Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Yizkor: Remembering on the last day of Passover

Today, my friend Laurie and I went to shul to say kaddish. On the last day of Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot it has been our custom to go to Yizkor services for loved ones who have died.

 Cosee Revaya-my cup runs over, we sang after we said kaddish. My cup is full from all my mother gave me in her short life. And the longing for what is missed is there too.   I wrote this over twenty years ago. The fullness and the emptiness haven't changed in the 38 years since she died.

It has been so long since I have touched you
And yet you seem to touch me every day
      I feel you in my heart
      when I hold my children near
      I feel you in my soul
      when I soar with their joy
      I feel you in my mind
      when I guide them on the paths of life
              The touch is not complete

You did not feel the parchment of my diploma
You did not feel the lace of my bridal gown
You did not feel the sweet flesh of my baby sons

            Moments never felt
                 To ask you how you did it
                 To share a cup of Sanka
                 To call you Mom instead of Mommy
                 To buy a dress you did not like

 The hands of time unfold
Now I am a woman with confidence and wrinkles
Now I am a wife with love and compromise
Now I am a mother with pride and worries
Now I am just like you

             The eternal embrace
   Your words echo in my ear
     of wisdom and character
     of love and devotion
     of patience and compassion
              To be heard in our generations to come

It has been so long since I have touched you
And yet you seem to touch me every day

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

7 Practical Passover Lessons

1. Seltzer is more than a drink.  This bubbly is perfect for getting wine stains out that clumsy --slightly drunk --relatives leave on your best white tablecloth.

 Most importantly, substitute seltzer for water in your knedlach-matzah ball recipe--so guests will say: "These are so light." It doesn't do anything for brisket.

2. TV series are a guide for religious practice. Game of Thrones opening episode cautioned--"Watch out for the person who pours wine into your kiddush cup." And now that Man Men is back for its final season we are  reminded what mishap can happen when you have four full cups of alcohol at one meal. Anyone have that good of a time?

Downtown Abbey: Set up and clean up is much easier
if you are Cora, The Countess of Grantham, hosting seder. According to Jonathan Sarna, Cora , the daughter of Isidore Levinson, may well be Jewish.

3. Margarine spreads better than butter. Matzah cracks less when you spread it with margarine instead of butter. This is no time to watch calories, carbs, salt, sugars, alcohol intake or anything else having to do with health. It is a wonder our people have survived--seders.

4. Taxes are a Passover ritual. Taxes, if not the Haggadah, teach freedom comes at a price. Is it only a coincidence that tax day and seder always overlap?

5. Supermarkets are a Jewish community finder.  Supermarkets are big brother watching where the Jews live. Markets in non-Jewish neighborhoods have four boxes of matzah on a shelf in some far off corner. On the other hand, rows of kosher for Passover food are in the supermarkets where Jews live. Who's job is at Super Fresh to be mapping where Jews live? So when moving to a new neighborhood and if you care, use supermarket shelves to be your Jewish GPS.

6. Ovens and refrigerators need their yearly holiday. Only because of Passover do I pull out all the drawers and shelves of the refrigerator and the racks in the oven. These appliances religiously appreciate their yearly scrubbing and celebrate the hope of not becoming a fully developed science project.

7.  Put the ing in your Spring.  To get the winter cobwebs out of your head and body get ready for seder. They don't make themselves. Seder requires shopping, chopping, washing, scrapping, roasting, mixing, and cleaning. And that is only for the seder plate.

After this winter we need all the spr-ing we can get.
Chag sa-me-ach

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Wires Crossed By Heaven's Hand?

“I have a gun and its cocked.” My sister and I regularly shouted that phrase when we passed our huge unlit living room. We were sure a bad something or other was lurking ready to attack. Our pretend gun would protect. We’re grown now. I’ve learned to believe in what I see. That is, until reminders of a power beyond appear.

This past Saturday, my friend Lynnda had a hankering for Shabbat services. The buzz in the neighborhood is that Adath is a good place to go. “Sure,” I said after trying to coax her into brunch at Parc on Rittenhouse Square or a long walk around the river. I’ve broken my 20- year habit of weekly services and haven’t gotten it back.

Sometimes you just do what a friend wants to do.

Adath was the synagogue of my youth. This is where I was confirmed (top right). 
Rabbi Berkowitz gave us speeches to memorize and deliver.  My sister was confirmed here too (top row, second from the end) 

The gallery of confirmation class photos line the walls to the social hall where I got a first kiss or two in the days of extravagant bar mitzvah dances.

This is the bimah of my growing up. 

The weird combination of colors and metal framed High Holiday memories, my white-gowned confirmation and my longer white-gowned wedding. As a kid this mass of metal wasn’t very attractive or spiritual, but on this Saturday it was a comforting blanket of memory.

 “We’re tearing it down in June,” said a congregant who I knew. “We’ve had a very successful capital campaign and this has been the same since the 50’s. ”

 “What will you do with all the materials?”

 “I guess throw it away.”

Lynnda and I joined in the Kiddush lunch. People couldn’t have been kinder. I said yes to the shot of whisky for my coffee too.
One more stop before we left: The wall that holds my mother’s name on the memorial board. She was beautiful and good, and loving, and she was my mother. My Mommy (never got to call her Mom), Rosalie, died suddenly from a disease that today could be cured. She was only 42. She missed half her life and most of mine.

It is the custom on the anniversary of a death to light the light net to the deceased’s name. My mother had died in January. I walked over to the memorial board that I hadn’t seen in years. There was her name. And next to it, in the month of April, her light was lit. (does not correlate to the Jewish calendar either)

How could this be? Was this my imagination-- from walking past a big dark empty room? Or were the wires crossed by Heaven's Hand?

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

I Don't Speak to My Son

My first urge was to resist the chat coming from the man who sat next to me on the train yesterday. I wanted my own space to read Shai Held's book on Heschel which begins by identifying the callousness of modern man because of technology. Heschel says I am in a state of looking out for my need and missing wonder in the world, which has me missing out on appreciation, and service, then anchoring myself in history so I can know transcendence. Ok, I put the book down and gave my attention to the man who clearly wanted to talk.

He started with the movie Noah-- reviewed in the morning paper. My commentary "It is hard for me to accept Russell Crowe in the role of Noah. Noah is supposed to be a righteous man, and that actor doesn't seem quite right. On the other hand, according to the Bible, he is righteous in his age, which means he doesn't have to be so perfect, just better than the others around him."

From there he carried the conversation to his daughter's 21st birthday where some of the girls got so very drunk that they were doing things that they would be very embarrassed about. "I told my wife, don't repeat those stories." "Yes, there is a teaching that once you let the feathers go from a pillow you can't gather them up again, just like gossip, once you say it, those words can't be taken back."

 Was it the Heschel or something about this man with glasses, and a nose that said he had spent a good deal of time drinking, that made me go preacher?

 Lee, I learned, was planning a celebration for his 25th wedding anniversary. He had the minister and 50 guests coming as a  surprise for his wife. He planned for them to enact their wedding vows.  "Should I bring her wedding dress which is sealed and have her change into it there? One of my sisters says, yes, and the other says, no. What do you think?" " Really she can fit into it?" asking with amazement, because I'm not sure I could get my right arm into my own wedding dress. "Yes, the same 105 pounds as when I married her."

Lee quickly went from celebration to heartache. He had already told me he had made a lot of money in computer software, lived in a 5 bedroom house, and in the summer went to their shore house. Then: "I don't speak to my son."

"Anyone who knows me, knows I'm all about family. My son was my everything. He's my oldest. My son is handsome and athletic. I went to every game he ever played. After he graduated college he thought I'd still be his scholarship, you know what I mean, pay for everything. That was two years ago. And last year I had to do tough love. He didn't want to work, just take. I haven't spoken to him in months. He won't pick up the phone or answer my email."

Back to celebration. "My son won't be at our anniversary celebration. I know how hard that will be for my wife."

"Did you invite him?"


In great detail he described how he missed his son. His son also "blamed everything" on him. He knew he was doing the right thing, yet wasn't sure. "I heard he has two jobs now to pay his rent in San Francisco."

"Can I offer some advice?" Hey, he had already asked me about the dress. With his permission:
"Can you write him a letter? A handwritten letter that says:
I love you.
I'm sorry for the pain.
I miss you.
Mom and I are celebrating our anniversary in two weeks.
Our twenty five years together has been through difficult and good times. That's love.
It won't be the same without you.
I will send you a ticket if you can come.

And this man who had, during a short ride, given me the accounting of his life, listing fifty guests, twenty-five years of marriage, five bedrooms, three children, two houses and a lost  relationship with one son, started to cry.

"You would send the letter without the expectation that your son will respond or come. Just send it so in his time of figuring this out he'll know, you love him. That's all. Every boy has to do his struggle to become a man. Eventually, forgiveness comes. That might be in a month or a year or five years. But it will come."

"I can do that. A handwritten letter."

Lee had a ticket for the Acela yesterday morning and mistakenly got on the regional rail. When he left he said it was meant to be that we had sat next to each other. He wished me many blessings. One more parting, he added,"God bless you."   Is this what Heschel was talking about?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Heschel, the First Fifty Pages

On May 8, at our yearly gathering of the Coalition we will learn with Rabbi Shai Held the author of Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call to Transcendence. Shai, a Jewish celebrity these days, is the co-founder of Mechon Hadar and as everyone tells me "an amazing teacher." All sixty congregations will receive a copy of his book. My assignment: Read it first. Second assignment: Understand it.

Moving from thumbs scanning text messages and mind numbing news headlines to reading a book of deep thought requires adjustment.  I have to quiet down and focus. So I'm trying to use my usually silent train ride to read a real book that has pages that actually turn. No swipe. Steep. Making my assignments more difficult is the man sitting next to me who hasn't stopped talking to his female colleague across the aisle. She hasn't stopped chanting: "Right," "I know," "Ok." (Really men, is that all you want to hear? Apparently).

I realize I'm actively participating in the very technology deafening-leave-me-alone so I-can-do what-I-want existence addressed by Heschel in the first 50 pages of the book. We live in a time, he wrote decades ago, where technology leads to us to live with "callousness."

 As a Jewish educator, I'm reading the book guided by the question: In what ways will The Call to Transcendence revive my soul and my work with children and families?

As if speaking directly to me, I can imagine, while he pushes up his glasses that are as au currant as his answer: "there is no education for the sublime. We teach the children how to measure, how to weigh. We fail to teach them how to revere, how to sense wonder and awe." (p. 43)

Yes, I want to say, we know how to teach them to recite, to engage in activities but for what purpose?

He responds, "the task of religion [religious education]is to instill a sense of "perpetual surprise, a willingness to encounter the world, again and again as if for the first time." (p. 30)

Without wonder, according to Heschel, we are consumed with self and then we are a "beast.. an animal" concerned only with self satisfaction. We somehow got in our minds that the techno world, the space on the train, and even God, is here to serve my need. According to Heschel, technology has led us believe "the only criterion of value is what is useful for the fulfillment of my own desires and aspirations." (p. 39)

The logic I hear from the first 50 that Shai has revealed to us is that technology and routinization lead to us to take the world for granted and say, "The world is my toolbox." The remedy for this stance that leads us to turn so inward  that we lose connection to others is --wonder.

 With wonder, we have a sense of indebtedness. "In receiving a pleasure, we must return a prayer; in attaining a success, we radiate compassion." (p.37& 29).

Our educational purpose could be to release a will to  wonder, which enables gratitude/indebtedness which can lead to faith. "What we lack is not a will to believe, but a will to wonder...we can will ourselves to wonder." (p. 52)

What will we do differently if our work is to release a will to wonder?

What is the learning that moves us from "self enclosure" to a "deeper sense of compassion and empathy for others."

What is the learning that intensifies our search "for meanings that somehow lie just beyond sensory appearances" (Fuller, p. 51) and overcomes "the exclusive realty to the stubbornly selfish 'I'?" (Held, p. 51)

What learning might help me respond differently to the noise, no I mean people sitting next to me?

What  do you recommend? Let me see if the answer is in the next 50 pages.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

I Asked for Wonder: Two Lives and a Funeral

 The notices came across my email 15 minutes apart.

The first notice, Eddie, the father of a college-aged son, beloved husband, and professor at Temple law, had died. Most didn’t know he was ill.  His synagogue community, who thought of him as much a constant as the amidah, was shocked. He had just led Shacharit two weeks before, how was this possible?

I can see Eddie, one of those rare people who stay in vivid memory, even when you haven’t seen him for a while, standing on the left side of the sanctuary with his large black and white tallit draped over his small frame. His tallit moved with his steps to the bimah, with the rhythm of his davenning, and with his right and left  turn greeting every adult or child who Eddie knew and those he didn’t know --yet. His tzeet tzeet rose and fell with his reaching out with a hardy “yasher koach,” to each person who entered this-his prayer space.

Baruch t’hi yeh, is what you say to someone who has said  yasher koach to you,” Eddie had explained to 50 children and parents. For years, Eddie led Shabbat family services. The other day, a dad emailed me a poem their family had written to thank Eddie for inviting them in with joy to  a world of prayer. 

An excerpt: “You teach us how to put on a tallit. Then Rishon leads Ma tovu and builds tents, what a feat. You lead us in song with your beautiful voice. Hallelujah, kol Hanishama, done in rounds is our first choice. Then its Shema, sung like our friend from Uganada. The melody was strange at first, but of it we’ve grown fonder. Then we say Yotzer Or with all those motions with our hands. Sometimes minyan seems like aerobics sit and stand, sit and stand!”

Last Sunday, the sanctuary of Eddie’s synagogue was filled with people who remembered his movement, his joy and his wonder.

Fifteen minutes after the notice of Eddie’s passing came the notice of the death of one of my dearest friend’s father. Mr. P. as he was affectionately called had died at the age of 97. Shelly, my friend, said her father had davened mincha maariv, found the right battery for the clock in the basement, changed the battery, changed his clothes, said Shema and went to bed. His wife, his angel, as he called her, heard a sound and stood over him as he took his final breath.

Last Sunday, since you can’t be at two funerals at once, I drove to Baltimore for Mr. P’s funeral.  Finding a seat in the funeral home’s sanctuary was difficult. Many people stood to hear the story of the man who regularly walked to synagogue into his 90’s. We listened to the rabbi describe how Shelly’s father had led services two weeks before his death.

“He was a little slow, maybe because of his age. And you know, sometimes when people lead services slowly, people get antsy and leave. But no one moved.” They knew whom they were standing with in prayer.

Purim was coming and it is the custom, I learned, not to give an extended eulogy, the rabbi said, and “Louis would have wanted us to follow this halacha.” But the rabbi couldn’t help sharing the breath and depth of a man who was loved by family and friends, was dedicated to Jewish community, and was respected by all in business and in friendship.  This man with a small frame, who lived humbly, was a man of integrity, grounded in the Judaism that survived his days in Germany.

The pallbearers lifted Mr. P's casket. Each man holding the plain pine box had the responsibility to lower it into the ground with only the help of black canvas straps. Each person standing on the muddy grass had the responsibility to shovel some dirt until the casket was fully covered.

Two lives, and a funeral that remind “To pray means to bring God back into the world, to establish God’s sovereignty for a second at least." (Abraham Joshua Heschel, I Asked for Wonder

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Banking on Strategies for Synagogues

“The train is crowded, mind if I sit here?” My usual “don’t sit next to me on the train,” strategy of coughing or eating smelly food like a banana didn’t deter this twenty some young woman. 

She parked herself, her winter coat, her tote and package right next to me. “The commute has been wild with all the snow, hasn’t it?” Oh boy I was in for a talker. Usually on the Amtrak reserved train folks keep up their Northeast reserve. The rule is, you simply open your electronic device and act as if there weren’t another human within miles. However, this blond with the bubble in her voice hadn’t read the manual. As someone who is trying to figure out how to change Jewish organizations to meet today’s challenges, I’m sure glad she didn’t.

“I do this commute four days a week, Philadelphia to New York. I’ve never seen the schedules so off.” Attention. I had to put my device down to talk because that’s my story too. As the conversation went from slippery sidewalks to how to re create the work of a traditional organization, I asked, “Do you mind if I take notes?”

This is what I learned from the Wharton graduate who works for innovative products at American Express. Was she talking about banks or synagogues? 

“People don’t want to interact with banks the way they used to, the way their parents did.
It used to be that people built a history and trust over time with the bank. The bank was a constant in the community. People physically walked in. They had credentials, birth certificates and documentation and a longstanding relationship with the bank.”

"But what’s going on now, is that the demographics are changing. From our research, we learned that 30 million people are out there who can’t get a traditional account. And, we learned they don’t want one.Today people want it their own way."

“So I work on creating new products that help people connect with banks. I used to work for Citi bank. They are big...so big they don’t really care what customers want or what new products they need. But at American Express they need to care.”

She explained a lot of her work is soliciting feedback. "We have to be asking enough questions to hear what people need.”

People are getting their banking needs (wow spiritual /religious needs) in other non traditional places. “People are turning to google, pay pal because they are listening to what people want. There are no hoops to jump through.  There is a low barrier to entry.”

She explained how the banks now offer different levels of accounts. So if you don’t want to sign up or answer a lot of questions, you can still get a service. People don’t want to hear that a minimum balance is required or that you are only open certain hours. They value technology. They move fast. “When I worked at Citi bank they moved really slowly. We couldn’t move fast because there were so many committees.”

“At American Express we have enterprise, we have to survive. We know people are saying, ‘I like my coffee this way and they get it. So they are also saying ‘I want my banking this way.’”

“How do you figure out what products to test market?” I asked. (Hey, I once took a course at Wharton).

“We work closely with partners. Walmart, Target, gaming, Zynga and travel services. The best partnerships are when you combine. Positioning is very important. Where do you fit in the customers mind? (GREAT QUESTION..don’t love the answer that come to my mind.) Where is my position in the market? How can we combine ourselves in the consumers mind, Target and American Express? With partners you say, “What do I bring and what do you bring to the table? And does this meet our goals?”

And that leads you to “try different things. And we get an immense amount of feedback.”

“We try something new every two weeks. We see we’ve had to invest in the emotional part of the product. We think about what the experience will look like, and then we get ten people off the street to go through the experience and, ask what do you think?”

Then my train companion wanted to tell me about her upcoming wedding at the Kimmel Center. Her dress was gorgeous and wow what a handsome groom. 

But, I wanted to spend the time before we hit 30th street getting her advice on how to create ways for people to connect with synagogues. I also know people who want it their way- not the way their parents wanted it, and who can get it from other sources and get it on their own terms.

She had given me advice right?
*Try lots of things ..like every two weeks.
*Work with partners-bring what you have and what they have to meet your goals.
*Ask, and ask again, get lots of feedback.
*Hit the emotional connection.
*Be flexible. 
*Don’t get caught in committee. 
*Lower the barrier to entry.
*Listen for what people really need

What else?

*Let go of your Northeast reserve once in a while.
*Look up from your electronic device.
Something worthwhile is right in front of you.