Follow-up on the Welcoming Blog Series: The Act of Welcoming is Happening All Over Town!

The need to reach out to our community and express openness and welcome is not singular to our congregation. It seems that many around our community are feeling the need to organize events that send the message of welcome to those around us.

It is not surprising, given our current political climate, that we are all opening our arms to each other in order to say “You are loved, I value you, and you are welcome here.” We are always looking for ways to balance the scales in our lives. The heavy weight of hostility coming from our administration calls us to add weight to our own messages of welcome.

Our own Beit Sefer is using “Welcoming” as the theme of the school year. Students learned this previous Sunday how as a people, Jews have relied on other welcoming us in our Diaspora. Over the course of this school year, Beit Sefer students will study our relationship with immigrants and immigration, how to be welcoming with each other, and about how welcoming has been taught in our religious texts.

Jewish Family Services of Washtenaw County is holding Welcoming Week this week. JFS’s website explains that this event is meant to emphasize that “being a welcoming community for all makes everyone stronger economically, socially, and culturally.” JFS has invited Ann Arbor businesses to advertise themselves as “Welcoming Businesses.” Shoppers can get discounts at some locations by showing an “I’m A Welcomer” packet when they shop. More information is available at JFSannarbor.org.

The Ann Arbor Jewish Sanctuary and Immigration Network has launched the “Butterfly Project: Migration is Beautiful, Never Again is Now.” This project aims to blanket the town with tiles and pictures that illustrate the beauty of migration, demonstrating to the immigration community through visual arts that they are welcome, wherever they are. If you would like to participate in this project, please contact AARC member Idelle Hammon-Sass at Hammond_sass@msn.com.

Our blog series focused on ways we can make everyone feel welcome in our congregation – how we as Reconstructionists can build upon our Jewish tradition to be more inclusive in our interactions with each other and our guests. Perhaps we can use the momentum from our very important work to take part in other acts of welcoming happening in our community! Do you know of any other welcoming efforts happening right now? Please share them in the comments!

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.

What Does It Mean to Be Welcoming: Ableism and Inclusion

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

A common thread that runs through the research on ability inclusion is how pervasive inaccessibility is in our environment. Ableism is the intentional or unintentional discrimination or oppression of individuals with disabilities. An example of this would be holding a meeting at a table over three feet high, at which a person using a wheelchair is unable to sit at eye level. Or gathering at a space without handicap-accessible restrooms. This week we explore how we might alter our environment at AARC to be more welcoming, functional, and usable for people of all abilities.

We are taught in Leviticus 19:14, “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” Most of us do not live by all the laws laid out in Leviticus, but this passage does demonstrate that early in Jewish history accommodations for those with disabilities were considered. What might be an “insult” or “stumbling block” in biblical times might equal a lack of accommodation in our time, such as a service that a person cannot hear or a drinking fountain that is at an inaccessible height.

Engaging with ability inclusion is also not new to modern Judaism. In an effort to celebrate those with disabilities, an interdenominational coalition of Jews have begun to celebrate Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month. During the month of February, Jews are encouraged to evaluate their inclusion practices and vow to make improvements. Although it is not February now, we can nevertheless ask ourselves, what can we do to make our congregation more accommodating to those with disabilities?

To start off, AARC will begin by making the following changes:

  • We will hold seats at the front of the room for those who need accommodation to hear or see the Rabbi during services. These seats will be indicated with a small notice taped to the inside of the seat.
  • We will pass around a second microphone to anyone in the general seating area who is speaking or responding to questions, to allow everyone, regardless of hearing ability, to participate in conversation. Even if you believe your voice carries, it might not be e audible by someone with severe hearing loss.
  • We will hold seats at the back of the room for those who need to leave during services.
  • We will provide magnifying glasses for anyone who would find them useful in reading the prayer book or the Torah.
  • We will make sure that aisles are sufficiently wide to accommodate wheelchairs.
  • As a congregation, we will continue to make an effort to provide transportation to services for those who need assistance.

This list of accommodations is just a start! When I reviewed the list with a loved one with a hearing impairment, she pointed out how many of the solutions offered were not in fact effective for her kind of hearing loss. This brought to my attention that to truly begin the conversation about being inclusive to all abilities, we need to bring those in need to the center of the discussion. If there is an accommodation you would like us to include, please comment and join the discussion! You may also email Rabbi Ora (rabbi@aarecon.org) or me (aarcgillian@gmail.com) directly. We will all do our best to widen our focus as much as possible in order to make people with all abilities feel welcome at AARC!

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.

Jewish Activism is Alive and Well #NeverAgainIsNow

https://www.commondreams.org/news/2019/07/01/neveragainisnow-36-arrested-hundreds-jewish-protesters-block-road-migrant-detention

Many times in the last few months, Rabbi Ora has drawn connections between the story of the Jews in exile in Torah to our current treatment of those in exile in America. It is quite the coincidence that during the current political tumult over how we treat immigrants, Jews have been reading about our exile from the promised land in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. So often in our history we have been forced into exile, and in various ways, our drive towards justice has propelled us forward.

The phrase “Never Again” is burned into the Jewish lexicon. We have vowed to never again allow ourselves or others to be subject to the cruelty of the Holocaust. It is with this in mind that activists around the U.S. have launched the #NeverAgainIsNow campaign to oppose the mistreatment of immigrants in America. Jewish leaders throughout the country are currently organizing protests to demonstrate against the Trump Administration’s efforts to imprison immigrants whom they believe to be “illegal.”

Closer to home, Bend the Arc: Ann Arbor organized a family picnic this weekend focused on immigration. Participants engaged in a kid-friendly service project to provide supplies to newly settled refugee families and read a book titled The Lost and Found Cat. This event served not only to teach children about service, but also to built momentum around Bend the Ark’s immigration reform campaign.

Our own congregation has been joined a community interfaith effort to combat antisemitism and violence against both Jewish and Muslim communities. In addition, our own Margo Schlanger recently co-wrote an article in Slate addressing ways to help immigrants detained at the border and at home.

Other instances of Jews around the country organizing against immigration detention include:

These are just a few examples of the “Never Again” movement that is rising up to speak against unfair detention policies of the Trump Administration. I am proud of the Jewish community’s participation and leadership. Be sure to check out the articles above and, if you are able, volunteer for a local event!

Meet the Mitzvah Committee

Written by: Anita Ruben-Meiller

“Let the good in me connect to with the good in others, Until all the world is transformed through the compelling power of love” – Reb Nachman of Breslov

I am writing to you as the new(ish) coordinator of the Mitzvah Committee, having stepped into that role in January, following our annual congregational meeting. The other members of the committee are Stephanie Rowden, Mike Ehmann, Idelle Hammond-Sass, Amie Ritchie and Rena Basch.

Historically, the Mitzvah Committee has helped to coordinate assistance to meet several of the needs of our members. The requests that we receive are mostly for rides and meals. Occasionally we receive requests to help get volunteers to assist with the practicalities of organizing the space for the celebration of B’nai Mitzvot or for holding a shiva observance. Very occasionally we receive requests to offer healing chants at times of illness. The hope of the committee is to make a personal connection that allows the coordination of assistance to create ease for the member in need. Towards this end, we have divided ourselves into teams to handle certain kinds of requests. While all initial requests will come through me via email at anita1018@sbcglobal.net or text message at 734-255-2619, requests for rides will be passed on to Rena and Mike; and requests for meals will be passed on to Idelle and Stephanie.

In the past few years, members of the congregation have completed a survey letting the committee know what kind of helping tasks we might be able to call on you for. We are asking that you take a moment to update your info if your availability has changed or add your name if you are ready to volunteer now.

I know that when I was ill and had surgery some years ago, and still had kids at home to tend to, I was deeply moved by and grateful for the generous assistance that came in the form of meals delivered for us to enjoy. I know from speaking with a congregational member, Amy Rosenberg, that the help that was coordinated and delivered through members of the Mitzvah Committee made it possible for her to not only have rides to visit Marc when he was hospitalized, but also to have emotionally supportive conversations.

I hope you will both volunteer for and take advantage of the services we can provide to make life a bit easier during challenging times.

Introducing The New Robert Belman Award for AARC Teens and Young Adults

Written By: Erica Ackerman

The Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation is pleased to announce the Robert Belman Award, which is granted in support of social justice activism. The award was established by AARC members Dale Belman and Amy Tracey Wells in memory of Dale’s brother Bob, who died tragically in 2018. Bob was a supporter of charitable organizations and liberal causes who gave freely of his time and money. He was a business owner with a love of rebuilding and racing European sports cars, who pursued track racing, auto-crossing, and road rallying. 

The Robert Belman Award is a grant of up to $1000 available to Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation b’nai mitzvah graduates who are or wish to engage in social justice action. Each year, $1000 will be available to be split between up to five awardees. Examples of qualifying activities include internships, leadership training, volunteering, or participation in a course through an organization such as the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Financial need will be one consideration in choosing recipients.

To qualify for the award, applicants must:

1. Be an AARC b’nai mitzvah grad up to 26 years old
2. Have a current association with the AARC (for example, parents are members or the applicant attends services)
3. Be able to articulate a focused need and time-frame for their activity

Example descriptions of the activity might be “Volunteer Coordinator at Cabrini Green Legal Aid from Sept 2019-May 2020,”  “Housing Justice Organizer with Jane Addams Senior Caucus from Sept 2019-May 2020,” or “Volunteer with the Sunrise Movement, Summer 2019.”*

The award is a lump sum given as an outright grant. It would be awarded based on both need and the nature of the social justice work or study. The money would be disbursed upon receipt of a copy of a letter from the organization stating that the applicant will be doing an internship, workshop, volunteering, etc.

Upon completion of the activity, awardees are asked to write a short essay about their work and its impact. The essay will be shared with members of the AARC.
A link to the application form will be sent out soon in an email to AARC members.

Beit Sefer Picnic and Native Tree Planting

Photos and Article Credit: Fred Feinberg

On Sunday, May 5, Beit Sefer students, teachers, and parents congregated (as congregations do!) at Country Farm Park for not only our annual picnic, but to help plant indigenous fruit trees at County Farm Park’s Pollinator Garden. We all first learned about indigenous vs. non-native species, then donned protective gloves and took up hoes, handsaws, and strangely powerful branch clippers. 

Implements in hand, we helped take several non-native honeysuckle trees down to stumps, clear away debris, and prepare the ground for planting trees and shrubs native to our area — paw paw, American plum, persimmon, and chestnut — learning about each from a park representative. While Gdolim and Yeladim cut away and hauled large branches, Ktanim cleared a patch of ground shrubs and aerated the soil, under the watchful eye and aching backs of parents and teachers.

Afterward, Stacy Weinberg Dieve presented our hardworking teachers and helpers — Clare, Shlomit, Aaron; Zander, Avi, Rose — with tokens our our collective appreciation. We all then gathered at the Pavilion to sing a Hebrew prayer and learn a two-part round from Rabbi Ora, after which we feasted on a variety of seasonal, vegetarian dishes prepared by Beit Sefer families: vegetable casserole, brioche, fruits, challah. The weather was literally perfect, and the children spent the time afterward running and frolicking in the playground. All in all, a wonderfully successful day!

Planning to Plant Trees

AARC Plans to Plant Trees to Celebrate Tu B’Shvat

It may be hard to imagine a bright sunny day in spring where AARC’s Beit Sefer students will frolic in a green meadow, picking out spots to plant new trees. But worry not! Under the guidance of Beit Sefer director, Clare Kinberg, students and their parents are making plans to do just that!

Entrance to our planting site, County Farm Park

Plans are in the works to plant fruit trees in County Farm Park’s Permaculture garden. Stay tuned for more info about our very exciting planting day!

Tu B’Shvat, or the New Year of the Trees, reminds us that in these dark days of winter, our trees are resting a slumber necessary to foster new growth. Tu B’Shvat is often celebrated as an ecological conservation day in which Jews around the world plant trees in honor of the holiday. We will remember this moment with gratitude in the spring when we are reveling in our advanced planning to enjoy this special tree planting activity.

An example of a Sugar Maple tree available through the Washtenaw Conservation District

Beit Sefer will be planting some fruit trees. If you are inspired by this and would like to order your own native trees or shrubs visit Washtenaw Conservation Districtto order for your home.

The ‘Border’ is around the corner

by Idelle Hammond-Sass

In Ann Arbor and the Detroit area, several churches and synagogues have become “sanctuary congregations.” Being a sanctuary congregation can include participating in a range of actions, from educating the public about immigration issues to becoming a haven for guests who need sanctuary to evade deportation.

Ann Arbor Friends Meeting recently accepted a guest in Sanctuary and a coalition of congregations is coordinating logistics. You may also be interested in reading about the guest and how he came to be in Sanctuary here: press release/sanctuary .

“Doorminders” are on 24-hour rotation to make sure the place is secure and to screen visitors. Washtenaw Congregational Sanctuary, which includes Ann Arbor Jewish Sanctuary (a group of local Jewish congregations) is a member of this effort.


Washtenaw Congregational Sanctuary (WCS) is an interfaith coalition of congregations, and unaffiliated individuals, throughout Washtenaw County who have joined together to support immigrants and their families in our community. The group is led by the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice (ICPJ) and the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights (WICIR). WCS formed in January 2017 in response to intensified and increasingly unjust activities of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in our community.

It Takes a Village

It takes a lot of people to maintain a 24-hour watch. Doorminders are scheduled in three shifts: 8am – 4pm, 4pm – 10pm, and 10pm – 8am. Training is necessary to be a doorminder, but is very short and simple. My experience as a doorminder was very positive, with ample support, information and comfortable surroundings (wifi, etc.). A large pool of people is needed in the event that a new guest arrives in sanctuary, and to enable shift splitting when necessary.

The next Doorminder Training is February 9th, 2019, at 1pm, Friends Meeting House, 1420 Hill St. Ann Arbor, MI. RSVP on Eventbrite is encouraged for the training. The doorminder signup is as simple as “Signup Genius.” Occasionally, there may be other needs, such as a ride to medical treatment.

In addition, I encourage you to join the Ann Arbor Jewish Sanctuary email list (a2jewishsanctuary@googlegroups.com) to find out about actions, such as rides to Detroit for check in to ICE, USCIS, and other types of support. AARC member Laurie White helps coordinate rides at lonawhite1@gmail.com. For more information see the website .