Isaac Asimov’s Book of Ruth

I’ve written about Shavuot several times over the past few years. In 2015, I wrote on the culmination of the counting of the Omer and the concept of “our lives as torah.” Last year, when Loving Day and Shavuot fell at the same time, I reflected on Jews and interracial marriage. In that blog, I recounted reasons I’d found that we read The Book of Ruth on Shavuot, “…the story takes place during the seasonal harvest that the holiday marks; Ruth’s acceptance of the Israelite faith is analogous to the Jewish people’s acceptance of Torah; and because of the legend that King David, a descendant of Ruth, died on Shavuot.”

Last week my friend Abbie Egherman told me about the 1972 Isaac Asimov book, The Story of Ruth. Abbie is on a search for books that will inspire us, as Jews, to become more deeply and actively involved in refugee support and resettlement. According to Asimov’s memoir, his retelling of Ruth’s story is a long essay treating the book “as a plea for tolerance against the cruelty of the scribe Ezra, who forced the Jews to ‘put away’ their foreign wives.” Asimov’s essay places the story in context of the culture of the time it was written, but his purpose, as explained in his memoir, was to reflect on the potential of any people to become persecutors when in positions of power. In particular, he wanted Jews to look at our own history, situations in which we have been in power as well as eras when we have not.

There will be plenty of time to discuss Asimov’s reflection, as well as other retellings of the Book of Ruth at our congregation’s Shavuot gathering.

 

AARC Shavuot in Stages

May 30, 2017

Everyone Welcome

RSVP Here 

Location: Marcy Epstein’s home, 1307 Henry St.:

6:30pm Holiday blessing, Parsha Study, and Spring Soup

7:30 Community celebration with flower strands and wreaths and Ice cream treats

8:30 “Many Books of Ruth” Real storytelling, with wine and cheese tasting

Also:

May 31st 6:30-7:30 Yiskor/Memorial Serivce at the JCC

contact for Marcy: dr_marcy@hotmail.com

New Activist Resources for your Passover Haggadah and Beyond

The first night of Passover will be Monday evening April 10, 2017. If you are still looking for some resources for your haggadah, or just some relevant reading for Passover, I’ve pulled together some new resources from various organizations.

  • New Israel Fund Jubilee Haggadah: In the Jewish tradition, the fiftieth year is the year of liberty. As written in Leviticus, “Sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you.” This is the fiftieth year of the State of Israel’s rule over the Palestinian people. The time has come for liberty and peace. From SISO, Save Israel, Stop the Occupation.
  • Jewish Women’s Archive, Your Passover Story: As you prepare to spend Passover with loved ones, think of a Jewish woman in your life whom you would like to know more about. Maybe it’s a grandmother, an aunt, or a teacher. Invite her to participate in an interview with you, at a mutually agreed upon time and place.
  • American Jewish World Service, Ten Lessons from the Haggadah for Jewish Activists, and their Next Year in a Just World Haggadah Drawing upon Jewish history, Torah sources and the latest headlines, we plumb pressing questions about human rights and global justice from a Jewish perspective
  • Hazon Jewish Food Movement, Tips for a Sustainable Passover: Passover offers a perfect opportunity to combine the wisdom of a traditional Jewish holiday with our contemporary desire to live with our health and sustainability in mind.
  • T’ruah: Rabbinical call for Human Rights Crying Out Against Mass Incarceration Haggadah Supplement and fair trade chocolate for passover: Our ancient story of liberation is bound up in the liberation of all people today from the chains of mass incarceration.
  • The Shalom Center suggests a Passover deadline for Amazon to stop advertising on Breitbart and Four New Questions for Passover: Write to  Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, urging him — with a Passover deadline — to stop funding Breitbart wth his advertising. 

Our community get together for Passover will be a third night seder, Wednesday April 12, at the JCC, beginning at 6:00 (but you can come early to help set up). Here is the signup for attending, helping and bringing something (everyone coming will hopefully sign up for something).

 

Jewish Responses to EO Banning Immigrants and Refugees from Muslim Majority Countries

The Reconstructionist Movement issued a statement on January 26th on the Executive Order concerning immigrants and refugees. I thought it might be useful for our AARC community to have a compilation of recent statements and news articles reflecting many Jewish responses.

  1. Reconstructionist Movement Statement on President Trump’s Executive Order Concerning Refugees
  2. Conservative Movement Condemns President Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration and Refugees
  3. Reform Movement Denounces President Trump’s Executive Order Barring Entry From Several Muslim-Majority Countries
  4. Jews Hand Muslims Synagogue Keys When a Texas Mosque Burns Down
  5. Refugee Ban Devastating Impact: HIAS
  6. HIAS Rabbi letter.
  7. Statement of East Bay Jewish Family and Children’s Services
  8. Jewish Community Action for Refugees, Feb 12
  9. Refugee Ban Puts Jewish Asylum Seekers in Limbo
  10. Iranian Jews in Los Angeles, Atlantic article
  11. Association for Jewish Studies Statement on the EO

Praying with My Legs: January 22

AARC is co-sponsoring the Sun, January 22, 2017, 10:30am – 12:30pm screening of the documentary-in-progress, Praying with My Legs, about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Its filmmaker, Steve Brand, will speak via Skype and Rabbi Alana Alpert, who is in the film, will add her own remarks. The brunch and film showing is organized by the Beth Israel Congregation Social Action Committee and will honor their volunteers and include opportunities to support the completion of the film, and Detroit Jews for Justice. 

When this program was planned several months ago, the date was chosen because of its proximity to both Dr. Heschel’s yahrtzeit on the 18th of Tevet, and the national day of honor for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, this year, on January 16. King and Heschel were friends and colleagues who marched together at the front of the 1965 Freedom March from Selma to Montgomery. However, the planners did not anticipate that the date of the event would also coincide with the inauguration of someone who is bringing white nationalism into the White House. This film could be precisely the spiritual and political inspiration we need to face the future. Heschel was compelled by his religious beliefs to leave the confines of his study to fight for human dignity, immersing himself in the struggle for civil rights and human dignity.

The brunch at 10:30 is free, and everyone is welcome to come. To ensure that there is enough food, please RSVP to BIC Office by Tuesday, January 17thoffice@bethisrael-aa.org.  More about the film here.

A Pledge

by AARC member Rose Benjamin

I am afraid to be trans today. I am afraid to leave my cocoon. I am afraid to leave Ann Arbor. I am afraid in Ann Arbor. I am afraid to walk around in a dress with my new baby. I am afraid to relax. I am looking over my shoulder. I am wondering who secretly wants to kill me, not for who I am but for what I represent, what I trigger. I am less open. I am less free. I am wondering whether to hide my transness. I am used to hiding it, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. I am frightened for my wife, for my child. I am frightened for my gay and trans friends. I am frightened that when we are together we will be shiny targets. I am afraid that all my doubts will come back, the ones that make me feel freakish and ugly. I have not been “out” for long; should I just go back in, I wonder. I am frightened to use the women’s bathroom. I am frightened to use the men’s bathroom. I do not take my estrogen with glee anymore. I take it with dread because every dose is another step in the direction of standing out. I am afraid to be trans. I am afraid.

But I should not, cannot, will not let this defeat me. I will remember that this is about so much more than me. I will remember that millions of Muslims, Latinos, African-Americans, women, immigrants, differently abled people, progressives, radicals, socialists, bi-gendered, un-gendered, fluidly-gendered, young, elderly, Jewish, Native, people, humans are feeling just as frightened, and much more so than me. I will remember all the privilege I have regardless of being a transgender, bi-ish-sexual, Jewish, radical fop without any savings. And I will remember how many people struggled and died in obscurity just so I could wear this dress at all, just so we could rant openly, just so we could stand up for something. And I will try to feel brave, I will take heart. But not because I am very strong. I will do so because you give me hope. And so I write this to give you hope. I am scared. But I am going to wear my lipstick. I will go to Detroit and march and I will do so wearing my pins and flowers and frilly hems. Because I trust you when you say you have my back and I want you to know I have yours. Because otherwise we are lost.

I am afraid to be trans. And this will not change. I was afraid to be trans long before I accepted I was trans. Because while being trans is scary so is being honest. So is being real. So is caring. So is “being there” in any kind of actual way. So is wondering whether you belong, wondering whether the dream is just a particularly unprofitable joke we’ve all played on each other with some very profitable help from The Beatles. Life is scary. These things have to do with us, with what we say and do, with how we behave when the nighttime comes. And I want you to know something: when I read some of the remarkably powerful and empowering things you say, I am less scared and I am more heartened. Everyone is righteous and brave when things are comfortably distant. Everyone says the right things about recycling and the failing schools and how much black lives matter (and of course these things matter in the biggest ways). But now is the time when that distance shrinks, when the gap between saying and doing closes, when the comfortable space between theory and practice disappears.

And so I am making a pledge to myself and to you. I am going to keep wearing this dress. As long as you keep wearing yours, whatever form that “dress” takes. If that “dress” is your race or religion, keep wearing it. If that dress is your sexuality, nationality, artistry, humor, or hair color, keep wearing it. If that dress is your belief that people should speak up against injustice, then by all means, now is the time to layer that shit. If your dress is your laughter or longing, if it is the way you treat your co-workers and friends, if it is your relationship, the way you hold your head, the foods you like, the hours you keep, the things you collect, your makeup or lack thereof, your mental or physical health, your poverty, your character, your deepest convictions, your doubts, your love, your soul, you just keep wearing that dress. In fact, you add a scarf and hat. You add some fancy shoes you got at the overpriced vintage store. You throw on a bow. You hang some beads. You do what you have to do to wear that dress, whatever it is. And you make sure your friends wear theirs. Because this is the very occasion we’ve all been saving that dress for.

So I’m gonna keep wearing my pumps. I’m gonna keep wearing the foundation I got conned into buying by that lady at Macy’s. I’m gonna keep talking to people I don’t know, I’m gonna keep returning smiles even when there was nothing to return. I’m gonna keep wondering who needs help, gonna keep crying. I’m gonna keep my heart open even though it hurts. I’m gonna keep laughing. I’m gonna keep hoping. I’m gonna keep feeling and looking like a damn fool because no matter how much I want to give in, I just can’t be that person. And the reason I can’t is you. The things you say, the things I know you are willing to do to keep the frost from swallowing the garden reminds me that I am not alone.

I am afraid to be trans today. And I will continue to be afraid, more afraid than before. But I am also utterly resolved not to let this fear win. And after this week and month, after the initial shock and rage wear off, I will need you to keep reminding me of that resolve and I promise to remind you.
I am afraid. And I’m putting on my dress. And I’m going outside. And I’m not gonna avert my eyes.

I love you, friends,
Rose

 

Post election: What are you doing?


Collage created by members of the Diversity Peer Education Team at York University in 2013, lifted from the blog Inclusivity Zone by Margaret

At last Saturday’s Human Rights Shabbat, Margo led a discussion about the emotional impact of the election and its implications for human rights. Many of us found the service cathartic, and it was inspiring to hear about the activities of our members.

With the hope that activity can be an antidote to despair, let’s try using this post to collect the list of constructive actions people are taking part in locally. As a start, refer to Margo’s post for a list of  ways you can get involved building bridges with people in prison.

What are you doing? If you’re volunteering or helping or organizing or protesting, add a comment to this post briefly describing what you’re doing and how others might get involved. Thanks!

 

Show of support for Islamic Center of Ann Arbor

On November 30th, 2016 the Islamic Center of Ann Arbor received an anti-Muslim hate letter, similar to letters sent to mosques all over the country, including the Islamic Center of East Lansing. The ICAA has received hate mail in the past, but this recent version includes numerous mentions of Trump: ‘There’s a new sheriff in town – President Donald Trump. He’s going to cleanse America and make it shine again. And, he’s going to start with you Muslims. He’s going to do to you Muslims what Hitler did to the jews. (sic)’”

In an expression of support to the Islamic Center of Ann Arbor/Muslim Community Association, the AARC Board sent the following statement:

The Board of the Ann Arbor Reconstructionist Congregation deplores harassment of anyone because of his or her religious beliefs or ethnicity. As Jews, we are well aware of the hostility our people have faced in many places and many eras. We were deeply troubled to learn of recent incidents in Ann Arbor targeting the Muslim community, such as a threat to burn a Muslim woman if she did not remove her hijab and a vicious letter mailed from California to many mosques, including the Islamic Center of Ann Arbor.  We are writing to express our solidarity with the Ann Arbor Muslim community and to assure you that a great many non-Muslims condemn anti-Muslim bigotry.

The secretary of the Muslim Community Association sent this note of appreciation in response.

Hello All,

Thank you for your kind words of support and solidarity. These are difficult times indeed and it is very sad to receive such a letter, but we fully understand that these people are not the norm and do not represent the greater good in this country.

Honestly, we are just very happy to receive these messages of support. Your words mean a lot to us – thank you again! We will keep your contact information and reach out to you when in need of assistance. Our strength lies in being united, and thus we are looking for ways to make connections.

Peace.

The Muslim Community Association has put up a webpage “Support from Ann Arbor Residents” that includes a sampling of the letters of support they have received.

You may also want to order and display a “One Human Family: We Support refugees and our Muslim neighbors” yard sign or banner. Distribution is a project of the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice the Interfaith Roundtable of Washtenaw County.

 

 

 

Bridging the distance between here and prison

bird-and-prison-barsInternational Human Rights Day (and Human Rights Shabbat) is December 10, which prompted me to put together this post.

Ronald Simpson-Bey and I led a workshop on Yom Kippur about solitary confinement and building criminal justice institutions that encourage t’shuvah.  Many of the workshop participants asked for more information about how they could get involved, and I promised to post some ideas.  So here goes:

I’ve asked many people from many organizations: this post brings together their thoughts on getting informed and building bridges.  There’s also a prayer for those in solitary, at the bottom.  If you’re interested in working further on this issue, or learning more, please sign up here.  

  1. Get informed.
  2. Reach out.  Building bridges from prison to the outside is enormously gratifying, and key to reintegrating prisoners productively into communities.
    • Some quick ways to reach out:
      • Leave a supportive note on one of the blog posts at Between the Bars (the note will be printed and anonymously mailed to the prisoner).
      • Write a short holiday card to someone at Prison Inmate Penpal. For the return address, if you’d like to remain anonymous, you can use the address of Fair Shake Reentry Resource Center at: Fair Shake, PO Box 63, Westby, WI 54667.
    • Prison Creative Arts Project (UM) — a fantastic organization, which is doing a training for new volunteers on Jan. 8.  let them know you’re interested here.  (And don’t forget to sign up with us here, too.)
    • Michigan Criminal Justice Project, American Friends Service Committee.  They have a program called the Good Neighbor Project, which pairs free-world and prisoner folks.  Here’s some info.  There are periodic trainings–and if there was enough interest (again, sign up here), they would do a special one for us.  The same organization also relies on volunteers to do advocacy work.  If anyone is interested in either of these, use the signup, and I can either link you to the right person or (if there is enough interest) we can coordinate something for our community.
    • Here are some ways to get involved in a visiting or pen-pal program for prisoners.  Ideas from T’ruah.
    • Solitary Watch, Lifelines to Solitary.

A prayer for justice

From a space of narrow tightness we call to the Eternal, and God answers; from the belly of death we cry out and You hear our voice.
Our brothers and sisters have been cast into the depths of solitary confinement; so many waves and breakers have buffeted and drowned them.
We, too, feel their pain, and reel from the impact of this injustice.
They are cast out from the public eye, but we will not let them be forgotten.
May the One Who was with our brother Joseph in the pit and in prison, and with our sister Miriam when she was isolated from the camp for seven days—
Bless and heal all those who are imprisoned in solitary confinement.
May the Holy Blessed One be filled with mercy for them, strengthening them and keeping them from all harm.
May God speedily send them complete healing of spirit and of body and grant our society the wisdom to find a more fair and humane system soon, in our day. And let us say, Amen.

[Assembled from this and this.]

Human Rights Shabbat — Saturday morning, December 10

December 10 is International Human Rights Day, and so we’re making our second Saturday service a Human Rights Shabbat service.  I’ll lead the service, at the normal 10 am time.  We’ll do some of the regular Shacharit service, but have a discussion rather than a Torah service.  In this difficult week and month, I’m still thinking through how to approach this.  My plans from a week ago suddenly seem inadequate.  But I hope many of us can gather and share hope and community.  So save the date.

Commit to Confront Racism

Kol Nidrei Sermon by Rabbi Nathan Martin

Nathan MartinIn August 2014, an African American man, Michael Brown, was fatally shot by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. One of my students at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College was experiencing considerable distress over the shooting. She is partnered with a person of color who is from Ferguson. At the time, I sought to respond as best as I could. I reached out to the student and together we composed an email about ways people could show up at demonstrations or to send tzedaka to the organizers of protests then happening in Ferguson. Yet, I still felt somewhat helpless and ineffective in the wake of it all.

For the last two years, we have witnessed a replay of this unfortunate type of violence again and again. Deb Kraus, in her introduction to the Unetane Tokef prayer on Rosh Hashannah, helped us to take note of the many black lives that have been cut short through police shootings.

As a liberal Jew, I grew up with a narrative of how Jews were allied with and instrumental in helping to fight for civil rights in the U.S, particularly the American south. And how we too, physically or symbolically, marched alongside our African American brothers and sisters to work for change. This remains an important part of my picture of American Jewish history of which I am proud.

And, I have come to realize that simply holding onto that picture is not enough. It’s not enough for this moment in which we find ourselves today. I have been asking myself what can I do to support our Jewish communities to be important players in the work toward eliminating institutional racism that people of color face everyday in America. Some of the hardest questions I have had to ask myself are: “what role do I play in perpetuating discrimination?” and “what can I do to make a difference?” These are difficult questions to face.

Part of my exploration has involved exploring ways in which I, as a white person, live with privilege that others don’t. I recently looked through Peggy McIntosh’s “white privilege checklist” –copies of which are in the back of the sanctuary—which asks you to note ways in which one carries privilege like, “I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed,” or “I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race,” or “I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.” I could go on and list others, and encourage people to take a look at the list. But the point is that, as McIntosh notes, I as a white person carry around “an invisible package of unearned assets, which I can count on cashing in each day.”

I am aware that I have absorbed the biases and stereotypes that are the unspoken currency of American culture. I grew up in a primarily white, middle class suburb in Seattle. I went to Jewish day school. And because of this limited upbringing, I didn’t have the opportunity to experience the richness (and challenge) that comes with growing up in a more diverse community. Instead, I absorbed attitudes of distrust and fear of people who were different than me. And even today, when I read about yet another shooting of an unarmed person of color, I can see how challenging it is for me to stay engaged. I don’t want to have to face the imperfections of our country. I want to turn away rather than turn toward confronting potential bias. But now is the time to turn toward. I want to help create a country where my children, and their children, can grow up in less isolation than I did, and where we can eliminate the systematic privileging of whiteness.

And, I know that I am not alone in this struggle.

Our tradition reminds us daily to reach beyond ourselves. Our daily prayers ask us to imagine ourselves in the position of the most vulnerable in our society; they tell us that we were strangers in the land of Egypt and from our long history of experiencing anti-Jewish oppression we know what it is like to be harassed, expelled, and killed. Our tradition teaches us the radical teaching of “tzelem elohim” that we are compelled to remember that we are all created in the image of the divine, that we are all infused with divine goodness. Our tradition thus constantly calls us to spiritual transformation which is a core part of how we transform the world. One small exercise that I sometimes do, and not frequently enough, is to walk down the street and every time I see another person I say in my head “be-tzelem elohim” “in the image of God.” Spiritual practice such as this is one way to harness the wisdom of our tradition towards change.

We also get to reach for each other in this important work. For several years, I have been meeting regularly with a group of white men and women whose focus has been specifically on examining our own racism and how it limits us having the life we want to live. When we get together we listen to each other to share where it is difficult to notice our privilege, where we appreciate our efforts for combating racism, and talk about how we are doing building relationships with people of color in our lives. I also participated in a race dialogue last week as part of a training to facilitate challenging conversations where I listened to the messages that African Americans received about white people growing up. These are not easy conversations to have but they are important. And It is heartening to notice that more of these kinds of meetings and conversations are happening. What would it be like for more of us in this coming year to explore ways in which we can have frank and challenging conversations about race, whiteness, and the ways in which we have had to settle for less because of how we both experience and perpetuate institutionalized racism?

Finally, I am conscious that we are living in a moment of an important national conversation on race, a conversation that has coalesced around the Black Lives Matter movement, most recently with the issuing of the The Movement for Black Lives Platform. The platform, divided up into six categories, includes dozens of demands backed up by policy briefs, strategic plans, and links to model legislation and organizations working on those issues. It includes issues of mass incarceration and inhumane prison conditions which we will be exploring as a community tomorrow afternoon with Margo Schlanger and Ronald Simpson-Bey.

And while I do not want to downplay or diminish the hurt that many American Jews have experienced with regard to the platform’s position and wording around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the vast majority of the document is focused on some practical and some visionary ways that we can change American society for the better. I hope that we can hold this complexity in mind as we do the work of supporting change here at home while also voicing our hope that situations elsewhere in the world are not overly simplified or essentialized in their characterizations. We have an opportunity here to commit ourselves to standing up, in whatever way we can, for a new direction in our country. A direction where we work not only for our own welfare but for the welfare of those who face the daily indignities of personal and institutional discrimination.

Yom Kippur is an important moment in our Jewish year to not only take a close look at our individual drifting from the mark in which we set for ourselves. It is also a moment for us to take a careful look at how we as a society are fulfilling our obligations to support those who are vulnerable to discrimination. It is a time when we re-commit to act in addition to pray.

The Untene Tokef prayer which I talked about on Rosh Hashannah hints at this as well. The prayer notes that works of justice, of tzedaka, lessen the harshness of the decree. We need to enter this new year with the faith and the hope that our tzedek work, our work to right societal wrongs will lessen the harshness of the decree for ourselves and others in our country.

My challenge to all of us tonight is simple.

What is a concrete step you can envision taking in your personal and communal tzedek work that will move us towards a fairer, more just, and more loving and welcoming country for everyone? What can you see yourself doing in your own life to have the conversations about how racism has affected you? What would you need to do this year to be able to come back next high holidays and say, “yes, I made some important progress this past year. It’s not done, but I can be pleased with how I am contributing.”

There is a parable in the Talmud that seeks to answer the question of why the blessing over bread is given such high status among Jewish blessings. The parable talks of a king who has two sons, each of whom he gives an equal amount of harvested flax and wheat and is given the instruction to guard these items. One son builds a storehouse and puts the bundles of flax and wheat under lock and key. The other son takes the flax and processes it into a beautiful linen tablecloth and takes the bundles of wheat and processes them into two beautiful challot. The king rewards the son who took the time and attention to take the raw materials he provided and enhance their meaning and ritual beauty.

As a Jew one of the things I am particularly proud about is the way my people have made the righting of inequality central to our being in the world. The opportunity to do tzedek work in our world can be likened to the children of the king being asked to guard the wheat and flax. Will we take the opportunity to weave these materials into something more beautiful, to help create more equitable ways in which we can live together and share in the benefits of society? Or will we simply build walls around the status quo?

In the coming year may we all be called to harvest and transform the brokenness so that we may live into our commitment that all of us are created in the divine image.

Gut Yontiff