Categories
Death Gun Control Healing

For Florida, and the Floridas to Come. Unless –

We say it over and over again.  “Enough,” we say.  Enough.  But it was enough the first time.  It was more than enough.  Columbine was enough.  Littleton, Charleston, Orlando, Newtown and the others… all the others we can’t even remember by name anymore.  In our numbness and shame… can’t keep up with them because it happens, and happens, and keeps happening and will happen again.  And there is no word for being this far past enough.

My own little baby, I ache to leave you better times.  Thoughts and prayers can’t save us any more than it can save them now – seventeen bright souls who have joined the ranks of all those lives extinguished, blown to bits, the taste of ash in the mouths of their families who loved them best.  How can we praise life anyway?  How can we believe that wisdom and sanity will ever win the day?  That the righteous will flourish like the palm tree, thrive like the cedar… when the righteous are hatefully, needlessly cut down and the arrogant stand idly by the blood of enough after enough after enough?

The poet Warshan Shire wrote: “I held an atlas in my lap/ ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered where does it hurt? it answered everywhere everywhere everywhere.

In the wake of Parkland, Florida… in the wake of all of them… we are mourners.  And so we stand, everywhere… everywhere… everywhere.  We will stand as we remember our own, and now seventeen more who are also our own.  Or could have been.  Or could yet be.  The weeks will pass and the news will fade, but we will stand for our Kaddish still.  We will remember, we will praise what can be praised, we will work for better times.  And if ours are the names on Kaddish lists by then, if when those times finally come we do not see them, we pray that our children and their children will.

Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman serves Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek, California.

 

Categories
Books Death spirituality

What is Your Concept of Soul and Afterlife?

As we ask big questions during the High Holy Days, Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions, presents a range of Jewish responses to both theological and philosophical questions pertaining to God, humanity, and the Jewish people. In the spirit of the High Holy Days, we would like to share some of the inspirational responses included in the book, for a thoughtful and meaningful New Year.

In yoga class we do an exercise where we imagine holding a basketball in our hands. With minds focused on the present, feet planted, and hearts lifted, with our hands we trace the shape, push against the edges, even toss it into the air and catch it. We can feel the ball even though we can’t see it; we interact with it even though it is not there. The same is true of the souls of our loved ones after they have died.

At the first Yizkor service led by Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, nearly twenty-five years after my mother died, he taught something that has taken me twenty-five years to understand: “Our relationships with our loved ones continue even after they are gone.” Like the basketball at yoga class, we can’t see them or feel them, but we can hold them, and our relationships with their souls, with our own souls touched by them, continue.LITFXXX_Page_1

For many years I thought my soul, the sparkling sacred essence of who I am, was a response to my mother’s death, that I am who I am because she died, that I took on her soul when we buried her young body. But now I know that isn’t entirely true. I have my own soul, formed and shaped, expressing my own values, dreams, and personality, breathed into me by God on the day I was born, not on the day she died. I am a wife and mother, a friend and a rabbi, not only because my mother died when I was a child, but because in the eleven years that we had together in this world, she shared her soul, her passions and commitments, with me—and because in the years since I have made them my own. She was clear and consistent about her core values, and they endure and find new expression in my life: hospitality, Jewish life in America and Israel, teaching and learning, nurturing friendship, being part of a complicated family, expressing creativity, being organized and in charge. With my feet planted, as I breathe deeply, focus quietly, lift my heart, feel confident and supported, I can see her soul and my own. I feel and embrace our ever-evolving and deepening relationship, life and after-life, breathing together for eternity.

Rabbi Debra J. Robbins serves Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, TX.

Excerpted from Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions, edited by Rabbi Paul Citrin and published in 2015 by CCAR Press.

Categories
Death Rabbis

Do it Yourself Goodbyes

“Daddy can fix anything,” my children brag, whenever I fail to manipulate a stubborn valve on my twelve-year-old’s clarinet or silence a menacing hiss from the pump in our fish tank. Of course they are correct. My husband and his family are proud do-it-yourself types: shoveling their own snow; filing complicated tax returns without assistance; and even lubricating the beast-like sewage ejector pumps that dwell in our basement. In a textbook case of opposites attracting, I had been raised in a family that excused ignorance in the basics of lawn mower or doorbell repair by claiming genetic links to centuries of preoccupied Talmud scholars.

At eighty-five years old, my mother-in-law refused to accept any help caring for her home or her ninety-four year old husband. Married almost fifty-two years, they tended to each like binary stars caught in each other’s gravitational pull. Each evening after dinner, they would clean their dishes, take out the garbage, and set the table once more in preparation for breakfast. In the first week of March, my father-in-law collapsed before he could sit down at the tidily set table for his morning coffee. The doctors told my mother-in-law to prepare to say goodbye. After being given this devastating news, my mother-in-law called me.

“In the event that he dies, he wanted you to give the eulogy,” my mother-in-law informed me in a strong, clear voice.

“What about the service? Have you called your rabbi?” I inquired, as my nose started to run, and my throat closed a bit.

“Our rabbi has that South American accent. Henry could never understand a word he said. You can read a few prayers, can’t you? Please.” She was asking me to lead the funeral.

Although for more than two decades my professional work has focused on Jewish education, I am an ordained reform rabbi. It’s not such a leap to think that I could officiate at my own father-in-law’s funeral. But I’ve always been rather shy, more comfortable leading a discussion in the classroom than standing in front of a congregation chanting prayers or giving a sermon.  I’ve officiated at funerals before, but most of the life-cycle events in which I participate are joyful ones. Weddings, Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations, and baby-naming ceremonies can be scheduled months in advance to coordinate with little league baseball playoffs or All County band. Graveside prayers often interfere with school pick-up and Hebrew school carpool. And they make me cry, even when I have not met the deceased.

“Are we really going to have a do-it-yourself funeral for Henry?” I asked my mother-in-law.

“He was a quiet man. He wouldn’t want a long service. No more than ten minutes,” she instructed me.

When one of the fish dies in that tank of ours, it takes me at least five minutes to provide a proper send off. “This purple and yellow fairy fish lived here for two years darting around the rocks and corals with the blue damsel. May she return to the large sea, and may her memory help us treasure the beauty of this world.”  Then, one of the kids flushes the toilet, and we make sure no one else is missing an eyeball due to white spot disease or “ick.”

I didn’t want to give my father-in-law any less of a tribute than I would do for a fish. Almost a generation older than my own dad, Henry was more like a grandpa. With his shock of white hair and his thick accent that made you believe that somehow you had magically learned to understand German, even though he was speaking in English, he would pat me on my head in the same way he did to our children, and say, “you’re a good girl.” Good sounded like “goot.” He had fled from Nazi Germany as a teenager and built a life here in America. A natural athlete and artist, he loved to eat, especially my mother-in-law’s plum cake, which he called Pflaumenkuchen.

I called my dad for advice. “I don’t want to cry and ruin everything,” I told him on the phone. “I know it’s not a tragic loss, but we’re so very sad.”

“It’s okay if you cry,” my dad calmed me.

“Wouldn’t you rather have someone who loved you say goodbye than a stranger?” My dad continued.

I came up with all sorts of excuses. In the end, I couldn’t disappoint my mother-in-law. I knew that she would hate for that Portuguese-speaking rabbi to drive all the way out to the frigid cemetery in New Jersey to make a few blessings for a man he barely knew.

The hardest part of the funeral happened the night before when I needed to herd my husband, his brother, and their mother to my kitchen table so I could organize the service. In any other circumstance, I would be the respected clergy person, and everyone would sit down docilely. But on this day, no one wanted to plan the details. That would mean my father-in-law was really gone, and not just slowly winding down to the end of a long life like an old Bavarian clock.

Late into the night, I typed out the eulogy. The next morning, we held the brief service, which lasted for more than ten minutes. The grandchildren read excerpts from Ecclesiastes and helped shovel clods of wet dirt onto their grandfather’s coffin. Our feet were covered in mud.

I was glad not to have subcontracted out this task. Honored to recite the prayers for my almost grandpa, my father-in-law, I said farewell to him and retold his story.  I did not carry his casket like a strong pall bearer, but I did utter the words to “El Malei Rachamim,” invoking a God we hope to be merciful who will watch over Henry’s soul, as it returns to its source and becomes one with the earth again and everything that ever lived on land or water and in our hearts.

Rabbi Sharon Forman was ordained as a rabbi in 1994 from the New York Campus of HUC-JIR and has tutored Bar and Bat Mitzvah students at Westchester Reform Temple for the past decade. She contributed a chapter on the connection between breastfeeding and Jewish tradition in The Sacred Encounter: Jewish Perspectives on Sexuality. She lives in Westchester County, New York with her husband, three children, and their new puppy, Sammi.  This blog was originally published on Mothers Always Write.

Categories
Death Healing spirituality

If I Should Meet God

A disciple came to his rabbi and lamented: “Rabbi, I have all these terrible thoughts. I am even afraid to say them. I feel absolutely terrible that I can even think these thoughts. Rabbi, I simply cannot believe. Sometimes I even think that God doesn’t exist.”

“Why not, my son?” the rabbi asked.

“Because I see in this world deceit and corruption.”

The rabbi answered: “So why do you care?

The disciple continued: “I see in this world hunger, poverty, and homelessness.”

And the rabbi once again responded: “So why do you care?”

The disciple protested: “if God is absent there is no purpose to the entire world. And if there is no purpose to the entire world, then there is no purpose to life – and that troubles my soul greatly.”

Then the rabbi said to his troubled follower: “Do not be disturbed. If you care so much, you are a believer!”

When the atheist Stephen Fry is questioned as to what he would say if he met God, he leaves the interviewer at a loss for words when he responds: “if I should meet God I’ll say: “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is so much misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil!”

As a rabbi wrote: “it is time to raise the bar in the conversation about religion and faith, with the knowledge that most people, whether religious, agnostic, atheist, or whatever-ish, truly do want to do what is right, to find and express love, to live a life of purpose, and to be in a meaningful relationship with others.”

“It is good to question and challenge those with whom we disagree, but we deserve more than pithy catch phrases, caricatures of those who we have defined as our enemy, and the childish need to win. Human beings can be glorious creatures who, through conscious choice, can bring healing to the world, and we all need to do this together.”

In my many years as a rabbi, and especially since my illness, I have come to believe that more important than any theology or system of belief is caring, compassion and loving kindness. I have evolved spiritually to believe that no matter what we believe or don’t believe the true heart of our humanity is human goodness and decency.

Rabbi Hirshel Jaffe serves as Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth Jacob in Newburgh, NY.  Rabbi Jaffe just celebrated his 80th Birthday in Israel after surviving cancer for the fourth time. 

This blog was originally posted on The Running Rabbi. 

Categories
Death Healing News

A Response to Terror in Brussels on Purim

We pray for the people of Belgium and for the families of those killed and injured in the horrific terror attacks in Brussels.

Today, as Jews around the world gather to celebrate Purim, we will pause to remember before engaging in the frivolity and laughter that we are commanded to enjoy on this holiday. On Purim we are reminded of the reality of evil and the serendipitous nature of the line that divides those who are delivered from harm from those who fall victim to hatred and cruelty. Sadly, and tragically, those killed and injured in these brutal attacks did nothing to deserve what befell them. Terror is radically evil precisely because there is no correlation between the perpetrators and their prey. There is no cause, no justice—only random destruction.

We Jews know this kind of evil. We are schooled in it from our history. The martyrs of our people from the pogroms, to the Shoah, to terror in Israel were not singled out for anything that they did. Their fate was sealed because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time when demonic hatred was unleashed. It didn’t matter their age, their gender, or their political orientation. So, too, in Brussels, the line between those who were killed and those who survived was completely random.

This is the chilling reality that we encounter as we read the Megillah. How many things had to go just right at just the right time for the Jews of Shushan to escape without harm from the decrees of the evil Haman? What if Mordechai had not learned of the plot to kill the King? What if Esther had not been at the court of King Achashverosh? What if the king had not granted her access and been attentive to her plea?

Yes, Esther’s example is one of great courage, but also of good luck. Some see the divine hand behind all the vicissitudes in the Megillah, and in life. I do not. God did not save individuals from death in Brussels, and God didn’t single out others to be killed; just as God doesn’t speak or act in the Book of Esther. Divine compassion is manifest in the world and in the Megillah when people bring it. God’s presence is felt in all places when people act in godly ways.

The Book of Esther has a dark ending. The Jews of Shushan go on a rampage of revenge against their enemies, killing thousands. It is a chilling reminder of how violence can breed more violence, and how the demand for justice can turn cruel if it is not tempered by compassion.

The ultimate answer to hatred is not more hatred. It is love. The best response to sadness is to increase joy. For every act of callousness and violence, let there be remembrance, increased vigilance, and the pursuit of justice by just means. Like Esther, let us be courageous in the face of threats to life, liberty, and dignity. And let us ever be God’s partners in making the world a kinder and gentler place for all.

Chag Purim Sameach!

Rabbi Arnie Gluck Serves Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, NJ. 

Categories
Death News spirituality

The Supreme Court Vacancy and the Soul-Trait of Patience

When Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly and unexpectedly, a week ago Saturday, I experienced the same surge of emotion that many Americans felt. Sadness for the life lost and for a person, his family and friends, none of whom I know, was tinged with either sadness and fear about the future of our country without Justice Scalia on the Supreme Court or gratitude at the prospect of the Justice’s being replaced on the Court by a fifth liberal.

In my own Facebook feed, I noticed both responses. One friend in the latter camp, where I also reside, confessed to a guilty conscience about any happiness experienced as the result of a person’s death.

By then, though, we had seen the statement by the Majority Leader of the United States Senate, declaring in the hours after Scalia’s death was announced that the Senate wouldn’t act on any nomination by the current President. That President quickly insisted that he would certainly make a nomination and expect the Senate to act upon it.

I suspect that both Sen. McConnell and President Obama began their statements with words of sadness and sympathy. Still, none can blame the media for leading with their sensational statements about the recently-deceased’s replacement on the Court.

I was appalled. Not at the press but at our national leaders.

When a person dies, Judaism teaches that our obligation is kavod ha-met, honoring the deceased. That priority is so important that we are forbidden even turn to nichum aveilim, comforting the mourners, until after burial. Turning so quickly to discussion of a successor justice, Sen. McConnell immediately changed the national conversation away from kavod ha-met to mundane and political matters. President Obama piled on.

Surely, neither Sen. McConnell or President Obama wished to dishonor Justice Scalia, a”h. Each would argue that his position best honors the deceased Justice — McConnell, by striving for a replacement who would fit Scalia’s own mold; and Obama, by arguing for a process that would adhere to the Constitution that Scalia defended.

Both men failed in a way that’s increasingly common in our modern world, giving in to an urge to act instantly.

I am often guilty: jumping to the phone when I hear that “ding” or feel the vibration, even if it’s just my turn in “Words with Friends.” At the same time, by studying and practicing Mussar, I have learned not to respond instantly when I receive a text or email that I initially deem irritating. Frequently, the simple act of waiting an hour softens my view of the communication I’ve received. At the very least, waiting changes the tone or medium of my response for the better.

How much healthier would we be as a nation, and how much more fittingly would Justice Scalia have been honored in the days after his death, had Sen. McConnell paid tribute to the newly-deceased Justice’s memory, declining to discuss any possible confirmation process until after a nomination were made? How much healthier would we be as a nation, and how much greater the honor to Justice Scalia, a”h, had the President declined to engage Sen. McConnell’s remarks until after the Justice’s funeral. As one who hopes for the confirmation of a successor justice nominated by President Obama, and who agrees with his constitutional argument on the point, I believe he would have carried the day by pointedly refusing to descend into public political discourse about any nomination until after Justice Scalia’s funeral, and certainly not in the hours after his death.

My Mussar teacher, Alan Morinis, reminds us that “sevel,” suffering, and “savlanut,” patience, are formed from the same Hebrew root. Perhaps the Senator would’ve had to struggle mightily, even suffering, to suppress the urge to make his point instantly. Maybe President Obama would’ve been pained by not joining a battle that has been initiated. Each has a “base” that expects no less than instant, repeated, hyper-partisan reaction to every event.

Similarly, we may be uncomfortable sitting with that provocative text or email, but we must suffer patiently in order to reduce the suffering we will cause ourselves and others with the instant, caustic response.

Now, because the Senator and the President lacked patience, the nation suffers.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.  Rabbi Block chairs the CCAR Resolutions Committee.

Categories
Death Healing Israel

Letter from Jerusalem: Love must win 

Thursday, July 30 was planned as a day of celebration of tolerance and acceptance, a day to embrace difference, a day to lift up diversity and cooperation in Israel’s capital as the municipality hosted Jerusalem’s gay pride parade. I arrived in Jerusalem and was delighted to see rainbow flags lining some of the main streets. Near the American Embassy a huge banner declared, in English letters, “LOVE WINS!” The message was repeated in languages from the region and from across the world.

When evening fell and the heat of the day dissipated, we learned of the twin acts of terror that crushed the hopes with which the day began. Eighteen month old Ali Dawabsheh was burned to death in his Duma home by ultra religious Jewish terrorists. One hour away, Shira Banki, walking with friends and classmates in Jerusalem’s gay pride parade, was stabbed by a man who had been released weeks earlier after serving ten years in prison for a similar attack on the 2005 Jerusalem parade. Shira died three days later. Ali’s father, Sa’ad died ten days later. Ali’s mother and 4 year old brother are being treated for major burns, and five other marchers are recovering from stab wounds.

The handwritten sign on the Banki’s door announced shiva from 10 a.m. until 10 p.m. On Thursday, August 6th, we were the first to enter the shiva house. At first, we did not realize that we had been welcomed by Mika, Shira’s mother, because she seemed so young herself. “We are private people,” she said. “We asked that there be no press at the funeral, and none at the shiva, and they have been very respectful.” We leaned in to hear her as others joined us in the garden, a gracious outdoor space shared by the residents of the apartment building. “We recently celebrated our son’s Bar Mitzvah here. As we sat here, we realized it is a lovely space for a wedding. Perhaps, one day, Shira’s wedding. Here we are, with guests and tables filled with food, but this is not a wedding…”

We came with a gift, a book of 1720 signatures and notes of condolence from across the world, collected by the Israel Religious Action Center. Anat Hoffman, the Center’s director, had written Shira’s name on a stone that Shira’s mom held in her hand as she spoke. “The shiva is allowing me an additional week of not comprehending what has happened. Shira is the eldest of our four children. Our house is always open, always filled with our children and their friends. We raised our children to be open, to find their own voice, to walk their own path.”

We sat with Mika, we, four women who have also raised children, three of us now grandmothers. We came as representatives of thousands of others like ourselves who are stunned by the violence that, in one day, shattered the life of many families.

I have visited many shiva houses In the last fifty plus years. I have sat with many who have lost beloveds, both those who have suffered a sudden loss, and those who have sat for days and months at the bedsides of dear ones and watched helplessly as their lives slipped away.

As we sat in the Banki’s garden, we felt Shira’s absence and her presence. The photos of Shira introduced us to a smiling, engaged young woman, who would have celebrated her sixteenth birthday in three months.

This will be the third Shabbat since these twin attacks. When Shabbat ends, Jews across the world will welcome the month of Elul. Our tradition teaches the power of this last month of the year in which we prepare for Rosh HaShanah. Aleph, Lamed, Vav, Lamed, the four letters of the Hebrew name of the month, echo the words of the Song of Solomon, the Song of Songs: Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li: I am My Beloved and my Beloved is mine.

How can we love in the shadow of hate? Each new year we are challenged to Choose Life. Our tradition invites us to acknowledge our own fears of death when we sit with the bereaved. This is how we choose life.

Our Judaism urges us, even in the presence of senseless hatred, to affirm love. Ani L’Dodi V’Dodi Li.We inscribe these words of love on wedding rings and sing them as we celebrate love and commitment. These words direct this month of reviewing our days, reconsidering our choices, reaffirming our commitments.

We choose life when we weave these words into the oft-quoted words attributed to the ancient sage, Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

When love wins, we see that If I am not for myself, I cannot be present for another. When love wins, we understand that when we are only for ourselves, we cannot see even the beloved who is before me. When love wins, we grasp that the time is now. Now is the time to choose life, and love.

Our humanity is absolutely bound up with the humanity of others. There is no room for hate in our fragile, interdependent world. We can transform fear of the other into curiosity, and build respect in the place of ignorance.  There is only one people, one fate, one earth, one destiny. The perpetuation of a fiction of essential otherness is a recipe for annhilation.

Just as Eve and Adam left Eden, we took our leave of the Banki family in their garden. When shiva ended, they, too, left their garden. We must honor the memory of Shira Banki and the memories of Ali and Sa’ad Dawabsheh by choosing life, and love. Love must win.

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell is scholar in residence at Washington Hebrew Congregation. She is also the editor of The Open Door, the CCAR Haggadah (2002).

This blog was originally posted in Washington Jewish Week.

Categories
Death News Rabbis

Azkarah for Rabbis Schulweis and Beerman: Darkness in the Time of Light

Chanukah, the joyful festival of lights, was dimmed in Los Angeles last month by the loss, at the beginning and the end of the holiday, of two great and very different rabbis: Harold M. Schulweis and Leonard I. Beerman.

They both lived long, fruitful and honored lives—Harold was 89 at his death and Leonard 93.  Harold was a creative, dynamic, brilliantly articulate and scholarly colleague, who turned Valley Beth Shalom, once a quiet, nondescript Conservative synagogue in the San Fernando Valley suburb of Encino,  into an equally dynamic model of a community at the forefront of many of the toughest issues facing contemporary Jewry—and indeed, the world.

Leonard was also much beloved, but was a much more controversial figure.  He was the Founding Rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple, a Reform synagogue that he always wanted to be a model for others.  At its inception he put a cap on membership, lest it grow too large and impersonal; it did not call attention to significant donors through plaques or “naming opportunities”; at a time when every new synagogue in Los Angeles was built of red brick with unimaginative architecture, Leonard engaged a forward-thinking modernist who designed a daring building out of stucco that looked as though it were about to take wing out of the Santa Monica Mountains.  He employed other modern designers for lamps and chairs and pews, and filled the hallways with the Marc Chagall Biblical prints.  He believed that the religious experience should also be an aesthetic one.  Harold inherited his building, but when it came time to design an expansion, he engaged the great stained-glass artists, the Plaschkes, to create stunning windows in hallways and a new chapel.  Only recently has Los Angeles started to pay

Rabbi Leonard Beerman
Rabbi Leonard Beerman

serious attention to architecture; Leonard was ahead of his time, and Harold acted on his aesthetic impulses as soon as he had a chance.

Both men saw their pulpits as the world.  Leonard became a pacifist after enlisting in the Marines in World War II and fighting in the Israeli War of Independence.  Having indirectly  helped give birth to Israel, he felt a passion for it throughout his life that he often felt was unrequited.  He wanted it to be more expansive than it was, he wanted it to end the occupation of Palestinians through a negotiated peace allowing for a Palestinian state to exist alongside Israel.  After he retired, at the gracious invitation of one of his successors, Ken Chasen, he would preach regularly on Yom Kippur morning, often about Israel, and often with an angry tone that perplexed his listeners, who could not hear the frustrated love that lay beneath his words.  He paid a price for his dovishness: in 1971, after he was nominated as president of the CCAR, a colleague moved that the nomination be overturned, an unprecedented act, and someone else was elected in his place.  The rules were changed to prevent that from happening again (now we use a completely different system of nominations).  While the pain from that incident never left him, it did not affect the stances he took.

Leo Baeck Temple, Los Angeles
Leo Baeck Temple, Los Angeles

Leonard believed passionately in social justice, in requiting the balance between rich and poor, and periodically his sermons led to one or another person walking out—but they never resigned from the temple.  It was clear that they were proud to be members of a synagogue that stood for important ideas, even if they occasionally disagreed with those ideas; and they knew that Leonard respected them and cared for them, however much they might disagree.  And they loved his eloquence—his language soared, elevating the causes he preached, and one’s soul would be lifted even when one’s mind demurred.  He wanted his members to see themselves not only as caring Jews but as caring citizens of the world, and so he often laced his sermons with poetry and other bits of wisdom from a wide range of sources and would bring to the synagogue Christian ministers with whom he shared common convictions.  It was reciprocal: he was Rabbi in Residence at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, and when the minister announced his death, the congregation gasped and cried almost as one, “O no!”

Harold was equally involved with the non-Jewish world, but in a different way.  Discovering that some of the Gentiles who had protected Jews from the Nazis had suffered economically from their heroism after the war, he created the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous to assist such individuals materially, and he founded Jewish World Watch to protest genocidal actions around the world, beginning in Darfur in the Sudan.  Such protests were, to him, acts of Kiddush Ha-Shem, intended to keep Jews from seeing themselves as the eternal victim and, instead, to think of themselves, as Leonard did, as citizens of the world, responsible to prevent what happened to us from happening to others.  One of the minyan services after his death was co-conducted by a Rioman Catholic priest in charge of Catholic-Jewish relations for the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis
Rabbi Harold Schulweis

Why was Harold so widely beloved?  He was a wonderful pastor. He pushed people to extend themselves beyond what they thought they could do. But most of us do that.  The primary reason, as my wife Carol noted, was that “he knew stuff”.  He was a scholar able to translate what he knew into knowledge that other people could absorb.  He demonstrated that learning every Shabbat morning in the remarkable discussions he conducted around the Torah reading and in his responses to issues that people would bring to him in his study. We all “know stuff,” but how much have we learned since we left rabbinical school?  Harold’s legacy reminds us how important ongoing learning is for us—how much our authority as rabbis rests not in our titles but in what we know and in how we can communicate and share that with others, engaging them in learning so they can see how Torah can elevate their lives.  Do we set aside time for Torah study (one of the questions we will be asked in heaven)? Do we bring Torah into our pastoral conversations?  Into our bulletin articles or our blogs?  Are our sermons laced with insights from Torah—not as occasional grace notes but as direct sources for the points we make and the stances we hope people will adopt?  Harold initiated the phenomenal growth of Valley Beth Shalom not only through engaging Torah study but by the then unknown practice of opening the synagogue on Friday nights to Israeli dancing, which made it “the place to be” for many young people, reminding us of the eternal wisdom of Torah im derech eretz.

Leonard’s status as a beloved rabbi stemmed more for the model he was for other people.  I came to Los Angeles in 1966 to be his assistant rabbi because I wanted to learn how to be brave in the pulpit, how to insist on speaking truth even when others might find it uncomfortable.  Leonard tried to teach me to speak clearly, so people would understand both what I was saying and what I was not saying; to be respectful of others’ opinions and pastorally present with people when trouble came upon them.  If Leonard’s was a prophetic voice, it was the voice of the post-Exilic prophets, who exhorted their people to lives of justice while understanding the pain they experienced trying to build a new society out of the ruins of Exile.  Leonard reminded us throughout his life that peace and justice will not be triumphant unless truth and compassion are as well.

Both Leonard and Harold cared deeply about music, and they nurtured the work of the musicians with whom they worked: Cantor Herschel Fox and the composer Aminadav Aloni at Valley Beth Shalom and Cantor William Sharlin at Leo Baeck Temple.  William’s music pervades Leo Baeck to this day, and one of the most moving parts of Harold’s funeral was the El Malei Rachamim sung by Herschel Fox.  The melody flowed out of a soul overcome with love and grief for someone who had cared so much for him.  He introduced several Hebrew descriptions of Harold into the traditional text (not a bad thing to emulate), and the result was a reminder of how important it is to nurture the cantors who work with us.  We sometimes let ourselves be caught up in petty issues with our cantorial colleagues—not always because of our doing. But the more we can develop both a mutual and a mentoring relationship (including encouraging the cantor to mentor us) the more we can be partners in creating a musical environment that can raise everyone to heaven-piercing prayer.

The Los Angeles Jewish community—indeed, the entire Jewish world—lost two magnificent rabbis this year in the darkest time of the winter.  As they lit candles throughout their lives, so need we do so in their memory, as we recall how a single, soaring flame can melt some of the darkness of the world.

Rabbi Richard N. Levy is the Rabbi of Campus Synagogue and Director of Spiritual Growth at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, CA. He completed a two-year term as the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and was the architect of the Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, the “Pittsburgh Principles,” overwhelmingly passed at the May, 1999 CCAR Convention. Prior to joining the HUC-JIR administration, Rabbi Levy was Executive Director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council. He is also the author of A Vision of Holiness: The Future of Reform Judaism.

Categories
Death Healing Mishkan haNefesh

You Turn my Mourning Into Dancing

Yizkor on Yom Kippur is … not about human frailty or the futility of human endeavors. Yizkor on Yom Kippur is about the power of others to affect us, about our power to affect others, about the power of the dead and the living to continue to affect each other. Yizkor on Yom Kippur is … not simply about remembering the dead, by about attempting to effect change in our relationships with the dead and thus to effect change in ourselves and in our relationships with those who are still among the living.

(Rabbi Margaret Moers Wenig, in the CCAR Draft machzor, forthcoming 2015, Mishkan haNefesh, Yizkor service)

I’ve missed a number of days of Elul to blog because my father-in-law died last Wednesday. After his funeral in Florida on Friday morning, my wife and her sister returned to sit shiva at our home in Massachusetts. What happened over those days was a reflection of how love, healing, and change are truly what the rituals of remembrance are about and enable us to do. For those who joined us for multiple nights of shiva, the change that occurred over those days as memories and reflections were shared was quite evident and powerful for many.

Without sharing the specifics here, the journey we took was one that first confronted the past, and acknowledged the challenge of engaging with memory in the face of difficult relationships. Yet, with the honesty of needing to acknowledge the challenges, the blessings that emerged from those life experiences were also evident.  On the following night, more family members gathered and a broader range of perspectives and memories were shared. There were many moments of laughter. There was a release – the laughter not only lifted the weight of some of the challenging memories but also opened up the banks of memories that were positive and powerful. And so, by the third night, new stories had been laid bare and had risen to the surface. There were words of forgiveness, acceptance, and love.  By the fourth night, in a beautiful, spontaneous sharing and connecting of memories and reflections connected to the words of specific prayers as we davenned (prayed) the ma’ariv (evening) service, there was a sense of completeness. We were speaking of a life lived, and memories that we carry with us, but embedded into the heart of the tefilot that were so much a part of Mordecai’s being that, when advanced dementia had taken almost all else from him, davenning was the only activity that he could still do, in short bouts.

In the forthcoming CCAR machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh, we find a version of precisely how we did our remembrances on the last night of shiva.  We are offered 7 paths, where readings, psalms and reflective texts are woven around the 7 thematic blessings of the Tefilah, or Amidah prayer, the central prayer of our Shabbat and Festival liturgy.  There is an abundance of material – many, many years worth of exploration and contemplation. There is a clear recognition that everyone remembers differently. There are ways to remember children who died too young. There is a prayer in memory of a parent who was hurtful. There are words to remember one who died violently. There are words to remember dearly beloved ones. And so many more.

As we return to Yizkor, year after year, we do not necessarily have to engage in the memories in the same way. With the passage of time and the ways we remember, may we, as invited by Rabbi Wenig in the reflection above, find the possibility to change our relationships with the dead and thus effect change in ourselves and in our relationships with those who are still among the living.

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz serves Congregation Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA. She dedicates this blog post to the memory of Mordecai Lavow, her father-in-law.

 

Categories
Death Healing Rabbis

Mussar for Rabbis – Bitachon (Trust), Life, and Death

“Rabbi, I wouldn’t want your job,” congregants have often said to me, most often in connection with the rabbi’s proximity to death.  My response often surprises people:  “Being with those who are dying, and with families coping with the death of a loved one, is actually the most meaningful part of being a rabbi for me.”

Make no mistake:  The rabbi is not immune from feelings of sadness in the midst of mourners.  Having served more than two decades in one community, and now forging meaningful bonds in a new one, I frequently experience real personal loss at the death of a person who has become dear to me.

Still, the well-boundaried rabbi does not become consumed by grief at the death of a congregant.  With true caring for the person who is dying, or who has died, and for the family, the rabbi can play a unique role to bring healing.  The rabbi can leverage the liminal moment to draw people closer to the congregation, to the Covenant, and to God.  Most importantly, the rabbi can convey authentic faith, which I have come to understand most importantly as the middah of bitachon (the soul-trait of trust), thanks to my learning with Alan Morinis.

In significant measure, I take my cue from the Christian funeral, a comment I make in the context of a witticism I often share about Jews attending a Christian funeral:

A group of Jews gets in the car after a Christian funeral, after offering condolences to the family and kind, if not entirely sincere, words to the minister or priest.  The car windows are rolled up.  I have been in this car.  “Geez,” one person exclaims, “I thought we were going to Ploni’s funeral.  But I didn’t hear hardly anything about Ploni! Did we just attend Jesus’s funeral?”

Naturally, the Christian service doesn’t resonate to Jews.  We don’t share the theology proclaimed there.  We are not imbued with faith that Ploni has found the blessings of life eternal because of his/her relationship with Jesus.  That Christian funeral does not inspire bitachon (trust) in us.

IMG_2309The question remains, though:  Do our own funerals offer faith and hope to us and to our own people?

In our own day, people often ask why rabbis bother to give eulogies at all.  After all, family members are often eager to speak, and they knew the deceased better even than a rabbi who has shared a long relationship with the departed.  While I agree that the loving words of familial mourners are meaningful, and certainly called for (as in Proverbs 31), the rabbi can fill a role that most family members cannot.

I minister to dying individuals and their families, and I craft each eulogy, with a clear, rabbinical goal in mind:  I am there to offer bitachon, trust, despite the unhappy circumstance before us, that:

1) Life is an inestimable gift from God, exemplified by the life now ending or ended.  The dying or recently deceased person has made an important impact on this world which will not soon be forgotten and is indisputably not erased by death.

2) We who yet live can keep this person very much alive here on Earth by finding our own ways to live our dear one’s values.  I suggest that this responsibility to a person’s immortality on Earth is what we mean when we say that we are reciting Kaddish “for” somebody.  Literally, the Kaddish is an opportunity to praise God on behalf of one who no longer can do so.  We may interpret our Kaddish obligation more broadly as a duty to perform mitzvot, to offer cheesed (loving-kindness,) and tzedakah (righteous charitable giving), and/or to continue shalshelet hakabalah (the chain of Jewish tradition) on behalf of the one who no longer can do so, thereby granting immortality in this world.

3) Life after death for the departed in the World to Come is also a meaningful part of our Jewish faith.  This is the hard part, for countless reasons, not the least being that any honest discussion of Jewish theology in this regard doesn’t fit into a eulogy.   Still, I affirm that even poetic, oblique reference to eternal life in God’s embrace offers faith and hope that our funerals might otherwise fail to convey.

Serving my congregants at their times of greatest spiritual need, I have come to realize, has bolstered my own bitachon, my own ultimate trust in the Eternal.  Death is a difficult aspect of the human condition, from which rabbis are not exempt.  Striving to help others face death with faith serves as a constant reminder to me:  I must pursue tikkun middot, the repair of my own flaws, to deepen the meaning of my own earthly existence; I am charged to recall the goodness of my grandparents, of blessed memory, by striving to “say Kaddish” for them through my own actions; and I would do well to remember that I, too, am “but dust and ashes,” my body destined for the cemetery, my soul in the hands of God, a prospect I increasingly accept with bitachon, with faithful trust.

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, AR.