MLK Day and the Ten Commandments

by Margo Schlanger

In honor of Martin Luther King Day, Monday January 18, 2016 , I got together with the Beit Sefer kids the day before, to talk about the Torah and civil rights.

We started with this picture:

Martin Luther King, Jr, with Rabbis Maurice Eisendrath and Abraham Joshua Heschel

Martin Luther King, Jr., R. Maurice Eisendrath and R. Abraham Joshua Heschel, on the March from Selma to Montgomery Alabama, March 1965.

I asked the students what the Civil Rights movement was about.  They talked about African Americans’ claims on equality–voting, jobs, buses, restaurants, and more.

So why did Rabbi Eisendrath think it was important not just to carry the Torah during the Selma march in 1965, but for the Torah’s mantle to show the Ten Commandments?  We looked together at the commandments, focusing on the “Don’t” commandments, illustrated on the Torah mantle with the Hebrew word “לא” (lo — “no” or “don’t”).

Our conversation was mostly about three of the commandments: Don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t lie about important things (“bear false witness against your neighbor”).

What do these commandments have in common? Some people think we can develop from them (and the others in the ten) a full statement of the requirements of a moral life.  But so many things are left out.  If we can deduce a principle behind these commandments, maybe that principle can help.

The students first developed a “results-oriented” justification.  Who would want to live in a world where other people were allowed to murder and steal? they asked.  Then they moved to the justification that ties the Ten Commandments to civil rights–equality.  You don’t kill people, or steal from them, or lie to them, they said, because those other people are equal to you.  Their lives matter, their stuff matters, their feelings matter.

In other words, the students ended up in the same place as Rabbi Hillel.  We each stood on one foot while I repeated the Talmudic story:

Once there was a non-Jew who told Rabbi Hillel that he was thinking about converting to Judaism, but first, he wanted to know everything he needed to know, while he stood on one foot.  And so Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is explanation.”

Jews and Social Justice: Neither synonymous nor in conflict, but up to you

poverty wages are not kosherAARC visiting rabbi, Alana Alpert, is spearheading a fundraising campaign to launch Detroit Jews for Justice and is asking all of us to help. “Detroit is an incredible place full of courageous and resilient people who I feel so privileged to learn from and to struggle with,” she says in a crowdfunding video. “What happens in Detroit matters not just to the people here.  We are not just a symbol, but a microcosm. What we win or lose here has impacts across the country.”

Rabbi Alana is a gifted young rabbi, and a skilled community organizer. But, she says, “There was a time when I thought I had to choose between my Jewish identity and being a social justice activist. And then I realized that not only were they not in conflict, but they could make each other stronger.” Detroit Jews for Justice is carrying on the Jewish traditions of activism in the women’s, labor, and civil rights movements, and bringing them into this moment in history. Since 2014 DJJ has organized and participated in a long list of activities including support for #blacklivesmatter, protesting the Detroit water shutoffs, and supporting fast food workers and Wal-Mart employees in their struggle for fair wages and decent working conditions. Take a look here at what DJJ has already accomplished.

In a counterpoint to Rabbi Alana’s pre-rabbinical school feeling that she had to choose between her Jewish identify and social justice activism, one commenter on the crowdfunding video wrote, “There was a time when I thought Jews and social justice were synonymous.” There’s some food for good discussion. But, right now, Detroit Jews for Justice has picked up the baton to strengthen the tradition of Jewish involvement in social justice activism. With ten days left, the crowdfunding has raised two thirds of its goal of $18,000. You can become a Founding Supporter here.

Refugee Thanksgiving

Like so many others, I have been devastated by the images and stories of Syrian refugees that are everywhere in the news.  And equally devastated by the ugly absence of compassion from too many politicians.  It will be to our country’s great shame if we do not do better in the weeks and months ahead.  Thanksgiving is the refugee holiday; the ritual celebration of safe arrival.  So I wanted to pass along to our community three readings from Jewish Reconstructionist Communities (the Recon national umbrella group) for our Thanksgiving tables — to remember our highest aspirations and inspire our capacious empathy.

I give thanks for our wonderful community.

Intro:

We pause before our set table. We are deeply grateful. Life holds no guarantees. And still: we are not huddled into a refugee camp in southeast Turkey nor jammed ten to a room in a crowded apartment in Berlin. We are not suffering the northern Mexico heat while waiting to cross, not sleeping in a field in Serbia, not waking up at a way station in Sweden. We are not on a boat, praying we’ll reach a distant shore alive. In our many ways, we have made it to the other side. We pause and take a breath. Some face extraordinary violence, and we don’t. Some go hungry, and the table before us holds an overflowing, to-some-eyes almost unimaginable bounty.

The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands,your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips.” Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

A Thanksgiving Prayer, by Rabbi Naomi Levy

For the laughter of the children,
For my own life breath,
For the abundance of food on this table,
For the ones who prepared this sumptuous feast,
For the roof over our heads,
The clothes on our backs,
For our health,
And our wealth of blessings,
For this opportunity to celebrate with family and friends,
For the freedom to pray these words
Without fear,
In any language,
In any faith,
In this great country,
Whose landscape is as vast and beautiful as her inhabitants.
Thank You, God, for giving us all these. Amen

 

More information here.

Human Rights Activism is a Source of Light

truah_logo_web_no_RHRNAFor our Shabbat morning service during Hanukkah this year, December 12, AARC will be joining hundreds of other congregations around the U.S. in a focus on human rights activism.  “T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights,” an organization with a long history of Jewish ethical and social justice leadership, organizes this annual Human Rights Shabbat. Rabbi Alana Alpert, rabbi at Congregation T’Chiyah in Oak Park and community organizer with Detroit Jews for Justice–and our visiting rabbi this year–is among the 1,800 rabbis who are part of the T’ruah network. She will be leading our service on December 12 and we’ve invited members of T’Chiyah to join us in Ann Arbor.

T’ruah offers organizational and intellectual support for Jewish work on issues such as ending mass incarceration, justice for farmworkers in the U.S., and standing against Islamophobia.   Rabbi Robert Dobrusin of Beth Israel Congregation in Ann Arbor is a recent past Co-chair.  At its website  are abundant excellent study, worship, and advocacy materials (including one study guide based on Margo Schlanger’s AARC d’var torah from Yom Kippur services a couple of years ago).

The roots of T’ruah as an organization go back to the early 1970s, when a cohort of Reform rabbinic students at Hebrew Union College (HUC) in Cincinnati brought their anti-Vietnam War and Civil Rights activism into their rabbinic training. Some, like Rabbi Myron Kinberg z”l (my brother), as undergraduates in the ‘60s, had trained with Clergy and Laity Concerned to do counseling with conscientious objectors. Others had been Freedom Riders, helping to register Black voters in the South. When they became rabbinic students in 1967 and 1968, they read the texts with those fresh experiences. The T’ruah website quotes one key text newly understood as a call for racial justice and human equality: “Beloved is all humankind for they were made b’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God). Doubly beloved are they, for they were told that they were made in the image of God. As it says: ‘In the image of God was humankind made.’” (Genesis 9:6) Mishnah, Pirkei Avot 3:14.

Upon ordination in 1972, one of this cohort of students, Rabbi David Forman z”l, made Aliyah. While leading the struggle for religious pluralism in Israel as director of the Israel office of the Union for Reform Judaism (1976-2003), he also founded Rabbis for Human Rights in 1988, in Israel. Another of the group of HUC students, Rabbi Bruce Cohen z”l, ordained in 1973, was sent to Israel to do peace work by his New Haven congregation in 1976 following the murder of five Israeli Arabs during protests in Nazareth, northern Israel. Rabbi Cohen co-founded, with Farhat Agbaria, the organization Interns for Peace, which for many years focused on bringing American Jewish college students to Israel to work on projects with Israeli Arabs and Jews. One such college student was Israeli’s Rabbis for Human Rights long time and current President, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, who worked with Interns for Peace in 1981-1983.

In 2002 Rabbis for Human Rights-North America was founded as a multi-denominational network of rabbis and Jewish communities to protect human rights in North America and Israel. Renamed T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, in 2013, it continues to continue to call on its supporters in North America and around the world to educate and advocate for an Israel embodying our highest Jewish values.

Human rights movements gain their strength from the power of the people as a whole, the soul of a movement rather than the individual bodies who take part. As individuals we might tire, our bodies might weaken, but it is the light of our collective power – which grows brighter and brighter over time – that gives us the strength to go on. Likewise, charismatic leaders come and go, and we might think it is their light that inspires us and produces change. But they, too, are bodies, which wane and dwindle. A truly wise leader nurtures the souls of the movement, builds towards a systemic victory. He or she lets their light burn with others, rather than standing aloft as the shamash.

 – Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster from a Human Rights Commentary on Chanukah

Please join us on Saturday morning, December 12, as we celebrate this Human Rights Shabbat along with congregations across the country.

Jews Come in All Colors

Rosh Hashanah 2015 talk by Clare Kinberg

The Jewish Multiracial Network visited the White House in July 2015

The Jewish Multiracial Network visited the White House in July 2015

When our daughters were infants, my wife Patti and I made commitments to them and to ourselves that to the best of our ability we would not put the girls in situations in which there are no other African Americans, in which they are the only ones. Given the very high level of social and organizational segregation in the US, this has been a very difficult commitment, and one that has affected our family in countless ways. A wonderful effect has been our seeking out of organizations of Jews of color such as the Jewish Multiracial Network. And there have been times when other commitments have drawn us to break this commitment. For instance, three years ago when my older daughter was in 9th grade, I wanted her to participate in the Ann Arbor/ Nahalal student exchange in which she went with a group of 20 Ann Arbor 9th graders to Israel for 10 days. My unease with knowing she would be the only black student in the group was heightened by several exchanges we had with Israelis we met in Ann Arbor who felt compelled to warn my daughter to prepare herself for Israeli racism. She didn’t know what to expect, and really neither did I. I figured one thing that may happen is she will be asked the ubiquitous, unwelcome and invasive question foisted on non-European appearing Jews, “How are you Jewish?” I thought I should tell her, just say “my mother is Jewish,” and leave it at that. But being the kind of mother I am, before advising her of what to answer, I asked her how she would respond to the “How are you Jewish” question. Her 14 year old answer? “I’ve celebrated becoming bat mitzvah, and Jesus is not my best friend.” I decided she could handle it, and left it at that. And in fact, we found that when embedded in a Federation delegation, her Jewishness was not questioned.

But I want to talk more about that “How are you Jewish question?” because it is a good stand in for all the many barriers in the Jewish community from full participation by Jews of color. The catch phrase of the Jewish Multiracial Network is “Jews come in all colors.” Once we awake to that simple truth, we can touch on its corollary: if you look around at a Jewish communal event such as this, and you don’t see a mixed multitude, you are seeing racism at work.

Fortunately, there are people in our community over the past twenty years who have come to understand this, that American racism is manifest in our communities when there are no or only a few Jews of color. The luminescent Rabbi Susan Talve, at Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis is one such person. You may have heard of her as one of the rabbis who has been on the front lines in protesting police brutality and seeking racial justice in Ferguson, MO. I want to share with you some words from her magazine article from a 2010 issue of Reform Judaism titled “Breaking the Color Barrier.” She wrote:

1997 was a transformative year in our congregation: The beautiful Josephine was born to a white Jewish mother and a non-Jewish African American father. There was no question that her parents would raise her to be a Jew. And when I held her at her naming ceremony, I promised her: By the time you begin to notice how you fit into your surroundings, we will have a community that includes others who look like you. You will see yourself reflected in the diversity of our temple. Your parents’ good intentions [to stay active in the synagogue] and our own [to treat you with respect] are not enough.

Jews of color were starting to find their way into our sanctuary.

Some of these Jews attended services at various area congregations. A few attended Orthodox congregations and day schools where, by their own accounts, they felt marginalized. Another two Jews of color had grown up in white Jewish homes before CRC was founded. In third grade they’d noticed they were different. By junior high they felt they had to make a choice between being black and being Jewish; there were no role models for being both. They couldn’t choose not to be black, so they stopped identifying as Jews.

Her article then goes on to detail the many specific, organizational, spiritual, steps the congregation took to change. In my opinion, this article should be studied like words of scripture. I have printed a couple copies you could grab on your way out. Rabbi Talve concludes her article:

About 20 of our active adult members are black and many of them have children. On some Friday evenings, African drumming and dance are part of our Shabbat service, and a growing number of African Americans worship with us. I’ve even officiated at a marriage of a biracial couple who decided to raise their kids to be Jewish because of us, because they have a place to do this. Still, I know that we have a long way to go to keep my promise to Josephine, who will celebrate her bat mitzvah next year. But for this congregation, situated in the city just a few miles from the Old Court House where the slave Dred Scott lost his case for freedom, I have hope that we are chipping away at the racism that plagues us.

In our prayers for Shabbat we read:

To pray for a Sukkat Shalom is to pray for a full house; a shelter that reflects creation in its glorious diversity. As we continue the holy work of uprooting the scourge of racism from this and all communities, we look forward to the time when our Jewish family will embrace Jews of all colors. Then, our Sukkat Shalom will become truly multi-racial as it was always intended to be.

May it come soon.

Sympathy for Azazel

Yom Kippur 5776 talk by Sam Bagenstos

samuel bagenstosWhen Deb Kraus asked me to give a talk on the scapegoat parsha, I was intrigued and intimidated.  It should be obvious why I was intimidated—this is a deeply learned crowd, and the chances of embarrassing myself by offering some half-baked reaction to one of the most studied portions of Torah were high.

But why was I intrigued?  Well, in part it goes back to my days misbehaving in Hebrew School.  In Fourth Grade or so, all my buddies and I did was try to learn to curse in Hebrew.  I remember one of them leaning over in class, whispering to me what he said was the Hebrew for “Go to Hell!”—I still don’t know whether he was right; we were all just making stuff up—which is the first time I recall hearing the word, “Azazel.”  Yes, even though it was the Seventies, “Go to Hell!” was as transgressive as we got, I’m ashamed to say.

Ever since then, I’ve found the scapegoat story somewhat fascinating.  I mean, we’re Jews—I thought we didn’t have much of an idea of Hell, or a devil, or anything like that.  Yet here we see, right in Leviticus—the most prescriptively legalistic book of the Torah—that Aaron must take the two goats and draw lots, with one goat designated for the Lord and the other “for Azazel.”

This is apparently the only place in the Torah in which the word “Azazel” appears.  And a debate has raged for centuries about what, exactly, the word means.  Some do in fact interpret “Azazel” as referring to a demon, evil demigod, or fallen angel.  (The suffix “-el” often denotes an angel’s name.)  Others interpret “Azazel” as referring to a rough mountain—in other words, it’s the place where the goat is sent.  Note that the Torah does not say anything about what happens to Azazel’s goat once it is set free.  It just says that “the goat shall carry on it all [the Israelites’] iniquities to an inaccessible region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.”  Nonetheless, the Mishnah tells us that the tradition during the time of the Temple was to push the scapegoat off of a hard, rocky cliff.  And “Azazel” may simply have referred to the cliff.smpathy for the devil

But then there’s the third, simplest interpretation.  “Azazel” might refer to the goat itself.  “Ez”—Hebrew for goat—plus “azal”—apparently the Aramaic word for “to go.”  So “Azazel” might simply mean, roughly, “the goat that went away”—just as the English “scapegoat” means “the goat that escaped.”  Obviously, it’s the first of these definitions that inspires my title, Sympathy for Azazel—thanks Mick and Keith!—but I’m actually more interested in the other two, as you’ll see. [Read more…]

Yom Kippur Afternoon Programming

medium_laronwilliamswebAs always, AARC will have afternoon programming on Yom Kippur, in between the Morning and Torah service (10am-2pm) and our evening non traditional Yizkor service (5:30-6:45pm). The afternoon programming is 2-5pm; come to one part or all, as you choose. At 2, there will be an hour guided meditation–or take a break, perhaps for a walk through the beautiful grounds of the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation building. From 3-3:50pm, we will host a workshop on institutional racism and insider/outsider status by Ann Arbor activist La’Ron Williams, and at 4-4:50pm Rabbi Michael Strassfeld will lead a discussion of the Book of Jonah.

This year we are trying something new: having a respected and honored guest lead a Yom Kippur afternoon workshop that will draw us to use our open and vulnerable condition to make meaningful change. La’Ron Williams conducts workshops – with schools, business organizations, and non-profits – on the fundamentals of creating inclusive communities across a number of lines of diversity. His workshops are always informative, entertaining, and filled with opportunities for personal growth and organizational development. La’Ron is also a nationally acclaimed, award winning storyteller who, for more than twenty-five years, has toured extensively presenting highly participatory, music-spiced programs composed of a dynamic blend of original and traditional tales. He is known for his pronounced commitment to justice and peacemaking – a commitment made concrete through his involvement with the Racial and Economic Justice Task Force of the Ann Arbor based Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, and via his work with Washtenaw Faces Race, an all-volunteer, inter-racial, interdisciplinary group that consciously and consistently works to dismantle racial hierarchy and promote racial equity in local institutions within Washtenaw County.

La’Ron describes the Yom Kippur afternoon workshop:

In the main, America’s understanding of racism remains stuck in the 1960s. Most of us only recognize it when it shows up as it did in the June shooting at the AME Church in Charleston – in overt incidents of violence, or as easily identifiable, interpersonal acts of discrimination backed by the ill will of a few individuals.

Because we think of it that way, the remedies we envision for it are part-time, incidental, and situationally applied to those we identify as its victims. In truth, 21st century racism cannot be remedied in our spare time. It lies deeply imbedded in all of our institutions; operating constantly, continuously, and “invisibly” — to perpetuate, in hundreds of ways that remain largely unmentioned, unidentified, and unexamined, a hierarchy of White advantage.

This presentation is designed to help its participants begin to recognize and understand the pervasiveness and effects of this contemporary “stealth” racism. Using a blend of storytelling, lecture and dialogue, we will focus on concept building, increasing our awareness of our personal racial identity development within an already racialized milieu, and identifying the major illusions that act to thwart our efforts to achieve inclusion.

MJ_Strassfeld_photo-B&WThen at 4 o’clock, Rabbi Strassfeld will lead a discussion of the Book of Jonah, traditionally read on Yom Kippur afternoon. What a one-two! As commentator Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg writes in The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on Biblical Unconscious,  “The enigmas that enrage and sadden Jonah are not riddles to be solved. They remain; God invites Jonah to bear them, even to deepen them, and to allow new perceptions to emerge unbidden. In a word, to stand and pray.” And as Maya Bernstein comments on this: “And so we, Jonah-like, enter the synagogue as he entered the fish, and as we stand in the dark, unseeing, we call out to our Creator. We do not answer these riddles; rather, we immerse ourselves in them and let them take us over.”

D’varim, Tisha B’Av and the Meaning of Justice

My d’var Torah for Shabbat, July 24, 2015.

Painting: The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans

I want to talk today about what I see as a connection between two things: Tisha b’Av, the fast day that begins Saturday evening, and D’varim, this week’s parsha.

I’ll start with Tisha b’Av, the holiday when, traditionally, Jews mourn the destruction of the Temple and the forced exile of the Jews from Jerusalem.

Here’s a story, a fable, from the Talmud about how it is that that destruction came about:

There was a man who was very good friends with someone named Kamza and did not get along with another person with a similar name, Bar Kamza. This man was preparing to host a large banquet. He told his servant to invite his friend Kamza. But the servant made a mistake and invited Bar Kamza.

The host was very surprised to see his least favorite person, Bar Kamza, at his party, and ordered him to leave. But Bar Kamza did not want to be thrown out; he thought that would be humiliating. So he offered to pay for his portion of food. The host refused. Bar Kamza next offered to pay for half of the expenses of the large party. Still the host refused. Finally, Bar Kamza offered to pay for the entire banquet. In anger, the host grabbed Bar Kamza and physically threw him out. [Read more…]

At Farm Education Day and Sustainable Food Fest

Despite periodic torrential rain, Matthaei Botanical Gardens was a beautiful place to be on June 14 for the Farm Education and Sustainable Food Fest. Marcy Epstein, Carol Lessure and Idelle Hammond-Sass talked to many people at the AARC table.

Despite periodic torrential rain, Matthaei Botanical Gardens was a beautiful place to be on June 14 for the Farm Education and Sustainable Food Fest. Marcy Epstein, Carol Lessure and Idelle Hammond-Sass talked to many people at the AARC table.

 

Blair Nosan from Hazon Detroit taught 40 people how to make sauerkraut.

Blair Nosan from Hazon Detroit taught 40 people how to make sauerkraut.

Massaging the salt into the cabbage

Massage salt into the cabbage

Add flavors

Add flavors

Pack into jar.

Pack into jar.

 

There you have it.

There you have it. “Food Fest Sauerkraut June 14 2015”

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Learning where the food comes from.

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Challah Rising irresistible samples!

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Oh the flavors of local food!

Local food, in so many flavors!

Delicious.

 

 

 

 

This Sunday, what an opportunity!

This Sunday, June 14, Matthaei Botanical Gardens is the place to be for the Farm Education Day and Sustainable Food Fest. There is really terrific programing and incredible food planned. Two of the things I am most excited about are the connections the planners have made with young Jewish social justice activists who are living in Detroit.

Blair Nosan (right) and Chava Knox at work at Eden Gardens.

Blair Nosan (right) and Chava Knox at work at Eden Gardens.

Did you know that Hazon, one of the most creative, inspirational Jewish social justice organizations, is opening its Detroit branch this month? You can meet Detroit Hazon’s lead organizer, Blair Nosan,this Sunday at 11:15 for the workshop “Bread from the Earth: Jewish Practice and Sustainability.” The workshop will be co-led by Sue Salinger, the sister of AARC member Carole Kaplan. This is an opportunity not to be missed.

In addition, Detroit Jews for Justice is leading a workshop at 10:15, Mayim Hayyim: A Jewish Perspective on the Detroit Water Shut-offs with AJ Aaron. AJ was a Repair the World fellow last year.

AJ Aaron

AJ Aaron

If you need any inspiration over the next few days, read those links about the work Blair and AJ are involved in. And see you Sunday, let’s get inspired together!