Loss and Learning in Community
“I looked forward to seeing her in Spanish class eighth period every day,” began one girl. She’d always make me smile. When we talked, she’d brighten my day,” one eighth grader read. Another girl said, “She could always make me laugh even when I was in a bad mood.” Reading solemnly from their heartfelt letters, the children moved me with their innocence. The descriptions went on and on: She loved talking about movies and books. She was selfless, strong and kind-hearted. She always had a smile on her face. She would stick by you and support you one hundred percent.
These middle school children should have been writing these words on the autograph page of their eighth grade yearbook. Instead, they were memorializing Emily Levine who died suddenly last summer from an unperceived congenital heart defect, three months after she became a bat mitzvah at the Orangetown Jewish Center. (This past Shabbat was the anniversary of Emily’s becoming a bat mitzvah. Her sister Cara read from her Torah portion, Bamidbar.)
We stood in a circle around a flowering dogwood planted in Emily’s memory. Her friends placed purple circles with their thoughts of Emily around the base of the tree, like Jewish people visiting a grave and placing stones to show that loved ones remembered.
It was a beautiful ceremony, simple and sweet.
I wondered how these children will ultimately weave this experience into their lives. The sudden death of a thirteen-year old peer is shocking, unusual, inexplicable. Is the experience truly theirs to hold? Doesn’t Emily’s death and its inscrutable meaning belong to her parents Cindy and Marc and her sisters Cara and Jordyn? This ritual moment was one of thousands of moments of grief that Emily’s immediate family has experienced over this year. Doesn’t the loss belong to them?
I ached for these children, young and innocent. So many parents work very hard to protect their children from the harsh realities of the world. What need had the children of recalling the sorrow of loss?
Jewishly, the answer to my questions is clear. Emily’s classmates need to learn that loss is a part of life. There is no turning away.
Rabbi Scheff’s yizkor sermon this past Monday on Shavuot brought comfort and more answers. Community, he said, provides us with a narrative to remind us that we are part of something bigger than ourselves. Yes, we must experience others’ sorrow when we are part of a community but we also experience their joy. And in so doing, our lives are broader and deeper than they would otherwise be. Rabbi Scheff was speaking about the Orangetown Jewish Center community but his words teach about all communities. At South Orangetown Middle School today, a class of eighth graders circled around a baby dogwood tree and learned that being part of a community is the only way we can live fully and completely, doing our part to make this world a better place, one corner at a time.
With blessings of the comfort that sweet memories offer, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Nine- and ten-year old athletes crowded into the gymnasium, each JCC delegation sporting a different color. They nervously fiddled with their gloves and rackets, either trying not to look at their opponents around the court, or staring down the competition they would soon be facing. (Or perhaps they were just checking out each other’s $130 shoes?!)
As the mini-athletes took the field for the opening ceremony this past Sunday, they smiled large for the cameras, proudly displaying their hometown banners, clearly excited about kicking off the first (hopefully annual!) JCC Mini-Maccabi Games. Welcoming the 200-plus athletes and their families (from as far away as Baltimore) to JCC Rockland, I asked them if they knew the Hebrew word chaver. “Friend,” many of them exuberantly called back to me. Actually, they were 9 and 10, so it sounded more like “frieeeeeeend!” Yes, friend.
But to the teachers of our tradition, I explained, the word chaver meant much more than someone with whom we play and socialize. The chaver is also our competition, the one who challenges us to be our best, the one who forces us to refine our strengths and inspires us to give our best effort. In the Jewish tradition, we learn with a chaver who will not always agree with us or accept our argument. Our study partner is expected to push back, to challenge our assumptions, to introduce us to new ways of thought.
On the fields of play, our teammates may indeed be our friends and playmates. They may also, however, force us to grow, challenge us to be better, and sometimes require us to face our shortcomings. And the same may be true of our opponents. If they care about us and our development (and that is an important Jewish assumption in this equation), they too may be our chaverim. They may teach us how to win and lose graciously, help us develop resilience, remind us how much harder we must work if we expect to succeed.
Not everyone can be a winner all the time. And we need not–and should not–protect our children from the experience of losing in life. Certainly we want them to experience success in areas that bring them satisfaction. As parents, teachers and mentors it is our job to help our children find situations where they will experience success, or at a minimum help them learn confidence, recognize growth and feel satisfaction in their efforts. It is also our responsibility, however, to to teach them how to own and use failure.
Whether you win or lose, it is NOT how you play the game. It’s about what the experience of playing teaches you about yourself. That’s what a worthy and true chaver–even one on the opposing team–can help you learn.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
The Only Woman at the Table
His seat was directly across the table from me. He called me Rabbi Drill, but he did not look directly at me. I know that calling me “Rabbi” was a concession he made for me and he knew that my understanding of his lack of eye contact was a compromise I accepted from him. Rabbi Mayer Schiller represented the Skver community in the Village of New Square and I represented a very different religious world. We were two of twelve religious leaders from Rockland County and New York City who gathered at the invitation of Rockland County Executive, Ed Day. Everyone around the table accommodated each other so that we could meet in the middle, in a place where we could listen to each other and truly feel heard.
When I was invited to the two hour summit that took place at Rockland Community College President’s Office yesterday, the meeting was described as an opportunity to sit down to open lines of communication between various religious groups of Rockland County. I accepted with the hope that a process of healing and reconciliation could begin.
But I arrived with low expectations. I knew that leaders of Rockland Clergy for Social Justice, of NAACP and of parent groups in East Ramapo have tried to meet with members of the Ultra-Orthodox community for open dialogue. I knew that these attempts had not been successful. I wondered what could possibly be different.
And here is what was different: Mr. Day invited religious leaders from Spring Valley and Suffern churches, the Islamic Center of Rockland, the Board of Rabbis (Conservative and Reform colleagues) and the Orthodox Jewish and Chassidic communities. Mr. Day told us that he is working to make Rockland County a place where we can live next to each other with respect and cooperation, with fair treatment for all and special privilege for none. He asked us to speak our truth and established an atmosphere of safety. Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, Executive Vice President of the New York Board of Rabbis, was invited as our facilitator. He established the tenor of the meeting when he said that it is better to discuss without resolution rather than resolve without discussion.
Two powerful pictures of broken community emerged from our conversation that struck powerful chords with me. First, Rockland County was compared to a ride on a New York City subway. We get on and get off at different stations, and while we share the space, no one makes eye contact or greets the other. We are as close as can be, but we pretend that the others are not there at all, sharing a bench or even hanging onto the same subway strap. Such travel through our days may be adaptive for New York City’s underground (though I would disagree) but it is not the way to be a cohesive county where all citizens have a profound sense of belonging.
The second description was shared by Reverend Raymond C. Caliman of the Fairmont Baptist Church in Haverstraw. He described a visit to Walmart in Suffern. People pass each other as they shop, but no one looks at the other. Instead, they look away. He said that the turning away speaks volumes about distrust and a refusal to know the “other”.
We spoke honestly and with open hearts from the anchor of our various religious traditions. Reverend Dr. Weldon McWilliams Jr. of the First Baptist Church of Spring Valley reminded us that we are all God’s children. Rabbi Schiller acknowledged that members of the Chassidic community must be taught that all people are created in God’s image. We talked about the need for a balance of power and empathy.
We explored next steps which include Rabbi Greenwald and Rabbi Schiller bringing members of their communities to the table, a statement of principles to which religious leaders can sign on, and a confederation of religious leaders who can stand together to condemn actions of bias against any group in the county as well as to celebrate positive steps forward.
It was only a beginning. But I feel optimistic. I felt heard. And Rabbi Schiller called me Rabbi.
With optimism and friendship, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Teacher Appreciation Life
From the second night of Passover, some of us have been “counting the Omer,” a period of seven weeks that culminates on the fiftieth day with the holiday of Shavuot. The omer was actually a measure of barley that was presented from the new barley crop to the High Priest in the time of the Temple, in fulfillment of the commandment in Leviticus 23:15 (from this week’s Torah portion, Emor). It has come to be known, however, as the period of forty-nine days we are commanded to count. Some people simply refer to this time as the sefirah (the counting). On a spiritual level, our mystics have imbued this practice over the centuries with multiple layers of meaning, focused especially on inner growth and ethical improvement. While it is not an easy ritual to incorporate into one’s life, even with the assistance of electronic reminders, I find it very satisfying to arrive at the holiday of Shavuot, when we celebrate receiving the Ten Commandments, knowing that I have been so conscious of the passage of time and so connected to the calendar.
The sefirah is also observed as a time of semi-mourning, during which Jewish law forbids haircuts, shaving, listening to instrumental music, weddings, parties, and dinners with dancing. According to the Talmud, a plague killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students in the early part of the second century during this time on the calendar. Tradition tells us they were punished for their inability to disagree with each other with respect. The thirty-third day of the sefirah is said to be the day in which the plague was lifted. Today (actually tonight into tomorrow!) we celebrate this thirty-third day–lamed (thirty) and gimmel (three), thus “Lag Ba’Omer”–by breaking from our mourning to cut our hair, shave (if our spouses force us to), dance to live music, and maybe even get married!
While I can’t speak to whether Rabbi Akiva’s students were the victims of Divine anger or of Roman swords during what was an historical period of rebellion, upheaval and suffering, I can appreciate the seriousness of the lesson our tradition conveys. Yesterday, our schools celebrated the national holiday known as “Teacher Appreciation Day.” As we find ourselves celebrating Lag Ba’Omer in the midst of Teacher Appreciation Week, I know what Rabbi Akiva’s students would offer us from the Jewish tradition:
Who is wise? Those who learn from every person. Who is honored? Those who honor all people. Do not disdain any person, for every person has his hour. Any person from whom we learn even a letter is considered to be our teacher; and anyone who is our teacher is considered to have given us life. Search out life teachers; in the process, you may discover new friends, while rendering yourself a more accepting, giving and forgiving person.
Appreciate your teachers—and every person’s potential to be your teacher—every day. Maybe that is the ultimate lesson we can as we strive each day to merit receiving Torah. Thank you, Mrs. Tuttle.
Rabbi Craig Scheff