L’chaim, Rosh Hashanah poem

by Seth Kopald

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

L’chaim!

Choose living
over distraction
consumption
hiding
numbing
running away

Choose living
over protection
anger
irritation
worry
fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time was extended in childhood
Living fully in the present

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

Letter from Lillie Schneyer

Mark, Jacob and Lillie Schneyer, Debbie Field looking proud at Lillie graduation from Carleton, June 2018.

In June 2018, Lillie Schneyer, daughter of AARC board president Debbie Field and Mark Schneyer, graduated from Carleton College, with majors in sociology and anthropology. Next, she’ll be following in the footsteps of Rabbi Alana, Rabbi Ora, and Molly Kraus-Steinmetz by spending the year doing social justice work through Avodah. Lillie is raising money to support that work, here is a link to her fundraiser!
Below is Lillie’s letter to our AARC community.

Hello, family and friends!

If you know me at all, you know that I like to be useful, try to be a positive force in my community, and, like most people, I am a little unsure of what I want to do with my life. Searching for a job for after college was initially overwhelming; it’s a big world, and I could do so many things. When I found Avodah, it was clearly a perfect fit. Through Avodah’s Jewish Service Corps program, I was matched with a supportive community, an organization that helps people, and a job that will allow me to be useful and learn more about the world.

Thanks to Avodah’s job matching program, I will spend the next year working as a volunteer coordinator at Cabrini Green Legal Aid (CGLA) in Chicago. CGLA serves people who have been negatively impacted by the criminal justice system. By helping with expungement and record sealing petitions, other legal services, and partnering with social service organizations, CGLA helps its clients overcome barriers related to their arrests and convictions as they build better lives. As the volunteer coordinator, I’m excited to bring my energy and organizational skills to help make this work possible.

Avodah is making this all happen for me, and I am especially thrilled about the opportunity to live with other young Jewish adults doing similar social justice work. Through the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation, I have been lucky to grow up with a Jewish community full of learning and friendship. I hope that next year, the Avodah community will help me discover what being a Jewish adult might look like for me, and and I look forward to the support, challenges, and new friends that it will bring

I am so excited for this unique opportunity, and your support for this campaign would mean a lot as I work to raise $1500 before I leave for Chicago in August. Whatever you feel comfortable donating will be much appreciated, and please reach out to me if you have any questions or want to know more. Thank you for your time!

A letter from Anita about the Poor People’s Campaign

Dear AARC,

Yesterday I participated in the fifth week of rallies and actions with the Poor People’s Campaign. An effort initiated long ago by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., it has been re-awakened  by Rev. William Barber, who speaks of it as a national call for a moral revival.

In 30 or more states, in their Capitol cities, protests have been held each week since May 14. The next local rally will be next Monday, June 18, this time in Detroit, and then on the 25th there will be a national protest in D.C.  Each week has had a theme and a related action of civil disobedience.

You may not have heard about the Poor People’s Campaign and their acts of civil disobedience. Here is a good article about the Poor People’s Campaign, that also answers some of the questions folks are asking about the civil disobedience portion of the campaign and why people were asked to used social media to publicize and promote the demands and goals.

This week’s theme was fair wages and affordable housing. We were joined  in Lansing by a large group from Detroit, D15, fighting for a $15 minimum wage. The civil disobedience took place at the Michigan State Department of Housing Development, where a group called Moratorium Now had a scheduled meeting to try to reverse the decision to use millions of dollars to demolish homes in Detroit and elsewhere instead of helping people in foreclosure.

We were a diverse group racially and age wise. There was a strong clergy presence, and Rabbis Alana Alpert and Ariana Silverman were among them.

Jewish Text Study

EVERYBODY’S GOT A RIGHT TO LIVE: JOBS, INCOME,
THE RIGHT TO ORGANIZE AND HOUSING
by Rabbi Michael Rothbaum

I was trained for the civil disobedience action and volunteered to be one of those to be arrested. There is personal and legal support teams for those who volunteer for an action. The movement is well organized and spirits are kept lifted through chant and song. I am writing this to encourage anyone with the inclination and availability to participate next Monday. The Michigan chapter has a web page and a Facebook page.

The Poor People’s Campaign is worth your attention if you feel called to speak for justice in any of these areas: universal healthcare, LGBT rights, gender equality, fair wages, affordable housing, public education, free higher education, an end to racism etc.

Shalom,

Anita Rubin-Meiller

Misheberakh for the State and People of Israel: Rabbi Ascherman visits Ann Arbor

 By Martha Kransdorf

In the first week of May, Israeli-American human rights activist Rabbi Arik Ascherman returned to Ann Arbor on a speaking and fundraising tour. My co-pilot, Harvey Somers, and I were the anchor people for his visit here. We’d like to first of all thank AARC for their support and to thank all of the co-sponsors for the May 2 JCC Fundraising Dinner and Community Forum: Beth Israel’s Social Action Committee, Jewish Cultural Society, Pardes Hannah, & Temple Beth Emeth. In addition to Rabbi Ora, rabbis from each of the other congregations were present, and took part in the evening’s program.

Rabbi Ascherman was the head of Rabbis for Human Rights for 21 years, and last fall he founded a new organization, Torat Tzedek, Torah of Justice. At the Community Forum, he described some of the current issues that he is working on, and the list is long and quite moving. His work ranges from meeting with lawyers and interviewing people who have been threatened by settlers, to lobbying at the Knesset on behalf of poor Israelis, to helping Arab shepherds hold onto their flocks when settlers frighten them and scare them away. Torat Tzedek has also been involved helping African refugees fight the Israeli government’s efforts to deport them and helping Bedouin communities hold on to their way of life.

Rabbi Ascherman’s courage and commitment have not wavered. He won’t throw in the towel. He admits that he is somewhat less optimistic than he has been in the past, but his response is to roll up his sleeves and work harder. He urges us, similarly, to react with urgency by becoming more active.

In addition to speaking at the JCC, Rabbi Ascherman spoke at Shir Tikvah in Troy, and he led text studies at Lunch & Learn programs at TBE and at Kehillat Israel in Lansing. His visit wrapped up with an “Open House” at BIC. A busy week, by any account. We are grateful to our communities in Michigan, which contributed over $4000 to Torat Tzedek. If anyone would like more information on Rabbi Ascherman’s work or on Torat Tzedek, please feel free to get in touch with either of us.

Martha Kransdorf ,  mkransdo@umich.edu    734-663-7933

Harvey Somers,  harveysomers@gmail.com   734-780-6907

Rabbi Ascherman blogs regularly in The Times of Israel. On April 19 2018 he included this “Misheberakh — A Loving Prayer of Healing for the State and People of Israel

The Hebrew is followed by a transliteration, and then a translation.

מי שברך קדמונינו אברהם ושרה, יצחק ורבקה, יעקב לאה ורחל, הוא יברך וירפא את החולים, מדינת ישראל ועם ישראל. הקדוש ברוך הוא ימלא רחמים עלינו להחלימנו ולרפואתנו מכל מחלה המקשה עלינו להגשים את הטוב ואת השאיפות לצדק שבליבנו – ביניהן: העיוורון לנוכחותך בכל אדם והעיוורון למציאות; החירשות לקול הדממה הדקה בתוך רעש הפחד וההפחדה, קולות הענות והמלחמה במחנה; והפקודות; האטימות לסבל של האחר/ת;  הרשימו שנשאר מכל מה שסבלנו אנו, השיכרון מכוח ומשלטון; השנאה לחושב/ת אחרת מאתנו; והאהבה היתרה לארץ ישראל ולמדינת ישראל ולעם ישראל ולכל דבר קדוש המסנוור אותנו לקדושתך ולרצונך. אנא, החזק בנו את היצר הטוב והחיות את אמונתנו בעולם מתוקן במלכותך וביכולתנו לקרבו.  שלח לנו במהרה רפואה שלמה, רפואת הנפש ורפואת הגוף, בתוך שאר החולים/ות, השתא בעגלא ובזמן קרים, ונאמר אמן.

Mi sh’beirakh kadmoneinu Avraham v’Sarah, Yitzhak v’Rivkah, Ya’akov, Leah v’Rakhek, hu yivarekh v’yirapeih et ha’kholim, Medinat Yisrael v’Am Yisrael. HaKadosh Borukh Hu yimaleh rakhamim aleinu  l’hakhlamatanu v’l’rfuatanu mi’kol makhalah ha’makshah aleinu l’hagshim et ha’tov v’et ha’sheifah la’tzedek sh’b’libeinu-beiniehen: ha’ivaraon l’nokhakhutkha b’kholadam v’ha’ivaron l’mitziut; ha’khershut l’kol ha’demamah ha’dakah b’tokh ra’ash ha’pakhad v’ha’hafkhadah, kolot ha’onot v’kolot ha’milkhamah b’makhaneh v’hapekudot;   ha’atimut l’sevel shelha’akher/et; ha’rashimu sh’nishar mi’kol mah sh’avalnu anu; ha’shikaron mi’koakh u’mi’shilton; ha’sinah l’khoshev’et akheret m’itanu; v’ha’ahavah ha’yiterah l’Eretz Yisrael v’l’Medinat Yisrael, v’l’Am Yisrael, v’lkhol d’var kadosh ha’misanveir otanu l’kedushatkhah v’l’ratzonkhah. Anah, he’khezeik banu  et ha’yetzer ha’tov v’ha’khayot et emunateinu b’olam mitukan b’malkhutkha u’v’yekholteinu l’karvo.  Shlakh lanu b’meheirah refuah shleimah, refuat ha’nefesh v’refuat ha’guf, b’tokh sh’ar he’kholim, hashta b’agalah’ u’v’zman Kariv, v’nomar amein.

May the One who blessed our ancestors Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel, bless and heal the ill:  the State and People of Israel.  May the Holy One of Blessing be full of mercy and us to heal us from every illness that keeps us from fulfilling the good and the aspiration for justice that is within us – Among them: Blindness to Your Presence in every human being and blindness to reality; deafness to the Still Small Voice within the thundering fear and fearmongering, the sounds of war and singing in the camp,  and orders; hatred of those who think differently than us, disproportional love for the Land of Israel, the State of Israel, the People of Israel and every holy thing that blinds us to Your Holiness and Your Will.  Please strengthen within us our good inclination and revive our faith in the possibility of a repaired world under Your Sovereignty and our ability to bring that world closer to reality. Send us complete and speedy healing of body and soul, along with all who are ill, speedily and in our day.  And let us say, Amen.

 

Helping an Asylum Seeker

In mid-February, Margo Schlanger sent a request to ReconChat, one of our congregation’s networking tools, that said in part “the fantastic folks at the National Immigrant Justice Center have gotten an Eritrean asylum seeker out of detention and seek our help to set her on her way to her sponsor. She’s been detained for over a year.” Odile Hugonot Haber and Alan Haber responded that they could help and then sent in this report on their experience.

“There was a letter from Margo Schlanger asking if someone would pick up a NIJC client, Feven, just released from the Detroit ICE Field Office, and to take her to the Greyhound bus in Ann Arbor. She needed to get to Chicago where a friend from her country would be welcoming her, and helping her on the rest of her journey. So we went to the ICE Office in Detroit where the waiting room was full of people awaiting the release of their loved one or friends.

Many children were playing, many Latino people and some people from Africa. After 45 minutes Feven was released accompanied by an officer. She had a backpack. She was petite, her hair magnificently braided, and she spoke a few words of English. We hugged. We wanted to show her a little of Detroit. So we drove through the town and Dearborn and a bit of Ann Arbor. She wanted to see everything, and feel the fresh air. We offered to get some food right away, but she was not hungry.

As we drove we learned a little bit of her story.

She spoke Tigrinya, she was from Eritrea, seeking some kind of asylum from the violence of her village area. With her husband she had flown to Italy, which had once been the colonial overlord of the area. But in Italy there were many, many immigrants and it was difficult getting a job, so they decided to come to the US. They flew to Ecuador and then traveled by bus and foot, mostly walking, through Columbia, Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras and the length of Mexico until they came to the border at Texas.

At the border, the U.S. officials saw that she did not have a visa, and she was put in jail. First she and  her husband went to a jail in Texas where there were many immigrants. It was a very big jail where the food was varied and they could go outsides at times.

After some time, she was sent to a county jail in Michigan, which held immigrant detainees, and where she was fed only beans and rice and rice and beans, wore only an orange jail suit, and could never go outside. The nights were cold as the prisoners were given only thin sheets and a Cotton spread for the beds. This treatment continued for a year and two months, until she was released, thanks to many people’s good work at the legal end.

We were the first people she saw as a free person in America. Her happiness and relief was beautiful to see. She is a Christian from the Eastern Orthodox Church, and showed us her bible written in her own language, a script we had never seen before.

When we picked Feven up, she was very clean and the clothes she wore, given back to her on release, were fashionable and neat, though her tennis shoes had no laces, because they took the shoe laces away.

Her husband had been sent to a jail in Oklahoma. They were going to meet each other soon, yet  we did not know if he was going to be released. We did hope so. Fifteen months is a to be a long time for people whose major crime was to hope for a better life.

We gave her some food from the Mediterranean Market, a sweater for warmth, and shoe laces.  Her back pack was full. She emptied a yellow bag that had written “Hygiene Kit” on it from the Red Cross from Honduras. We found that she had had some medical problems in Jail.  We would have liked to know more but her English was limited and we did not want interrupt her happiness inquiring of a story now behind her, in her first day in her first hours of freedom. After a lunch, we put her on the Greyhound. We hoped the rest of her journey would be a more pleasant one.

We know she arrived well in Chicago, but haven’t heard more. It was a sweet mission. Maybe we will meet Feven and husband again some time.

Odile Hugonot Haber and Alan Haber

Work for Good with Avodah

Do you know someone in our community in their early twenties who is looking for something good to do next year?

Applications are open for the Avodah Jewish Service Corps, a year-long program of nonprofit job placements for recent college grads aged 21-26. The Avodah program is aimed to help build leadership skills, an active Jewish community life, a powerful professional network, and a more just America.

Corps Members build expertise through work placements with Avodah’s partner organizations in Chicago, New Orleans, New York, and Washington, D.C. They contribute to their partners’ work on crucial justice issues such as immigration, hunger, education, public health, and domestic violence while developing activist chops and Jewish social justice insights through Avodah’s trusted, innovative curriculum. During the year, Corps Members live and learn in the dynamic Avodah community. Home-cooked meals, late night conversations, and holiday celebrations make living in the bayit memorable and meaningful.

Both Rabbi Ora and Rabbi Alana are alumni of the Avodah fellowship program, and Molly Kraus-Steinmetz is a currently in an Avodah placement at the Jane Adamms Senior Caucus in Chicago.

When I asked Molly how her year with Avodah is going, she wrote:

This year, Avodah has given me the amazing opportunity to work full-time as a community organizer at Jane Addams Senior Caucus, a position that most recent college grads would not qualify for. I’ve been able to grow as an organizer and make real change for seniors in Chicago, and Avodah has helped me along the way by providing the emotional, financial, and professional resources I needed to succeed. Instead of moving to a new city and having to build friends and a support system from scratch, I’ve found community with the other young Jews in nonprofit jobs who are doing Avodah with me. Instead of navigating Chicago’s rapidly gentrifying housing market on my own, I’ve been living in a safe, healthy, and affordable communal living situation provided by Avodah. And for perhaps the last time in my life (unless I end up in a union) I have the support of Avodah staff ready to help me with any challenges I face in my first real job.
Many of you might remember that last summer, I was reaching out to Reconchat to fundraise for the Avodah Jewish Service Corps in preparation for my year there. At the time, I was secretly unsure what the future held and doubting whether I’d made the right choice of post-graduation jobs. Now, halfway through my Avodah year in Chicago, I feel fairly confident that I made the right choice by joining this program.
Are there things I would change about Avodah? Of course, and I’ll happily fill you in on the ups and downs if you reach out to me personally. But I also recognize that the structure of Avodah has allowed me to succeed and grow this year in a way that a traditional full-time job definitely wouldn’t, and I’m so, so glad that I ended up in this program. Avodah is an incredible opportunity for young Jews who want to make a difference, and I hope that anyone looking for a job right now will check it out.

The program provides a monthly living stipend, travel allowance, health insurance, and subsidized housing, in addition to a year of professional and leadership development. After their Service Corps year, participants will access activism, professional development, and Jewish opportunities for life through the Avodah alumni community.

Avodah is looking for leaders and not-yet-leaders, activists and organizers, challah bakers and Shabbat dinner hosts, teachers, learners, and everyone in between to spend the next year pursuing justice with Avodah.

Are you our next Jewish Service Corps Member?

Do you know someone who is wondering what they can do to help create a more just America, or how to build a career that makes a difference in people’s lives?

Find out more at avodah.net/serve, or reach out to apply@avodah.net.

Avodah is currently in rolling admissions with upcoming deadlines on 2/25 and 3/27.

Zichronot/Memories

Memories by Josh Samuel, on Rosh Hashanah 2017

My family moved to Israel when I was eleven. Israel is built on shared memory.

The memory of the Holocaust permeated my coming of age in Israel, building a wall of justification.

Memorial ceremonies in white shirts on Remembrance Day for Fallen Soldiers, the day before Independence Day, with wisps of flute music snatched by the wind and solemn poems about the youth being a silver platter on which the country was served.

But there was an earnest sense of belonging, a feeling that our path was right. I remember standing with friends in a clutch of bicycles, shortly after the Yom Kippur war, discussing seriously what we would do if we were invaded and how we would resist.

Years later, at my farewell party in Albuquerque NM, heading back to Israel after my two-year postdoc, we heard that Yitzchak Rabin had been shot and killed. We returned to Israel, but that sense of belonging had evaporated.

There is a hole where that feeling of belonging was, like a missing filling, huge when probed with the tongue, but seemingly imperceptible when viewed from the outside.

I no longer celebrate Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s independence day, nor do I celebrate the 4th of July.

There is a sense of loss when a place leaves you, or maybe it was never actually there from the beginning.

I fight against the cynicism and anger that the loss of belonging to a country can invoke.

I strive to find belonging in a community for myself and my family.

Because that is all there is.

and it is enough.

[Editor’s note: Each year we extend the learning from the High Holidays by publishing some of the talks given during services. You can find other Rosh Hashanah talks from past years here.]

 

The Call of the Shofar: Rena Basch on Activism

Rena and Jeff Basch at our 2017 Annual BBQ. Photo by Stephanie Rowden

by Rena Basch, from her dvar on Rosh Hashana

Often people hear a distinct, sharp call to action. Something happens; something shocking or traumatic happens to you, your family, your community, or your nation. We hear these calls to action. They’re often loud and clear. Yet, we struggle with what actions to take. We hear the call. But then what?

There are also softer, more subtle calls to action. You’ve heard something over and over again, but then one day, the same words sound different. Something crystallizes in your head. “Aha,” you say. You hear the call.

For me, current events of 5777 provided an unrelenting cacophony. Deafening calls to action. I sifted through the noise, adjusted priorities, and chose a path for tikkun olam. I’m fortunate and grateful for being able to do this: hear the call–consider, contemplate, plan–then act. I have learned how to do this from all of you. Our community sounded the shofar, then taught me how to hear it. You’ve showed me how I can be useful, can help change the world.

Here are just a few examples:

A pair of our founders, my friends Aura and Aaron Ahuvia, extend an invitation to me–a call to an unaffiliated, uninvolved Jew: Come to our Reconstructionist Havurah. I’m like, “What’s a Reconstructionist Havurah? Sounds like a cult.” They took the time to explain, and Aha! I’m in. This is Judaism to me.

Over the years, these subtle calls to action continued from our community members. A very young Sarah Kurz–I will always remember her empathy. Back when the Hav was still meeting in the basement of a church near the law quad. A special aunt of mine had died. I’m crying during services and Sarah comforts me. I hear the call: I need to do that too – comfort those in need. Stop being afraid to reach out.

Again, a few years ago – Marcy Epstein says “let’s plan Shmita. Let’s plan Shmita for the Jewish community of Ann Arbor and southeast MI.” And I say, “Huh? What’s Shmita? Never heard of it.” Then, “that’s too devout, that’s too spiritual, that’s too big an endeavor. I can’t.”

“Of course you can,” she said. “Food! Land! Justice! Shmita!” Aha, I hear the call. She and Carol, and Idelle and many others made me see how I was needed to help us study and celebrate Shmita.

Last year, Rabbi Alana spoke at the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice 50th Anniversary dinner. Here’s what I heard her say–more or less: “You old activists need to listen to the young activists to understand today’s issues, to understand today’s methods. And you young activists need to learn from the old how to build infrastructure.” Aha! A clear call to action. I can help with that. I can learn from different generations. I can help build bridges.

Again, this past year, right now really–the cacophony. Bells are ringing loud and clear. The shofar blowing every morning in the form of daily news. Fresh assaults on our values nearly every day. The antithesis of tikkun olam. I heard, I hear this shofar. Most of us here today hear the call to action. And our community, like usual, we’re hearing that call–we’re listening, processing–the are wheels turning, and we’re helping each other find our way to action.

I decided in November to become “An Activist.” (Because I need yet another career path, another to-do list, right?) I’ve been listening to my mother saying over and over again–“gerrymandering is tearing apart our nation.” Aha! The light bulb goes on, the idea crystallizes, I hear the call. I can act to fix that.

I look around our congregation and see role models everywhere, activists of all sorts, hearing the call, living their values, giving their skills and time, acting to make the world a better place in a myriad of different ways. I tell Rebecca Kanner I’m going to work on redistricting reform. I ask her to teach me how to be an activist.  She says “you already are.” What? Huh? ……Aha! thank you. Thank you for giving me the confidence to say, yes. Yes, I am an Activist.

So thank you, my Ann Arbor Reconstructionist community for giving me the support, the role models, the opportunities and the confidence to truly heed the shofar. We all hear the call. We are all acting.

 

Peter Cohn’s Bar Mitzvah Dvar: B’midbar, Who is included?

Shabbat Shalom! Welcome to the final bar mitzvah in this generation of Cohns! Interestingly enough, we will be talking about Kohanim, our tribe, as it were, in a moment.

But first, I’d like to give you a summary of my portion. A little explanation on that: each week is associated with a portion of the Torah, and it takes one year to read the whole thing. And our tradition at AARC is for me to ask you a question, and I’ll do that later on–so pay attention.

My portion is in the first part of B’midbar, or the book of Numbers. In the portion, God orders Moses to take a census of all the Israelites. Well, not all the Israelites. But I’ll get to that later.

Moses is taking the census, and it’s kind of funny to think about him with a clipboard and pen in hand, walking from tent to tent. (Of course, that’s not quite what it was like.) Anyway, the Torah spends some time talking about the numbers of people in the different tribes and where they are camped, and then the focus moves to Aaron and his sons.

Aaron had four sons, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar and Ithamar. Eleazar and Ithamar were still alive, but Nadab and Abihu were not. They had perished when they were not taking their ritual responsibilities seriously enough while they were at something called the “tent of meeting.” This tent of meeting, the ohel moed, is another focus of my portion. I find this appropriate, since my last name is Cohn, and the portion repeatedly brings up the Kohanim, the priests–Kohein, in Hebrew, means priest.

But let’s focus on the census Moses is taking. Here’s what I found interesting about it: the census that Moses is taking doesn’t include a lot of people. For example, the census excludes the Levites. The census excludes women. The census excludes men under 20. Put it all together, and you’ve left out more than half of the Israelites.

You are taking a census of all the Israelites, except you’re not; you’re picking and choosing who gets to count in the census. It’s kind of ironic that, after being treated so horribly for so long when they were in Egypt, because of their identity, some of the Israelites were now marginalizing some people within their own midst.

But hold on to that thought–and now zoom ahead a few thousand years. See, excluding people is a pretty common theme in history, and that includes the history of this country. Think about Philadelphia, in 1776, during the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Famously, it says that “all men are created equal.” It doesn’t say anything about women. And just a few years later, those same Founding Fathers wrote the U.S. constitution, which–just as famously–included the three fifths compromise, in which a slave counted as three fifths of a person. This is literally deciding who counts and who doesn’t.

My own family history touches on the way groups have been excluded in more recent times. For example, my grandmother Mimi is Irish; genealogically, I am one fourth Irish. I learned that when Irish immigrants first arrived in the U.S. in the mid 1850’s, they were the first huge wave of immigrants to ever come en masse. The U.S. wasn’t ready for it. They reacted badly and considered the Irish as the new “lowest rung” in society. In fact, at a time when being “white” meant being accepted, the Irish were considered non-white–which is pretty funny if you just look at my complexion — do you know how much sunscreen my relatives and I go through?

The same thing happened to my Jewish ancestors; when they first arrived, they faced discrimination and exclusion. And of course they came here in so many cases because they were fleeing persecution from abroad as well. Sometimes, being from a marginalized group makes you more aware of others facing similar problems. Many Jews were involved in efforts to fight discrimination and I’ve heard the story many times about how my great grandmother, Nana, was pushed in a baby carriage during suffrage marches. And my grandmother helped to integrate the New Orleans schools. But one of the things that struck me as interesting was that German Jews who immigrated to the United States around the same time as the Irish considered the later arriving Russian Jews as not Jewish — much less white. They settled in different places, had different trades and formed different branches of Judaism.

And actually after the Irish settled here, sometimes they acted in ways that marginalized other people–if not other Irish, than other groups of new Americans.

So when we talk about who counts and who doesn’t, sometimes the people who don’t count will turn around and exclude other groups–or even people within their own midst. It’s a little like that census Moses took thousands of years ago that excluded half of the Israelites. It makes you wonder, why anybody ever gets excluded in the first place. Or to be more direct, what really makes one person count less than another.

Think about another example from American history–relatively recent American history. When segregation was legal in the United States, there was a so-called “one drop rule.” It said that if any of your ancestors were African American, so were you. In other words, if one of your grandparents were African American, but the other three weren’t, you still were considered African American. That makes no sense!

The funny thing is, scientifically speaking, humanity originated from one place: Africa. In that sense, all of us have at least a little African blood in us. The whole idea of race, as we know it, is something that humanity constructed as a way to sort and categorize people. Of course, many people take great pride in their ethnic or racial backgrounds, and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging diversity. But all too frequently, we have defined groups in order to treat some worse than others. And all too frequently, even those of us in historically marginalized groups have not paid enough attention to others facing the same kind of treatment.

What groups would you like to recognize that haven’t been mentioned today or historically?

As it happens, I had a lot of chance to think about that with my mitzvah project. For those of you who aren’t familiar, part of the bar mitzvah process is picking a mitzvah, or act of goodness, to perform–and it has be from a list of 613 mitzvot to choose from, which are found in the Old Testament.

The mitzvah I chose was “To love the stranger.” When I chose this before November, I had no idea how important it would become,which is to say, I had no idea how the political environment would change. I didn’t know that we would be in a country where so many people had reason to be nervous they didn’t count anymore.

Today, I feel, it is more important than ever to “love the stranger.” On January 21, I participated in a women’s’ march in Ann Arbor, and I attended a protest of the immigration ban at the Detroit airport. This is the poster I carried, by the way. It says…

My family and I donated to the rebuilding effort for the Ypsilanti Mosque when it burned down in March. And in December, I went with my mom to her church’s feast day of service to make baskets of cleaning supplies and other necessities for Syrian refugee families. For the main part of my mitzvah project, I sort of replicated that with a twist; it was boxes geared towards kids, containing books, art supplies and welcome notes. My brother Tommy drove me to Jewish Family Services (the same organization my mom’s church coordinated with) to drop them off.

This is the idea of “loving the stranger,” caring about what happens to people you don’t know as fellow people and citizens of the world.

You’ll also find this theme in my haftarah–although you’ll have to read between the lines a little bit. It’s the famous story about King Solomon and the two women who claim to be the mother of the same baby. Solomon has asked God for wisdom and this is the first instance of how he uses that wisdom.

(This is not the traditional portion assigned to my Torah portion, but the one that is assigned, which is about the prophet Hosea’s wife, has more mature content than I was comfortable with. So I followed the lead of a fellow congregation member, Jacob Schneyer. He chose this portion five years ago at his bar mitzvah to go with the parsha because he was talking about how the Levites were excluded from the count, and raised the general question about what does God want, which, as you will hear, is the question that Solomon wants to know: give me the wisdom to know what you want. And wisdom in general.)

At this time in our history, as we are still as a nation grappling with issues of inclusion and exclusion, we really need to think wisely about how and why we make those distinctions. We need to bring our wisdom to the table and realize or insist that no one should be excluded because everyone has been excluded at some point. And that’s always looked ridiculous afterwards or retrospectively.

We all want to be on the right side of history. And we need wisdom for that.

 

Hospice Volunteer Opportunity

St. Joseph Mercy is looking for hospice volunteers. Keeping company with the dying is understood to be one way of fulfilling the halachic dictate that the dying should be treated as complete people, capable of fully engaging in human affairs.  Beyond that, providing succor to the family is clearly an aspect of tikkun olam.  Details: