lower level; and Winning the Peace: What have We Learned, 7-9pm in the International Institute’s Meeting Room.

The full program for the week-end Teach-In is here

Reconstructionist “Virtual Bet Midrash”

jewish_recon_logo_0Jewish Reconstructionist Communities (JRC), the Reconstructionist movement’s umbrella organization, is offering a new distance learning opportunity that individuals all over the country can participate in. The “Virtual Bet Midrash” (Virtual House of Study) is a series of learning sessions taught by leaders in the Reconstructionist movement. Each session is presented using a conference call format, and subsequently made available as a recording. The series runs from February through April 2015. The next teaching will be February 19, “Jewish Prayer in a Time of Eco-Crisis,” taught by Rabbi Josh Jacobs-Velde. Rabbi Jacobs-Velde is the co-founder of ZMANIM (www.zmanim-seasons.org), an organization that explores and celebrates connections between Judaism and the natural world. For a full listing of the sessions and to register, go to Virtual Bet Midrash.

Getting together with a friend may be a fun way to study. If you do decide to take part, let me (Clare) know; we’d love to have you write a blog post about the session or the series!