The Kulanu 4th graders were competing in a Zoom scavenger hunt, and I had asked them to find something in their house that symbolizes what it means to be Jewish. One of the learners was empty handed. “I can’t bring it to the screen,” he said. When I asked him to explain, he said that it was attached to the kitchen door.
A mezuzah! I was enthusiastic about his choice. In Deuteronomy 6:9, we read that we must write the remembrance of God’s law on the doorpost of our house and on our gates.
During this Passover, our second pandemic year of celebration in strangely isolated ways, Zoom seders and brisket for one, I have been thinking a great deal about doorways.
When we enter or exit a Jewish space with a mezuzah on the door, we are meant to touch or kiss or look at it, pausing to reflect on God’s covenant with us.
The mezuzah is also a continuous reminder of Passover and the experience of enslavement. How so?
On the night before our exodus, we were told to paint our doorposts with the blood of a lamb to save us from the Angel of Death who would mysteriously kill all the first born of Egypt but pass over the Israelite homes. Moses and Aaron had been told by God an important piece of the puzzle, but the people did not yet know. Within hours, we’d be girding our loins, wearing our sandals and eating that lamb hurriedly as we got out of Egypt, leaving slavery behind that very night. The sign on our doorposts would save us from death, and we thought that was enough. We could not even dream of freedom until we were told to run out the door toward it.
It was a liminal moment: we were no longer slaves as we were taking matters into our own hands, but we were not yet free.
One year later in the Torah, (in the maftir aliya) we were told to honor that liminal moment by sacrificing a paschal lamb and celebrating a festival every year on the anniversary.
Of course, today we no longer make animal sacrifices but we still celebrate that very festival called Passover. At this time of year, each time I pass through a doorway with a mezuzah, I think about the moment when my ancestors walked out of their homes in Egypt and out into the frightening unknown of something called freedom. We know from reading about their grumbling, ungrateful, contentious behavior in the desert that it was a very difficult transition. Many of them wanted to turn around and go back to Egypt. As terrible as Egyptian enslavement was, it was known.
And here we are, at the end of March 2021, more than one year after the pandemic began, once again at a transition point. Many of us have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Unlike so many of our family, friends, and neighbors, we have been saved from the Angel of Death. With care, we are told that we can begin the process of leaving our quarantine and isolation.
We know very well what has been experienced in the past year, but we have no idea about what lies ahead. Like our enslaved ancestors in Egypt, we know what we are leaving behind but have no idea what lies ahead. Many of us are having trouble passing through the threshold toward freedom. Like those unknowing, hurried slave ancestors of ours, we might have moments when we want to return to the safe haven of living separate and alone.
Judaism, however, is meant to be lived in community: in minyans of ten and many more than ten, at shared meals in our synagogue simcha room and around crowded dining room tables, in classrooms for children and for adults, in horas danced with joy, in Jewish camps and on trips to Israel. It is toward the sacred goal of kehillah, community, that we will keep intending. As much as we don’t know about the world beyond sheltering at home, we will cross this threshold. And as we are passing through our doorways, let us meditate on our mezuzot. Let’s talk about our relationship with God, our gratitude for our lives, and our dedication to participate in an all-inclusive kind of freedom as we sit in our houses and walk on the way, as we lie down and rise up… and we shall write our post Covid stories on the doorposts of our house and on our gates.
Two candles burn side by side in my dining room as I prepare for another pandemic Shabbat. First is a tall seven-day shiva candle, blackened around the top after burning for six days. Jon is coming to the conclusion of shiva for his mother, Ruth Finkelstein Ignatoff, z”l. The second was lit last night for the 11th of Kislev, a yahrzeit candle for my mother, Frances Weisberg Mack, z”l, who died just before Thanksgiving twenty-four years ago. Every year at the end of November from now on, we will remember two mothers whose most sacred holiday was Thanksgiving.
When I realized that today is Black Friday, an intensive retail engrossment that I have never fully understood, I said jokingly to a friend, “Black Friday has a brand-new meaning for me this year.” He agreed and added, “I guess Thanksgiving ever after is ruined for you.”
That could be one way of looking at it. But that is not the way I look at it.
It is true that Thanksgiving is now attached to two significant deaths. But Thanksgiving is also the holiday when our first born, Noah, arrived in the world. And Thanksgiving is also the holiday when Ben and Lindsay were engaged to be married last year.
There is enormous power in the stories that we tell ourselves, in the way that we tell our stories and the perspective we take as narrators. We can shape our stories so that they are useful and comforting, or we can take on a viewpoint that creates a story with us as suffering protagonists at the center of depressing events beyond our control. So often we seem to forget that WE are the authors of our own stories. So this is how I will tell my family Thanksgiving story:
Thanksgiving has been sacred in Jonathan‘s family from a time long before he can remember. His Grandma Sadye’s large, extended family would gather in the Woonsocket, Rhode Island house for an entire weekend which included a Thanksgiving dinner for sixty family members in two seatings. Jon’s siblings and cousins share happy memories of candlepin bowling, Uncle Rick’s drooling St. Bernard, annual trips to Grandpa Noah‘s coat factory for new jackets, and Friday lunch at Howard Johnson’s.
Thanksgiving shifted and changed over the years, but it always remained Jon’s mother’s holiday. Elements of the invitation list and menu have stayed in place; and the weekend long celebration and treasured traditions continue with new participants and locations. My house filled up every year with my in-laws and my nieces and nephews; everyone magically finding someplace to put down a pillow. My sister-in-law Maggie and Jon’s brother Dave found a way to fit all the tables in their house and welcomed us in for a day of eating, board games and poker. And my mother-in-law always reigned over the day. Maggie has copious notes in Ruth’s handwriting to prove it!
If we held the perspective that those good old days will never return again, we would be missing the new experiences there to be enjoyed over the years. If we held the perspective that this season is now one of loss, we would negate the special joys that continue at Thanksgiving time.
Just two of us sat down to dinner last night with a 20-pound turkey and only one meat eater. But after zoom calls to express gratitude, we were perfectly content with our Thanksgiving experience. The main point is the gratitude, and that is the story Jon and I told each other as we shared a meal of plenty.
Last night after minyan, Rabbi Scheff shared a playlist of five Israeli songs about gratitude to enhance our Thanksgivings. My favorite, by the late, great Uzi Hitman, is called “Todah” (Thanks).
Thanks for all that You’ve created, thanks for what You’ve given me. For our eyesight, a friend or two,
for what I have in the world.
For the song which flows,
and a forgiving heart
– because of all this – I exist.
Several congregants have mentioned to me that in the past couple of weeks, it feels like the clouds are starting to part and the sun will break through to shine again. I think, however, that we still have months to go in this pandemic. I am not expecting complete sunshine quite yet. But I am grateful that I have arms that can reach up to the sky and help push those clouds out of the way.
Because of all this, I exist.
Shabbat shalom, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
As we gathered in person and via Zoom for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, two things gave me pause and helped me think about ba-yamim ha-elu baz’man hazeh. (to paraphrase and tweak a blessing:) in these days in this time.
First, the Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) in our sanctuary was glowing once again. Perhaps you never noticed, but somewhat shockingly, the bulb in our Eternal Light went out midsummer. We made do with Joe’s flashlight because the replacement was on back order for weeks and weeks. (Sorry for this disclosure to those of you who assumed that the Eternal Light in our Sanctuary burns according to the will of God. A part of me has always thought that too. Nonetheless, our beautiful Eternal Light shines because of electricity and a light bulb.) But at last, on the first day of the New Year, for the first time in months, God was most definitely back in our Sanctuary. (Let me be clear, I do not think that God was missing from us; God was probably visiting us via Zoom while we were out of the Sanctuary for months.)
The second thing happened when Rabbi Hersh and a couple of his kids came in to their usual seats just before services began. As he put on his tallit, he spotted something in the book holder. As he pulled up a children’s book, My Purim Parade, he and I shared an over-the-face-mask look of disbelief and acceptance. The last time our community had gathered in the Sanctuary, albeit in limited number, have been for the Megillah reading at Purim.
These two small details have informed my thinking for the last nine days, from Rosh Hashanah to the beginning of Yom Kippur this evening. Time moves forward in a straight line. Lightbulbs go out, Krista orders a replacement, weeks go by, and the lightbulb is replaced. Purim takes place in March, Passover and Shavuot follow, and now we find ourselves in Aseret Y’mei Hateshuvah (Ten Days of Repentance). Through these months of pandemic upheaval, time has marched steadily forward.
Jewish time, however, moves in a completely different way, in a circular fashion. While the calendar marches forward, it also goes in a great circle. Our weeks move toward Shabbat and then circle back again to the next Shabbat. In the same spirit of cycles, each month begins and ends with a new moon. Before we know it, Purim will come again and then Passover. We clean up the crumbs from the hamantaschen and take out the Passover dishes every year, year after year.
Our teshuva (repentance) is also circular in its fashion. Every year we rise as the beginning strains of Kol Nidre are chanted. Something moves within us. We have marched forward for an entire year, but somehow, here we are, considering the same mistakes that we make every year.
I will experience linear and circular time simultaneously tonight. I will think: How can I be standing here again, still wondering when I will remember to be patient and stop gossiping and pause before speaking and not judge people? What good does it do if I stand here every year still mired in my same mistakes?
The answer comes if we are able to integrate the Gregorian calendar self together with the Jewish calendar self. My friend Anne envisions the marriage of linear time to circular time as an ever-ascending spiral staircase. We go around but ever higher, always forward. Thinking back over these Covid months, she pointed out to me that when you are ascending a circular staircase, the turning perspectives and the angles of your climb mean that you cannot always see the steps you have taken. All of our positive steps forward might be hidden from view as we look ahead on the climb, hoping to see where we are going. We forget to look back down at the many steps we have taken. We forget that success and failure, triumph and mistakes are all part of this circular, linear path of living.
Since the pandemic began, I have studied Hebrew weekly with a terrific teacher, my son Josh. We have a sichah (conversation) during which he texts me new vocabulary words which we use in conversation the following week. One week when we were scheduling a time for our shiur (lesson), I made a mistake in the conjunction of the verb. Josh corrected me and then I wrote: Kein, todah, ani ta-iti. (Yes, thanks, I made a mistake). Josh wrote back: “To make a mistake is a fabulous thing. It makes learning possible.” And there you have it! Yom Kippur in a WhatsApp message!
I am imperfect, created to be imperfect by a perfect God. Surely God knew what God was doing when creating imperfect me. Yes, I show up year after year, still hoping to refine and renew, still planning to adjust and refocus, still beating my chest about the same faults and habits. But if I stand on the circle of time, at the same geometric point on that circle, back again at Yom Kippur, I can see that I am new, I am different, I have moved forward. I have grown from a year of walking straight along the linear time of 5780. I have also grown in my soul as I circle back once again to the 10th of Tishrei, a split-second jump with full faith from 5780 to 5781.
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