The rain falls in sheets in Tel Aviv in January. The skies can be blue for hours so that the suddenness of the rain is as surprising as its force. Other times, the entire atmosphere, from the sky above to the ground under my feet seems to be rain-filled so that I am walking inside of clouds.
The sunshine in January here is equally curious. I leave the apartment, expecting to feel the warmth of the sun, and all I feel is bone-deep cold. The temperatures are certainly not at the freezing level of back home in New Jersey, and yet I feel the wind as a raw, biting thing. I am walking inside of a melting iceberg.
As my grandmother, and probably your grandmother, used to say: “There is no bad weather, only the wrong clothing”. And so I pile on layers, put on a hat, and even wear gloves when it appears that no one in Tel Aviv even owns them. I wear wool socks and carry an umbrella everywhere.
For his part, Carmel seems oblivious to the weather that concerns his Bubbe. He kicks off the blanket I tuck in all around his legs, toddles around the playground in just his tread-bottomed socks, and sits behind the rain protector over his stroller like a king.
The weather, like life itself, is all about one’s perspective. When I called my cousin to see if she expected me at the Hertzliya Train Station at 12 or 12:30 to meet for our lunch, she told me she thought I was calling to cancel because it was raining. I laughed.
I am so deeply grateful to have been able to fly to Israel during my sabbatical, nothing will keep me inside. Except when I want to stay inside!
Both the pandemic and this sabbatical have taught me not to feel pressure to achieve some maximum amount in a given timeframe. I am relishing the freedom of focusing on one thing at a time. I pray quietly and with intense intentions. I practice yoga on my own, on a mat rolled out in Sarah and Sagi‘s living room, taking whatever shapes come into my mind. I take classes virtually, write in my journal, and take long walks through my beloved Tel Aviv. And I pick up Carmel from gan (childcare) every day at 4:00 and have wonderful adventures with him until we return home for dinner, bath, and bed.
I have always thought of time as a container to fill to the top with meaningful activity and accomplishment. Filling that container each day has kept me motivated, passionate, and fulfilled. It has also, however, kept me stressed, on edge, running from one thing to the next. My next appointment would begin before my last even finished. I never felt my To Do list was done.
I am finally learning that time is something that simply unfolds, much like the weather, and my task is to move along with it. I cannot control it. Why not just live inside of it?
So most days, I button up and go out into the world of Tel Aviv, to walk along Dizengoff Street or to stop at one of the outdoor cafés for a latte. Neither the weather nor the time of day matters. But on other days, like today, I just stay indoors, start the cooking for Shabbat, and write a blog post to let you all know that I am thinking of you.
In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro watches his son-in-law Moshe exhaust himself by counseling and judging the Israelites from morning to night all alone. He offers Moshe a reframe: “What you are doing is not good. You need to delegate responsibilities. You need to take a break.”
Rabbi Scheff and I were blessed many years ago with a loving relationship with Bernie Schiffmiller z”l, a congregant and Yitro of our own, who used to say to us, “You’ll be no good to anyone if you don’t take care of yourselves.”
And today, we have all of you, our OJC family, who grant your rabbis sabbaticals with the same loving generosity.
As for me, I am learning about the weather and about time. And this week, I am getting ready to receive Torah once again.
May your days all be sunny or rainy and may you relish whichever they are!
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Note: Both Rabbi Drill and Rabbi Scheff tested positive for Covid, one week apart, during this uptick due to the Omicron variant. Thankfully, both rabbis had fairly mild symptoms. Rabbi Drill shares her thoughts on the experience of having the virus as she comes out of isolation at the end of today. Rabbi Scheff will share his thoughts in Part Two next week.
I could tell you my story like this: You all could not feel as bad for me as I feel for myself. I finally began my long awaited and much-needed three-month sabbatical and after only three days, I tested positive for Covid. After almost two years of precaution and careful rule following, I have the virus. Not only is my trip to Israel canceled due to the travel ban, but the trip to New England and the yoga retreat I had planned to replace my time in Israel are now canceled as well. Instead of new sights and experiences, I am sitting in my eldest son‘s old bedroom (surrounded by sports pennants and his high school fantasy literature collection) for the next ten days.
I would rather tell you my story like this: You do not need to feel so bad for me. It is true that the beginning of my sabbatical is not what I expected, but how blessed am I to have a sabbatical in the first place? It is true that I got Covid, but I got it at a time when I was boosted, the symptoms were mild, and I have a safe place to isolate. Three meals a day are delivered outside my door, my laptop provides daily virtual yoga and an online sacred chant course. I have my journals and books borrowed from the library. I could call it ten days of isolation, but I choose to call it a ten-day silent retreat.
Our reality is shaped by the narrative we tell ourselves about it. My experience is shaped by my story. I choose to feel blessed and grateful. And so I am. Blessed. And so grateful.
I catch up on magazines I have not had time for since the summer and found many articles to inspire me. I pull out my library of books about the craft of writing and feel more creative than I have in a long time. I keep a daily gratitude journal and take notes of all the learning I am doing in another journal. And of course, I have a journal to … journal! I have time for daily prayer at my own pace. I join OJC for Zoom webinar Shabbat services and feel connected to my unseen community and to God.
The truth is, my goals for the sabbatical can be met regardless of where I am. My goals are about my inner life: presence, curiosity, gratitude and grace. My sabbatical is about shaping myself from the inside out, not the other way around.
This past week, we entered into the book of Sh’mot. This book contains so many big Jewish ideas. It is a book about leaving slavery for freedom, exiting a narrow place for the broad expanses, learning in the wilderness, becoming a people, and receiving God’s Torah. During my isolation, I started considering that the biggest idea of all in the Book of Sh’mot might be something else all together. Perhaps the point of the book is the creation of the Mishkan (the portable, holy tabernacle).
I need to heal; our community must heal; the whole world needs healing of the body and the spirit. This difficult work of leaving behind fear, anxiety and vulnerability requires a sturdy container to hold it all. The Mishkan takes up about one third of the Book of Sh’mot. Minute details of the materials, design and preparation are repeated over and over. Rather than think about the building of the Mishkan as a part of the Torah to merely tolerate, Rabbi Shefa Gold suggests that it is the whole point of the Book. The Mishkan is that place where the finite (we humans) meets the Infinite. God says, “Build for Me a holy place and I will dwell within.”
Perhaps my ten days of isolation have been about building a Mikdash me’at (a small replica of the Holy of Holies) within myself. God dwells within me: in my heart, in my soul, and in my body. I thought that I needed to travel far from home in order to open myself to God. I thought I needed new vistas for my eyes and new experiences for my soul. The truth is, forced into isolation, all I had was myself. And I learned that by opening myself during these days of isolation, there is a place within for God to dwell.
Be safe and well, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Oh my bags were packed, I was ready to go…
As you read this post, I should be landing at Ben-Gurion Airport with 18 Hazak congregants to begin ten days of adventure in Israel. Highlights included staying at the gracious Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem, a painting party with street graffiti artist Rami Meiri in Tel Aviv, and home hospitality with my son-in-law‘s mother on Kibbutz Mefalsim in the south.
It was going to be a truly wonderful trip, and I had been saying for weeks that the third time was the charm. This trip was originally scheduled for March 2020 when forty of us were scheduled to travel together. When COVID-19 grounded us, we rescheduled to December 2020. When that date still proved impossible, we rescheduled to a trip that was to have begun last night, December 7, 2021.
Many of us had started packing already and had scheduled our Covid tests. As soon as I heard the news about the Omicron variant a week and a half ago, I knew our trip would be canceled once again. Israel closed her borders to all but citizens for two weeks, and in a snap, our trip was canceled.
(We have already rescheduled for December 6 – 16, 2022. Perhaps the fourth time is the real charm?!)
It is disappointing to be at home instead of traveling. It is worrisome to think that the world is undependable and unpredictable. It is true that many who planned to go with us back in March 2020 are no longer able to travel with us at this point for a variety of reasons.
What do we do with disappointment? I have learned from all of my congregants and their life experiences to reframe, to be grateful, and to maintain hope in a positive outcome.
REFRAME: I feel so sad not to be in Israel, a place that I love to share with congregants, a place where I feel at home, a place that lifts people up in transformative ways. And also – I know that we are among the most fortunate people who can even dream of international travel. As one wise congregant told me, “Commit to no complaining and then watch for miracles.” We will get to Israel yet. Perhaps some of you who wanted to join our group but were not able to go this year will be able to go with us next year. Perhaps it is a blessing that I get an extra week and a half with my sixth graders in Kulanu. I know that it is a blessing to be at OJC for one more Shabbat before sabbatical, celebrating Carl Roth’s birthday!
GRATITUDE: Congregants who have been planning to travel with me have been inspiring in their graciousness since the cancellation. One told me, “Whenever you go, I am ready to go with you.” Another wrote to me: “I didn’t realize just how much I wanted to go until the trip was canceled.” I am grateful for a congregation filled with people who love Israel. I am grateful for courageous older people still willing to accept the risks of international travel. I am grateful for Ayelet, an amazing Israel tour company that knows how to pivot and bend over backwards when necessary. I am grateful for the good health of the OJC travelers, and pray for the continuation of good health so that we can travel together next year. Our blessings outweigh everything else.
HOPE: Our world is not an easy place. We can no longer depend upon things we used to take for granted. I do not, however, subscribe to the idea that humans plan and God laughs. The God I believe in does not trivialize our hopes and dreams.
I hope that we will travel to Israel in December 2022. I hope that the world will be a safer and more open place by that time. I even hope that you will consider traveling with us!
And in the meanwhile, I will miss writing to you for the next three months while I am on sabbatical. But know that I will be collecting experiences and replenishing my heart so that I return to you from sabbatical refreshed and energized to continue being your rabbi, a position that I feel with gratitude and hope.
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Both of my parents died in their early 60s. My father died at 61, just the age that I am now.
His yahrzeit, the 16th of Sivan, is this coming evening through tomorrow. It is his 30th yahrzeit, a fact that I can only describe as surprising. How is it possible that my dad has been dead for so long?
Today, my dad would have been a nonagenarian.
If that word does not sound familiar to you, it is because we did not used to have so many of them in our lives, even just a decade ago. According to the Census Bureau, people 90 and older now comprise 4.7 percent of the older population (age 65 and older), as compared with only 2.8 percent in 1980. Driven by improvements in health care and medical breakthroughs, by 2050, this share is likely to reach 10 percent. Today, people in their 90s, if blessed with health and intellectual faculties, are among the most wise, vibrant, and inspiring people I know. By the time I get there in 2050, I’m going to be surrounded by my peers!
I love to spend time with nonagenarians. I seem to seek them out. Until I received the reminder for my father’s thirtieth yahrzeit, it did not occur to me that he would have been one of them.
I wonder quite often about who my father would have become through these many years of change. Who would he have been for his grandchildren? I know that he would have continued to be my sounding board, confidant and cheerleader.
In all of these 30 years, I have consistently sought out people who were the age he would have been. In my monthly call list, so many of my treasured congregants are well into their 90s, filled with wisdom, humor, and plans. This year of the pandemic has taken a toll on many of them, yet there is always an ability to have perspective and to adjust expectations. These calls often feel that they are much more about my needs than theirs.
Four particular nonagenarians are my teachers and parent-replacements. (The surprising realization that we never outgrow the need for parents is an idea for another blog post altogether.) Phil, Arthur, Reggie and Joseph give me optimism about my next 30 years, and teach me a lot about who I am today.
My father-in-law, Phil, is a whirlwind of energy who still works full-time in his third-generation commercial construction company, takes Pilate classes twice a week, walks his dog and rides his bike. Yes, when he turned ninety three years ago, his kids asked him what he wanted for his birthday. He told us he’d like a new bike! When Phil stops by for lunch with Jonathan, he always leaves with words that go something like, “I have to get going; I have too much to do.”
My mother-in-law’s partner, Arthur, not only survived her death in November, but also survived Covid-19 that sent him to the hospital the day after her funeral. I worried that, having lost his best friend, he would not find the will to go on. But here he is, gathering his vast library of artistic photographs into self-published books, learning new skills in watercolor and moving last week into an independent living apartment… a decision he made and carried out independently! When I visited him to see the new place, he was busy watching a YouTube about different types of clay that are useful for sculpture.
My daughter-in law’s grandmother, Reggie, is that person who gets adopted by every person who meets her. I could not love my daughter-in-law more than I do, but it sure does add something fantastic that her grandmother came along with the package. I look forward to my long phone conversations with Reggie, whom we all call Grandmommy. She is always interested and interesting. When I speak with her, it is as if I am speaking with a sister, not a woman who is the age my mother would have been.
My dear friend Susan’s father, Joseph (who for reasons that I can no longer remember we often call George) has been a friend of mine since Susan and I became friends 30 years ago. Joseph attends minyan daily here in Caldwell and for years, has taught the nursery school children how to keep a garden. And he shares with me his memories and stories of survival through the years of the Holocaust. When we used to attend services regularly here in Caldwell, Joseph always saved the seat next to him for me. Susan was on one side and I was on the other. He was the dad I had lost. He even has a little white goatee just like my dad.
These nonagenarians offer wisdom, experience, and perspective. When they reminisce with me about their lives, I feel immense gratitude, as if I am recovering something I lost 30 years ago. When they share with me their solid perspective on today, I am able to breathe easier and gain perspective. When I think of my own life, I see that I still have so much time to grow and learn just as they have. Thanks to inspiring nonagenarians, I look forward to 2051!
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