Erring on the Side of Love

Kol Nidrei 5780 Sermon

By Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner
Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Toronto, 1990. I’m seven, in grade 2 at Bialik Hebrew Day School. My favourite class at school is art. Outside of school, I do gymnastics, which I mostly don’t like because I’m not good at it, and pottery, which I do like, because I am.

I’m not very outdoorsy but I like playing in our neighbourhood park. At the park I make a new friend, a Jewish girl my age, and we play together every few days.

One day I get to the park expecting to play and my new friend says to me: ‘Tatte says I can’t play with you anymore.’ Tatte is Yiddish for father – my friend is Orthodox and speaks Yiddish at home. She says: ‘I can’t play with you anymore because Tatte says you’re not Jewish.’

Not Jewish. My seven-year-old self found this so confusing. Didn’t my family go to shul every Shabbes? Didn’t we keep kosher? Didn’t we put our menorah in the front window on Chanukah, just like every other Jewish family on our street? 

I felt Jewish. And yet according to my friend’s father, I was not. 

That was the first time in my life I was told I wasn’t Jewish. But it wasn’t the last. Over the years other people said similar things to me — neighbors in Toronto, shopkeepers in New York, rabbis in Jerusalem. 

Thus far, in my life it’s been mostly Orthodox Jews who have questioned my Jewishness. But the Orthodox are certainly not the only Jews who invest energy in deciding who does and does not belong in Jewish community. 

Over the years I’ve heard many stories from friends, colleagues, congregants who have been told in ways subtle and unsubtle that they are not Jewish, or not Jewish enough, or are Jewishly suspect. My Reconstructionist colleague Rabbi Emily Cohen, who was raised in a committed Jewish household by a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother, was told by more traditional rabbinical schools that she’d have to convert before applying. My colleague Rabbi Shais Rishon, a black Orthodox Jew in New York, has been asked in Jewish spaces ‘how are you Jewish?’ so many times that he’s developed the response, “I’m fine, thank you, how are you, Jewish?” I’ve talked to converts whose decision to convert was met by suspicion and a profound lack of welcome. I’ve talked to off-the-derech Jews whose community cut them off after they stopped living an Orthodox lifestyle. I’ve talked to engaged couples – straight interfaith couples and queer Jewish couples – who had other rabbis tell them they were making a mistake in their choice of partner, and refused to marry them. 

If you’ve ever experienced this kind of scrutiny or rejection, you know how deeply wounding it is. 

Even if it’s not done out of malice, it hurts. It hurts to have someone deny that you belong. It hurts to be told you’re not welcome in a place that should feel like home. It can make it so that afterwards, even when you walk into a welcoming space, part of you is always expecting to be told: ‘You shouldn’t really be here.’ And maybe most damaging of all, this kind of scrutiny and rejection can plant seeds of doubt. It can make a person say to themselves: ‘Maybe I’m not really who I think I am. Maybe my home isn’t here.’

Unfortunately, this kind of boundary-policing has been going on in Jewish communities for millennia.

In part, it’s because Judaism began as a religion of otherness. Abraham, the first Jew, had a radical idea – that God was one, not many. It took Abraham smashing his father’s idols to get the point across: I’m different. I believe in a different God than you do.

Mitzvot – commandedness – helped ensure a connection to this different God. Mitzvot also ensured that Jews would behave like one another and unlike their non-Jewish neighbors. And to further assist in this project of radical religious otherness, Judaism’s religious leaders did their best to ensure that Jews would have limited contact with the non-Jewish world. 

The Torah largely forbade intermarriage with non-Israelite nations. Kashrut limited our dining options, and certain Talmudic rabbis forbade Jews from eating and drinking with non-Jews entirely. Medieval rabbis prohibited their community members from even entering non-Jewish houses of worship. And even into the 20th century, speaking primarily in Yiddish, Ladino, or Hebrew prevented Jews from developing close personal or business ties with their non-Jewish neighbors. 

As Jews, we have a long tradition of being different and keeping ourselves separate. This has required a strict policing of boundaries, done in the name of God and community. For those in the in-group who’ve refused to toe the party line – for those who have acted not-properly-Jewish – there’s a long tradition of excommunication, known as ‘karet’ – exiling transgressive Jews from their communities.

We can’t deny that one of the reasons Judaism has lasted so long is because historically, it has strongly policed the in-group’s borders. 

But this policing is always in service to the collective. In focusing on the whole, rather than its parts, Judaism hasn’t always taken as seriously the individual’s need for exploration, self-expression, or curiosity within a given religious community. 

Prioritizing the needs of the individual can mean making existing members temporarily uncomfortable, or even eventually shifting the group’s core identity. This can be expansive – it can have the effect of bringing in fresh, enlivening perspectives and shifting stagnant values or beliefs. But it’s also challenging to do and do well. 

So how does any Jewish community make these key decisions around belonging? In the tension between maintaining strict borders and being radically expansive; in the tension between keeping our identity intact and minimizing the individual wounds of scrutiny and rejection, what values might serve as our guide?  

In considering this question, I thought about various theories of group dynamics and social identity. But ultimately, I found inspiration in the centuries-old mystical tradition known as Kabbalah. 

Kabalah promotes the idea of ten sefirot, ten divine traits that manifest in different ways in God and our world.

Gevurah, one of these ten sefirot, is the emanation associated with judgment and limitation, law and strict justice. Gevurah in divine form appears many times in the bible – a God filled with anger, a God quick to punish. In individuals, gevurah is associated with the power to restrain one’s innate urge to bestow goodness on others when the recipient is judged to be unworthy of it. Naturally, communities that strongly self-police rely heavily on gevurah. And you may be unsurprised to hear that the emotional state that corresponds with gevurah is yirah, or fear.

The sefira of gevurah exists opposite the sefira of chesed. In people, chesed is associated with unconditional love and a willingness to stretch to accommodate the needs of the other. Chesed is what undergirded Abraham’s practice of welcoming strangers into his tent. Like Abraham reaching out, chesed is thought to be proactive – an expansive force that impels the soul to connect with what it outside itself. In cosmological terms, chesed is associated with the very first day of creation – with God’s need to create a world, filled with light.

The emotional state that corresponds with chesed is ahavah, love.

In classical Kabbalah, gevurah and chesed are meant to balance each other out in equal measure. And that makes sense to me. Our world needs love to temper justice, and boundaries to offer a container for love. 

But later Kabbalists came to believe that too much gevurah was actually the source of the world’s evil. They taught that the Sitra Achra, the evil inclination, is actually based in gevurah. That too much judgment is the cause of man’s inhumanity to man. 

So they proposed that we always aim for more chesed than gevurah. That we should err on the side of abundant love, rather than on the side of limits.

As modern-day professionals, parents, colleagues, friends, we know the value of setting limits. But I want you to consider with me, this evening, the value of community erring on the side of love. 

But why this evening? Why am I choosing Kol Nidrei to talk about this? 

Because at no other time is the Jewish belief in the value of love more obvious than during these High Holy Days.

Nine days ago we celebrated Rosh HaShanah. Anticipating Yom Kippur, also known as Yom HaDin, the Day of Judgement, we called out ‘Adonai Adonai el rachum vechanun erech apayim verav chesed ve’emet’ – we called out to a God of compassion, a God slow to anger, a God full of abundant love. We asked the most loving version of God we know to welcome us back and to remember us for good. We sang ‘aseh imanu tzedakah vachesed vehoshiaynu’ — treat us with generosity and love, and save us.

And then we blew the shofar. Why? According to one midrash, on Rosh Hashanah, God sits upon kisei hadin, a throne of strict judgment. But when we blow the shofar, God gets up from this throne of judgment and moves to the kisei rachamim, the seat of compassion. And that is the place from which God welcomes us on Yom Kippur – from a place of love.  (Lev Rabbah 29:3)

During these High Holy Days, we call on God to move towards love because we are absolutely clear that love is what will save us. 

We are clear on that. So why not model our community on that same call? Why not make love the grounding principle of our tradition, opening our metaphorical tents on all sides? And not just during the Yamim Noraim, but throughout the year. Because let’s be real. We’re not only being saved or saving one another on Yom Kippur. It happens in ways large and small in how we reach out to one another or turn away from one another throughout the year.

Many of you have heard by now that this year, our congregation has undertaken to remodel itself in accordance with the values of radical welcoming. This community’s leadership has asked itself, what would it take to ensure that every person feels welcome in this community? Because we’re a community made of human beings, we’ve already missed the mark a couple times. But we’re going to keep at it. We’re going to keep learning and trying. 

And we need your help. If we’re going to create a community based on chesed, we need to hear from you: What would it take to make you feel welcomed? What would it take to help you feel like you fully belonged?

If there are ways that this particular community can grow to serve you better – please let us know. Or if there are ways I can help you strategize about how to make your other Jewish communities more welcoming – come talk to me. And if there are parts of you that are unsure whether you belong here – please let us know how we can build trust with you. So that you feel that you belong, and you know that you are beloved.

I began this sermon talking about my experience of being told as a young person: You’re not Jewish. You don’t belong. 

And now – I’m a rabbi. And rabbis have a long tradition of serving as gatekeepers of Jewish communities.  

And so I want to take the opportunity, this evening, with so many of you gathered here, to make myself clear: As a rabbi and as a human being I place more value on chesed than gevurah. It is more important to me to open the gates wide, to be asked to stretch, to be invited to do better, and to commit to figuring it out, than to tell someone they don’t belong. 

Why? 

Because I want every person here to feel beloved by their community. 

I want you to see yourself as not at the margins, but at the center. 

And I want you to know that this messy enterprise of life is made richer and more complex and more beautiful because of how you choose to engage with your Jewish community.

If you come here this evening bearing an old wound of being told that you didn’t belong in one Jewish community or another: because one or both of your parents weren’t Jewish; because of who you loved or married; because of your family; because you are single; because of your body’s abilities; because of the colour of your skin; because of your gender, because of your age; because of your finances, because of where you were born; because of your politics; because of your views on Israel and Palestine; because of your level of observance or knowledge of Hebrew or Jewish prayer; because of whether or how you believe in God; because of any variety of your uniqueness:

To each of you here ever turned away from Jewish community – that community sinned against you. You deserved better. You deserved a Judaism that centered you and a Jewish community where you felt like you belonged. A community that knew intuitively and immediately how much a part of it you were. And I’m sorry if you were ever made to believe otherwise.

Even on these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, we know implicitly that more love, more acceptance, more gentleness is what will get us closer to God and to one another. So my blessing for us this Yom Kippur and the year to come: may we be an inspiration to one another and even to the Holy One above by erring on the side of loving and being loved. Ken yehi ratzon.

Remembering For Life, Being Remembered for Life

Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon 5780

By Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Why are we here?

I don’t mean that in the sense of why do we exist – although, of all the times to ask that question, Rosh HaShanah would be a reasonable one. But you can relax. I’m not thinking quite that meta. 

I mean, why are we here, in this building, this evening? Where does Rosh HaShanah come from?

In Chapter 23 of Leviticus, we find God saying to Moses: “Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: ‘These are My fixed times, the fixed times of the Lord, which you shall proclaim as sacred occasions.’” Essentially, God is saying: “Here’s the Jewish calendar.” The first holiday listed is Passover, then Shavuot, then Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot. And each of these sacred occasions is accompanied by a verse or two on how to observe it. 

For Rosh HaShanah, it is written: “On the first day of the month, you shall observe a day of rest, a memorial proclaimed with the blowing of the shofar, a holy convocation” (Leviticus 23:24).

So we know when Rosh HaShanah is supposed to take place – the first of the month of Tishrei. And we know it’s meant to be a holy day, which means, no work. And we know it’s meant to be a day of remembering – a “zichron” – announced by a shofar.  

What are we supposed to remember?

The simplest answer, of course, is that we’re supposed to remember the past year. Rosh HaShanah opens up the ten Days of Awe, during which we recall, reflect, and repent, so that we don’t repeat our missed marks from the past year.

But we’re not the only ones remembering on this holiday. God is also remembering.

During services tomorrow, we’ll sing: “Zokhrenu l’hayyim” – God, remember us for life and inscribe us in the Book of Life. And we’ll add, “Zocher yetsurav…” – God of Mercy, remember all your creations with compassion. 

Based on how many times in the Rosh HaShanah liturgy we ask God to remember our deeds and judge us for good, it seems like we’re not convinced it’s a sure thing. So as an added strategy, we also ask God to remember that we have a relationship that goes way back. 

We begin the Rosh HaShanah Amidah with, “Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu ve’Elohai avoteinu ve’imoteinu…” – “Blessed are You, Holy One, God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah.” And then throughout the Amidah we repeatedly refer to God as “Elohainu v’Elohai avoteinu v’imoteinu” – Our God and God of our ancestors – and ask God to go easy on us based on the merit of their good deeds. 

On the surface, this strategy seems not unreasonable. To be a little glib, you could call it cosmic nepotism. We’re saying to God, “Hey, you knew my great great great etc. grandfather… he was a good guy. So I’m probably a good guy, too, no?”

But thinking about it more deeply, this a strategy based on a flawed premise. Because if you’ve ever read more than one or two chapters of Genesis alone, you’ve realized that our biblical ancestors had profoundly messy and morally complicated lives. 

On Rosh HaShanah alone, we read plenty of examples of our ancestors’ misdeeds. 

The Torah reading for the first day of Rosh HaShanah is the story of how Sarah orders Abraham to cast out Hagar and her son Ishmael. Abraham is troubled, but he listens to Sarah. So Hagar and Ishmael are sent out into the desert with just a little bread and water. They survive only because God intervenes to save them. 

And the Torah reading on the second day of Rosh HaShanah? That’s the story of Akedat Yitzchak, of the near-murder of Isaac. Abraham listens to what he believes is the voice of God, telling him to sacrifice his and Sarah’s child. Abraham and Isaac journey to Mount Moriah, and Abraham binds Isaac and places him on an altar and is about to cut Isaac’s throat, and then an angel intervenes to save them. 

In both of these stories as they appear in our Torah, there’s no acknowledgement of misdeed. There’s no apology. And there’s no recompense.

And Abraham and Sarah were just the first of our complicated ancestors. Their children, and their children’s children, and on and on through the generations, morally missed the mark again and again. Our biblical ancestor fought amongst themselves. They stole land and birthrights. They lied, and cheated, and sold siblings into slavery.

So why do we remind God of our connection to these ancestors when we pray on Rosh HaShanah? Couldn’t this actually backfire? 

Here’s the thing: We don’t know the impact of reminding God of our ancestors, because we don’t know God – God is inherently unknowable. We have no idea what it means for God to remember us, or our ancestors. 

What we do know, though, is our own experience of remembering. 

We know how it feels to remember our flawed ancestors. And it can be hard to be reminded of this complicated legacy and the fact that it’s a part of our cannon.

So what we do with this flawed family tree? How do we sit with these difficult ancestors?

Well, Jews throughout history have been trying to figure this out. I would say these efforts typically fall into one of the 3 categories.

The first category is a kind of apologetics, reframing our ancestor’s actions as unequivocally positive. This is something the rabbis of the Talmud did often. To them, Abraham wasn’t a man who almost murdered his son; Abraham was a God-fearing person who somehow knew all along that he’d never actually be allowed to go through with it. And Sarah, abusive towards Hagar? According to the rabbis, Sarah was morally unblemished (Bereshit Rabbah 58:1). She only wanted what was best for her son.

This drive to reframe, to say that what seems bad is actually morally unobjectionable, is older than the Torah itself. It goes back to earliest human history, and is rooted in the youngest, most tender places of our collective and individual psyches. In psychological terms, we could say that this drive comes from the child self, who needs the parent, on whom they’re reliant, to be completely good and blameless. Rather than finding our ancestors at fault, we twist the stories and ourselves into knots in order to see them as only good.

The second tendency is to look at the stories of our ancestors and focus only on their sins. Many Jews throughout history have done just that – have said “look at these flawed characters” or “look at this abusive God.” And based on the painful moral ambiguity of our inherited stories, some have said: “I want none of this.” And have walked away from God, or from Jewish practice, or from Jewish community.

You could say that this second tendency is rooted in the collective teenage psyche. It’s the need to push away from home. It’s the need to individuate, find independence, and critique the status quo so that we can emerge into a fuller perspective on the world and our place within it.

So. The first option aligns with the needs of the child-self: My people are actually good. The second option aligns with the teenage self: My people are actually bad.

And the third option? The third comes from the integrated or adult psyche. From that vantage point, we look back at our ancestors and their misdeeds. At the teshuvah they did manage. And at what they left undone. We notice how flawed they were. And also, how hard they were trying. And finally, we notice that there is much for us learn: from their values, from their mistakes, from their stories.

You may have gathered, by now, that this doesn’t only apply to Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. This isn’t just about our distant ancestors. It also applies to our own more recent ancestors. Even the ones still with us – the family we called earlier today to wish a Shanah Tova to, or the ones we visited this past summer, or last year.

For me, this time of year – this time of remembering ancestors – brings back memories of my own grandfather, the way he shuffled down the synagogue aisle on Rosh HaShanah, the way his hand, shaking with Parkinsons, felt in mine as I helped him to his seat. I remember his sweet smile, his playful personality. 

I remember my grandmother making kugel for us for the holiday meal, a sweet noodle kugel with raisins, and my grandfather sprinkling extra sugar on top, the shaking of his hands helping to spread the sugar evenly. 

I remember standing next to my father in shul on Yom Kippur, and how he draped his tallit over my sister and I during the priestly blessing, and how protected and safe I felt. 

And, in my remembering, I also remember how my father, who didn’t like his rabbi, would sit in the front row during Rosh HaShanah services and blatantly read a book during the rabbi’s sermon. And I remember how my grandmother would greet us with suffocating hugs when we came over for dinner, her anxious love permeating everything.

On Rosh HaShanah, we remember. Our distant ancestors, and the ones closer.

And as we remember, we also choose. Do we recall only the good, and cover over the bad? Do we remember only the bad, and forget the good? Or can we remember with compassion and moral clarity, with a gentle eye on the course of history and how it shaped our ancestors and us? 

In our liturgy, we sing again and again, “Zochreinu lechayyim” – remember us for life. How can we remember in a way that enlivens us? How can we remember the ways our ancestors missed the mark, but still know that we have arrows to string and release in the direction of love? How can we remember so that the memories are more lesson than burden? How can we remember, for life?

This whole sermon, I’ve been talking about remembering the past. But the reality is that one day, we, too, will become ancestors. At some point, we will no longer be doing the remembering. We will be the ones remembered, by our children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, friends, colleagues, students, all whose lives we’ve touched. 

What might we do with the knowledge that we will one day be remembered?

I want to close by sharing with you the inspiration for this evening’s sermon. A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my office with Sam Ball, a young congregant whose bar mitzvah is coming up in November. We were reading Sam’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha. Lech Lecha recounts how a pregnant Hagar ran away from home because of how badly Sarah treated her.

As we read through the story of Sarah and Abraham and their mistreatment of Hagar, Sam said to me: “Abraham and Sarah really should’ve thought about what their descendants would think of them.”

On Rosh HaShanah, we remember. To reshape and reframe the old stories so that they enliven us. And, Sam reminded me and us that we are at our best when we also remember that we are accountable to the future, when we live holding the question, “Who do my descendants need me to become?” 

We too will become ancestors one day. And the way we live our lives will be a lesson for generations to come.

My simple blessing for us, as we enter this holiday of remembering: May we remember, for life. May we act this coming year in such a way as to inscribe ourselves in the Book of Life. And when the time comes, may we be remembered, for life. And let us say, Amen.

What Does it Mean To Be Welcoming: Appropriate Touch and Consent

By Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

As a people, Jews are pretty hands-on—literally. Some of us greet each other with kisses; some hug to offer condolences or support; many of us gesticulate when we talk. The hands-on approach extends to our sacred objects, such as touching the Torah’s mantle on Shabbat or kissing our fingers after touching a mezuzah.

In our congregation, touch is woven into the fabric of our community. On Friday nights we invite everyone to “touch the challah or touch someone who’s touching the challah.” At the conclusion of Friday night services, we put our arms around one another and bless our family and friends. During Havdalah, we sway together in a circle. Even in passing, some of us hug hello and goodbye.

Touch has the power to nourish and comfort, to stabilize, and to share strength. We know that touch is vital to our emotional and even physical wellbeing. Yet it is equally important to acknowledge that touch is not always welcomed, even in congregations that experience connection and holiness in embodied ways. 

The value of being welcoming is at the core of our congregation. So how do we make sure that everyone feels safe when we reach out (literally and metaphorically) to one another? 

This can look like asking, “Can I put my hand on your shoulder?” and then acting on the reply. But it’s not just that: it won’t work unless we can hear a “no” without experiencing it as judgment or rejection. It also requires us to name our boundaries. We need to get comfortable saying things like, “Thank you for asking; I’d rather not be touched,” or “I’m not comfortable with your hand on my waist; please touch my shoulder instead.”

This is challenging work. Reacting to a “no” with grace and acceptance requires both gentleness and a leaning into our Chesed side. Saying “no” requires a lot of Gevurah, as well as trust that we’ll be heard. It’s challenging, but it’s vital for creating holy community together.

In thinking about values around welcoming and welcomed touch, I was inspired by an unlikely source: the ultra-Orthodox custom of shomer negiah. This phrase literally translates as “being watchful” (shomer) in matters of touch (negiah), but the phrase has come to refer to the custom of avoiding direct physical contact with members of the opposite sex. 

I feel some discomfort with Orthodoxy’s ideology and praxis of shomer negiah, not least because it tends to turn women into objects of desire and reinforces a binaried view of gender. But there is also something beautiful in the root concept of shomer negiah: taking a moment to think about the person we’re about to reach out to.

A commitment to shomer negiah Recon-style would mean a commitment to forethought, imagination, honesty, and respect. In taking care with our touch, we are better able to take care of ourselves and each other. 

Moving forward, I want to commit to asking you before I hug you or touch your shoulder. If I forget, or I touch you in a way that causes unease, I hope you will feel comfortable reminding me. 

This is the opening of a discussion, rather than the definitive word. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can be transparent and caring as we navigate being embodied and in community together. May we be blessed to continue cocreating trust, affection, and welcoming for all.

Rabbi Ora on Elul

Written by Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

This year, the Hebrew month of Elul begins September 1 — a nice coinciding of the secular and Jewish calendars. I think of Elul as a kind of pumping-the-brakes on the freewheeling expansiveness of summer; even though it’s usually still warm outside, Elul is a whispered reminder: Fall is coming. Slow down. Get a little quieter. And begin turning inwards. 

Why? Because there is work to be done.

It’s tradition to dedicate the 29 days of Elul to reflection, study, and preparation for the coming Days of Awe. Elul challenges us to use each day to re-connect with our values and attune to the yearning of our souls.

Conceptually, the idea is noble, but acting on it is a bit more challenging. Here are a few resources to help you get started: 

  • Learn more about Elul from Rabbi Yael Ridberg at Reconstructing Judaism.
  • Psalm 27 (“Achat Sha’alti”) is traditionally recited every morning in Elul. Here’s Rabbi Brant Rosen’s interpretation of Psalm 27 .
  • Listen to a special episode from the Judaism Unbound podcast, Unbounding Elul.
  • Here’s a simple calendar that helps you set a single intention for Elul and track it throughout the month.
  • Thinking ahead? Sign up now to receive a daily email prompt for reflection during the 10 days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.
  • Is your favorite part of the High Holy Days the music? Here are 2 new niggunim we’ll be using this year – you can get a head start on learning them by clicking the links below:

A Note From Rabbi Ora Before Her Vacation

On July 19th, I’ll be packing my tent and hiking boots into my Subaru and driving west. First to Chicago, where I’ll be officiating the baby naming of Rabbi Shelley Goldman and Kieran Kiley’s newest family addition. Then on to Montana, to meet up with my friend Steve and spend two weeks exploring the mountains of Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks.

Thinking about my upcoming trip from a Jewish perspective, I started to notice just how many references to mountains appear in our liturgy. 

On Friday nights for Kabbalat Shabbat, we sometimes sing from Psalm 98, which speaks of how “the rivers clap their hands and the mountains sing in joy.” On Shabbat morning, we often sing Esah einai el he’harim from Psalm 121: “I turn my eyes to the mountain; from where will my help come?” During the Hallel portion of the Passover seder, we sing Psalm 114, that depicts a world in which nature becomes topsy-turvy as “mountains skip like rams and hills like sheep.” And many Psalms begin with the opening Shir ha’maalot, indicating that the forthcoming psalm is a “song of ascents,” literally a “song of going-up.”

In the Psalms, mountains are a place to aspire to; mountains are a place to get lost in and to look for help from; and mountains are part of the magnificent natural landscape that dwarfs in comparison to God’s power, even as we feel tiny relative to the colossal peaks. But in our tradition, mountains also indicate the human capacity for transformation.

According to the Torah, we became the nation of Israel at the base of a mountain, and committed to an ongoing relationship with God there. To reconstruct that tradition, then, every mountain might be a site of potential revelation! At the very least, mountains are a reminder of the importance of stretching beyond ourselves

For me, the beauty of mountains is their steadiness and how they’re blanketed in beauty; mountains are a reminder of what John O’Donohue calls the importance of “slow time.”

What about for you? What do you see as the Jewish connection to mountains? Have you had a profound/spiritual experience on a mountain? Please feel free to share below.

What is Tikkun Leil Shavuot?

By Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

The evening of Shavuot finds Jews around the world gathering in synagogues and learning through the night, often fueled by coffee and cheesecake.

This practice of all-night Torah study is known as ‘tikkun leil Shavuot.’ The tradition dates back to 16th century Tzfat; it’s said that the famous kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria (more commonly known as the Ari) instituted the practice as a ‘tikkun’ – correction or repair – for an ancient error.

‘Tikkun’ is a familiar first half of the modern phrase ‘tikkun olam’ – that is, healing or repairing the world through acts of social, political, and climate justice. But what breach are we repairing on the night (‘leil’) of Shavuot?

Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Israelites following 49 days of rigorous spiritual preparation (the Omer). According to one midrash, the night before the giving of the Torah, the Israelites did what anyone tries to do before an important event – they turned in early for a good night’s sleep. This seemingly innocent decision, however, led to embarrassing consequences. The next morning, when it came time for the Torah to be given, the base of Mount Sinai was empty. The entire Jewish people had slept in. The midrash even recounts that Moses had to wake the Israelites with a shofar, causing G-d to lament, “Why have I come and no one is here to receive me?” (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:12b)

In order to rectify this ancient mistake, the Ari instituted a custom of all-night learning: we remain awake to show that, unlike our heavy-lidded ancestors at Sinai, we are ready to receive Torah and God.

This midrash may not sit comfortably with all of us. Maybe we don’t like the idea of being burdened by our ancestor’s errors, or maybe we simply want to be motivated to learn by something other than correction.

It’s customary to learn from the Oral Torah (Mishnah and Talmud) on Shavuot, rather than from the Torah itself. I think there’s a lesson here: in coming together to learn on Shavuot, we’re doing more than simply correcting an ancient mistake; we are adding our voices to a millenia-old tradition of oral learning, interpretation, and argumentation. On Shavuot, we add to our tradition by offering each other new pathways to accessing wisdom. In this sense, every Shavuot we who learn are contributing to ‘tikkun olam’ – to repairing the frayed threads of our world.

What is AARC up to for Shavuot?

Tikkun Leil Shavuot Special: Kehillat Israel Comes to Ann Arbor!

Saturday, June 8

This year we will enjoy a special celebration for Shavuot in collaboration with members of Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist congregation in Lansing.

Kehillat Israel members will spend the afternoon exploring Ann Arbor, and have invited us to join them! If you’d like to participate in an ecological study walk in the Arb led by Rabbi Michael Zimmerman (4-5 pm) and an early dinner at Zingermans (5:15-6:15 pm), sign up here.

Tikkun Leil Shavuot (6:30-9:30 pm at the JCC) will have multiple learning opportunities for adults and teens-and-tweens (Grade 5 and up).

The schedule for adults is:     

 6:15 pm – Gather at the JCC

6:30-7:30 pm – Choose 1 of 2 study sessions    

7:30-8:00 pm – Cheesecake and schmoozing    

8:00-9:00 pm – Choose 1 of 2 study sessions    

9:00-9:30 pm – Jewish summer camp-style Havdalah (led by our teens)

Tentative list of adult ed sessions:    

Ken Harrow – The Events at Sinai    

Rabbi Michael Zimmerman – The Torah of the Green New Deal    

Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner – Abortion and Judaism   

Clare Kinberg – Jewish Time

The schedule for teens:

Games, food, fun and a play! Concurrent to the adult study session on Shavuot, we will have two sessions for young people, ages ~ 9- 16. Our Beit Sefer G’dolim class created two pin ball games that are ready to roll! There is a puzzle board game special for Shavuot, a skit and planning for an end of the evening Havdalah. Beit Sefer G’dolim teacher Aaron Jackson will be leading the youth along with teachers from KI in Lansing. Bring the kids for a fun evening, with some learning, too!

If you plan on attending the Shavuot program, please sign up here. If your tween/teen plans on attending, please sign them up here.

How We Are Celebrating Mimouna This Year

By: Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Mimouna is a community celebration that can be traced back to medieval Morocco. Leading up to Passover, Moroccan Jews would turn over their flour, yeast and grain to their Muslim neighbors. On the afternoon of the last day of Passover, these neighbors would show up with gifts of flour, honey, milk, butter, and green beans to be used to prepare post-Passover chametz dishes. That evening, Jews would host a Mimouna meal, sharing cakes, candies, and sweetmeats with their Muslim neighbors.

Last year, AARC held a Mimouna seder, during which we asked ourselves what relationships we already have with our local Muslim communities, and what relationships we want to cultivate.

The massacre at Tree of Life last fall, the massacre in Christchurch weeks ago, and most recently the Easter massacre in Sri Lanka remind us that (to paraphrase the seder’s Vehi She’Amda prayer) in every generation extremists will attempt to sow terror into the heart of religious communities.

The antidote to terror is togetherness. On Saturday night, we’ll have a guided conversation about growing allyship and friendship with our Muslim neighbors. Come with your ideas and questions! Sign up here to attend.

Passover and Counting the Omer

By: Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Beginning the second night of Passover, Jews around the world will begin counting the omer. The omer is counted every day for 7 weeks, ending with the holiday of Shavuot.

The 49 day-period between Passover and Shavuot marks two kinds of movement through time: the period of time between the first barley offering and the first wheat offering during the Temple era, and the transition from slavery to spiritual liberation.

During the Passover seder we recall the moment when our ancestors took their freedom. Although the Exodus happened in a matter of hours (hence the under-cooked matzah), Jewish tradition teaches that it took considerably longer for the Israelites to truly feel free; only once they received the Torah on Shavuot were the Israelites able to conceive of their role in redemption.

In Michigan, we’re far away from the wheat and barley harvests of Israel, as well as far from the experience of being enslaved. But as spring unfolds for us, counting the omer can help us shake off the stiffness of winter and recommit to the work of tikkun hanefesh (healing the soul) and tikkun olam (healing the world).

Some resources for counting the omer this year:

A brief meditation and exercise for each day from Rabbi Simon Jacobson

Daily themes from a variety of writers on RitualWell

More apps, books, and websites to help you count the omer

What To Call Your Rabbi?

Written By: Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

When I first came to be the rabbi of this holy community 17 months ago, a number of you asked what you should call me: Rabbi Nitkin-Kaner? Rabbi Ora? Reb Ora? Just ‘Rabbi’? Just ‘Ora’? It was my first congregational role post-ordination, and I was still adapting to my new title. I also wanted to be open to what each of you was most comfortable calling me. And so I likely said to you, “please call me whatever you feel most comfortable with,” with a default suggestion of ‘Rabbi Ora.’

17 months in, and several of you have continued to check in about how to address me. With a firmer sense now of my preference and its roots, I’m sharing this learning with you today:

In the near-2,000-year history of the role of rabbi, women have officially occupied this role for less than a century. The first modern woman rabbi that we know of, R. Regina Jonas, was ordained by Germany’s Reform movement in 1935. The next time Reform Judaism ordained a woman rabbi was in the United States in 1972, with R. Sally Priesand. Our Reconstructionist movement ordained its first woman rabbi, R. Sandy Eisenberg-Sasso, in 1974; then the Conservative movement with R. Amy Eilberg in 1985; and in 2009, Sara Hurwitz became the first Orthodox woman given the title of ‘maharat.’

One could argue that 5 decades of women rabbis in North America has given our Jewish communities sufficient time to get comfortable relating to rabbis who are not cisgender men. But the reality is that systemic misogyny (both in historical Judaism and in the non-Jewish world) continues to inform how women rabbis are regarded; women rabbis are consistently afforded less respect and confidence than our male counterparts.

In December 2017, Rabbi Jordie Gerson published an article in the Forward entitled “I Am the Rabbi, Not His Assistant: We Must Fight the Erasure of Female Clergy.” R. Gerson shares example after example of women and men, Jews and non-Jews, clergy and laypeople assuming she could not possibly be ‘the’ solo rabbi or speak from a position of grounded, educated Jewish authority.

R. Gerson writes: “This is demoralizing and exhausting. And it erases slow and painful advances it’s taken millennia to overcome – in a tradition whose right wing still scoffs at women rabbis.”

R. Gerson goes on to assure the reader that female clergy across faith lines share these experiences, including consistently being called by only their first names in situations where male clergy are called ‘Rabbi’ or ‘Reverend’ or ‘Imam’ [Last-name].

On the heels of R. Gerson’s article, Rabbi Dr. Kari Hofmaister Tuling published an article in the Forward entitled, “Want to Help Women Rabbis Get the Respect They Deserve? Here’s a List.” The very first point on the list: “Refer to every colleague as ‘Rabbi’ [Last-Name] regardless of how cute or young or approachable or bubbly or fun she is.”

R. Dr. Hofmaister Tuling’s suggestion is an invitation and a challenge to all of us to invest in progress and claim respect for women clergy everywhere.

And, it’s also important to recognize that every community is different and has unique values and needs.

In Reconstructionist Judaism, and particularly in our community, we pride ourselves on being warm, welcoming, and somewhat informal. Given that, I suspect it would be overly distancing and stiff to be called ‘Rabbi Nitkin-Kaner’ by our members. So how do we balance a commitment to warmth with a commitment to allyship; how do we balance the value of closeness with a sense of confidence in the rabbi’s role?

There is power in naming and in being named. In light of what I’ve shared with you, I invite you to continue empowering me to be your rabbi, in the fullness of what that looks like within our community and beyond. And to answer the title’s question? Please, call me ‘Rabbi Ora.’

Our mishkanic congregation: Rabbi Ora’s dvar at her Installation

Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

Shabbat Shalom.

Those of you who were at the membership meeting two weeks ago may remember that Greg, in his role as outgoing treasurer, shared his opinion that our congregation is better off financially for not having our own building, and that we should never actually build our own synagogue.

The saying goes, two Jews, three opinions. That’s certainly true in our community, and of course we could debate the merits of us having or not having our own building. But I don’t bring this up to open up that conversation today, or to challenge Greg’s opinion. I bring it up because Greg’s remarks, to me, were an invitation to consider what it means to be a congregation – literally, a place where people congregate – without a synagogue?

What is a congregation without a permanent physical home?

As I reflected, I realized that this question – sparked by one member of this community – had already been answered by another member. Two months ago, when we gathered in October to learn more about Reconstructionist Judaism, Marcy called our congregation ‘mishkanic’ – that is, modeled on the mishkan, the biblical portable resting-place for God.

And that’s what I wanted to explore with you today. Beyond simply being without a physical home, what might that mean, to be a mishkanic congregation?

First,we should go back to the source. What was the mishkan?

The mishkan was a portable sanctuary that the Israelites carried through the desert for 40 years. Practically speaking, the mishkan was a large tent. It was made from gold-plated acacia wood and various curtains and tapestries. The mishkan housed a menorah, an altar for sacrifices, and, inside the kodesh hakodashim, the holy of holies, an ark containing the two sets of tablets of the ten commandments, both the broken and the intact, and a space between two golden cherubim where the spirit of God would rest.

The mishkan was built to travel. There were six special wagons used to transport it. Each time the Israelites moved en masse, the ark would be carefully dismantled, and then reassembled at each new camp site. And you thought camping on Memorial Day weekend was logistically challenging.

So the mishkan is a portable sanctuary, a place for holiness to travel alongside our ancestors. How did it come to exist?

In Exodus Chapter 25, parshat Terumah, God lays out the plan for constructing the mishkan. God says to Moses: “Tell the children of Israel to bring Me an offering; of every man that gives it willingly with his heart you shall take My offering.” The Israelites are invited to contribute previous metals, fine cloths, and furs to construct the walls of the mishkan. Not only are these donations not compulsory, but they are acceptable to and accepted by God only when the donation is rooted in a generosity of heart.

The mishkan was built purely through volunteer effort. It was constructed out of love, of materials freely and willingly given.

And our mishkanic congregation? It also came together out of volunteer energy. AARC began as a havurah, a group of dear ones who came together to pray and learn and celebrate holy moments. And as this community has transitioned from a havurah to a congregation, we still rely on, we’re still rooted, in a generosity of heart that means ongoing investment of time and energy and care from members. And, like with the mishkan, our many sacred objects came from the hands of our incredible artists and artisans. Our Torah table, aron, ner tamid, Torah cover, decorative tapestries, yad – these are all objects of beauty that exemplify Hiddur Mitzvah, commandment to further beautify the sacred.

The mishkan was a sacred space that housed beautiful objects. And the mishkan was made to be portable. And anyone who’s ever helped with set up for services – anyone who’s wheeled the siddur cart from our storage closet, or helped transport our sacred objects to the Unitarian Universalist Church for High Holy Days – can attest to our portability, and the effort that comes with being portable. But being portable also means being able to be flexible to meet the needs of an evolving community. Being portable means lighting Chanukah candles in different members’ homes every night of the holiday; celebrating Passover seders in each other’s homes; building and sleeping in a sukkah on a member’s farm.

And being portable means not just that our things can be moved, but that we, too, are open to movement, to change. Throughout the life of this congregation thus far, there have been new worship spaces, new forms of leadership, both rabbinic and lay, a new name, new members, new collaborators within the broader Jewish and non-Jewish community. As a mishkanic congregation we don’t have to be rigid; we can be not just open to growth, but to hold it as a Jewish and a Reconstructionist value.

When God first spoke to Moses about the construction of the miskhan, God said: ‘Va’asuli mikdash veshachanti betocham.’ ‘Make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell within it.’ When I’ve spoken about this verse in the past, I’ve pointed out how ‘betocham’ is grammatically odd here. It’s commonly translated as the singular, sanctuary, but actually is plural. If we look at the text, we see that God isn’t saying, ‘Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell in that sanctuary.’ God says, ‘Make me a sanctuary – and through your actions, by building this portable holy place, out of love, with a commitment to beauty and growth, I will come to dwell among you, within each of you.’

The physical mishkan takes a back seat to the act of building it. It’s the action undertaken, the creation itself that opens up the hearts of the Israelites to be a dwelling place for God.

This pasuk/verse is revolutionary. It takes holiness out of the context of space and even time and locates it in relationship. Holiness – the indwelling of God – becomes the outcome of a commitment to growth, to openness, and to being in relationship with one another.

If we are, as Marcy suggested, and I agree, mishkanic, then as a community we are the place where holiness resides. We, coming together, figuring out how to be a large, messy, loving family, create a space for God to come in.

I want to acknowledge what a blessing it’s been for me to enter into and be a part of this holy community this past year and a half – a community that is committed to growth, to openness, to flexibility, to relationships, to justice, to learning, and to beauty. I feel lucky to have been so joyfully and completely welcomed throughout the past 1.5 years and today. And thank you for embarking on this relationship of trust with me. Thank you for you trusting me to be your rabbi.

Before I close, I want to acknowledge that the Torah that I referenced this morning is not from Vayigash, from this week’s Torah portion – it’s not even from the book that we’re currently in! The building of the mishkan takes place in Exodus, rather than towards the end of Genesis. But, because everything in the Torah is connected: In this week’s Torah portion, we read of Jacob traveling down to Egypt to see his long-lost son Joseph and to settle there. And in a midrash on this parsha, from Midrash Tanchuma, we learn that Jacob, as he prepared for his journey, collected seeds of the acacia tree in Canaan. And when he arrived in Egypt, he planted them there, and told his children and grandchildren that hundreds of years in the future, after their descendants had been enslaved and liberated, they would need the wood from these acacia trees to construct a mishkan in the desert.

So my simple blessing for this community, at this moment in our congregation’s history, looking to the past, dwelling in the present, and looking towards the future: May we remember and celebrate the many moments of holy community that have led to the present. May we continue to create a resting place for each other and for holiness to enter. And, like our forefather Jacob, may we be visionaries of the future: may our actions, our learning, and our commitment to community plant seeds of holiness for generations to come.

Amen.