There are days that offer us lessons we never forget, as long as we are paying attention. One long, overfilled day several years ago was such a day. I paid a shiva call to a community member whose six-year old child had died. As I sat next to him in a rare moment of quiet during that excruciating week, he told me that a visitor earlier in the day had told him that she had also lost a child. She shared that life was never the same, but that he could look at her and know that life would go on. As he shared the story with me, I saw that he was incredibly angry and hurt. When I asked him to explain his response, he did not try to contain his outrage, “How dare she tell me that my life will not be the same? And how dare she tell me that life will go on? What does she know about me and my loss? She barely knows me.”
That same day, I called my cousin whose child had died earlier in the year after a long bout with cancer. When I asked my cousin how she was doing in this moment, she told me she was feeling quite good. She had gone to the grocery store, no small feat in those difficult days, and had bumped into another mother from her children’s school. This parent shared that she had also lost a child. According to my cousin, the mom told her that life was never the same but here she was, still living, taking care of her family, and even finding moments of joy. My cousin told me that this short conversation had opened her heart to a feeling of hope she had not experienced in all the months since Sami had died. “Can you imagine that?” she wondered aloud. “And this woman barely knows me.”
There are days that teach us necessary lessons if we are paying attention. It was a hard day, that confusing and painful day of reaching out to others with the worst kind of traumatic loss. But I was paying attention.
Here is what I know for sure.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of how we bring comfort to people who are grieving.
I read well-intentioned advice about how to speak with people who have experienced traumatic loss, and I think back to that day. Two people in similar circumstances experienced similar condolences in completely opposite ways. Why? Because we are all different and so we experience loss differently.
People do not suddenly become the same because they have gone through similar losses – death of a child or divorce or chronic illness. To assume that we can offer support in the same way to all people leads to the kind of hurt I heard about from the man in whose shiva house I sat.
But it also just might lead to the kind of elevation and hope that I heard about from my cousin.
My advice regarding offering condolence or support is that there is no advice. What not to do is straightforward. Don’t preach; don’t share your own sorrows as if that is helpful; don’t tell people what they need to do. Don’t tell stories in a loud voice; don’t do business with other visitors. Don’t stay too long; don’t put yourself into the middle of conversations as an expert. Don’t come to a shiva house for lunch.
But what to do? This question is much more nuanced. We who seek to offer loving kindness must depend upon empathy, humility, and deep listening. Jewish tradition has it right when it teaches us to enter a shiva house and be quiet. We are meant to wait for the mourner to speak first and follow their lead. We must listen before we speak and never assume that what we offer is what the person before us needs.
And we must try. Just because it is hard, we must not give up. Long after shiva, after thirty days, after the unveiling, after years, grief continues. We must continue to be present to people in our lives. If we make a false start, we back up and try again. We say that we are sorry that what we tried seems to have been the wrong thing. As a rabbi, I speak with family members and friends who worry because nothing they offer seems to help. In fact, often what they offer seems to infuriate or hurt their loved one. My advice is consistent: This is not about you. The grieving person is the only one who matters in this configuration.
There is no deadline for grief to be complete. People trying to be supportive say, “But he is still so depressed.” or “She isn’t moving forward.” They may be correct; the person might be depressed or stuck. But it is not our job to “fix” something. There will be a moment when someone will offer with an open-handed wisdom that the mourner might find support in therapy or prayer or travel or exercise. But that wisdom will not be motivated by the supportive person’s own discomfort. This is not about us.
Now we are at the beginning of a brand new year. We love the promise of a fresh start. We want to kindle hope in others and believe that good things will happen because of our desire to help. This year, I have been excited about my own fresh start. I am grateful, prayerful and inspired to do good. But I am also thinking about all the people whose current circumstances cheat them out of the gift of beginning anew. I hope that you will join me in thinking about people in the throes of chronic situations that steal away any promise of a good night of sleep, people whose loss is still so raw that tomorrow will bring no relief, people who struggle with depression that scoffs in the face of hope. I hope that I will be able to sit with their pain, sustain their sorrow and be supportive in a way that may help.
This week, as I open my heart to a glorious new year, I pledge to offer support, condolence and hope in small, humble ways. I will not always get it right. There is no ready answer. There is simply listening well, deeply, as carefully as I can and offering in small gifts and gestures what each person needs.
It is hard work to stay steady, to open our hearts to grief.
When we ask, “How are you?” we hope desperately to hear, “Great” or “Much better” or “I’m getting there.” Two years later or ten years later, we don’t want to hear how deep the pain still goes. But that is what grief does. It does not let go.
The point is, those in pain do not have access to a fresh start. If we are the blessed ones who look forward to the new year with joy, then we must carry them too in our hearts. The new year is not about my teshuva alone. Jewish repentance is about the entire community; we all stand before God: the whole, the broken, the lost and the found. I pray you stand with us this year, bringing whatever is in your heart with you.
With prayers for a new year of peace, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
My horse, Naapi, stepped gently through the trees, stopping now and then to munch on the grasses and wildflowers along the trail. I was supposed to pull his head up and give him a heel to the ribs. Of course, I did not have much heart to do that! He knew in an instant that he had a softie in his saddle. Naapi was named for the Old Man in the Blackfeet Indian origin story; he is the one who designs and shapes the world into being. He is also a trickster. (Maybe it was not only my compassion that kept me from steering him away from his mid-ride snacks – I took his name seriously!)
I asked our guide, Shane, what he thought about a Creator who is also a trickster. Shane laughed, and then turned our light banter immediately to a theological discussion. It turns out that not only is Shane a prize winning rodeo competitor, a high school teacher, and an entrepreneur, but he is also pastor of his church.
He told me about his sense of wonder at the birth of his first child just three days earlier, a funeral at which he had officiated the day before, and community healing he hopes to effect in his church. I told him about my synagogue, the social action and prayer in which we engage, and the serious work of preparation for the High Holy Days that begins (tonight!) with Rosh Hodesh Elul.
Shane was especially moved to learn about the Jewish idea of repentance. I explained that the Hebrew word teshuva does not mean punishment or forgiveness; but rather, return. When I told him about returning to our best selves and to God as the true work of repentance, he thought this would be a good lesson for the people in his church.
I joked that I would be teaching about his church on Saturday and he would be preaching about our synagogue on Sunday!
As our scheduled one hour horseback ride lengthened into two hours, we spoke about obligations to family, privileges of community and our connection to God through nature. Shane told me that he believes that there are more atheists in urban areas than in back country. I understood exactly what he meant. In our normal suburban/urban lives, we are surrounded by the accomplishments of humans: bridges and buildings, roadways and highways. We spend our days connected to electronics and social media. It makes sense that there is not much room for God in our busy, human-centered lives. How different it is in the back country where I was privileged to spend ten days of vacation. I spent my days on a bicycle or in hiking shoes. I rarely used my phone. The tallest things in every direction were the glorious mountains of Glacier National Park. When I considered the Rocky Mountains decorated on top by ever-changing cloud formations, glacial lakes, fast-running rivers, endless plains and deep forests, I felt deeply God‘s presence. Who else could have “invented all of this stuff”?!
It is time to prepare for Rosh Hashanah. We will be hearing the blast of the shofar for the first time on Sunday morning. How will we wake up? OJC is offering several opportunities to do the work of Heshbon haNefesh, taking an accounting of our souls.
Women of OJC are invited to a Saturday evening program on September 7 to Envision a New Year . #OJCSupportsU is hosting a workshop, Hope into the new year, at two different times: Monday, September 16 at 4 o’clock in the afternoon or Wednesday, September 18 at 7:30 pm. Hope into the New Year.
After my amazing experience at Glacier National Park, I have one more suggestion for Elul preparation. Consider preparing your soul by connecting to God in nature. Rockland County, New York and Bergen County, New Jersey have some of the most beautiful outdoor areas in our country. Unplug, disconnect, and find the green spaces to quiet your mind and listen to your soul. Bring with you a prayer book, a poetry collection, a journal or a book of Psalms. Close your eyes and breathe in as the trees breathe out. Listen to the sounds of the woods or the ocean. Be present to yourself in the majesty of God’s creation. On my vacation, every morning when I prayed, I could never figure out if I should read a Psalm about God’s creation or simply look up from the page at God’s creation. Ultimately, I chose to do both. I hope that you will do the same.
Whether on footpath or sandy beach, I wish you luck on your journey toward the High Holy Days. Perhaps you will be rewarded, as I was, with a rainbow. God keeps God’s promises. Do we keep ours?
When I think about my dad at home through all the years of my growing up, I think of him as alone. And when I think about my mom through those same years, I think of her as lonely.
Living with bipolar disorder, my dad spent months at a time inside our house, often in his bed, almost always alone. My mom went out to work every day, and my brother and I went to school. When we got home, there he was, on the couch, watching television. I was a kid. It never occurred to me to wonder about how alone he was.
In the 1950s and 1960s, no one understood my father’s mood swings. My parents’ friends wondered and perhaps pitied, but mostly stayed away. My dad‘s parents fretted that they had done something wrong to cause such brokenness. My mother’s parents urged her to leave my dad, and bring my brother and me to live in their house. Instead, my mother stood by my father, the love of her life. She held him and us together. There were no support groups for her; synagogue was not a safe place; and her friends were not equipped to understand. I wonder who could have possibly listened to her without judgment even if she could have articulated her sorrow and her rage. She must have been very lonely.
I thought a great deal about my parents yesterday as we celebrated a beautiful Shabbat of mental health awareness at OJC.
Thanks to the dedication and planning of #OJCSupportsU chairs Miriam Suchoff and Mark Brownstein, congregants experienced a wealth of opportunities to open our hearts and minds, and to create feelings of well-being and happiness – keystones to nurturing and sustaining good mental health. Through meditative prayer, singing, text study, and guided building of relationships, we practiced experiences that promote resilience.
We walked in silent meditation from the Daily Chapel to the bima in the Sanctuary to receive Torah, a powerful reenactment of Mount Sinai where everyone received Torah in his or her own way. God does not see anyone as broken; everyone is created in God’s image. We walked together as a community, from the four-year-old twins skipping to the 90-year-old couple walking carefully with canes. Being together in a community where everyone is accepted as “just fine,” just the way they are, is a most powerful sustainer of mental wellness. Everyone who was in synagogue yesterday felt this crucial teaching in our very souls.
But what about everyone who was not able to be in synagogue with us? What about the people who struggle with mental illness in their homes or in facilities and cannot leave, trapped there, unable to enter into our community of faith? What about the caregivers of those people, too exhausted and fearful of stigma to come out and join us in community? They probably do not see a sanctuary, rather they see an unbearable barrier to entry. How can we begin to change this reality for Jewish people who feel isolated due to mental illness?
We must continue to speak out. We must work hard to enable people to feel safe enough to be vulnerable in our sanctuary spaces.
There are many opportunities in the month of May, #MentalHealthAwareness.
Wednesday, May 15 at 7:00 pm at the Rockland Jewish Community Campus, Rockland Jewish Family Service and Board of Rabbis present Lo Levad, You are Not Alone.
Thursdays, May 16, 23 and 30 at 7:30 pm at OJC, join Rabbi Scheff to study Jewish sources and mental health issues.
Thursday, May 30 at 6:30 pm at OJC, join me and Amichai Margolis for a spring time service of healing and harmony.
If you are struggling with mental health issues and you feel alone, reach out to your rabbis or to #OJCSupportsU in any way that you feel able so that we can meet you halfway. Even if you can only reach out a very short distance, we will meet you the rest of the way.
If you are lonely because you are a caregiver for someone you love struggling with mental health issues, we invite you in to listen, share and strengthen yourself.
You might feel alone and you might feel lonely. We want to provide a community for you in whatever way we can, not just in the month of May, but always.
Yesterday, before the Musaf Amidah, Mark Brownstein read Merle Feld’s poem, “Dreaming of Home.” To me, it reads as a clarion call to all homes of worship to be places where people are safe and known.
We want so much to be in that place
where we are respected and cherished,
protected, acknowledged, nurtured, encouraged, heard.
And seen, seen
in all our loveliness,
in all our fragile strength.
And safe, safe in all our trembling
vulnerability. Where we are known
and safe, safe and known —
is it possible?
In closing, I dedicate this post on Mother’s Day to my mother, Frances Weisberg Mack z”l, a woman of extraordinary strength and dedication.
With prayers for a refuah shlayma, a complete healing, a healing of body and healing of spirit,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
As a rabbi, one of my favorite things is when our youth lead Shabbat services. The high school leaders take ownership of the evening; they daven with authority, encourage our religious school kids to participate, and always create and perform an engaging parasha play.
This past Friday, April 12, was all of that and more. In fact, it was a great deal more. Not only was it Youth Shabbat at OJC, but it was also the Day of Silence nationally, and our youth wove these two experiences into one very special evening.
Begun in 1996 at the University of Virginia, the Day of Silence is now observed at colleges and high schools across America to spread awareness about bullying and harassment of people in the LGBTQ community. Students and teachers vow to be silent for the day, showing solidarity for LGBTQ students who are too often silenced.
At services, our OJC kids gave out rainbow stickers, read poems and quotations to educate our congregation, and taught sign language for Sh’ma. One teen read a poem she wrote; in part it follows:
One day a year my silence speaks more than I ever could out loud.
My silence speaks for those who stop talking,
those who are forced to stop talking by a world that can’t accept them
for who they are or who they love.
After services, the brother of one of our congregants shared with me that he had never felt so accepted as a gay man and a religious Jew. He was overwhelmed by the feeling of welcome and comfort that he experienced. This man has been looking for a spiritual home for years. I thank our kids for leading the way in establishing OJC as safe space.
We grownups are doing our part as well. OJC is one of sixteen Conservative Jewish congregations across America in the third cohort being trained by United Synagogue and Keshet to be an inclusive, safe space for people who identify as LGBTQ. During Pride month (June), we are planning a Pride Shabbat (May 31 and June 1) and an inclusion and advocacy training with our Board of Trustees, Pride Committee, and professional staff.
Four of our Pride Committee members are teenagers. They lead the way for all of us, teaching us about what they accept as a natural part of their lives: God created all of us in God’s image. Some of us have brown hair, some are blonde. Some of us have blue eyes and some have green. Some of us are straight and some of us are gay. All of us deserve a seat in a sanctuary. That’s why it’s called a sanctuary.
Please let us know if you are interested in participating in OJC Pride. Contact our chairs, Sabina Tyler and Doug Stone at firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if you have questions about the LGBTQ community, ask a young person. They will be our teachers!