When it comes to comforting the mourners or caring for the sick, the Jewish tradition provides ample wise guidance. The one in need of comfort and the one offering, the one in need of healing and the one giving care, the community with which both connect–all benefit from the ritual that the tradition provides in order to manage expectations, overcome insecurities and fears, and offer structure and control where uncertainty and chaos often reign.
In the event of death, broken bones or illnesses that present in noticeable ways, the tradition serves us well. In the case of hidden illnesses, however, the traditional responses are far less effective. After all, if the person suffering illness chooses to remain silent about the affliction, so must the caregiver; and if neither is willing to share publicly that they are in need, the community is rendered ineffective. The resulting failure in connectedness is to the detriment of all three parties in multiple ways.
For a long time, cancer was greeted with this kind of ineffective response, probably because it was viewed as a death sentence. The diagnosis was whispered, family privately grieved, friends had no words. Today, cancer is shouted out and proactively battled with the support of practitioners, caregivers, support networks and public advocacy.
Sadly, mental illness remains a source of shame for those afflicted, isolation and sadness for their caregivers, and helplessness for communities. In general, people still fail to grasp the true nature of mental illness. Those suffering keep their stories and needs to themselves to avoid stigmatization. Victims are often expected to fix themselves, to get over it. All too often, we greet news of suicide with responses–“Why did they do it? They had so much to live for?”–that reflect our own refusal to acknowledge the perniciousness of the disease and that perpetuate the stigma attached to mental illness. Families protect their loved ones’ privacy, so they suffer quietly. Communities passively watch as affiliates recede to the margins.
On the Shabbat of Tazria-Metzora, a reading that offers a ritual through which the priest ministers to those afflicted of a skin disease and thereby keeps them connected to the community despite their temporary quarantine, I chose to address the topic of connecting with those who experience, or care for those who experience, mental illness. I offered that our pursuit of mental wellness must begin by removing the stigma attached to mental illness and to those who seek therapy for their own mental care. After sharing that I have sought therapy for my own mental well-being at various times over the years, and that I recommend therapy as an important part of self care to all the rabbinical students I teach, I invited anyone who has received or is currently receiving therapy to rise in their places. When half of those in the room–scores of people–rose to their feet, there was an audible release, and then tears. People found comfort, validation and relief in discovering that they were not alone. For a moment, any shame or isolation was gone.
I hope that this moment marks a new beginning: when those in crisis know that they need not hide in shame; when their families have permission to speak openly with their clergy and community about the challenges they face; when the community can reach out in care to offer support and to pull into the center those who may otherwise feel marginalized.
Share your story. Offer to be part of the network of support. Join us on June 4 at 5:30pm, whether you are a professional wanting to facilitate or someone seeking to offer or receive support, as we commence this initiative to show that OJC supports you. With your help and participation, we hope to have various support groups and referral services in place by the fall.
Email us at email@example.com with your intention to attend our opening meeting. If you are interested in having a particular support group, please note that as well.
It’s time to bring this topic out of the shadows. And it starts with you and me stepping into the light, together.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
It is a unique command of Judaism that we not only remember but must experience history as if we were a part of it. The Passover seder instructs us about the Exodus from Egypt as if we ourselves were slaves in Egypt. Soon at Shavuot, we will once again stand at the foot of Sinai to receive Torah. At each moment in our Jewish lives, ritual bypasses our intellect and goes directly to our hearts, requiring us to remember and re-experience. We fulfill this mitzvah of remembering well, we Jews.
But then Yom Hashoah arrives each year. The command to remember becomes so painful that it takes our breath away. We weep for what we never knew, or as Sister Maureen of the Dominican Ministry said today as we gathered to dedicate our Shoah Memorial, we feel physically ill. With regard to the Shoah, the command to remember requires opening our hearts only to have them broken.
When Rabbi Scheff began teaching his sixth graders about the Holocaust this year, he brought them to the front door of the synagogue and asked how we remember things that we never experienced. He showed his class our memorial, then under construction, and asked them how we should remember.
Today, one hundred and fifty of us dedicated our memorial, thanking Dr. Larry Suchoff and the Holocaust Remembrance Committee for their perseverance and passion to see the project to fruition. Survivors, children of survivors, guests, nuns from the Dominican Sisters, congregants old and young, all gathered to hear shofar blasts and to dedicate ourselves to ensuring that we remember as a community. “Never again” is a goal toward which we will continually strive.
Today, Rabbi Scheff’s sixth graders showed how well they had learned the lessons he taught them. Students read short biographies they had written about survivors who are or were members of the OJC. Each student ended his or her brief statement with: “It is an honor to know you.” Spouses and children accepted the simple statements of these eleven-year old children as gifts. I watched the faces of Frieda and Marie as they listened to their stories being told, and I saw fresh grief, but also validation and hope.
From today forward, we will sit on the benches, reminiscent of train tracks. And we will look at the mosaic which depicts either six candles or six chimneys, depending on your understanding. We will teach and meditate and rest in the sunshine. And we will cherish the wall art chosen for the memorial where under the wingspan of the flying bird, our OJC logo, we read: tachat kanfei haShechina, under the protective wings of God’s Presence. And then, we will enter into our sanctified home knowing that we must act in every moment with remembrance in our hearts.
Through the night and all through tomorrow, we will pass by the memorial and quietly enter the sanctuary where six memorial candles burn as we fulfill our ritual of Keepers of the Flame.
For how long do we need to read and teach about the Shoah? Until the end of days. Until then, we will follow the command to remember m’dor l’dor, from generation to generation. Today’s sixth graders will one day teach their own children.
May Yom HaShoah call us to actions of love and understanding and the overcoming of hate and fear. As Frieda Seidner said, as quoted by her biographers today, “The key is to love all people, but love our people most of all.”
May the memory of six million be sanctified and remembered. Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Read more and watch the video on LoHud News: http://www.lohud.com/story/news/2017/04/23/orangetown-center-dedicates-holocaust-memorial/100695178/
Half way back to chametz, we should be able to hear our seder table conversations, ideally, still echoing in our heads.
In its original form, the seder was an expression of Jewish modernity. The rabbis who created the ritual were clearly influenced by the social, cultural and political conditions of their time. The resulting seder spoke to modern Jews in their language, literally (note the use of Aramaic in key places) and figuratively (the Greco-Roman practices of leaning, dipping and symposium-dining). While my grandmother and I may hope to perpetuate my family custom of “egg soup,” I highly doubt that was on the menu 1800 years ago!
Your OJC rabbis’ point of emphasis for the holiday this year was to make room for creativity, so as to allow the dynamic and flexible structure of the ritual to make room for greater meaning. “Tradition” doesn’t necessarily mean doing things “the way they have always been done” when the ritual itself calls for relevancy and contemporaneity. How do we see ourselves as having come out of Mitzrayim if we cant incorporate the symbols and language of our day that define enslavement?
To that end, I share with you the questions that I raised at my own family seder this year. I hope you will consider them over the coming weeks as we head to the holiday of Shavuot, celebrating the giving of our Torah. Or perhaps you can slip them into that place where you store your Passover items for next year, so they will be readily available for your next seder! The questions are connected thematically to each section of the seder in the order of the ritual. I hope they will bring meaning to your annual (and daily?) Jewish conversations:
Kadesh: How do you define the word “holy” and what do you consider holy to you in the world?
Urchatz: If there were a severe water shortage and you could only bathe 3 times in a week, when would you do so?
Karpas: What represents spring to you, and what would you add to the Seder plate as a symbol for it?
Yachatz: Is there something about you that you consider “broken” that you carry as a part of what makes you who you are?
Magid: When people ask where you are from, what do you tell them?
Wise: What is the best thing Judaism offers to the world?
Wicked: Name something oppressive from which you or your family have been liberated.
Simple: What oppression exists in the world today, and how does it affect you?
Doesn’t know how to ask: Is there a story you tell about yourself over and over?
Rochtza: Have you ever used a mikvah, or can you imagine a time you might?
Motzi: What role does food play in your life?
Matzah: What food would be a real sacrifice for you to give up entirely?
Maror: Can you think of a time when your actions unintentionally may have made someone feel like an “other”?
Korech: Is there a family tradition you wish were being passed on to others?
Shulchan Orech: Do you have a relationship with a community? Is it social, religious, historical, or something else?
Tzafun: What aspect of your self do you tend to hide?
Barech: Do I ever say “thank God!” and if so what do I mean when I say it?
Hallel: Is there someone you failed to thank or acknowledge and wish you had the chance to do so?
Nirtzah: What would you add to this experience next year?
Rabbi Craig Scheff
During the week before leaving for the AIPAC Policy Conference, I received several e-mails from progressive rabbinical organizations, asking me to protest AIPAC in one way or another. During the first day of the conference, my worried son texted me: “Have you seen a large group of INN activists protesting outside? There’s stuff all over Facebook about it.” (If Not Now is a social- media-fueled group of Jewish millennials who stage protests against the occupation of the West Bank.) I did not sign any petitions against AIPAC. I did not see the protesters outside. I was busy inside, participating in a conference that welcomed disagreement and civil discourse in true Jewish fashion.
AIPAC this year reminded me of Talmud. The rabbis on the pages disagreed with each other across generations and locations, but they argued together, on the pages of our common text, the Talmud.
The Israel advocates who gathered at the Washington Convention Center and the Verizon Center represented the plethora of opinion that is Judaism and American politics today. Among the 18,000 participants who support a strong alliance between America and Israel, there were Jews and non-Jews. Progressive, conservative, Republican, Democrat, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and secular Jews gathered. 3,000 college students participated. Five hundred rabbis representing the spectrum from Ultra-Orthodoxy to Reform ate lunch together. Jews who support the current government in Israel and Jews who do not were present. Jews who support the current administration in America and Jews who do not were also present.
Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of Anti Defamation League invited the leaders of If Not Now to a conversation when they protested in the lobby of the ADL building last year. The protesters rejected his offer, and Greenblatt responded: “It’s nice to get attention but it’s better to get things done. Protests are nice but proposals are better. Slogans are easy but strategies are hard. If you really want to move the needle you’ve got to make things happen.”
I agree. I spoke this past Shabbat about today’s world fueled by high levels of knowledge but low levels of understanding. Information is easily accessed with the touch of a smart phone, but grabbing the buzz words off headlines does not mean that people with very strong opinions actually understand what they are protesting. As Dr. Zohar Raviv of Birthright Israel says, “We have become surfers without diving licenses.” Young Jews standing outside the AIPAC Conference to protest the settlements in the West Bank meant well, but they could have had a bigger impact if they had participated in the conference itself. They would have learned new ideas and ways of understanding the crazy Zionist idea of the nineteenth century that became the modern State of Israel. They would have gleaned ways to conceptualize the cauldron that is the Middle East from voices of the left and of the right. And they would have been heard. We follow rules of courtesy and civility at AIPAC, but every voice is heard.
I yearn for the day to come soon when we will find a two-State solution. I disagree with a policy that includes building more settlements. I would certainly love for my son in the IDF to serve Israel in a time of quiet. I did not go to AIPAC to support either the Prime Minister’s government in Israel or the current administration in the U.S. I went to AIPAC to ensure that the strong alliance between Israel and America, necessary to both countries I love, will be preserved via strong non-partisan support on Capitol Hill.
This past week, the courageous ones came under the roof. If Not Now protested outside. I wonder how many of those idealistic young Jews know the complete quotation from Hillel in Ethics of the Fathers from which they coined their name: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Deep diving would require the protesters to consider the entire thought, not just the convenient last phrase. Next year, perhaps we’ll all be able to talk together, unafraid and willing to learn.
With blessings and prayers for peace, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
One year ago, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement adopted the position that the eating of legumes, rice and corn (kitniyot) on Passover is a valid legal option for Ashkenazic Jews. Instead of deciding at that time whether to adopt or reject the practice for our community (which is my role as mara d’atra, the religious decisor of our community), I decided to invite our Ritual and Jewish Living Committee–along with anyone else in the community who so desired–to study the topic with me. While the decision was ultimately mine to make, I had no preconceived opinion on the matter and thus invited the input of our community members to help me reach a conclusion.
People tend to be emotionally bound to custom, sometimes even to the exclusion of rational analysis. I appreciate that. We hold tightly onto family customs and tend to reject those things that challenge our sense of tradition, regardless of how or why such practices came about. I was therefore somewhat surprised that only a group of about 10 people made the commitment to study the topic with me. I anticipated far more interest! Nevertheless, our minyan of learners tackled the responsum written by Rabbis Amy Levin and Avram Israel Reiner. Our monthly studies delved into the details of the legal opinion, which reached the following conclusions:
1. Only that which can be made into matzah can become hametz. Wheat, barley, spelt, oats and rye are the only flours that can be used for matzah. Therefore, it is established that rice, beans and legumes cannot fall into the category of hametz. Moreover, the authorities agree that the presence of kitniyot on a plate does not render the plate, the meal or the home unkosher, even for those who observe the custom not to eat kitniyot.
2. The legal authorities of medieval Ashkenaz recognized that forbidding kitniyot was an added restriction to the Passover laws, possibly based in the fear that certain varieties of wheat might possibly get mixed with varieties of kitniyot. Some authorities considered the measure excessive, but the more restrictive custom ultimately prevailed.
3. In the 18th century the debate was revived. The opponents of the restrictive position argued that the high cost of matzah prevented some from experiencing the requisite joy of the holiday, whereas kitniyot were readily available, affordable and not prohibited by law. For the benefit of the masses, they argued, the stumbling block to holiday joy should be removed.
4. The original reason for the restrictive custom is lost. If the reason was concern about the possible admixture with wheat, such confusion does not exist in production and packaging today. But a compelling justification is needed to overturn a long-standing custom. That justification, according to the authors, is the enhancement of our joy. Beans are a significant source of protein for those who don’t eat meat and for those who can’t afford meat, especially considering how prices are inflated as they are on Passover. The enjoyment of food and adequate sources of protein is part of the joy we are meant to experience. Additionally, protecting people’s pocketbooks from those who would seek to gouge is in fact a Jewish value worthy of legal consideration.
Given these legal conclusions and the input provided by those who participated in our studies, I offer my own opinion, which will represent a change in the official position of our community going forward. (Please note: This does not mean you are doing something “wrong” in the eyes of our community should your personal practice differ!)
While I recognize that many people will continue personal practice according to their inherited family custom, I believe there is great value in adopting this change in custom. I don’t believe in change just for the sake of change; but I also will not reject change simply because it is hard or because it is something to which we are unaccustomed. Nor will I reject what is considered a more lenient position out of fear that greater leniency will follow. All too often, necessary change is stifled by the sometimes irrational hold of our emotional attachment to the ways of the past. I choose not to oppose change simply for the sake of opposing change. That is not the way of authentic Jewish thought.
On a practical level, I am in favor of Jewish law that encourages adherence to the law; the more our Passover laws allow people to keep Passover, the better that is for everyone. Contrary to the ways in which some observe Passover, we are not meant to be reliving slavery for seven days or for the days leading up to the holiday. There is no joy or satisfaction to be derived from being more restricted or burdened by the holiday’s laws. Are we supposed to feel different from others and from the way we live for the other 51 weeks of the year? Yes. But Passover is meant to be a time of joy, despite the remembrance of our affliction.
Most importantly, changing dietary habits and sensitivities in our society dictate that alternate sources of protein should be made available if they are not hametz. Moreover, the exorbitant cost of keeping kosher in general, and of kosher meat in particular–not to mention the premiums imposed for Passover–is a compelling justification for offering consumers a more affordable way to stock their pantries.
Finally, I am mindful that this ruling will not necessarily impact individuals in their homes. They can continue to keep Passover as they always have. And even in our synagogue, as studied in the law, serving kitniyot among our foods does not affect the other foods served. So even in the synagogue, those who do not eat kitniyot will still be able to observe Passover in their own way at all times.
Please note that there are controls and restrictions on the purchasing of kitniyot for the holiday. Specifically, fresh corn and beans may be purchased before and during Passover, like other fresh vegetables; dried kitniyot (legumes, rice and corn) can be purchased in bags or boxes and sifted before Passover; canned kitniyot may only be purchased with Passover certification due to the canning process; frozen raw kitniyot (corn, edamame) may be purchased in bags before the holiday without a heksher, though one should still inspect contents before use; and all processed foods (like tofu) require Passover certification.
I am grateful to those who shared this process with me. I believe that the process of seriously engaging with our tradition is as important as any result of such deliberation. May we all have a happy and kosher Passover, whether we are among the bean counters or not!
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Beth is our Scholar in Residence this Shabbat, February 24 and 25, as we honor Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month. Join us for Friday evening services at 6:00 pm, Shabbat morning at 9:00 am and stay after Kiddush for more learning with Beth.
My son’s challenges are significant but I’m not afraid.
I am unsure about the future. His happy adulthood, my happy years as an older adult. What are his rights, what do I deserve, what will be the responsibilities his older brothers will shoulder? Will he be happy?
I worry he might not be happy. But he’s almost always happy. That makes me less afraid.
When I write about Akiva – his needs, his challenges, my challenges – I choose my words carefully but I am not afraid. Except for when I hit ‘publish.’
When I talk about our journey as a family – the tough moments, the tearful moments, the moments that I just wish it were different – I try to be honest. I know honesty is important. I know many people pity us, pity him, don’t truly understand what it means to be his parent, his full-time advocate, his person, his people, his caring community. We’re the people who help him shower and dress, who care for him when he is sick, who sing songs with him. We’re the people who love him. Sometimes, I wish it were different but I am not afraid.
When I post a picture of Akiva, I choose the happy ones, the ones where his cute, uneven teeth, his often crossed-eyes, his sometimes grubby face, are softened by the happy smile on his face. He’s kinda funny-looking but aren’t we all?
I am not afraid to show the face of disability – his disabilities that is – via my son. I am not taking advantage of his well-being. I am letting the world know that disability is happy, disability is every emotion and more. Just like not having a disability is so many things and so many emotions and so many experiences.
I am not afraid of exposing us, of sharing him. While I know he’s unaware of this exposure, I know that showing him to the world, my extended world, will help ease fears and misconceptions about disability. I hope.
But I am afraid of a world that treasures beauty. Where skinny bodies and 6-pack abs, along with being blonde and gorgeous, is regurgitated on television and in movies. There are few positive images shown of real people who look different, as opposed to actors playing a part.
I’m afraid for other parents of children, teens and adults with disabilities. Those who feel unsure that the world will appreciate their loved ones. That the world will look kindly on their stories. Their tales of difference and challenge, of unusual beauty lost and found.
I’m afraid of a world that divides people up according to who can and who can’t. A world that divides those with disabilities according to who’s got this and who’s got that. A world that decides who’s high-functioning – whatever that really means – and who’s not. A world that sentences you and judges you for your difference without knowing what that really means.
So, I work past the fears. I tell his story. I tell our story. I invite you in, to read, listen and comment, so that you can understand and appreciate. So you can smile at the different-looking-behaving-whatever person the next time you see them on the street and be glad that they’re a member of your community. Because their people, those who love them, need you to try to be less afraid.
“And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.” Paul Simon
In this mission to remain positive, I want to acknowledge that there are certain situations when grief is deep and time is a key component in the healing. And I also want to acknowledge that there are instances when a positive disposition is not enough.
I’d like to share with you the power of positive thinking and the importance of seeing the good. I’d like to share with you the story of my father-in-law, Kenny Hersh. As a child growing up in New Jersey and, later in life, in Providence, Kenny was someone who took full advantage of every day. He trained and ran 5Ks, was the first one on the dance floor at a simhah, played clarinet in a klezmer band, could manually mix paints at work to match any color, and volunteered at his shul. He was an incredible father, a loving husband to his wife Leah, and for better or worse, a Yankees fan. After working as a high school guidance counselor for a few years, Kenny eventually joined Leah’s family business, American Wallpaper in Fall River, MA. After a series of inexplicable falls and some problems with his coordination, Kenny visited medical experts in Providence and Boston. Through a series of tests, Kenny was diagnosed with Primary Lateral Sclerosis, PLS. A degenerative neurological condition that weakens voluntary muscles. Although relieved to finally have a diagnosis, the condition would mean increasing difficulty with basic tasks like walking, eating, and speaking.
That was more than 10 years ago. And yet, despite the challenges, despite the muscle stiffness, despite the difficulty speaking, despite the mobility issues, despite the fact that he often communicates through his ipad, despite the slips and falls on to icy sidewalks, despite that nearly everything takes longer and can be more frustrating, Kenny continues to be an unstoppable and unignorable presence in our family.
Whether you just met Kenny or you’ve known him all your life, it takes only a few minutes and a few keystrokes to appreciate Kenny’s charm, his humor, his kindness, his compassion, and his intelligence. Kenny continues to go to the gym, using the stair climber to reach the top of a 110-story building every week. Kenny continues to, despite all logic, drive and put in a day’s work at the family business. Kenny continues to be a comedic force at family meals, Kenny continues to be an ezer knegdo, a perfect partner to his wife Leah, a wise and loving parent to his six children and children-in-law, and perhaps most importantly, the most playful and treat-giving saba to his eight grandchildren. Rather than wallow in his sadness, Kenny makes the most out of every day, with a spirit and a love of life that is enviable.
I recently asked Kenny, if he ever got frustrated. “Of course! There are things I miss, but the thing that I find most frustrating is the inability to speak. I love to talk and that is frustrating. I would trade off being in a wheelchair to be able to speak freely again. It is especially hard dealing with my wonderful grandchildren. I would love to be able to read to Nadav and Eliana in English, Spanish, or Hebrew. What joy I miss in not being able to sing with them and talk with them. What a pleasure it would be to walk with them on the beach and swim with them; to run with them, to fly a kite with them and crawl on the floor with them. As I have seen with Micah, [his 7-year-old grandchild], once he was able to read, our relationship really grew as we were able to laugh together and have a “conversation.” I look forward to the day when I can do that with all my grandchildren. I think that there are choices when put in a situation like this: crawl under the covers and hibernate or try to work around the challenges and move forward and enjoy an exciting life. I choose the latter. I don’t want a pity party, but just the realization that I am still the same person I always was, but with a disability. I have so much to be thankful for and get inner strength from my wife, children, and grandchildren. They make me want to push the envelope to be an important part of their lives. Our friends and community in Providence and around the country give me support and make me feel included as an intelligent and mindful part of their lives. And of course, having fun and being able to laugh makes this ride much easier.”
My friends, I do not deny that there are problems in the world. I do not deny that there are times when we feel that we have insurmountable challenges. And I do not deny that at times we have to embrace that sadness. But in 5777, I implore you to also look for the positive in the world. Just by the virtue of where and when we live we are blessed with so much. It is okay to not be burdened by sorrow all the time. It is okay to focus on the positive. Not because we need to ignore the negative. Adarabah, to the contrary, because it is only by recognizing the good that we can tackle the bad. It is only by crying that we can feel the joy more deeply. It is only by rejoicing, that we can be there to understand someone’s sorrow more deeply. Let us cry together. Let us rejoice together. Let us feel the full spectrum of human emotion in the new year.
Rabbi Michael Fel