Refugees and Returning to Our Best Selves

deb-fieldYom Kippur talk by Debbie Field

The Avodah service during the afternoon of Yom Kippur has its origins in an ancient temple ritual where the high priest sacrificed a bull to atone for the sins of himself, his household, and the world as a whole. In a radically reconstructed version of this service, I want to talk to you about a project of mine that engages all three levels of the Avodah: self, community, and world.

But before I describe that project, I want to reassure everyone here on two accounts. First, I am not going to talk about sins, but about atonement. And I am using the understanding of atonement that Rabbi Nathan provided in his talk on Rosh Hashanah; that is atonement as teshuvah, as a return to our best selves. Second, I have not redefined myself as high priest, and I am not speaking from an exalted position of holiness. Instead, I want to frame this talk with the line from Pirkei Avot/Sayings of the Fathers that many of you know: “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work of creation, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.” So, I’m speaking to you simply as somebody trying not to desist.

I’m going to start with a story. I teach at a small college a little south of here. I have a very nice colleague in the chemistry department who is originally from Syria. One day a few years ago, he stood up in the faculty meeting and asked us all to pray for his country. And everybody said, oh how sad, how sad and then we went back to our lives.

But as the news got worse and the refugee crises began to intensify, I kept thinking about his plea for our prayers. There are lots of different kinds of prayers and ways to pray; for example, when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel got back from marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, he was asked if he had had time for prayer and he answered, “I was praying with my feet.” As Jews, we are obligated to help refugees: in the Torah there are 36 separate reminders that we must help the stranger because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. So, as a feet praying kind of Jew, I asked myself how I, as an individual, could pray for my colleague’s country and the people escaping from it. I also wondered how I could engage my campus community.

My first attempt was to suggest that our college house and feed a refugee family, as campuses around the country have started doing as part of a movement called Every Campus a Refuge.  I wrote a proposal that met with a curt refusal, so I redirected my energies. Eventually, the solution I came up with was to design a new course on Refugees in Modern History, which I am teaching this semester. The class includes a service learning component through a fledgling nonprofit organization called Paper Airplanes Tutoring. My students are tutoring Syrian refugees now living in various countries using Skype and Facebook. The goal is to help the Syrian young people improve their English so they can pass the language exams required for university admission. But Paper Airplanes Tutoring, and my class, also have broader goals.

According to the UN, there are 6.6 million refugees internally displaced within Syria, and over 4.8 million refugees outside of Syria, totaling over 11 million Syrian refugees. The United States has taken in just over 10,000; by contrast there are 2.7 million in Turkey. Last November after attacks in Paris, a Bloomburg News poll showed that 53% of Americans were against admitting any Syrian refugees, with an additional 11% saying they supported admitting only Christian Syrians. In the face of this huge refugee crises and our country’s opposition to helping, my aspiration is to change attitudes.

I have learned through many years of teaching that you can’t change people’s minds by railing at them. But through reading, discussing, and the investment in teaching one particular refugee, I hope that my students will see Syrian refugees as products of particular historical circumstances not of their own making, like the other refugees we have been studying in class: Jews and Palestinians, Vietnamese, Somalis, and Bosnians. More importantly, I hope my students will make individual human connections with their tutees and that the sympathy and understanding that results will ripple outward as they talk about their experiences with their friends and their parents and their communities.

I think this has started to happen. In her teaching log, one of my students described how surprised she was at how much she had in common with her student and she admitted she had assumed his culture would be alien and backward. She wrote: “We are so quick to judge others even though they are so much like ourselves; usually it is a mere difference in circumstances. I wish more people could see things this way, but I am glad that this opportunity of talking with my tutee has provided me with the human element to reevaluate my beliefs and change my current assumptions about other groups of people.”

What I’m doing is quite small. It comes out of my own desire to pray, if not with my feet, then with my syllabus, so that what I do every day can be part of repairing the world. There is so much broken in the world, but this Yom Kippur, I am trying to hang on to hope that my small, individual, pedagogical teshuvah is reaching outward to campus, community, nation, and world.

paper-airplanes-logo

Humility/Sovereignty by Anita Rubin-Meiller

by Anita Rubin-Meiller
Humility/Sovereignty: Rosh Hashanah Drash, 2016

anita-rubin-muellerBeing asked to talk about humility in the context of recognizing God’s sovereignty returned me to my spiritual roots, Al-Anon, 1981. In the 12 steps there is a clear relationship between humility and God. Step 1, admit we are powerless. Step 3, make a decision to turn our lives and our will over to the care of God. Step 7, humbly ask God to remove our shortcomings. And isn’t that exactly what this time of year gives us the space to do? Beginning with the new moon of Elul and culminating as the gates close on Yom Kippur, we are invited to deeply know ourselves, the whole truth of ourselves, and bring that truth before the Holy One of Being, whom our prayer book calls “author of creation, teacher of truth” whose sovereign power hopefully empowers us. Humility is about being in right relationship with ourselves and thereby being in right relationship with God.

There are many ways to approach this time of searching within. Sometimes we set out determined, with a particular structure of meditating, journaling, sharing. And sometimes awareness arrives in the midst of our pain, our suffering our challenges. And that can feel like a gift or a curse.

Here’s the story: I can’t remember what happened before, but if you were peeking in on us in the moment of the outburst, it would have appeared that my husband and I were fighting over something to do with a box of crackers. Whatever it was that was really happening, the result was an emotional explosion on my part that had me leaving the house in anger at 9pm to take myself on a walk.

For a while the anger stayed and my thoughts were oriented towards “he does this, and he does that, and it will never change, etc.” Then I remembered myself. That is to say, I realized that this angry, resentful woman was not the person I wanted to be. I remembered the soothing power of self-compassion and placed a hand on my heart as I walked and gently noted my pain. And then I got curious.  Why did this hurt so much?

In her newest book, Rising Strong, social work researcher and TED talk celebrity Brene Brown describes a 3-step process meant to guide us in rising from our fall, overcoming our mistakes, and facing our hurt. She gives a name to what I went through when I went for my walk after the fight with my husband: The Reckoning. Her name for the next step, The Rumble, is indicative of the wrestling that ensues when we are opened in curiosity and compassion to explore our self-justification and habitual stories and find what is really going in our mind and heart and soul.

As I settled into this calm and curious state, a wiser awareness arrived: this was about my 5 year old. Again. Often when I know that I am hurt, instead of feeling angry I am brought there: to the child needing loving attention, to the child needing to know she is lovable, to the child wanting to be held. Recognizing her presence then gave me an opportunity to soothe her and to listen more deeply to myself. I so desperately wanted to be “big” enough to go home, apologize to my husband and move on. But as I continued walking, I realized that my awareness could not yet translate into skilled words and that the best I could do was to say calmly that I didn’t have words yet, and helplessly go off to the basement couch to sleep.

One of the ways I experience humility at this time of year is recognizing that what I release into the river at Tashlich tends to repeat itself. So, as I awoke the next day I was quite aware that last year at this time I had vowed to love my husband as best as I could and for sure this meant giving up the idea that he should do what I do, want what I want, value what I value.  And that introduces the other player in this tale, the self -righteous teen who pops up to protect against the hurt, the sorrow and disappointment of the 5-year-old feeling unloved. She has always been harder for me to embrace, but at least the embrace does come.

To quote Brene Brown again: “The irony is that we attempt to disown our difficult stories to appear more whole or more acceptable, but our wholeness – even our wholeheartedness- actually depends on the integration of all our experiences, including the falls” She calls her third step in the process of coming home to ourselves “The Revolution” and describes it as being able to write a new ending to your story based on the learnings from the process of  The Rumble.

So I awoke to find Roger and my words.

In a letter from the Ramban to his son, quoted by Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs, he writes of humility: ”Let your voice be gentle and your head bowed. Let your eyes be turned earthwards and your heart heavenwards. Let every man seem superior to you in your own eyes. God alone knows the true worth of a man.”

As Roger and I took a morning walk and I tearfully shared my apology and realization, my pain and my hope for a different outcome, I could feel my whole being soften, lean in to this man that I have loved imperfectly for 30 years. And without asking, he shared his insights as well and we came to better understand the dance we have done for so long of triggering each other’s vulnerabilities and acting protectively in response. There is a saying in the Tai Chi principles: 4 ounces displaces 1,000 pounds. When I am corrected during morning practice it is often minuscule, but feels like a miracle, a small adjustment creating a significant shift.

I was sure this shift was here to stay, but “never again” are not the words of humility. Just last week I had yelled at my husband “I need you to meet me halfway”  and found myself heading for the basement couch again, where I looked up the Biblical definitions of humility and found this: “the quality that lets us go more than halfway to meet the needs and demands of others.” I picked up my pillow, returned to our bedroom, and snuggled in, grateful.

Humility is knowing that no matter how hard I try I will never be perfect. It is trusting that the Holy One of Being will have a lot more patience with my repeated mistakes then I tend to have. It is finding lessons mysteriously delivered in unexpected places.

I end with the wisdom of folksinger Steve Earle from a song called “God is God”

God, in my little understanding don’t care what name I call.
Whether or not I believe doesn’t matter at all.
I receive the blessings that every day on Earth’s another chance to get it right.
Let this little light of mine shine and rage against the night.
I believe in God and God ain’t us.

 

Marcy’s Break-Fast Pear Plum Kugel, with Ricotta and Thoreson Farm Apples

marcys-kugelby Marcy Epstein

This is a no-holds-barred, creamy sweet kugel (noodle pudding) that necessitates a good amount of improvisation. In other words, I made this up. There are two conventional kugels Ashkenazim have turned to for over a century– the sweet apple and raisin variety, and the even more common starch-salty kugel of matzah meal, potato, leek or just plain cream sort that serves as accompaniment to a main course.

Because I made this kugel toward the end of Yom Kippur, I aimed for the happy fusion between the two, the dessert you eat as an entree, something to fill a stomach after ten servings of contrition. I combined a salty, creamy starchiness with many eggs and the earthy tang of sweet and earthy fruits. I reconstructed the tradition of eating new fruit of the fall harvest, taking t’shuvah to mean the literal turning of the spoon, I prepared noodles, ricotta cheese custard, and a great combination of fruits I doubt can be exactly replicated: this year’s extra sweet fresh Italian plums, some Bartlett pears, and (learning from Nancy and Drake Meadow how to set up jars and jars of local fruit) fresh raspberries, strawberries from Tantre Farm, serviceberries gleaned from outside a hospice, and Lodi apples gathered from a wild edge of Thoreson Farm (ironically, this farm was first to cultivate cherries in Michigan, but I only had dried cherries about, and dried fruit Kugel is a whole ’nuther casserole.) As I mentioned, improvise. Look to this recipe with open invention, an invitation into the sweet coherence of a signature on baker’s parchment in life’s divine cook book. The secret of kugel is in its ingredients and coherence.

As for coherence, I had a spiritual and practical problem. Homemade noodles would have made this recipe sound that much more home grown, true to humble roots. But practically, it was already torture not to taste the kugel while fasting– to make homemade noodles would have done me in and tripped me up. (I read the al Chet while the kugel cooked.) Wide store bought egg noodles were used instead.

pawpaw5cropped

If you really want to stretch this recipe in another locavore way, hang out with Allison Stupka and Harry Fried, and perhaps you, too, can be enthralled to the seasonal Michigan Paw Paw and its light, complex custard– this fruit could carry the kugel on its own.

One more note: this is not the kugel of my humble roots–that is a fantastic suburban pineapple kugel that I used to make with my mother, Ruth. Among the many things I turned over with the spoon was how I missed making this kugel with her. Mind you, I did most of the making, and she would talk with me, take or make calls to people from our JCC, or tell me about her hayday of hosting Hadassah meetings with this and that. Those are the missing ingredients of my own kugel, the kavanah of turning and folding, the awkward but satisfying slops where the cream and salt hit the fruit. It is in the spirit of lost-ness and return that I dedicate this little kugel to my mother and to Karen, Debbie Zivan’s mother, whom we lost this past month. I was lucky enough to share the holy days with her, to eat kugel with her, and to feel her Jewish motherliness when I could not be with my mom. So this recipe is for them and for yours.

Ingredients:
Salt, one big pinch
Butter, salted, two pats
1/4 cup Olive oil
1 bag of wide egg noodles
1 healthy cup sour cream
1 healthy cup ricotta cheese
3 tbsp of strawberry cream cheese
3 tbsp of regular cream cheese
1/2 cup milk
6 eggs
Two pears, diced
8-10 Italian (prune) plums
One pint jar of preserved fruit: mine  was apples with raspberries and serviceberries. Apple sauce can work in a pinch.
Honey to taste.

Directions:
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Set a couple of quarts of water with pinch of salt to boil. Add egg noodles when water is just at a boil, watch for 4-5 minutes, turn off heat and let sit. In a large mixing bowl, add cream cheese and microwave 1 minute till soft. To this, add and turn over a little milk, sour cream, a pat or two of salted butter, olive oil, eggs, vanilla, ricotta cheese, salt, and honey and cinnamon to taste. This mixture should prove to be nearly the mass of the noodles. Strain but do not rinse noodles. Add to a large casserole dish and have another smaller dish nearby in case you can make an extra for someone special. Core and chop pears. Pit and chop half the plums, leaving several halves intact. Fold cheese mixture into pan of noodles and turn. Fold canned fruit into the pan and turn. Fold chopped fruit into the pan and turn. Don’t worry about a topping for this kugel, the starch and oil in the recipe keep it from sticking (as long as you don’t over oil it), and it should have crunchy, pliant noodles on top. Bake for 40 minutes. Check to see if the custard has formed by putting in a knife and seeing it come out relatively clear of batter. Let the kugel sit a little before serving. It is best served luke warm.

Ideas for kugel are most welcome here on the AARC blog, and I can use suggestions before I expand this entry for my little Tumblr blog, New Jew Food.

 

Rena’s Fall recipe: Farmer’s Market Potato Salad

farmers-market-potato-saladAdapted by Rena Basch from Cooking Light magazine June 2010

Looking for a change of pace from traditional potato salad? This dish could be called “Not-Just Potato Salad.” This recipe is a flexible, vinaigrette-based powerhouse that you can load up with your favorite veggies. I particularly love it because it can be made from whatever fresh vegetables are available at the farmers market during the harvest season, or if it’s winter, sub out the ingredients like fresh corn, zucchini and green beans for frozen. During the winter-time, skip the cherry tomatoes; it’s still delicious.

For a beautiful looking salad, use a mix of red, purple, Yukon and brown-skinned potatoes. If you don’t have a variety of colorful potatoes, just use fingerlings or small red potatoes. You can serve this dish at room temperature just after it’s tossed together, or you can make it ahead, and serve chilled.

Ingredients:
1 cup fresh corn kernels, about 2 ears.  
2 pounds potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 1-inch pieces
2 ½ tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons whole-grain Dijon mustard
½ teaspoon hot pepper sauce (such as Tabasco)
3/4 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Cooking spray
¾ cup vertically sliced red onion
¾ cup diced zucchini
 ¾ cup chopped green beans
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved

Preheat oven to 425°.

Cut the corn off of the cobs. Place corn and chopped potatoes on a jelly-roll pan (or cookie sheet). Drizzle with 1 tablespoon oil and toss to coat. Bake at 425° for 30 minutes or until potatoes are tender.  Place roasted potato and corn in a large bowl.  Combine tarragon and next 5 ingredients (through pepper) in a small bowl, stirring with a whisk. Gradually add remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons oil, stirring constantly with a whisk. Drizzle potato mixture with dressing; toss gently to coat.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Coat pan with cooking spray. Add onion, green beans and zucchini to pan; cook 4 minutes or until lightly browned, stirring occasionally. Add zucchini mixture and tomatoes to potato mixture; toss gently to combine.

 

D’var on Eikev by bar mitzvah Aaron Belman-Wells

aaron-belman-wellsShabbat  shalom.

While I was working on my maftir [concluding section of the weekly Torah portion], Deuteronomy 11:22-25, there were several points where I noticed some differences in translations of the text. These differences could be as seemingly minor as “Red” or “Reed” Sea, or as major as “Sea of the Philistines” or “Western Sea,” or even which Wilderness. Differences in translations and/or text arise because of language, misunderstanding, human error, knowledge etc. My aliyah [segment of the Torah portion], however, concerns the Promised Land. So, as you can see, knowing which sea or wilderness the text is referring to marks a boundary and is significant. Despite how minor many of these changes may seem, they still can make incredible differences in what we are to take away from that section. Looking around [i][ii] to see if this was simply an anomaly, I noticed that there were other points in the Torah where this kind of change occurred. After thinking about why this might happen, I decided that there could only be one major possibility for a change as this: there is no definite word or phrase of text that must be placed there, so people simply wrote in what they assumed to be what was meant to be there. While this often works, the example with the Red and Reed Sea shows that often times there is little to no communication or standardization  between people attempting to translate the Torah.

Differences in translation may also be due to differences in agendas and purposes. Few of us read or speak the Hebrew of the Torah, so we depend on translators. Some translators wish their translations to reflect, to the degree possible, exactly what was written. Others, recognizing that a world of 5,000 or 6,000 years ago is very foreign to modern readers, try to make the text accessible to the reader, making changes to make the events and discussion straightforward. We can see similar, if less important, differences in translations of the Bard’s Hamlet, in which there are at least 3 different versions, despite the fact that only 1 is used[iii]. Equally important, there may be differences in the translator’s view of the Torah and Judaism that influence the translation. Is a given event a recitation of a real event, or is it to be interpreted and put in some context?  All of these result in differences of words and of meaning. [Read more…]

Join the 2016 AARC CROP Hunger Walk Team

Submitted by Cara Spindler

crop-walk-graphicOn Sunday, September 25 the Interfaith Council for Peace & Justice (ICPJ) is hosting the 42nd Annual Washtenaw/Ann Arbor CROP Hunger.  ICPJ has organized this 5k charitable walk since 1974, raising a total of $3.2 million over the decades.  Last year Washtenaw County walkers raised $48,500, with about 300 walkers participating.

CROP Hunger Walks are locally organized by businesses, schools, and communities of faith. “CROP” originally stood for the “Christian Rural Overseas Program,” a 1947 joint program between several church organizations to help with post-war poverty.  Today these community-wide local events seek to raise funds to end hunger and increase food security and food-related social justice in the U.S. and globally.  More than 1,600 walks take place across the U.S. annually.  About 25% of the proceeds go to local hunger-fighting efforts, and the walker can determine where the remaining 75% of their raised funds goes (choosing from a vetted list of global hunger agencies).

Please come and walk with us on September 25!  Call Cara Spindler ( 734-255-0939) if you want to coordinate more.  Our contingent will gather at Trinity Lutheran at 1:30 pm.  

STARTING LOCATION: Trinity Lutheran Church (1400 W Stadium Blvd., Ann Arbor, MI 48103)

DATE: Sunday, September 25, 2016, 1–4 PM

To sign up:

  1. Go to the CROP Hunger Walk website using this link
  2. Click REGISTER
  3. Fill out the form (or sign in using Facebook)
  4. When you get to “Create or Join a Team” choose “Join an existing team”
  5. Click “see list” next to the search box, and select “Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation”
  6. Click the “Join Now” button.

Your friends and neighbors can donate via the website (once you log in there’s lots of tools for soliciting donations and accepting payment)—or you can bring a check/cash to drop off at the Walk.

See you on September 25!

The Curious Case of the Too-Tall Traveling Torah

by David Erik Nelson
Rabbi Druin points to a distinctive lamed in the AARC torah. Photo by Stephanie Rowden

Rabbi Druin points to a distinctive lamed in the AARC torah. Photo by Stephanie Rowden

Here at the AARC we are blessed with a very weird Torah that gets a tremendous amount of love.

Most Torahs rarely travel more than a dozen feet at a time, from ark to torah table. Ours gets hauled through the JCC, chauffeured to b’nei mitzvah venues, and schlepped across town to the Unitarian Universalist building for High Holidays. It is a remarkably well-loved—and notably well-traveled—oddball of a scroll. It is also old, a little delicate, and very unwieldy. Our traveling Torah badly needed a traveling case—something with wheels and handles, easy to maneuver, and able to protect our scroll from a sidewalk stumble, fender bender, or sudden downpour.

Anyone who’s been called to the AARC bimah (such as it is) has no doubt noted our scroll’s large Kabbalistic script (embellished with many little hooks, hats, and curly tails)—a relative rarity among “high use” Torahs like ours.  This calligraphy is a hallmark of Torahs crafted in the last great center of Kabbalistic learning, in Prague.  You may have noted our Torah’s age—the scroll is almost certainly several hundred years old.  If you’ve ever done hagba, you have first-hand experience of how unwieldy it can be to handle. But few folks point out how extremely tall the thing is.

Notes, measurements, and rough sketch

Notes, measurements, and rough sketch

Most Torahs are about two feet tall, in accordance with suggestions made by Moses Maimonides back in the 12th Century, and might weigh around 30 pounds. Ours—in accordance with the fashion of the Kabbalists of Prague—is almost four feet tall. I have no clue what it weighs, but I know it is a bear to haul up over your head.

As Amazon shoppers, you no doubt imagine that there is a robust, highly competitive global market for Torah travel cases. Thus you will be shocked (shocked!) to learn that there is a very limited selection of torah-specific travel cases for 47-inch tall Torahs.

In fact, that selection is limited to zero.

"The Vault" Hardside Golf Travel Bag

“The Vault” Hardside Golf Travel Bag

For that matter, there is a very limited market for travel cases for anything that’s four feet tall, a foot wide, and just shy of eight inches deep. No instrument case is long enough and wide enough, no gun case is deep enough, even cases for synthesizers and keyboards either fall short or are far too large—and either way, they are extremely expensive and heavy.

Fortunately, golfers love to travel. Two companies make bare-bones, hard-sided, lockable, wheeled, extra-large cases to protect those precious clubs. Our ancient, mystic Torah fits perfectly in one of these cases. Appropriately enough, this product is named “The Vault.”

And we now own it.

With the addition of a padded, custom-crafted foot-hold, The Vault holds our well-loved Torah snug as a bug in a rug. When not in use, the case tucks perfectly into the back corner of the official “office” (storage closet) of Ann Arbor’s only Reconstructionist congregation.

Now our Torah can wander in style.

Ready to roll!

Ready to roll!

Report Back: “Community in Difficult Times”

community in difficult timesReported by Martha Kransdorf and Sallygeorge Wright

“Community in Difficult Times,” was a Jewish community-wide facilitated discussion hosted by the Jewish Community Center (JCC) on Thursday evening June 30th.  The purpose for the meeting, according to convener Karla Goldman (director, UM Jewish Communal Leadership Program), “was to create a space where people come together in community to be able to process recent events.  The catalyst was the Pulse tragedy in Orlando, which just seemed to combine so many different elements of the recent news: hate crime, hate speech, LGBTQ issues, immigration issues, gun violence and gun control, anti-Muslim rhetoric and terrorism issues in ways that cried out for response and yet no one has seemed to know how to respond.” About 65 people attended, taking advantage of this important opportunity to reflect about the tragedy in Orlando and the ongoing issues in this year’s election campaign.

Goldman, JCC President Prue Rosenthal,  and Hillel Director Tilly Shames, got things started.  They reviewed the meeting’s background and guidelines for the small discussions at each table.  Rabbi Kim Blumenthal helped establish the mood for the evening by leading us in “Hinei Ma Tov.”

We were reminded that each table had a facilitator, and needed to choose a note taker.  We were to respect different opinions, and each person’s privacy.  Individual’s remarks were not to be repeated afterward without permission from the person who made them.  And we could say “ouch” if something offended us.  There were three guiding questions for us to consider:

1)  What brought you here?

2)  What’s in your heart and on your mind?

3)  Is there something about this moment that calls upon us as Jews and as a Jewish community?

Report backs noted the need for education and outreach on issues including guns, mental health, and more. The need for concrete measures to show solidarity with LGBTQ and Hispanic populations were pointed out.  Examples included having social activities that would increase awareness of diversity in the community. People suggested an ad in a newspaper to express our outrage and concern about current developments, and publicity for efforts on gun control.  Final remarks focused on further get-togethers to look at where we might go from here.

The invitation to the meeting was issued by almost every part of the organized Jewish Community in Ann Arbor:  the Jewish Community Center of Greater Ann Arbor, the Jewish Communal Leadership Program, U of M’s Hillel, Jewish Federation of Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation, Beth Israel Congregation, Temple Beth Emeth, Jewish Cultural Society, Hebrew Day School, Jewish Family Services of  Washtenaw County, and the Orthodox Minyan.  According to AARC member Sallygeorge Wright,  the meeting was an important opportunity for people who had never met before, who were involved in different community groups, to find out what each other are already doing and to exchange ideas. Goldman summed up the outcome, “People at the event were happy that there was a way to come together as Jews for issues that were not centered on Jews but which mattered to us as Jews nevertheless.”

Rabbi Sara Adler closed the meeting with a beautiful Prayer for Peace that she had written. This prayer will be published in the forthcoming book, Not By Might, a publication by Rabbis Against Gun Violence and edited by Rabbi Menachem Creditor.

Prayer for Peace
 
God of our mothers and fathers,
God of tenderness,
God of lovers, teachers and children,
may we see the day when love conquers fear
when compassion overrides judgment
and the echo of gunshot is heard no more.
 
Let a great peace wrap its arms around our country,
and hold us tight.
 
Unite us-- people of all races, religions,
orientations and identities
in a bond of true fellowship.
 
Teach us to respect difference
and take pride in one another.
 
Let us learn that diversity makes us stronger,
that the healthiest forests are filled
with a multitude of species and birdsong.
 
God on High, let us find consolation
and comfort under Your canopy of peace.
 
May the memories of those assaulted by violence
inspire us to mend our broken world.
 
Let us grind guns into garden tools,
bend our weapons into bridges.
 
May we learn war no more.
Come, let us write a new covenant of kindness
an end to the flood of tears.
 
Seal this promise in the sky,
a rainbow to part the clouds.
 

Rabbi Sara O’Donnell Adler is a chaplain at UM Health System. She was ordained by The Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1999 and received her
Clinical Pastoral Education at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA. Prior to joining the staff of UMHS in 2008, Rabbi Sara worked as one of the rabbis with the
MetroWest Jewish Health and Healing Center in West Orange, NJ.

Orlando, Adrienne Rich, Ethel Rosenberg, and Julia de Burgos

adrienneIt started last evening. I was watching (on facebook) the first “livestreamkabbalat shabbat service from Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), one of the oldest and largest LGBTQ synagogues in the world. The just-ordained (from the Reconstructionist seminary) Rabbi Marisa Elana James, who had interned at CBST, was introduced and congratulated. Rabbi James chose, in this gay pride week, and the first shabbat after the Orlando massacre of 49 at a gay dance club during Latinx night, to read a poem written by Adrienne Rich. Since I was sitting at the computer, I could quickly search on “Adrienne Rich” and the two words I remembered from the poem: “unleavened bread.” Ahh, yes, of course, from Sources (1983), which I could pull off my bookshelf:

from Sources XV

It’s an oldfashioned, an outrageous thing
To believe one has a “destiny”

— a thought often peculiar to those
who possess privilege—
 
but there is something else:   the faith
of those despised and endangered
 
that they are not merely the sum
of damages done to them:
 
have kept beyond violence the knowledge
arranged in patterns like kente-cloth
 
unexpected as in batik
recurrent as bitter herbs and unleavened bread
 
of being a connective link
in a long, continuous way
 
of ordering hunger, weather, death, desire
and the nearness of chaos.

My google search led, of course, to other poems. One which I felt I should immediately post to facebook because it spoke so directly to this moment:

What Kind of Times Are These

BY ADRIENNE RICH

There's a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows
     uphill
and the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadows
near a meeting-house abandoned by the persecuted
who disappeared into those shadows.

I've walked there picking mushrooms at the edge of dread, but 
     don't be fooled
this isn't a Russian poem, this is not somewhere else but here,
our country moving closer to its own truth and dread,
its own ways of making people disappear.

I won't tell you where the place is, the dark mesh of the woods
meeting the unmarked strip of light—
ghost-ridden crossroads, leafmold paradise:
I know already who wants to buy it, sell it, make it disappear.

And I won't tell you where it is, so why do I tell you
anything? Because you still listen, because in times like these
to have you listen at all, it's necessary
to talk about trees.

from  Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995 (W. W. Norton and Company Inc., 1995) and also published in The Fact of a Doorframe: Selected Poems 1950-2001  (2002).

This led me to thinking about another of Adrienne’s poems…but I couldn’t remember the title. All I could remember last night was a poem that mentioned Ethel Rosenberg, a window, a barn and had been published in the early 1990s when I worked with Adrienne on the journal Bridges.  My google search turned up a poem I knew it wasn’t (because it was published earlier, in 1981). But somehow, this too, was meaningful: I was reminded that tomorrow, June 19, 2016 , is the 63rd anniversary of the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Adrienne wrote this 1981 poem, “For Ethel Rosenberg,” remembering that the date in 1953 of their execution was a week before her marriage. After you read this post, take a moment and watch/listen to Adrienne read this poem.

Still searching for the window, the barn, I came across another of Adrienne’s poems, not the one I was looking for, but at this moment, right.  North American Time, written in 1983, was published in 1986 in Your Native Land, Your Life, the final stanza reads:

IX

In North America time stumbles on
without moving, only releasing
a certain North American pain.
Julia de Burgos wrote:
That my grandfather was a slave
is my grief; had he been a master
that would have been my shame.
A poet's words, hung over a door
in North America, in the year
nineteen-eighty-three. The almost-full moon rises
timeless speaking of change
out of the Bronx, the Harlem River
the drowned towns of the Quabbin
the pilfered burial mounds
the toxic swamps, the testing-grounds
and I start to speak again.

1983

In this youtube of Adrienne reading the poem, she tells us that Julia de Burgos was a Puerto Rican poet who died on the streets of New York in 1953. A little research and I find she died in early July, just weeks after the Rosenberg execution. I’m reminded that the Jewish Puerto Rican poet Aurora Levins Morales wrote  on facebook this week:

“Hardly anyone is talking about the fact that at least 23 of the people who died at the Pulse were Puerto Rican. That Central Florida is receiving 1000 Puerto Ricans a week fleeing from the disaster colonialism has wrought on us. That these beloved, mostly young people were not only targeted by homophobia. The man who killed them was a regular at that bar and he chose Latinx night. I will not stand for the racist aspect of this hate crime being whitewashed away. This was my familia. They were all doubly my cousins. Yes, everybody reach out to queer communities. Yes, everybody reach out to Muslim communities. But reach out to Latinx and specifically Puerto Rican communities, too. They were our children.”

JBMural-207x300You can find more of Julia de Burgos’ poetry in this bilingual edition. All of these connections across generations, places. I had to get them all down in one place. Thus this blog. I finally found the poem that sent me on this journey. It was hard to find online, but published in Dark Fields of the Republic: Poems 1991-1995, which I have on my bookshelf (I tell you this because I am happy to lend books):

Revolution in Permanence

(1953, 1993)

Through a barn window, three-quartered
the profile of Ethel Rosenberg
stares down past a shattered apple-orchard
into speechless firs.
Speechless this evening.   Last night
the whole countryside thrashed in lowgrade fever
under low swollen clouds
the mist advanced and the wind
tore into one thing then another
--you could think random but you know
the patterns are there—
a sick time, and the human body
feeling it, a loss of pressure,
an agitation without purpose . . .
Purpose?   Do you believe
all agitation has an outcome
like revolt, like Bread and Freedom?
—or do you hang on to the picture
of the State as a human body
—some people being heads or hearts
and others only hands or guts or legs?
But she—how did she end up here
in this of all places?
What she is seeing I cannot see,
what I see has her shape.
There’s an old scythe propped
in an upper window of the barn—
—does it call up marches of peasants?
what is it with you and this barn?
And, no, it’s not an old scythe,
it’s an old rag, you see how it twitches.
And Ethel Rosenberg? I’ve worried about her
through the liquid window in that damp place.
I’ve thought she was coughing, like me,
but her profile stayed still watching
what held her in that position.

1993

Finally, as I go to post this, I find out that on Monday June 20th, 2016, two days from now, The New Yorker magazine will publish a review of Rich’s just out Collected Poems 1950-2012 (WW Norton, June 2016). If only I’d had the new collection when I started writing this, I wouldn’t have had to spend the night searching google.

T’ruah’s new Handbook for Jewish Communities Fighting Mass Incarceration

Jewish Protest Signs

T’ruah has just published a Handbook for Jewish Communities Fighting Mass Incarceration.  I’ve been waiting for months for it to be available–171 pages of facts, figures, stories, strategies, and inspiration for Jewish communities who want to help end American mass incarceration.  There are 2.3 million people behind bars in American jails and prisons tonight–2 million more than when I was born.  Treating people like throwaways tramples on so much of what Judaism teaches; it is inconsistent with recognition of godliness in family, neighbors, and strangers alike.  I’m really happy to have this resource to help communities like ours think about whether we can be part of the opposition.

For each topic the handbook covers–and there are dozens, including Poverty and Mass Incarceration, School to Prison Pipeline, Prison Labor, Solitary Confinement, Barriers to Reentry–it offers statistics and background, relevant Jewish texts, and contemporary accounts.  It includes materials for text study (I’m really proud that one of the study units is based on a d’var torah about Jonah I wrote for AARC’s Yom Kippur service in 2013).  And it has suggestions for Jewish community action.

I was particularly moved by some of the advice the handbook give rabbis:

Here are some of the ways in which we can draw on our Jewish wisdom to help change the narrative:

  • Move the conversation away from “how do we punish” to “how can we facilitate teshuvah?”
  • Break down the false dichotomy between victims and perpetrators; acknowledge that all of us may be both at one point or another in our lives, and that society must protect all of us.
  • Have honest conversations within your communities, in interfaith groups, and in public about race and its impact on incarceration.
  • If you’ve visited congregants or other people in prison, or served as a prison chaplain, talk about these experiences (without sacrificing confidentiality, of course). Help your community see incarcerated individuals as creations b’tzelem Elohim—in the divine image.
  • Talk about the ways in which other societal issues that your community may encounter through your social action work can have an impact on imprisonment, or can be affected by imprisonment.
  • Speak openly about mental illness. This will both make your community feel safer for members living with mental illness or dealing with mentally ill family members, and will also allow for conversations about the relationship between mental illness and incarceration.
  • Offer a prophetic vision of what could be. Don’t let people wallow in despair—show a vision of how we can move forward.

I’ve been struggling, a little bit, with how to join up my own personal commitment to criminal justice reform with my Jewishness. I feel better equipped now that I’ve read this handbook, so I wanted to share it with my community.