A Lovely Sunday Morning Hagbah Training for AARC Members

All photos by Ella August

Keith Kurz teaches Gillian Jackson, Etta Heisler, Dave Nelson, and Eric Bramson how minimize wear on the parchment while rolling the Torah.

It was a lovely Sunday morning, crisp and sunny, when a handful of tall and strong AARC members gathered to learn Hagbah, the raising up of the Torah after a Torah reading on Shabbat or other occasion. Although the practice may sound straightforward, it requires knack and nuance. For example, when lifting the open Torah off the table, one must push down on the lower handles while pivoting the Torah upwards, rather than lifting it directly up. This and many other handy tidbits were passed down by our teacher, Keith Kurz.

Members took turns picking up, raising, and holding the Torah under the careful support of Hagbah spotters. Participants also learned the proper way to perform Gelilah, the dressing of the Torah.

As a result of this training, AARC now has many able and willing members available for Hagbah and Gelilah. Thank you to Keith Kurz and all the participants who volunteered to learn this important skill for our congregation!

To learn more about the history of our Torah, please check out these blogs by Clare Kinberg and Dave Nelson.

Etta Heisler and Eric Bramson practicing Gelilah.
Etta Heisler sporting a winning smile after mastering Hagbah.
Eric Bramson was strong and confident while lifting the Torah. Well done, Eric!
Brenna Reichman was an excellent Hagbah spotter – calm and supportive as always!
This was Gillian’s first time holding the Torah!

Happy 5th Birthday to AARC Book Group

Happy 5th birthday to the AARC book group! Launched in 2014 by Jon Sweeny and Judith Jacobs, the group offers a welcoming and cozy environment in which AARC members and friends gather for intellectually stimulating discussion, friendship, networking, and nourishment. Over the years, the reading selections have ranged from a book about Tiananmen Square (our very first meeting) to books about Israel/Palestine, Jewish history and culture, politics, spirituality, death and dying, anthropology, and more.

Carol Levin comments, “My favorite things about the book group have been getting to know everyone (as a newcomer to AARC, it’s a great gateway to the community), stimulating discussion among a variety of backgrounds and experiences, and Greg and Audrey’s fabulous hospitality.”

Speaking of hospitality, appreciation is owed to everyone who has hosted the AARC book group over the years, including a huge thank you to Greg Saltzman and Audrey Newell for being our regular book group hosts, and to Greg for serving as a terrific coordinator. We have recently switched from a Sunday morning spot to a Sunday noon start time, allowing us to welcome Beit Sefer (religious school) staff to our meetings.

Thanks to Audrey for the outstanding lunch on Sept 15, 2019, over which we discussed Michael Sfard’s The Wall and the Gate: Israel, Palestine, and the Legal Battle for Human Rights.

Favorites

Several group participants identified their favorite books from among the many we’ve read and discussed.

  • Carol Levin selected Guide For the Perplexed, by Dara Horn. “I love how Horn draws connections between the historical figures Moses Maimonides and Solomon Schechter and relates their lives, and personalities, and ethical questions to today’s world of espionage and intelligence.”
  • Greg Salztman picked as his favorite The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker. “I liked the mix of historical fiction and fantasy. The golem was a fundamentally good being, and I could enthusiastically root for her triumph as she faced various perils.”
  • Martha Kransdorf chose Setting Fires, by Kate Wenner, as her favorite book group pick. “I know the shul and the rabbi who were the inspirations for those portrayed in the book, and I certainly know the NYC neighborhood where some of the story occurred. I was also moved by the mystery behind the father of the protagonist and of the arsonist.”
  • Avi Eisbruch’s favorite book group pick is To The End of the Land, by David Grossman. Avi says “I liked the way the rich inner life and maternal struggle of the main character Ora were portrayed as well as how the intersection of private and public/national events were entwined in the story.”

February with Rabbi Ora

The book group was especially well attended the past two Februaries, when Rabbi Ora chose the readings and led the discussion.

We are delighted to announce that Rabbi Ora will again lead the book group on Sunday, February 9, 2020, book selection to be announced.

AARC Book Group discussing Radical Judaism: Rethinking God & Tradition with Rabbi Ora, February 2019.

Join us

Interested in joining the AARC book group? We’d love to have you! Simply reach out to Greg at gsaltzman@albion.edu. You are welcome to come every month or as often as you like. Our selection for Sunday, December 8, 2019 is Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, by Yossi Klein Halevi. The book for Sunday, January 12, 2019 is The Girl from Foreign: A Memoir, by Sadia Shepard.

Happy reading!

Busy Weekend at AARC: Simchat Torah and a Robust Welcoming Event for New and Prospective Members

It was a busy weekend at AARC! We celebrated the Torah with Beit Sefer and held an informational event for new and prospective members.

The room was filled with excitement as the Torah was unrolled. The children were tasked with finding key words in the text. For some, this was the first time they had been up close to the Torah. After rolling up the Torah, families were led in a traditional Simchat Torah dance by Rabbi Ora and Marcy Epstein.

Beit Sefer students and families explored the Torah during Simchat Torah
Beit Sefer students created their own Torahs to celebrate Simchat Torah. Photo credit: Marcy Epstein

Later in the day, Rabbi Ora and Beit Sefer director Clare Kinberg welcomed new and prospective members at our “Meet Us” event, held to showcase Reconstructionism and our congregation. We are thrilled to welcome so many wonderful new families to our congregation!

Rabbi Ora leading our “Meet Us” event. Photo credit: Deborah Fisch
Clare Kinberg, Beit Sefer Director, teaching families about AARC’s Religious School

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!