What Does it Mean To Be Welcoming: Gender Inclusivity

This blog post is the first in a three-part series exploring what it means for a congregation to be truly welcoming. Each week we will explore a different topic: gender inclusivity, welcoming people of all (dis)abilities, and appropriate touch.

Walking into a place of worship, it’s possible to take our welcome for granted, but that has not always been the case (and continues not to be, in some communities) for LGBTQIA and genderqueer/non-binary Jews. For those of us who are not cisgender, entering new spaces can cause us to feel uncertain how we will be treated. While a community might fervently believe that it is accepting of others, newcomers might not perceive this spirit of acceptance without gestures of explicit welcome.

Since biblical times, Jews have carried on a tradition of engaging with various expressions of gender. In fact, Jewish texts contain references to six different genders.

  • Androgenos – one who has both male and female characteristics
  • Tumtum – one of uncertain or undecided gender
  • Aylonit – one who is born female and transitions to male
  • Saris – one who is born male and transitions to female
  • Male – male biology and identifying
  • Female – female biology and identifying

Because Modern English typically insists upon gendered personal pronouns, we can find ourselves searching for workarounds to accommodate cultural understandings of genders beyond “he” and “she.” Modern English usage often leads us to pause mid-sentence or mid-thought to reconsider the assumptions about gender we are about to make. Just as our Jewish ancestors developed a lexicon to include various expressions of gender, we must do the same in our language.

If we wish to be more welcoming, being mindful of pronoun preferences is a good place to start. When we introduce ourselves, we might add our own chosen pronoun; for example, “Hi, my name is Gillian, you can use she/her pronouns when referring to me.” When we introduce someone new, we might say, “Sally this is Newbie; Newbie – what pronouns do you prefer?” This signals that we are not taking our gender expressions for granted and welcome others to do the same.

AARC will be offering pronoun stickers to add to our member name tags. These little stickers will help all of us avoid any assumptions and assure a special welcome to those whose pronouns are often misused. The new stickers will be on the welcome table beginning at this Friday’s Kabbalat Shabbat service.

Jewish history is overrun with accounts of our people rendered powerless, discriminated against, and treated as second class citizens. As Jews, we have an obligation to ensure that other marginalized communities never have to face these obstacles when engaging with us. It is in this spirit that I welcome you to practice this new way of interacting with gender and incorporate it into our community when welcoming guests and visitors to our congregation.

Letter from Rabbi Ora

My dear community,

By now, I’m sure you’ve heard the devastating news of the Islamophobic terror attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand.

This morning, I sat down with community rabbis to write the following letter, which we sent to Imam Abdullah Al-Mahmudi of the Islamic Center of Ann Arbor:

“Our hearts are breaking. When we woke this morning to the news of the terror attacks against Muslim worshippers in New Zealand, the first thing we thought of was the Ann Arbor Muslim Community. White supremacy, whether in Christchurch, Ann Arbor, or anywhere else in this world is a threat to us all. The murder of innocents, especially in prayer, is a terrible affront to humanity.

“As a Jewish community, we express our grief and moral outrage over this Islamophobic act of terror in New Zealand—the murder of 49 innocents in prayer.

“Both the Muslim and Jewish traditions believe that whoever destroys a single life is considered to have destroyed the entire world; and whoever saves a single life is considered to have saved the entire world. (Surah 5:32, Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

“We recognize that last night, whole worlds were lost. We hold you in our hearts, and grieve alongside you.”

In response to the news of the shootings, a colleague of mine, Rafael Shimunov, wrote: ‘When you kill someone praying, you are killing them at the moment they closed their eyes, turned their back to the door, tuned out every sound and decided that this will be the moment they will trust the rest of humanity the most.’

This afternoon, I will be standing outside the Islamic Center of Ann Arbor as our Muslim brothers and sisters attend Jumu’ah, Friday prayer, along with Rabbi Josh Whinston, Rav Nadav Caine, Reb Elliot Ginsburg, and members of their communities. Please: if you’re able, join us, to remind those grieving that they can continue to trust the rest of humanity.

Holding you, and holding onto hope for a Shabbat of shalom,

Rabbi Ora

On Naming: What Do We Call Our Congregation?

The synagogue space in Temple Beth El

My first memories of participating in Jewish life are physical ones. The congregation that I attended for the first half of my childhood was Temple Beth El, a very large Reform temple in Bloomfield Hills. The sacred space in this synagogue is as large as it as majestic. The ark stands two or three stories high; when the cantor’s voice flows from the equally tall speakers, you feel in your bones that you are in a holy space.

However, it wasn’t until I attended High Holiday services led by Rabbi Ora at a Unitarian Church(!!) that I felt in my heart the genuine holy feeling of being instantly at home with my Jewish faith. Although our meeting spaces are not quite as palatial as my synagogue of origin, I still call our congregation “temple.” Going to temple” means more to me now than it ever has, because what I learn there resonates with me on a level truly deserving of that name.

Carol Lessure calls our congregation “Recon or Hav – that is the name I called it originally when it was a Havurah – and means community to me. Certainly not the same name we used growing up; we went to Temple or Shul.”

Like Carol, many of us call our congregation ‘The Hav” or “The Havurah.” Up until recently our congregation’s official name was “The Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Havurah.” In Hebrew, Haver means friend.” A Havurah is a group of friends coming together. Beginning in the 1960s, many young American Jews who felt that traditional Judaism didn’t speak to their experience began practicing in community groups that collectively came to be known as the Havurah Movement. Although our congregation does not go back that far in time, many of those who started this congregation came together out of a similar sense of faith and community.

Our Havurah, sharing in Community and Food! (In true Jewish style)

As their numbers grew, the members of the Ann Arbor Havurah welcomed in more and more peoplle from our community who felt the same feeling of home as I did on my first visit. Eventually, we became the “Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation.” According to former member Danny Steinmetz, the name change “…had implications for the conception of a more formalized, fuller service congregation.” Our congregation has met this goal in a style truly fitting of a Havurah.

Clare Kinberg’s article on members leading services in the absence of a rabbi is a perfect example of how our community continues to practice Havurah Judaism within the Reconstructionist Framework.

Many others, such as Seth Kopald and Rabbi Ora, call our congregation “Shul.” Interestingly, Shul comes from the Yiddish word for “school.” Many began calling their congregations shul as a homage to an earlier phrase, Batei Midrash, or “House of Study.” It seems appropriate to call our congregation Shul, since the practice of exploring, debating, and learning is fundamental to how our services are structured.

Whether you call our congregation Temple, Shul, or The Havurah, one thing remains constant: our commitment as Reconstructionists to be inclusive of everyone’s experience. We all come to the table with a lifetime of experience as Jews that informs how we view this congregation. What is important is that when we are together, we are a community that at its core is one of equality, inclusion, and exploration.

Do you have something to say on this topic? Or would you like to contribute to next weeks exploration of “What We Call Ourselves As Reconstructionists?” If so, please email me at aarcgillian@gmail.com. I look forward to hearing from you!

On Naming: What Do We Call Ourselves

Drawing inspiration from Rabbi Ora’s blog post on naming last week, we put out the call to members of our congregation to explore what naming means to us in the context of ourselves, our congregation, and as Reconstructionists. For today’s blog post, the first in a series, we explored what we call ourselves.

For many, one of the most sacred parts of belonging to a Jewish community is taking part in the same Jewish rituals throughout our lifetimes that our ancestors have observed for generations. As Reconstructionists, many members of our congregations have chosen to fulfill these rituals in ways that honor these traditions while holding a specific meaning for themselves.

My great grandfather’s pen

When I was a child, the few belongings we had from my great grandfather, Godfrey August Garson, were passed on to me as I was his namesake. Since I was born female, I was given his initials rather than his full name, in the Ashkenazic Tradition.

Just the other day while rustling through a drawer, my son found my great grandfather’s gold pen, engraved with the initials GAG. I told my son that this pen belonged to our ancestor who I was named for; I then got to have a great conversation with him about which ancestor he is named after. Knowing that my name and my children’s names have meaning and are part of a tradition is important to my Jewish identity and sense of self.

Like me, AARC member and Beit Sefer teacher Shlomit was named after an ancestor. However, rather than use the initials, her parents chose a name that sounded like Shlomo, her grandfather’s name, and referred to King Solomon. Shlomit says, “I love its meaning, from the word Shalom, a peace maker. I am working on inner peace with yoga and nature walks, and I work on my communication skills to bring peace to those around me. I’m not royalty like King Solomon, but I do believe we can all make a difference.”

As a parent, participating in a naming ceremony or Brit Milah is one of the first rites of passage we take with our children. Congregant Carol Lessure remembers participating in a group naming ceremony during Fourth Friday Shabbat! This is a perfect example of how Reconstructionists redefine these traditions, in this instance to include our larger community.

In addition to the traditions surrounding our English names, many in our congregation also have Hebrew names. Cherished member Alan Haber received his Jewish name, Eliyahu, at the age of 50. It was given to him by Rabbi Zalman Schachter in recognition of Alan’s work in Israel and Palestine. To Alan, his name means “may he show himself in you to you” and “who made an Ark for the Shekhinah.”

Participating in a Reconstructionist congregation offers so many opportunities for us to express ourselves as Jews and to incorporate these traditions in ways that feel both meaningful and relevant. Naming doesn’t happen only at birth or during a Bris; it can be given to us during adulthood to honor our work. Our names can also serve as guiding lights, reminding us how we embody concepts such as Shalom, or how we honor the ancestors for whom we are named. What does your name mean to you?

In the next two articles, we will explore what we call ourselves as Reconstructionists and what we call our congregation. If you would like to contribute to this discussion, I encourage you to email your ideas to me at aarcgillian@gmail.com. I look forward to hearing from you!

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.’

Reconstructing Judaism: Convention Report

Last week, November 15-18, 2018 I joined over 700 Reconstructionists from around the world for an outstanding convention which was titled and themed “Deeply Rooted. Boldly Relevant.” The spirit at Kabbalat Shabbat and havdallah was really sweet and enveloping, I saw many old friends and made some new ones. Below is a short report on the sessions I attended. Your comments and questions are welcome.

Joint Israel Commission (JIC)

The Joint Israel Commission is made of 22 representatives of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, rabbinical students, and lay members (including me) of the movement (these three different constituencies account for the “joint” designation). We met for six hours on Thursday November 15. The JIC was deliberately constituted to include people who hold the widest range of views within the Reconstructionist movement, which means including supporters of the Israeli Defense Force and AIPAC on the more conservative end to Jewish Voice for Peace and anti-Zionism on the other end of the spectrum, with of course, a big middle bulge around the J Street positions.  Our challenge as a commission is to advise Reconstructing Judaism on ways that our movement, open to members with all of these points of view, can move, grow and act. In addition to the JIC meeting, I attended a “listening session” in which about 40 people were invited to express what they thought the JIC should be doing while we, the commission members, listened, recorded and took notes.

There are four clusters of activities JIC will be engaged in over the next 3 years.

  • Thinking and Writing about Israel and Zionism which includes curating articles or books that we’d recommend as bases for congregational discussions.
  • Recommending best-practices for creating “civil discourse,” that is holding congregational discussions about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict in which each participant can express themselves, learn from others, and evolve.
  • Enhancing reciprocal relationships between our congregations and Israeli “Renaissance” groups (those exploring creative Judaism, the arts, and organizing for social justice, etc) and groups or individuals working on shared society, Israeli/Palestinian reconciliation and resolution of the conflict.
  • Curating and recommending adult and youth curriculum on Israel and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
RENA (Reconstructionist Educators of North America)

Membership in RENA is limited to current and past directors of education of Reconstructionist schools. I went to two RENA sessions. One was on teaching Israel and the other was led by the master Reconstructionist educator Rabbi Dr. Jeffrey Schein, Senior Education Consultant for the Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood. The session featured presentations by curriculum innovators on: outdoor education, teaching Hebrew in small groups outside of the classroom, building whole school curriculum around practice of middot (Jewish ethical values), and grief and suicide prevention. I was also introduced to “Kaplanian Report Card: An Evaluation Tool for Jewish Education,” which grades each lesson for transmission of five qualities:

  1. Understand and Appreciate Hebrew, Language and, Literature
  2. Practice Jewish Ethical and Religious Values
  3. Participate in Jewish Life
  4. Give Artistic Expression to Jewish Values
  5. Cultivate Jewish Ideals and Role Models
Congregational Programs on Racism and White Supremacy

This terrific session described programs of two different congregations, The Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC) in Evanston and Adat Shalom, near Washington, DC. The JRC program was a “Racial Injustice Trip to Montgomery, AL” where 29 congregants went together to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. The Adat Shalom program was a six session “Racial Justice Discussion Group” that over 60 people attended. They watched videos and had structured discussions on “White Privilege and Implicit Bias,” “The History of Racism in the U.S,”  “Wealth Disparity,” and “Racial Bias in the U.S. Justice System,” and then held two “Reflection and Next Steps” sessions. Here is a link to the reading and viewing lists.

Muslim-Jewish Women’s Dialogue Encountering Sarah and Hajar

Finally, I went to a session led by Rabbi Nancy Kreimer, who teaches at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Professor Homayra Ziad, a professor of Islam at Johns Hopkins University. They led us in discussion of sections from the Torah and the Qu’ran that both tell stories of Sarah, Abraham, Hajar and their sons Isaac and Ismail, looking at similarities and differences in texts and commentaries.

 

#MoralEmergency

On July 2, 2018 in La Opinión, the largest Spanish-language newspaper in the United States, Bend the Arc published a translation of the Declaration of a State of Moral Emergency, signed by over 200 Jewish organizations and more than 18,000 American Jews in response to the Trump administration’s separation and detention of immigrant families.  Reconstructing Judaism, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, and many Reconstructionist congregations are among the signers. Here is a link to a pdf of the full-page ad.

For more ways to get involved with other local Jews organizing to serve our immigrant neighbors threatened with deportation, see the blog and website “We Were Strangers MI.”

 

To this country, in whose promise we still believe, to the millions of people who are outraged and horrified, and especially to the thousands of children who have been separated from their families, we declare our nation to be in a state of moral emergency.

This Administration has established border policies unprecedented in their scope and cruelty, that are inflicting physical, mental, and emotional harm on immigrants and punishing those seeking refuge at our borders.

We are anguished by the stories and images of desperate parents torn from their babies and detention facilities packed with children. We shudder with the knowledge that these inhumane policies are committed in our name, and we lift our voices in protest.

The Jewish community, like many others, knows all too well what it looks like for a government to criminalize the most vulnerable, to lie and obfuscate to justify grossly immoral practices under the banner of “the law,” to interpret holy scripture as a cover for human cruelty, to normalize what can never be made normal. We have seen this before.

When crying children are taken from their parents’ arms, the American Jewish community must not remain silent.

To those who are targeted by these cruel policies, know that the Jewish community hears your cries. We will take risks to support you, and we will demand that our nation’s leaders take action. We will not abide the claim that people didn’t know or understand the extent of your suffering; we will not allow your torment to be in vain.

Our government can persist in this inhumane behavior only if good people remain silent.

And so we declare a state of moral emergency, and we rise to meet this moment. Even as our democratic institutions are under duress, we raise our voices and take decisive action. United by the wisdom of our tradition, we stand with immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, with the children, and with their parents. We declare: Not here. Not now. Not in our name.

New Name for the Recon Movement

“Reconstructing Judaism” is the new name of the central organization of the Reconstructionist movement, replacing the former: Reconstructionist Rabbinical College & Jewish Reconstructionist Communities. The tag phrase is “Deeply rooted, boldly relevant,” which expresses our reverence for Jewish tradition and our constant quest to cultivate Jewish experiences that are meaningful.

Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Ph.D., president of Reconstructing Judaism, said that “More than ever, Judaism must be about doing, and our name is about doing.”

“Many of us grew up in a time when Judaism was simply a matter of being; we were Jewish because of the neighborhood we grew up in, the food we ate, the culture we absorbed. Not anymore,” said Waxman. “Our new name represents an active commitment to doing. ‘Reconstructing’ is the best expression of our approach to Judaism.”

Reconstructing Judaism was the memoir title of the late Rabbi Eisenstein: the first president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College who built on the ideas of his father-in-law, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, and launched Reconstructionist Judaism as a movement.

In arriving at this new identity, the organization employed a democratic Reconstructionist approach to decision-making, with a non-hierarchical focus on discussion, and the sharing of ideas. All told, more than 1,000 people—from Los Angeles to Montreal—shared their insights and ideas. “This was a deeply Reconstructionist process that drew on the ideas of many participants,” says Seth Rosen, chair of Reconstructing Judaism’s board of governors. “We gained a great deal of insight into what matters most to those who are drawn to Reconstructionist Judaism.”

This is going to be a busy year for Reconstructing Judaism and the movement as a whole. All whose lives have been impacted by a Reconstructionist rabbi will mark with pride the 50th anniversary of the seminary’s founding. Many of us will gather with fellow Reconstructionists from across the continent for the first Reconstructionist Convention in eight years from Nov. 15-18 in Philadelphia. The new Reconstructionist summer camp, Havaya Arts, opens on the West Coast as campers to return for another joyous summer at Camp Havaya on the East Coast. All the while, the nearly 100 affiliated Reconstructionist communities like ours—and more than 400 rabbis—will continue building a meaningful Jewish future and more perfect world.