Another Renewing Sukkot Campout for AARC Families

Rabbi Ora shaking the Lulav with Beit Sefer Students on Sukkot

AARC families gathered this year on Carole’s farm to celebrate Sukkot. The campout began with a group effort to build the Sukkah. The children diligently created paper chains and tissue paper flowers while the parents and some older teens worked with hammers and nails.

AARC parents enjoying the fire after working hard to construct the Sukkah!

Once the Sukkah was complete, families enjoyed a cookout and a night under the stars!

On Sunday morning, Rabbi Ora joined in to bless the Sukkah, sing songs, and shake the lulav with the children and their families.

Beti Sefer students shaking the lulav and the etrog

The whole campout was a beautiful way to welcome in the New Year: with community, love, and the great outdoors!

Children in the Open Tent

by Clare Kinberg, Beit Sefer director

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L’Shana Tova! AARC Welcomes in 5780

What a wonderful Rosh Hashanah at AARC this year! We were joined by many new friends for flowing, joy-filled, and inspiring services.

Rabbi Ora encouraged us to consider our image of what we would like the world to be and “be a prophet” for our vision. These inspiring directives helped us to focus on our vision and goals for the coming year.

A heron at Mary Beth Doyle Park, photo Sept 7 2017 by Evelyn Neuhaus

We began Tashlich meditation with Loosen, Loosen by Aly Halpert. Our guided meditation prompted us to reflect on what we want to let go of in our lives and how we want to transform this letting go into the creation of good in our lives. Participants let go by casting stones and leaves into Malletts Creek.

Please join us for Yom Kippur services, beginning on October 8th at 6:45pm for Kol Nidrei. Yom Kippur day services begin October 9th at 10am. Services are followed by Yoga, Meditation, and Chanting workshops from 2:30-4:30pm. Yizkor begins at 4:45pm, followed by Ne’ilah and Shofar at 6:30pm. The day wraps up at 7:45pm with a Break-The-Fast meal. We hope to see you there!

Otto Nelson’s Bar Mitzvah Dvar: Chukat

Shabbat Shalom, everyone!
Welcome to my bar mitzvah! I hope you’ve been enjoying it so far.
My torah portion is Chukat.
It’s a bit of an inconsistent portion, because it starts with Adonai (also known as G-d) detailing a purification ritual to be used after contact with the dead, which I am focusing on, but about a third of the way in it jumps to the story of the Israelites wandering through the wilderness.
The aliyah (section of Torah) I just read is Numbers, chapter 19, verses 18 to 22.
My aliyah focuses on the details of the purification ritual.
According to the Torah, this purification ritual is required after contact with a human body, grave, or bone.
It was believed that contact of this sort makes a person spiritually or ritually unclean.
Purification involves sprinkling water containing the ashes of a Red Heifer (mentioned earlier in my Torah portion) on the unclean person, after which they must wash themselves and their clothes and remain isolated from others for a period of 7 days.
If they do not undergo this ritual they are cut off from the congregation, a punishment known as Karet. Rabbis were and are not sure exactly what this punishment entails, but some theories are premature death, death without children, or generally very bad things.
On that happy note:
You may have noticed that these laws about death and contact with the dead seem very strict, and a bit strange, which brings up the question: Why were these laws created?
I think one reason is for the sake of physical purity (I’ll talk about that later), in that it helps avoid the spread of disease. However, I think it was mainly for religious purity. I think the ritual was designed to keep the perceived sanctity of the congregation by acknowledging the dead but not allowing them to negatively impact the community.
However, I think now we should look at what other people think the purpose of this ritual is, through rabbinical commentary. A traditional addition to a D’var torah, rabbinical commentary is essentially looking back at observations on the Torah portion made by past Jewish scholars to see what they think (Like looking at the comments on a YouTube video, except generally more positive and much older).
Rabbi Joseph Bechor Shor, a rabbi who lived in France in the 13th century, speculated that the purification ritual was to assist with physically letting go of the dead, and avoiding the practice of incorporating dead bodies into physical objects and adornments, a tradition among several neighboring tribes at the time and place the Torah was written. He also held that it is a natural tendency to physically cling to loved ones who have died, and that the ritual exists to warn Jews against this tendency. However, Rabbi Samson Hirsch, a 19th century German rabbi, claimed that the meaning was more symbolic, showing the Jewish people that there is a possibility of redemption from sin, such as the sin of touching a dead body.
Additionally, allow me to note that Rabbi Yochanan (A first century rabbi who saved Judaism in a super-dramatic way that should REALLY be made into an action film), Rabbi Isaac (A student of Yochanan), and Rabbi Joshua of Sikinin (A lesser-known Talmudic rabbi), believed that the ritual is not made to be understood or have a reason behind it.
Now, the reasons I just quoted are more spiritual reasons for this ritual,
but I also want to mention possible practical or medical reasons.
A possible medical reason for the ritual was to use water to wash off bacteria from the person and their clothes, which were possibly infected from diseases carried by dead bodies, and then put the person in a quarantine for any remaining germs or effects to die off.
Strange thing is, the biblical purification ritual in my Torah portion seems in line with modern medical practices. However, this is thousands of years before modern medicine. So how could the ritual use ideas similar to those of contemporary medical science?
Personally, I think that the connection is coincidental. After all, when we do something that works, we continue to do it. And in ancient times, the health benefits of certain rituals could be seen as divine signs to continue them.
At the core of this ritual is purity. But what is purity? Physical purity? Religious purity? And what do these things mean in today’s world?
Personally, I think that the idea of purity, both religious and physical, is really mostly a social construct. Although how clean or healthy you are can affect physical purity, I think what you and others think about you is most of what’s taken into account. And the case of religious purity is even more heavily opinion-focused.
In today’s world, purity does not seem to be as common a topic, at least not obviously. However, I think that these ideas of purity still exist, just in a more cloaked form. When people make decisions based on physical health or look, I think that’s really just a different form of the idea of physical purity. And when people make decisions based on what they think of another person’s religion or culture, I think that’s just another branch of the idea of religious or ethical purity.
But now to my mitzvah project.
Because my portion is focused on purity and purifying, for my project my friend Eli (who had his Bar Mitzvah last month) and I swept up the memorial garden behind the JCC, planted new plants, added mulch, and weeded it, in a way restoring natural purity to it. Also, my Mom and I worked with a community organization known as NAP herps that monitors frog and salamander populations, which are indicators of natural vibrancy and purity. Finally, my family and I planted 150-something native butterfly bushes in my grandparent’s land in west Michigan, to restore some natural, native purity.
Anyway…
At this point, I have discussed purity in today’s world, talked about my mitzvah project, asked a rhetorical question and then answered it, given the interpretations of rabbis over the centuries, and given medical and spiritual reasons for this ancient ritual. I know at this point ya’ll are probably getting hungry for the luncheon, and I relate, so I’ll make this quick.
In our congregation, it’s customary for the Bar or Bat Mitzvah to ask a question of the congregation (Don’t worry, this one’s not rhetorical), so here’s mine. Throughout my D’var torah, I’ve explored many questions about purity. But now I have a question about purity for you to discuss, and that’s “What does purity, and for that matter impurity, mean to you?”

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. And to conclude, I would like to thank everyone who has helped me reach where I am today.
Thank you to:
-My Dad, David Erik Nelson, and my Mom, Cara Jeanne Spindler for helping and supporting me throughout my Bar Mitzvah and my life.
-My little sister Aziza, for, uhh…
Hmm…
Teaching me, and pushing me to my limit of, patience and understanding…
-Linda, Mojo, Riley, Danny, Justin, Ava, Henry, Vince, Sarah, Hannah, and anyone else who lives outside of the state and were willing to take the time and effort to come here
-My tutor, Deb, for helping me through my torah and haftarah portions.
-Rabbi Ora, for helping with my D’var torah.
-Anyone who has supported me in my life, be it a friend, family member, pet…
-And finally, everyone who came here to my bar mitzvah today! Thank you all so much!

An Informative and Engaging Shavuot!

by Emily Eisbruch and Gillian Jackson

Our delicious Shavuot Desert Potluck provided by AARC! Photo Credits: Emily Eisbruch

In honor of the giving of Torah at Mount Sinai, AARC celebrated Shavuot this year by engaging in learning and discussion. We were joined by Kehillat Israel from Lansing. The evening was structured around discussion groups on interesting and relevant topics.

The first two discussion groups were led by congregation members Clare Kinberg from AARC and Ken Harrow from KI.

Clare Kinberg leading a discussion on ‘Jewish Time’ on Shavuot.

Clare Kinberg led a discussion about the Jewish concept of time and how it relates to the story of Ezra. A lively discussion followed regarding the different ways that Jews interpret history and time as it is written in our sacred texts.

Ken Harrow leading a discussion on ‘The Events at Sinai’ on Shavuot.

Ken Harrow led a discussion about the events at Sinai. In his session he focused on how to contextualize the exodus from Egypt and the giving of the commandments. Ken emphasized relationships to works of art, demonstrating our connections with facial expressions.  Ken shared slides with examples from famous artworks, including self-portraits from Rembrandt and Van Gogh.

After enjoying a potluck of delicious deserts provided by members of AARC, we embarked on even more engaging opportunities for learning with Rabbi Ora and Rabbi Zimmerman.

Rabbi Ora leads a discussion on ‘Jewish Perspectives on Abortion’

Rabbi Ora led a discussion on Jewish Perspectives on Abortion. The discussion was a fascinating exploration of various texts that reference abortion. Looking at the issue from the perspective of various Jewish Sects, Rabbi Ora showed how the Jewish people have struggled to codify when and how a woman should be allowed to terminate her pregnancy.

Rabbi Zimmerman leads a discussion on the Green New Deal.

Rabbi Michael Zimmerman’s session on “The Torah of the Green New Deal” looked at  Judaism’s approach to caring for the planet.  He shared a handout with biblical and other references urging stewardship of the land, including text from House Resolution 109 on the Green New Deal.  The group discussed the relationship between Jewish teachings on charity and preservation of the earth.

All and all much knowledge was passed and given. It was truly an enriching evening during which the two congregations were able to get to know each other and enjoy lively discussion!

Beit Sefer Picnic and Native Tree Planting

Photos and Article Credit: Fred Feinberg

On Sunday, May 5, Beit Sefer students, teachers, and parents congregated (as congregations do!) at Country Farm Park for not only our annual picnic, but to help plant indigenous fruit trees at County Farm Park’s Pollinator Garden. We all first learned about indigenous vs. non-native species, then donned protective gloves and took up hoes, handsaws, and strangely powerful branch clippers. 

Implements in hand, we helped take several non-native honeysuckle trees down to stumps, clear away debris, and prepare the ground for planting trees and shrubs native to our area — paw paw, American plum, persimmon, and chestnut — learning about each from a park representative. While Gdolim and Yeladim cut away and hauled large branches, Ktanim cleared a patch of ground shrubs and aerated the soil, under the watchful eye and aching backs of parents and teachers.

Afterward, Stacy Weinberg Dieve presented our hardworking teachers and helpers — Clare, Shlomit, Aaron; Zander, Avi, Rose — with tokens our our collective appreciation. We all then gathered at the Pavilion to sing a Hebrew prayer and learn a two-part round from Rabbi Ora, after which we feasted on a variety of seasonal, vegetarian dishes prepared by Beit Sefer families: vegetable casserole, brioche, fruits, challah. The weather was literally perfect, and the children spent the time afterward running and frolicking in the playground. All in all, a wonderfully successful day!

Mimouna and Interfaith Activism: A Call to Justice Work

The tradition of Mimouna originates in a time in Jewish-Muslim relations when communities shared food and traditions to mark the end of Passover. Before the start of Passover, Jews would give away their flour, yeast, and grain to their Muslim neighbors, who at the end of Passover would celebrate Mimouna by bringing sweets to share with their Jewish neighbors. This organic intermixing of traditions was beneficial to both cultural groups.

This tradition emerged in the same period as feudalism, Chaucer, the Vikings, and the Black Plague. From our current age of space ships, solar panels, and nanotechnology, we may believe that civilization has greatly evolved since then. But the act of being civil hasn’t necessarily grown at all.

A group of AARC member met this weekend in honor of Mimouna to discuss how we might cultivate the spirit of this tradition in our time and community. To spark discussion on the topic, Rabbi Ora provided us with a quote from an Aboriginal activist group in Queensland in the 1970s:

If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

Aboriginal Activist Group, Queensland, 1970s.

This quote suggests that if we are to do good work, we must work together in a way that lifts us all up as one community. The question was brought to the table: how might we begin this process?

After many ideas from different angles and approaches were shared, the group agreed that Rabbi Ora and members of our community would form a committee to engage with the following ideas:

  • The first proposal was to establish an organizational relationship with Islamic groups in our area. Supporters of this idea would like to initiate relationships between our spiritual leaders, supported by a committee.
  • Another congregant suggested we engage in political activism in relationship to Israel, supporting politicians that advocate for peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
  • A complementary suggestion was to engage with members of the Muslim community one-on-one, based on already-existing relationships. Many members of our congregation are already participating in various interfaith efforts, including an interfaith book club and the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice.
  • A final wish was to focus on making a statement. One recommendation was to do so by publishing material in social and print media. Another suggested approach was to craft yard signs, tools for schools, and political support ad campaigns.

If you would like to participate in this interfaith activism committee, please email Rabbi Ora at rabbi@aarecon.org. We will update the community when we have begun taking steps to initiate these goals. What a gift it is to engage in our traditions in a new and invigorating way! L’Chaim!

Beit Sefer Students help lead Saturday Morning Shabbat Services

Last weekend’s Second Saturday Shabbat service was such a treat! We had the pleasure of listening to the thoughts and insight of our brilliant young G’dolim students. In preparation for their bnei mitzvah, the students practiced analyzing the parsha, asking meaningful questions, and participating in the Torah service.

Miles leading the congregation in a discussion about Torah portion Metzora

This week’s “Revolution Hebrew” lesson addressed the meaning of the word Torah. Congregants shared insights into how they felt the Torah had influenced their lives and how they have interacted with the text over time. The G’dolim had a lot to say about this topic. It was fascinating to hear how they are grappling with the material and how they understand the Torah to be a part of their lives.

Sylvie reading the English translation of this week’s Torah portion

One student commented that reading Torah was a process of “receiving knowledge,” while another felt that it was like “swimming in a stream of knowledge.” Another astute G’dolim student questioned the phrase ‘The One” as a way of addressing God, and examined what that means in terms of our understanding of God and Torah. It is amazing that these young students, most of them 12 years old, had the ability to deeply engage with this material.

Sam discussing his interpretation of Metzora

The students rounded out the service with a discussion of lashon hara, or “gossip.” They queried the function of gossip in our society and why it occurs. They asked for input from the congregation and led a lively discussion on the possible role of gossip as a useful tool for understanding ourselves and communicating within a community.

We look forward to hearing these students discuss their own Torah portions at their bnei mitzvah!

If you would like to get involved in Beit Sefer or start the process of Bnei Mitzvah,please see our website for more information. Jewish education is vibrant and alive at the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation!

Purim Fun at AARC

AARC’s Purim celebration last Friday was a blast! Rabbi Ora, dressed at Mr. Rogers, opened services with an original composition that welcomed us to Purim; it was set to the tune of “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” In addition to our regular Shabbat songs, our abbreviated Shabbat service included many silly lyrical compositions written by Rabbi Ora, who astounds and amazes us every Purim! See her upside-down Megillah reading from last year!

Alan Haber and Idelle Hammond-Sass display AARC’s newest sacred object, a handmade Megillah ark to hold the Megillah scroll.

Alan Haber revealed the handmade Megillah ark that he constructed to hold the beautiful Megillah scroll acquired by Barbara Boyk Rust and Idelle Hammond-Sass.

Members Rebecca Ball, Dina Kurz and Debbie Field dressed as their personal hero, Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

For this year’s costume theme, members dressed up at their personal heroes. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsbergs was a hero in triplicate!

Purim costume parade.

After services, we enjoyed a delicious potluck followed by a performance by Beit Sefer students, a costume parade, and dancing!

Stacy Dieve (a.k.a. Albert Einstein) reads from the Megillah.
Dina Kurz (a.k.a. Ruth Bader Ginsberg) reads from the Megillah.
Dave Nelson reads from the Megillah.

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: