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:

Eytz Chayim: An Introduction to our Torah Table Tapestry

by Marcy Epstein

Torah Table Tapestry, photo by Nancy Meadow

It almost feels like an age ago when our congregation was a havurah, a thing of steady roots and fresh growth in every direction. Trees are a primary metaphor for us, one that is so powerful–from the Ten Sephirot, to the Cedars of Lebanon, back to the Tree of Knowledge and the mishnaic tree from under which the earth for Adam and Eve was formed. Since we are a branch of Reconstructionist Judaism and a species of Jewish life here in Ann Arbor, the secondary metaphors for us of growth and maturity, stability and change, tradition and the necessity for new ground, all make perfect sense.

Our bodies take the form of trees, while our Torah is spoken of as scroll (the spiral extrusion of a tree’s rings, as exegesis) and as a Tree of Life,  and Eytz Chayim. Trees grow among each other, as we have. Some of us are wiser for the proximity, others have felt the bittersweet tension of sharing the sun. Some of us are saplings, and we live within this tree as to create trees of life of our own, through our children, our work for justice, or our creativity. And while we relate to trees, we are also not trees. We are the recipients of trees. We breath off them, eat of them, draw sap, even wipe our bottoms and create some of our most holy texts from them. They seem within human domain, but they far exceed it. Thus Eytz Chayim.

A close up of the wall hanging we use as a backdrop on special events.

Over the 14 years that I have been active with the AARC, I have noticed the obvious, intentional expression of our community through wood. Wood is an expression of our living Torah, however we came to define that. During the gelilah (dressing the Torah), I noticed the swirls of tree and flame on our homemade Torah cover, made by several bat mitzvah and their families. Our Torah ark, so elegantly built by Alan Haber, was made from our city’s trees, no metal, as though to say that our Torah is among its own kind, among trees. I saw at high holidays the beauteous  backdrop, a wall hanging of leaves and boughs made by a Canadian artist and bestowed to us by another group of families with quickly-growing children. With Allison Stupka, I edited our Grapevine newsletter, which displayed our insignia of arching vine and laurel. Our Ann Arbor congregation has more than its fair share of artists, tzaddikim, and tree huggers. And trees.

Our traveling Torah is dressed and ready to roll.

Six years ago, in a conversation between Debbie Zivan and me on my front porch, we momentarily saw the cycle of growth in our community. It was as though we could sense the rings of growth brought to the Hav. Our community was on a long and arduous path, a liturgical and rabbinical journey, its life-cycle in motion with the Mitzvah Corp, our Beit Sefer, and our holidays together. We brought to the Board our feelings that while we may not own a building, though we are happily mishkanic (spiritually portable), we still needed more beautiful artistry. Our Reconstructionist community deserves the sort of beauty and artistry that went into the first tabernacle, the one priests carried long ago to contain the Torah, from which other rings of growth emanated: the Kohanim as caregivers and priests, the sanctuary and bima that came after, the gates of new cities, Holy Temples that were built, destroyed, and recreated throughout the Jewish world.  Or, at least, that was the lofty thinking that ran through my head and now tampers with my memory of the beginning of our tapestry. More to the point, we wanted a handsome, adjustable table for Shabbat, simchot, and holidays, and we saw this table paired with a beautiful tapestry created in the tradition of the mishkan.

The mishkan of Exodus was wood long before it received the parchment scrolls (also wood, also itself), a wonderful idea of living humbly and reflectively.  Jacob and his sons planted acacia trees in Egypt with plans to bear the wood as it seasoned, specifically as construction material for the ark. And as Exodus says, the artistic scion Bezalel and the humble, careful Ohaliab coordinated among diverse tribes and artisans; woodcarvers, metalworkers, weavers and sewers, enamelists, and craftspeople donated their best work so that the mishkan would fit the Biblical prescription. We became numerous like this, almost mystically as fast: Alan gave continuity to a Torah table, and Jack Edelstein committed some of his finest walnut and cherry (Ann Arbor) wood. Dale Sass, Debbie, and others joined them in designing the function of our fine table, slipping more tree matter (our congregants’ prayers) into its joints and grooves.

Meanwhile, a group of us also came together to create the tapestry to hang in front of the table, also metal workers and weavers, quilters and knitters, beaders and embroiderers, found object artists: Nancy Meadow, Idelle Hammond-Sass, Chava Israel, Janet Greenhut, Leora Druckman, Allison Stupka, and myself.  Friends from our artist circles joined us, too, to help boost production and morale: Elena DeLoof, Rabbi Michal, Michal Samuel, and Claudia Kraus-Piper.

We were very different people with various mediums, personalities, styles, skills, and rhythm through which to see a tapestry for the Torah table, so we took much longer than we ever expected to complete the tapestry. This could have been the Tower of Babel story rather than Eytz Chayim or Exodus. For four years, our group grew and regrouped, and our tapestry moved from dining table to studio to dining table, over 100 Sundays. Not by design, we were all women, and we came to the project for so many reasons: for mysticism and sacred creation; for a reconstruction of avodah and mitzvah; for grief over our dead mothers and their ways of mending, connecting, and creating; for the companionship of grown ups and for sharing our techniques with children; for communal art; for the Torah and its new table; for the b’nai mitzah we imagined reading from the bima; and for posterity. We were making something we hoped would last for centuries.  Our Torah itself comes from Chicago and a long way before. While we worked away at the Torah Table Tapestry, our first rabbi was hired, the Torah was purchased from its long lease, its longevity assured by careful repair. We wanted the same for its cloth.

The tapestry itself is layered with this history and a hope for our congregation’s long and happy life. When I describe how the Tapestry formed and what it means, it may sound contrived, like a thank-you list.  But I assure you that it was the opposite: we avoided contrivance. We never said no to daring ideas and nudged each other out of our comfort zones. It took a month or two just to get our ideas out on paper. We imagined a few things before we saw the tree, a whole tree. Idelle and Chava were entrusted to draw and assemble the design of this tree based on so many parameters and wishes that it was a miracle that we could exhibit it for community feedback at Rosh Hashanah four years ago.

It also feels like a miracle that we were able to recreate Idelle and Chava’s vision. We decided on a great tree that would be seen all at once, roots, trunk, branches, leaves, and cherry fruit, laid out in a large circle that contained four seasons, four states of the tree above and at ground. This would be a Michigan cherry tree in the endless cycle of its splendor (right now, my backyard cherry tree is heavy with ripening, imperfect spheres). Our easiest challenge was accepting our mistakes and allowing the layers of the design to form both from design and from intuition. Our hardest challenge was to find love rather than criticism for our work or the work  of others, and then also the long tasks of presentation and colorization.

Torah Table Tapestry, in progress, about two years from finished.

One thing that was so important to us as Reconstructionist artists was that the material be largely donated, that it would come from our community. One of our group donated yards of her finest blue raw silk for the base of the picture, and another donated heavy red damask for the exterior and back. AARC’s community responded to our call for meaningful materials with more richness than we could ever have expected. Here are just some samples of the cloth that became our tree: someone’s wedding gown and dress shirt, someone’s birth shirt, someone’s bounty of silk ties, someone’s skirts from her days of Orthodoxy; a hippie shirt; a slip and someone’s cape; someone’s elderly mother’s dress, someone’s young son’s pajamas, someone’s entire sample box. We also received with awe the materials of two AARC members who have passed away, Lisa Gayle’s Guatemalan scarf and Nancy Denenberg’s colorful shawl (these line the sheath for the tapestry). There were dozens of stories behind these cloths, and our group found ways to include every single one, even the fuzzy pajamas.

From these we established the first layers of the tapestry, a range of blue and gray silks from darker to lighter to represent day and night, all sorts of weather. We sorted a mountain of cloth into seasons. We learned and unlearned as we went. We disciplined ourselves to learn each other’s crafts. Chava shared her techniques for application and beading for the sparkle of snow and flowers, for the cherries. Janet taught us to embroider leaves as they grew and fell, snow, the difficult horizon and mountains. Over the years, we needed to redesign and reflect, with Idelle sharing how things could be seen. Nancy and I often experimented with stitching and blending the outer layers, meeting nearly every Sunday. Leora reminded us of the wonderful kavanah going into the tapestry, as months suddenly past between viewings, like her own found objects.

Layers went on, layers came off. The horizon shifted. Leaves changed color, the ground (like humanity to the divine) mirroring the time and decor of the tree’s canopy. The tapestry seemed to become beautiful right before our eyes, and then there were times when the work seemed endless, fruitless. We took pictures of cherry trees and talked about how they are unique among trees. We sneaked in a squirrel, a pair of birds, a bit of spilt wine, and dandelions. We learned to stop questioning ourselves and just give this freely. Our children went to school, went away, came back from college, and parents and siblings passed away. We changed jobs, fell very ill, cared for our sick, came on and off the Board, lived through Art Fair, watched Torah being read for the first time on its new table, wondered and plugged away. We met under my Sukkah two years ago just to figure out the tapestry’s endgame. The tapestry had required so much of our energies, and we were so grateful for Claudia’s infusion of skill and verve in our last months. Julia Piper spent over two hours untangling our floss. Mollie Meadow pored over the tree for missing stitches. Cherries joined the seven species to embellish all four corners. We hired a local tailor to put on the tapestry’s backing, make the bag of memorial cloths.

All this time, Chava beaded the lettering in Hebrew calligraphy in the silvery ornateness recalled by the original mishkan. I think this was a labor of love, perfection, and responsibility for her, reminiscent of Bazalel and Ohaliab. The saying that goes around our Torah tapestry (for we dedicated it to our congregational use last Rosh Hashanah) means in English, referring to the living Torah, from the Mishna 7b (3:18): “It is a tree of life for those who take hold of it, and those who support it are fortunate.” We attached each word separately, creating the arc above and below the tree. There is another truth from Mishna on the Tree of Life which I felt true over the more than four years we worked the tapestry. We had finished just in time for Rose Basch’s bat mitzvah, and we marked our first year as the AARC. The teaching is this: ‘For length of days, years of life, and peace will they [the Torah’s teachings] increase for you’ (3:2).”

Yad by Idelle Hammond-Sass, with wood box by Dale Sass.

The Torah Table Tapestry and AARC’s artistic tradition continues to grow. Our group is resting for the year (after Shmita), but soon we hope to share the tapestry and the story of its creation with other congregations, perhaps even to have it displayed among other Judaica and fiber art shows. For our repaired Torah, Idelle and Dale have created a beautiful yad of wood and metal to mark our place as we chant. Idelle is also starting on a beautiful piece of wrought metal to turn into our eternal light. And just as the artists of the Temple turned from the Tabernacle to the next growth, we are thinking about what needs to be made next. Likely it comes from the earth, maybe from the increase of trees, and their beauty. Even if you haven’t made anything before, join us. It takes everyone to see the Mishkan on its path, and Eytz Chayim is for us all.

What would Ruth deserve?

A woman harvests barley.

by Margo Schlanger

We read Megillat Ruth every year for Shavuot, which starts this year in the evening of May 30. Ruth was an illegal immigrant to Judah. Inspired by her kindness and her boldness, I’ve written a piece for the Tablet — it’s here — about Ruth, loving-kindness, chutzpah, and illegal immigration.  I hope you’ll read it and post any thoughts you have here.

Pirke Avot tells us:

עַל שְׁלֹשָׁה דְּבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֶד: עַל הַתּוֹרָה, וְעַל הַעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים
Al shlosha d’varim ha’olam omed: al haTorah, v’al ha’avoda v’al g’milut chasadim.
The world is sustained by three things: Torah, worship, and loving kindness.

I hope we can do as well as Boaz and Bethlehem and match the kindness and chutzpah of Ruth and of her modern-day brothers and sisters with our own.

What can we do?

  • Support WICIR, the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights: Like them on facebook (https://www.facebook.com/WICIR/) and you’ll see posts for rallies, information sessions, and actions that support immigrant families.
  • Email Ruth Kraut, ruthkraut@gmail.com, if you want to join the Ann Arbor Jewish Sanctuary planning group. For information on Sanctuary Synagogues, see http://www.truah.org/campaign/mikdash-the-jewish-sanctuary-movement/ .
  • If you speak another language well—especially Spanish, Arabic, or French—there are opportunities to do interpretation. Ask the folks at WICIR about how you can help.
  • Give time or money to MIRC, the Michigan Immigrant Rights Center, http://michiganimmigrant.org/. They train people to do Know Your Rights sessions and their “Let’s Do More” campaign is working to raise money for an additional staff attorney to meet the dramatically increased need since President Trump was sworn in.
  • If you see or hear ethnic or racial epithets or bias, speak up! Go over in your mind in advance what you would say/do. Here are the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Six Steps to Speaking Up Against Everyday Bigotry.

A very short reflection on community

by Debbie Field

When the JCC lost electricity late last week, we were able to celebrate Purim anyway, thanks to our neighbors at Temple Beth Emeth, who allowed us to hold our event in their building. While at the Purim party, I complained to a few (or perhaps many) people because the power had been out at my house for days. Three different AARC members offered to host us for the night, kind invitations which I declined because we had already arranged to stay with yet another set of AARC friends.

Even before power and my equanimity were restored, I was able to feel gratitude for our caring AARC community, and the wider Jewish community of Ann Arbor as well.