Declarations of God’s faithfulness abound in the Book of Psalms. Every Thursday since the pandemic began, I have been teaching about psalms at the conclusion of the Zoom evening minyan. God‘s faithfulness is mentioned most often in the form: אמונתך(emunatecha), Your faithfulness, a very intimate declaration made directly to God: “Adonai, Your faithfulness reaches to heaven.” (Psalm 36:6) “In my heart I declared God‘s faithfulness and deliverance.” (Psalm 40:11) “Who is mighty like you, Adonai? Your faithfulness surrounds you.” (Psalm 89:9)
God’s faithfulness toward me is a strange idea to fathom. I understand people being faithful to each other and I understand people being faithful to God. But what does it mean that God is faithful to us?
This past week, I asked myself this question many times. I wondered how God is faithful when I spoke with a cousin who has had more than her share of sorrow. I asked again when talking with a congregant living through a terrible week of anniversaries. I asked when doing spiritual check-ins with people who struggle with Covid-19 loneliness and speak about longing for spouses who have been gone for many years. “Is God faithful” feels like an essential question when I look into the faces of congregants saying Kaddish within the grid of our nightly zoom minyanim.
These four months of the pandemic have evoked anxiety, loneliness and loss. Holding space for congregants who have experienced the death of a loved one during these months of quarantine has turned the question of God’s faithfulness into a mantra.
I repeated it and repeated it: “Is God faithful?” until I answered the question with a more salient question.
Yes, of course God is faithful. But am I?
God is always present to me. Even when I turn away from God or neglect my promises or just don’t show up like I say I will, God welcomes me back without chastisement. If I show the smallest hint of reaching toward God, there God is, no questions asked, faithful to me as always.
Yes, of course God is faithful. But am I?
I thought about the way I have tried to show up for people grieving the death of a loved one during the time of Covid-19. Whether the death happened in the past few months or many years ago, I try to be a faithful person in the face of their sorrow. Far from perfect, I often make mistakes, but I try to be a faithful person. And my faithfulness is in the image of God‘s faithfulness.
God does not become offended or give up on me when I don’t show up with full attention. God is faithful. I am faithful when I stand beside people without judging or needing anything in return. I don’t take unanswered phone calls or emails personally. I focus on just being present.
God might be lonely and feel misunderstood but God never puts that onto us. God is faithful. We can be faithful just like God when we agree to enter the pain of another for the long road ahead. We don’t make it our pain yet we are willing to be changed by it.
God listens to my prayers and does not always try to fix my problems. God is faithful. A faithful friend can sit with someone else’s pain and be silent. They are at ease with their inability to save that person. They simply hold the pain. That’s what God does. That’s what faithful friends do.
I can compare God’s faithfulness to human faithfulness, but I could never be the spokesperson for what faithfulness means to those who grieve. And so, for the purposes of this post, I did an extremely unscientific survey. I asked people who have suffered the death of a loved one what they experience from a friend or family member who is faithful.
David Klein, whose beloved son Danny died by suicide five years ago, told me that a faithful friend knows that it is always an appropriate time to acknowledge the loss. Faithful friends do not worry that by mentioning Danny‘s name, they will remind David of his loss. It’s not like David ever forgets. Faithful friends say the name.
Judy Klein adds that faithful friends expect and accept ups and downs, knowing that it is not about them. Faithful friends walk the sidelines of the path, listening to the silence and not talking.
Another wise congregant who is the parent of a child who died says that faithful friends are willing to accomplish the impossible. They are aware of and careful with their words but also don’t treat her like fragile glass that will break. Faithful friends ask questions and apologize if they say unintentionally hurtful things.
One man who is a widower told me that his faithful children know when to shed tears alongside him and when to be strong for him.
A daughter who lost her mother wrote that faithful friends let her know that she is not a burden.
Another congregant said to me, “Don’t worry that something you say might break me. I will not break, I am already broken.” She is one of the most powerfully faithful people I know. She embodies the import of Leonard Cohen‘s “Anthem”:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
The most faithful of us will remember that there is no perfect thing we can offer except our presence and our willingness to always look for the light. It seems to me that is how God is faithful. So that’s how we can do it – in God’s image.
With faithfulness, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
A skiff docked at the pier,
tied up, hawser with a splice anchoring bit to bollard,
battened down, unable to set sail,
rocking gently on the swells,
bow pointed into the sea.
Just there, in the bay,
in the turbulent winds of a hurricane,
tugboat, ferry, trawler and tall ship.
pitching, rolling, breaking apart, tossed and turned, capsizing.
I observe it all
I do not look away.
Under the same azure sky,
lit by the same sun,
in the same bay,
I am leeward and
they are in the storm. Rabbi Paula Mack Drill, May 12, 2020
My son Ben helped me write this poem, providing seaworthy language to complete the harbor metaphor. I have tried to describe the helpless feeling of being mandated to stay at home while right in our view, COVID-19 upturns and overturns and sinks lives.
I was content with my poem until I began to wonder about those who are not anchored, bit to bollard, at the dock. I thought about those who go out every day to essential jobs: grocery store cashiers, pizza makers, delivery women, postal workers, pharmacists, garbage collectors, construction supervisors. And I thought about the teachers working triple time from home to educate, support and soothe.
And then I thought about those who are going directly into the hurricane: certified nurse practitioners, home health aides, dietitians in residential facilities, orderlies, doctors, and nurses. My poem, it seems to me now, is only one piece of this connected and disconnected puzzle of humans during the pandemic.
Finally, I applied my harbor metaphor to our OJC community, thinking about those who go daily into the storm. We can be proud that among our OJC congregants are emergency room nurses, EMTs, pulmonary doctors, ICU physicians, pediatricians – front line heroes. They are facing down their fears, protecting themselves as best as they can, and some are getting sick as well.
And there are those who are working on the front lines in professions not mentioned so often in the news. In this post I will be describing four OJC heroes: a physical therapist, a funeral director, a family nurse practitioner, and a community care director. I do not use the word “hero” lightly. They are getting in their rescue crafts, leaving us at the pier and rushing out into the hurricane day after day.
For Loni Hersh, the best part of her career as a physical therapist has always been connecting with people, working with medically and emotionally challenged patients to overcome physical barriers and reach their highest potential. In the physical therapy department of a major New York hospital, her only frustration was wishing she had more time with every patient.
In the days since the pandemic began, however, everything Loni knows about her work has turned upside down. She now faces the most difficult medical situations of her career, working in the isolation and privacy of hospital rooms with very ill and lonely patients. Success on a Covid-19 unit is not measured by steps accomplished in hallways or climbing stairs but rather simply by moving from the bed to a chair. Loni flexes new skills when she works on a team of eight medical professionals who work to prone or supine patients, turning them from front to back or back to front every sixteen hours to receive optimal oxygen when they are intubated and sedated.
As loving and empathic as Loni is with patients, she knows she cannot substitute for family. She feels privileged to leave her home every day to do something productive and meaningful in this critical time. She knows that she is making a difference.
Gregg Brunwasser is a funeral director who is Manager of Hellman Memorial Chapels. All of Gregg‘s life, he has been drawn to helping people, from his days as an EMT and paramedic to becoming a funeral director. As he describes his calling, he works to make the worst day imaginable bearable.
Gregg uses all of his energy to ensure that Hellman is a dependable and compassionate chapel upon which families and clergy can depend. Many of us at OJC know Gregg as a caring presence whose priority is to help in any way possible. Gregg has traveled to elder congregants homes to help make arrangements, listens to every mourner with patience and care, and finds solutions to every kind of issue that arises. At the graveside, Gregg offers water in the summer and umbrellas in the rain.
Gregg’s focus on taking as much time as necessary for the care of individual families was turned on its head since the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. The chapel, which typically facilitates thirty-five funerals in a month had to cope with 108 funerals in the month of April.
Gregg explained that Hellman has been able to maintain Jewish ritual from shmira to tahara. But every cemetery has different rules and sometimes the rules change by the day. The families Hellman has served through this time have not been able to receive the comfort of a completely traditional burial with family and friends surrounding them.
For Gregg, the level of sorrow felt by those who have lost loved ones has made this time particularly challenging and painful. His strength comes from working side-by-side with his wife Eva and the rest of his team at Hellman. Despite all of the limitations due to the pandemic, Gregg is certain that both the deceased and the mourners receive as much care and dignity as possible. This surety helps him get through these difficult weeks.
Leslie Cooper is a family nurse practitioner at the Cornerstone Primary Care Family Health Center at Jawonio. While the majority of Leslie’s patients are Jawonio and other group home consumers who have special or complex needs; because Cornerstone accepts all insurance or no insurance at all, Leslie takes care of the most vulnerable people in our community. What she values most about her work is the loving interactions she shares with her patients. This was true before the pandemic and it continues to be true despite the innumerable ways in which Covid-19 has overturned Leslie’s work and the lives of the people to whom she is dedicated.
Before COVID-19, the lack of equality in healthcare would keep her up at night, but she always managed to figure out a way around or through to get her clients the tests and appointments they needed. These days, it is the vulnerability of the community she cares for that is her main concern. Federally qualified health centers are reducing hours or closing because they do not bring in revenue.
The hardest days have been those when she was managing consulting phone calls from the group homes. Without much time to ponder possibilities, Leslie would give out an answer and receive the next question. With most of her work done via telehealth, Leslie has depended on her intuition and trust in the nurses and direct service providers who care for the group home residents. She finds herself juggling, prioritizing and getting enough data to decide if her clients are safe at home. Knowing Leslie, it is easy to imagine her giving calm advice to non-medical staff members and reassurances to families whose loved ones have chronic medical needs complicated by Covid-19.
While these tasks are all within her skill set, the number of people sick with the virus has been overwhelming. Leslie has seen group home employees and consumers get sick during the month of April, and many have died. She and her colleagues at the office have little time to grieve one loss before hearing about another. Throughout these painfully difficult weeks, Leslie feels pride in being a nurse. She gets up every day and goes to take care of “her people”. She says that she is privileged to do so.
Marcy Pressman is the Deputy Executive Director, Community Care, of NYC Health and Hospitals. That is a great big title for a great big job, which of course, Marcy would never mention unless I specifically asked. Managing the repercussions of a pandemic on hospitals is exactly what Marcy is trained to do. I think of her as standing at the center of the epicenter. While we are sheltering at home, Marcy is working seven days a week, up to thirteen hours a day.
Marcy is caring for the most vulnerable people – members of the immigrant community, elderly poor, and economically disadvantaged families. In the throes of disorganization and lack of preparedness at all levels, Marcy has found herself begging, borrowing, bargaining, doing anything necessary to acquire space, equipment and PPE required by professionals in the hospitals. She is managing hotels in Queens that she converted to isolation and quarantine spaces for Covid-19 patients who no longer require ICU or acute care, but can still infect others while they recover. The hotels are also used for monitoring newly diagnosed Covid-19 patients who are at risk of infecting others due to their inability to self-quarantine.
Marcy has a big picture view of the crisis and deep knowledge about what we must do to provide care and safety for all citizens. But the stories she most wanted to share were not about frustrations and policies, rather Marcy spoke about the individuals impacted by this virus: a recovered mom and her newborn baby with no home to return to, a new widower, very ill people without health care, homeless patients, and people without jobs. Marcy has lost colleagues to this virus. Every day she is on the floors, taking precautions, trying to fix and patch wherever she can. To Marcy, Covid-19 is not about numbers and statistics, it is about individual lives.
These OJC congregants are among the true heroes. I asked all four of them the same question: How do you feel about those of us sheltering at home while you go to work every day? I thought that they might find our complaints about the rain or lack of kosher chicken in the grocery annoying or even selfish. I was wrong. Each one of them said some version of the same answer: “Everyone must do what they must do.” “Sheltering at home is an act that saves lives.” “I am proud to do my work.” “It is a privilege to feel effective in this crisis.” It must be noted that all of them spoke about frustration with those who refuse to abide by the stay at home mandate or even protest against it. As Marcy Pressman said, “I am privileged to bear witness to heroes.” Like most of us, I am committed to staying at home for as long as it takes to protect the health care community and the life-saving work that they are doing.
And so, the vast majority of our OJC community are skiffs tied up at the pier, rocking gently in the waves as we shelter at home, feeling lonely, isolated, frustrated and worried. As we look out into the bay, watching helplessly as the storm rages, wishing we could help those who are struggling with illness and grief, let us be grateful for these rescue boats. They are rushing everyday into the storm with the strength and skill to keep afloat those with the deepest needs.
With prayers for all of our health and safety, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
More than a month ago, a friend asked if I am journaling every day. She thought it would “really be something” to capture this unprecedented time and then look back at my words a year from now. She is certainly right. But it seems I cannot write; after five and a half weeks of stay-at-home, I have two entries, each no more than a paragraph, sentences drifting off in the middle.
I have planned to write this post for weeks now. Every day I write little pieces of it in my mind, but then, before I even begin, I decide that it has all been said already: The times are hard; look for the silver lining. We have great sorrow; still we try to be grateful. What else is there to say?
I realized today that what has actually kept me from writing is that I cannot comprehend the texture of this time. I simply cannot wrap my head around this time of languishment. (I remember feeling this way in college, reading Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. If you also read it, you understand.)
We Jews are so good at understanding time as a container, a useful vessel for emotion, striving, and cataloguing: Shabbat, 10 Days of Awe, Three Weeks, 49 days of Omer.
Yet it is hard to understand what is happening in this particular time. If there is indeed a time for everything under heaven, I do not think it includes this pandemic. Do we think there is nothing new under the sun? We must think again. We have never before known COVID-19.
The days slip by. I think Sunday is Monday. I go to bed early or very late. I wake in the middle of the night worrying about small details, my sleepy brain unable to go to my real concerns. I breathe deeply and smile and model optimism. Just under the surface of each day, however, is an existentialist anxiety. Beyond questions of when will it end and how will we cope lies the theological impossibility: What does it mean? Here we are, full stride in the midst of it, and we have absolutely no idea what it all means. Hence, anxiety.
We are taught to face anxiety with a good dose of gratitude. Gratitude, I can do. I am grateful for many gifts: walking in my neighborhood in the spring time,
practicing yoga virtually (I have finally been able to follow my own mantra: ‘Stay on my own mat’ – no one else to look at!), rediscovering the pleasures of my kitchen – inventing new recipes like carmelized pearl onions and cauliflower soup with red peppers. I made Sharon Rappaport‘s mother’s Passover popovers for the first time in years. (Thank you, Estelle, they are delicious!)
But I know that these months are not just an extended retreat from the world. No matter how content I might be during hours at home, no matter how I seek out reasons to be thankful, the entire world around me fills my heart and mind with sadness and concern.
I have completely good health. My kids are all safely at their homes, jobs intact, healthy and in good spirits. My in-laws are in their own homes, tucked away and safe.
But across my driveway, our beloved Millie is recovering from a fierce bout with the virus. She is a certified nurse aide at a geriatric center and had no choice but to go to work even when she didn’t feel completely well. No fever? Come to work. The Center is – like so many caregiving facilities – desperately short-staffed. Millie is an hourly worker who needs each paycheck. And she is a dedicated compassionate worker who now worries about the residents who are missing her special care and attention.
Across the airwaves, I speak with our congregants who are ill, worried about their family members, or grieving losses. I receive notices from the three synagogues to which I belong as well as from the Rabbinical Assembly. I wring my hands thinking about Rabbi Scheff officiating at four funerals within a 24 hour span of time (and today in this monsoon). I speak to our congregants who describe literally and metaphorically standing on the other side of a pane of glass, trying to connect to their loved ones… trying to connect to their own grief. In the mourners, we sense a shock that goes well beyond the usual experience of bereavement. This precious OJC community will have work to do when this is over. The work of healing and rebuilding will require as much courage as this work of sustaining community in the crisis.
Covid-19 has stolen so much from us. Children have lost the ability to play with friends, teens have lost their clubs and sports, young adults have lost graduations, wedding dates, promises of summer jobs. Adults have lost health, jobs, the ability to care for our vulnerable family members, holiday gatherings, structure, and a sense of security. We simply do not know how to understand this passage of time.
And so we will count the Omer and remember the lessons of counting up: That every day is a gift. That we count up to appreciate and remember. That Judaism and community offer us structure when the world is chaotic.
This year, it looks like we’ll be counting toward Shavuot and just keep on counting. When will it end and how will we cope? I do not know, but I know that it will end and we will cope.
What does it mean? We will not ever know. But we can learn something about what it means each day as we count the Omer. We can say thank you to God for the goodness in our life. We can reach out each day to someone who is suffering emotionally, spiritually or physically from this plague. When there is no meaning, Judaism teaches us to make meaning.
Stay safe and healthy in mind, body and soul, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
My youngest son Josh flew back to Israel this afternoon after three months in the United States following completion of his army service.
As soon as he lands, he will go straight to his apartment where he will begin 14 days of quarantine. His roommates will leave food for him outside his bedroom door and whenever he emerges, he will need to wipe down every surface he touches. Josh has a great attitude about the quarantine, explaining that he has a lot to read and will have plenty of time to prepare for his entrance exams for Tel Aviv University. The quarantine is inconvenient and worrisome, but it is required by Israeli law and certainly not devastating for Josh.
My in-laws are 87 and 92 years old. Earlier tonight, I brought dinner over as is our Wednesday night custom. We sheepishly bumped elbows and it felt very strange not to embrace them. They told me that they had sold their tickets to see the Philadelphia Philharmonic this Sunday, and my mother-in-law regrets missing her favorite conductor. It is isolating and worrisome to be an elder through this time of Covid-19 precautions, but the precautions are necessary and not devastating for them.
My niece and her roommate moved into my guestroom tonight since their college announced its closure just three days after they had returned from spring break. They brought most of their stuff here with them, not sure if their college will reopen this year. Online courses are beginning for them next week, but they wonder how much learning they’ll accomplish. College and university closures are extraordinary and difficult for everyone involved, but they are prudent and not devastating for my niece or her roommate.
Throughout this roller coaster of a growing national medical emergency, I have tried to maintain balance and perspective for myself and on behalf of the OJC community. I am proud of our president, Michael Pucci, and our professional staff, who have made very difficult decisions in a reasonable, calm, and careful manner. If we err, we err on the side of safety. The decisions that we make impact every age and stage of our congregation.
It was disappointing to cancel festivities for Purim – a carnival for children, a dance party for which our in-house band rehearsed for months, an adult night club, and a grand seudah on Purim day. Volunteer committees had worked for months to plan all of these joyful programs, and everything except for the Megillah readings was canceled. Disappointing, yes. Devastating? No.
But let’s consider together what truly is devastating about the Coronavirus pandemic.
People are becoming very ill with this terrible flu, especially elderly people and those with compromised immune systems. We pray for speedy recoveries.
People who live on the edge financially will be pushed over that edge by weeks of quarantine or illness. Those who are paid daily wages, who punch a clock, who do not have adequate sick leave, will struggle mightily to recover long after the flu is gone.
People with inadequate medical insurance will struggle to pay for prescriptions and doctors’ bills. People who are undocumented will hesitate to go to hospitals or doctors.
Many of the children whose schools are closing will miss their free breakfasts and lunches, dependable nutrition for 2/3 of their daily meals. Many parents will have a difficult time replacing those meals for their children. Many parents will be left figuring out how to go to work without childcare now that schools are closed.
Elderly people, adults with developmental disabilities or mental health issues, the youth who attend the twice weekly drop-in program at the Rockland Pride Center, family members who attend support groups, all will be impacted by the closure of community centers and other gathering places.
It is always true in our society that those who are most vulnerable suffer first and suffer the greatest amount when difficult times hit. I pray that we keep all of these people in mind and take action if we are able to help.
Reach out with phone calls to the elders of our community who are experiencing social distancing now. Many are staying at home as advised. Others live in nursing homes and assisted care residences where visiting is currently discouraged. Be sure they know that you are thinking of them.
Write an extra check to Meals on Wheels. Drop off more food than usual for People to People or Rhoda Bloom Kosher Food Pantry, great Rockland organizations that help those in need make ends meet.
Write a supportive note to friends who are at high risk from Covid-19 because of their professional work – hospital emergency room workers, EMTs, nurse aides in facilities for the elderly, doctors and nurses.
At the very time when we need to be close to one another, we are counseled toward a necessary “social distancing.” When the world feels unpredictable, we yearn to be in community, yet we are canceling gathering after gathering. We are used to planning ahead, but we cannot prepare because we do not know what will happen next.
But for the most part, most of us are among the privileged few. If we are quarantined, our community and friends will ensure that we have food to eat. If we need to miss work, we will not risk losing our jobs. If our children’s schools close, they will have plenty to eat for breakfast and lunch. If we grumble about doctors’ bills, we can eventually pay them without going under. And if these things are not all true for you and your family, but you are a part of the OJC, you belong to a supportive, sacred community that will help. You are not alone.
Maintaining an attitude of gratitude will help us get through these confusing and difficult times.
Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh – All of Israel is responsible one for the other. When we say bazeh (in each other) instead of lazeh (to each other), we add a deeper truth to this foundational rabbinic teaching. Not only are we responsible, we are intertwined.
With friendship, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
What if you knew for sure that you would see or hear something unusual? What if you knew for certain that you would experience something extraordinary? Would you miss it?
Oh, I know that Saturday mornings are just right for getting errands done, picking up the dry cleaning or purchasing a new shower curtain. Saturdays are perfect for boot camp workouts, kids’ soccer tournaments, or – on crisp sunny days – hiking in Harriman State Park. On Saturday mornings, you can meet your cousin for coffee or visit your niece after surgery. I know… on Saturdays you can even just sleep in after an over-scheduled week.
But what if being in Shabbat on a Saturday morning promised something that transcends all of that? Would you just skip it?
If you come to synagogue on Saturday morning instead of everything else you do…
Perhaps the davenner* will chant El Adon in a different tune, not the expected tune, but in the one that was sung in your childhood when you sat next to your grandfather in shul.*
Perhaps you’ll watch as five-year-old twins run purposefully down the aisle and onto the bima* at the start of the Torah service to be handed silver Torah crowns which they hold up proudly as if they are the whole point of the service. You definitely find yourself grinning as you watch them walk solemnly behind the adult holding the Torah.
Perhaps you’ll see a proud nonagenarian ascend the bima, slow but sure-footed, to accept an aliyah* and receive a blessing for the 80th anniversary of his bar mitzvah.
Perhaps you’ll see a seven-month-old baby girl receive her Hebrew name on the bima and lean forward to send a big, sloppy toothless grin in the direction of her great- grandmother for whose husband she has just been named.
Perhaps you will rise when the Prayer for Healing is chanted and you will have a clear picture in your mind of your friend who is recuperating from surgery. You will sense that your prayer can reach him in his Boston hospital.
Perhaps you’ll be invited to open the ark when the Torah is placed back there after the recessional and when you look at the colorfully decorated Torahs, the congregation sings Hashivenu, “Return us to the days of old.” And you aren’t sure why, but you feel something in your heart unlock.
Perhaps you’ll see a man chant the haftara* to honor his brother’s yahrzeit* and as you follow in the English, you realize that this story of Jonathan and David from the Book of Samuel was your haftara when you became bat mitzvah. As you pay closer attention, you remember all the words.
Perhaps you’ll sit down next to a woman you don’t know well, but has always reminded you from a distance of your mother. And as you silently tear up, missing your mother so much even after 24 years, this fellow congregant hands you a tissue. And you feel your mother’s soul closer than you have in years.
Perhaps the words of the Dvar Torah* will strike a chord deep within you, answering a question that has been lurking in your mind, an important question not yet articulated.
If any one of these transcendent moments were likely to happen on a Saturday morning, would you just miss it?
Holiness does not arrive with trumpets and drums but with quietly perceived moments.
All of these moments do happen. Will you be there with me to experience them? Life holds the promise of being so much more than our own routine.
A community of holiness awaits you every Saturday at nine. I’ll see you there.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
*Translations so we’re all on the same page:
Davenner – one who is praying, in this case, the one who is leading the prayers.
Shul – a cozy Yiddish word meaning synagogue.
Bima – platform at the front of a synagogue where the Torah service takes place.
Aliyah – the honor of reciting blessings before and after a portion of the Torah (also called an aliyah) is chanted.
Haftara – a section from the Book of Prophets chanted on Shabbat and holiday mornings.
Yahrzeit – the anniversary of the death of a person according to the Jewish calendar.
Dvar Torah – literally, words of Torah, designates a sermon or a teaching given by a rabbi or a knowledgeable person at Shabbat services.
We can be proud of OJC.
I do not write that sentence lightly. It is something to be proud of our synagogue, and let me be clear: I am speaking about the people of the place, not the place itself.
This past Shabbat, #ojcsupportsU, under the creative leadership of Miriam Suchoff and Mark Brownstein, once again served our community with a sacred, meaningful consideration of mental illness and mental health. Together, we spent a Shabbat and Sunday putting a face to mental illness.
A Friday evening Neshama service lead by Music Director Amichai Margolis and a community dinner after established the tone of the Shabbaton: Olam hesed yibaneh. We will build a world with loving kindness.
Shabbat morning services were highlighted by a transformative sermon given by one of our own congregants, Sharona Levine: Sharona Levine’s sermon January 2020. In powerful and accessible words, Sharona shared her story. She explained why she decided to tell her community about her family’s struggles with mental illness: “What made me decide to speak up was the day I finally felt empowered. And I wanted to pass that feeling on to someone else. I went from feeling bereft in the beginning stages, to ashamed, from self-blame to angry – to educated – to empowered. Why am I standing here in front of you today? Because I want you to know: If you are the sufferer – you are not alone; if you are the caretaker – you are the key, and you are not alone; and if you are a community member or passerby in anyone’s life with mental illness— you can make all the difference by your language, your non-whispers, and your role modeling to others.”
Those of us who heard Sharona‘s words will be changed forever. So many people approached her after to share their own story. After all, when it comes to mental illness, everyone has a story.
Miriam Suchoff led a special program for the children of our community and their parents about recognizing emotional responses in others. At the end of kiddush lunch, congregants participated in interactive dramatics and discussion. We had a Rabbis’ Tisch for our teens where we discussed how and when to reach out to others. In the afternoon, we practiced a variety of ways to cultivate mental wellness: a walk, a talk, or yoga were the choices.
On Sunday morning, 25 people attended a breakfast roundtable presented by NAMI.
And the weekend was completed by a seasonal healing service led by Amichai Margolis and me.
So what was accomplished?
The people who participated in the Shabbaton experienced insights, gained information, and felt the support of our community.
The committee was invigorated and is busy planning next steps.
The clear message of OJC as an inclusive community was heard loud and clear.
And what of all the people who could have benefited from the Shabbat or the weekend but were not able to attend? The very people who need support so often are not able to come into community. We know this fact to be true.
We just keep trying. We just keep sharing the message that our intention is to stop the stigma. Want to join us? Contact Miriam and Mark: firstname.lastname@example.org.
When we put a face to mental illness, we look all around and we see that it affects all of us.
With friendship, hope and optimism, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Rabbi Scheff and I arrived in Boston on Sunday afternoon, December 8, 2019 for the USCJ/RA (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and Rabbinical Assembly) conference and planned to have our first dinner together with OJC leaders Sharon Aach, Michael Pucci and Hara Hartman. What an additional pleasure to be joined by Michael and Hara’s two daughters, Greta and Sophia, who are both students in Boston. Sophia is a freshman at Northeastern University, and Greta is studying optometry at New England College of Optometry. As Greta filled me in on what it is like to be studying optometry, I reflected on how perfectly apt was the name of this year‘s conference: 20/20 Judaism.
As we are on the cusp of entering a new decade, Conservative Judaism’s leaders, professionals, clergy, and educators need to see clearly. With our vision corrected for 20/20, we will be able to make sense of today’s great challenges.
At this tumultuous time of change, threat, and discord the conference provided an optimistic space for sacred dialogue, for harnessing our collective wisdom and strength.
While there are many who claim that the Conservative Movement is broken, I see us instead in a period of transition. We are the Ramah Camping Movement, United Synagogue Youth, Day Schools, Nativ Year Course, seminaries and graduate schools, synagogues and their supplemental schools. We are powerful communities, institutions, and places of higher education bound together by a collective belief in the covenant we hold with God. Within our movement, there are many ways to understand this covenant, but we are all bound by it.
It seems to me that the unique task of Conservative Judaism among the many rich streams of Judaism is to hold the center. Tradition and change, practicality and spirituality, prayer and action, halakha (law) and autonomy… in each pair of values held in tension, we strive to be balanced.
It is not easy to hold the center. It is not as seductive as claiming one side or the other. But after spending days praying, learning, debating, and singing with the people of my particular brand of Judaism, I believe that it is the essential way to live Judaism today.
If the meaning of community has changed, still the need for meaning is stronger than ever. We must go deep and we must be real.
If Judaism is the creative application of Torah across the generations, then Abraham Joshua Heschel was correct: It is not required of us to take a leap of faith but rather a leap of action.
B’yedidut, With friendship, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
I made plans for dinner with a friend who returned from a year of rabbinical study in Israel. On impulse, I invited him to arrive early to the OJC for our appointment in order to see Kulanu (our children’s education program) in action. At 5:30 on Tuesday, I walked Andrew through the bright, light hallways of our new Kulanu wing, the Walerstein Family Center for Jewish Living and Learning. So much was going on!
Kindergarten,1st and 2nd graders sat on mats in the Daniel Beer Music and Tefillah Room with their teachers and Amichai Margolis, our Music Director. To the lively tunes Amichai played on guitar, they sang enthusiastically (and loudly!), preparing for Mitzvah Day when we’ll be singing for the elders of Esplanade on the Palisades.
In several different rooms, in small clusters, volunteer congregants mentored one or two learners in reading Hebrew. The Yachad program empowers children to conquer the decoding and practice required to read fluently. We saw heads bent toward each other, and heard a low rumble of reading that was punctuated by an occasional “Great!” and even some applause.
Teen madrichim (teacher assistants) were engaged in the Beit Midrash (Learning Center) with Youth Director Sharon Rappaport. Their monthly training in leadership and education skills fosters their sense of dedication and responsibility. I’m not exactly sure what they were doing but it definitely involved Jenga and Oreo cookies!
Rabbinical student Ben Varon teaches a parent education course during Kulanu hours every other week. Parents have the opportunity to model lifelong learning for their children.
At the close of two hours of hevruta (partnered) study, learning in the Jewish living room, and Yachad, all of the learners and several parents gathered in the Sanctuary to sing with Amichai. Rabbi Scheff and Rabbinical student Jesse Nagelberg danced in the aisle! We all stood together to sing HaTikvah, Israel’s national anthem. What an incredible learning experience! This is not your Zayde’s cheder… or my own Hebrew School experience…or even our successful Religious School as it was at OJC for decades. This is something brand new.
Kulanu means All of Us, and as Andrew and I walked amidst all that energy and joy, I felt how aptly the name fits our education program. All of us who identify with the sacred obligation of educating our children can participate in Kulanu. Seeing the program through the eyes of a guest was satisfying.
I felt proud of OJC after a year of dreaming, strategizing and working hard to bring this vision to fruition.
If you know a Jewish child who is not currently receiving education or if you are interested in getting involved, contact Rabbi Miriam, Kulanu Director, at Kulanu@theojc.org.
Who will build the Judaism of the next generation? Kulanu! All of us!
B’yedidut, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
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