F2F Class Instruction? Here’s why that’s not going to work

Ever since the warmer days of spring, about five kids in my neighborhood from three houses – two families who next door and one backyard neighbor – have hung thick as theives. In the big expanse of unfenced yards that stretch behind their three houses, these kids have created a play bubble of their own. Their parents try their best to watch them and make sure they do not touch or get too close (I’ve lost count of hearing how many times they’ve been instructed SIX FEET APART). By cordoning off their play circle to basically just each other, and without the formalized structure of daycamps, the children play the kind of free, unstructured play that’s fueled by imagination, the kind of play I remember from my 1970’s childhood.

There are wars and swordfights. There is trampoline jumping and tree swinging, decorating refigerator boxes that are really time machines to go back to Ancient Rome. There is bike riding in circles in a semi circular driveway and romps through the sprinkler. There are games with on-the-spot made up rules and players that break these rules and big brothers and sisters reminding the littler sisters that YOU have broken a rule.

I know this all, because all games are played at full volume, high summer outside noise! From someone who is too old to have kids that young anymore, it is a joyful, symphonic noise.

I saw the gang this morning across the street and decided to go over to say hi.

I wore my mask.

They had no masks.

“Hello, Miss Stacy, how are you?” Said “G””

I’m great, G, but can you back up a little bit?

“Miss Stacy, is that really tall sunflower in your garden REAL?”

Yes it is, J, but you really need to back up, remember we need to keep six feet apart?

“Miss Stacy, where is your dog, can he come out now?”

“No, my dog is not home now. He’s in the hospital getting fixed… and J, PLEASE back up again, you are getting too CLOSE!'”

I said my good-byes before heading to my car, inviting them that they can take a closer look at my sunflower in my garden, when I was not there.

And of course these kids, these little kids going into Grades 1, 3 and 4, want to get as close into your face as possible, excited to tell you stories about what’s going on, excited to ask you stuff.

This is how it’s supposed to be.

They. Are. KIDS!

That was my encounter with the small-fry kind. Me and three little kids. For 10 minutes. And I must have asked them to please back up and keep their distance about five times.

So, tell me.

An elementary school class filled with 25, 30 excited boisterous kids. And one teacher.

Tell me how, in the age of Coronavirus, tell me how that’s going to fly.

An open letter to my Chaldean Neighbors

The other day I let the pandemic get the better of me and my judgment.

Like many of us, I’ve been frazzled lately.

I don’t sleep much but somehow always feel like sleeping. Mostly because I feel as if we are never going to get out of this mess of a pandemic that is robbing us of our lives, whether we are living, or sadly, dead of this virus.

I do my part to keep apart from most of the world. Outside of my immediate family and a handful of friends I see one or two at a time.

My only outings revolve around food shopping for my family at the grocery store.

Without question or resistance, I wear a mask and gloves into every store. Thinking of the people who will use the shopping cart after me, I carry my own disinfectant and rags and wipe shopping carts down.

So, it’s been to my dismay to see cases of COVID going through the roof.

I want my kids to go back to school, to live out the prime of their lives.

I want the same for your kids too.

So every time I hear of a gathering of masses of people, knowing it will set us back farther, I kind of lose it a little bit more.

On July 4, there were several parties in my neighborhood, with little mask-wearing or social distancing being practiced. This, right after it was reported of a large gathering in an East Lansing bar and several other house parties around the state were causing cases to soar.

So, when scrolling through my social feed, I saw a friend posting about a similar sight in her neighborhood – of over a dozen parked cars and all the drivers headed INSIDE to one house – I chimed in with my frustration.

I responded to another posters comment – about a country club valet staff parking cars out of view so they could host a large party – with some very unkind words.

Those unkind words were leveled at those who have a blatant disregard for public health catastrophe that is holding the whole world hostage. Those unkind words were to those who support a presidency that has no decency for human rights, minority rights, or women’s rights. Those unkind words were leveled at supporting a presidency so filled with arrogance and hubris that it can eschew and belittle and discredit our nation’s most decorated scientists and public health officials to the point that it puts every one of us in mortal danger.

In NO way did I level my frustrated comment at Chaldeans.

The post on Facebook was taken down. Other people who have done much for our community have been hurt as well and called a racist for associating with me. To you, my Chaldean neighbors, I offer my apology.

Since moving to Detroit, I am proud of the fact that I live amongst the nation’s largest Chaldean communities. One of the first people a Jewish person learns about in the Torah. The Chaldeans in fact date back to the time of Noah.

One year before the beginning of the school year, I participated in an interfaith event at St. Thomas Chaldean Church to stuff backpacks with school supplies for local children.

I have written passionately and compassionately about issues affecting the Chaldean community and its work in social action, both in my work as a freelance writer and here on my blog. Personally, I have listened to stories my son told of his classmate’s father being rounded up and sent to Youngstown at the hands of an unfeeling administration that tears families apart.

On social media, I mourned and shared the story of a Detroiter who died on the streets of Baghdad because he did not have the medication he needed to live. Because in his past he stole some power tools out of a shed.

After listening to the plights of Iraqi Christians during the siege of ISIS, I displayed a bumper sticker of the Chaldean Cross on my car in solidarity.

I apologize for losing my cool on social media, as many of us do.

I apologize if I hurt or offended you.

I will try to do better and do hope that you can forgive me.

With compassion,

Stacy

In Memory of Shaya Kilimnick ‘zl: Rochester’s Rabbi. My Next-door Neighbor

Our house and the Kilimick house looked almost exactly alike.

After a long and at times triumphant battle with bone marrow cancer, Rabbi Shaya Kilimnick died yesterday, leaving behind five children, devoted sons and daughters-in-law, many many grandchildren, and his beloved wife, who has been in a coma after suffering an aneurism almost two years ago.

The news has hit all who knew and loved him extremely hard.

It is all so unfair.

All so unfair that a man who made so many people feel like their lives were precious and vaulable, that Gd had an intention for us all, who inspired so many in his community and around the world even to have a love of Torah study, a love for family and community, and Ahvas Yisrael, to have had to spend his remainng months by the bedside and praying for the recovery of his wife. It is not fair that so many cannot come together to properly mourn and remember him as a holy community.

It is an understatement to say that Rabbi Kilimnick’s memory will be for a blesssing.

In the hours since I’ve learned of his passing, I’ve been flooded with so many wonderful and powerful memories of Reb. Shaya. He was never my official rabbi as we were not members of Congregation Beth Shalom, where he had been rabbi for decades.

But for 14 years, he was my two-doors down neighbor.

For most in the Jewish community, they knew Rabbi Kilimnick as the man in a suit and talit, tirelessley and passionately leading his congregation in services from the bimah, brilliantly teaching classes or giving the most heartfelt eulogies at funerals.

I knew him as that too, but I also knew Shaya the neighbor who, in a white T-shirt and jeans, took pride in himself each year at the skillful way he could trim and shape his front-yard hedges every summer. The neighbor, who, to assuage my guilt, I had asked halachic advise about cutting down an overgrown pine in my backyard that for too long had blocked the precious, short-lived Rochester summer sun from my garden.

“It’s okay. It’s not a fruit-bearing tree. According to the Torah, you can cut it down.”

The neighbor who shared my delight in shopping at Costco.

“I am not a gambler, but boy do I love to blow some cash at Costco!” he said to me once.

I remember the first time I met Rabbi Kilimnick.

We had just moved to Rochester. It was December of 1999, and we were told by the people who we brought the house from that we lived on a famous block because Shaya Kilimnick, the rabbi of the Orthodox synagogue in Rochester, and his wife Nechie, lived two doors down.

He was walking towards me on a brisk afternoon not too long after we moved in. It must have been Shabbat, because he was wearing a wide brimmed black hat and a black overcoat.

“Welcome to Rochester, Welcome to Brighton, you are going to love it here! The Finger Lakes are fantastic and your kids will love the schools here!”

As he smiled at me blue eyes were twinkling, and to my surprise, his hand was outstretched for a handshake.

But, I thought to myself, I thought he was, like really Orthodox! Nevertheless, he took my hand and shook it warmly. Over the 14 years we were neighbors, any time we spoke, any time we had an encounter, he had this way of making you feel special. Valued. I think he made everyone feel that way.

My favorite memories of living two doors down from the Kilimnicks were in the fall during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Rochester was the first place we built a sukkah as a family, and having a rabbi next door neighbor, Reb. Shaya offered some great advice for building material options. Each year, I’d watch their backyard. When the Kilimnicks started building their Sukkah – and it has to be timed just right – we commenced in putting up ours.

Each year, when the harvest moon rose in the sky on the first night of Sukkot, my family would be in our sukkah, and the Kliminick clan would be in theirs. From inside their sukkah, we could hear talking and laughter and the clinking of plates. But not before the tenor voice of Rabbi Kilimnick, that wonderfully beautiful voice, rose above our sukkahs as he sang the Kiddush, the blessing over the wine. Sometimes, their grandchildren would sleep in the sukkah, and eventually, my kids started sleeping out in our sukkah too.

Every Sukkot, our neighborhood would have a sukkah hop and we’d either visit the rabbi and Nechie in their sukkah,or, hop around the corner to where the rabbi’s son and family lived. When my kids and their kids were little, we said how nice it is that our kids could come over each other’s houses to play and walk all by themselves without crossing a street.

In the late winter, the old neighborhood, populated by many religious familes, would be bustling again as children on Purim morning would delilver Mishloach Manot. There would be like a line of kids waiting at the rabbi’s door. When you gave mishloach manot to the Kilimnicks, Reb. Shaya would be waiting at the door with a crisp dollar to every giver, so they in turn could donate that dollar to Tzedakah.

I remember the day the rabbi’s children, sold their house and moved away… about 3/4 a mile away to a larger home closer to Beth Shalom.

“It’s so sad, my son is moving away… it won’t be the same, we are going to miss them,” the rabbi told me one day after the sale.

“Rabbi, it’s okay, they are still close,” I said, thinking how far away I lived from my own parents.

“I know. But they will no longer be right around the corner. They are still close but it’s not the same. So, I will miss them.”

Living two doors down from the rabbi in 1920’s tutor homes that looked nearly alike, we’d sometimes get surprise visitors.

So identical were our houses that every now and again, the doorbell would ring, and there would be a young religious boy on my doorstep, a huge Talmud or a Tikkun tucked under his arm, ready for a lesson with the rabbi.

I remember him calling my daughter, with her big blue eyes and rosy cheeks at three, a shayna maidelah the first time he saw her. And when my youngest was born, he attended his bris not as the officiating rabbi, but as our friend, our neighbor. I remember the next week, when I was pushing our newborn Tuvyah, or Toby, down the street in his carriage, he remarked about the selection of our son’s Hebrew name, and the story we told of his namesake, my great-grandmother Gutke, or Gussie.

“You know the name Tuvye, is also Tevye. Like, from the famous story by Shalom Aleichem, Tevye the Milkman!”

I was ususally the first to see him on Shabbat mornings from my upstairs windows as he left his house early, with a relaxed, steady gait, sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied by a grandson, on their way to shul.

Above all, Rabbi Kilimnick in his words and actions instilled an ahavas Yisroel, a love for Israel – to learn about it – to visit as often as possible, to advocate for it (through his years of involvement with Christians United for Israel), and even to move to Israel.

I remember having a conversation with him at an Oneg Shabbat. I sat down next to him to hear about his most recent trip to Israel as congregants were finishing up their lunch and heading home for a Shabbat nap.

“You know, you can visit Israel and tour all over the country and it is fantastic,” he said. “But then, there comes a time when you go there to do some intensive studying, and then, you become a tourist of the internal kind. Through Torah study in Israel, a trip becomes an inner one, into the depths of your soul.”

You see, you don’t forget when someone describes a trip to Israel quite like that.

All Rabbi Kilimnick wanted for his retirement days was for he and Nechie to retire to Jerusalem. Once, from the bimah, and I do not remember the occassion, maybe it was close to his wedding anniversary, because he thanked Nechie for all the wonderful joyous years and said to her, “Every time I look into your eyes, I am in Jerusalem.”

You don’t forget a husband’s love for his wife like that. Such a love they had.

In 2011, the year my oldest son became a Bar Mitzvah, we took a family trip to Israel and planned a second ceremony at Robinson’s Arch in Jerusalem.

At the time, Reb. Shaya and Nechie were taking a sabbatical in Jerusalem and were planning to come.

That day, it poured.

Earlier that month, Nechie had sprained her ankle walking the cobbled streets of Jerusalem. Without having any knowledge that we moved our service indoors, there was rabbi Kilimnick, wandering the Robinson Arch plaza in the cold pouring December Jerusaelm rain looking for us in vain. But he really wanted to celebrate with us. Somehow, we connected and he met us for a drink that night at our hotel.

The last time I visited with the Kilimnicks was a few summers ago. I was back in Rochester for a visit. The rabbi was in recovery from one of his cancer treatments, his immune system was severely compromised, and as we do these days, I sat with Nechie and Shaya outside, in their backyard. He was sitting in a chair with its own awning as his cancer treatment had made him very sensitive to the sun. I do not remember what we talked about, but I do remember the gratitute he expressed: for being alive, for the devotion of his famliy and friends and congregants during his illness. And over and over, he expressed how wondeful the doctors and staff at the hospital were, for giving him so much care.

So, to the Kilimnick family, this is my virtual shiva call. It pains me so much that even those who live close to you cannot physically surround you with love and strength and properly comfort you as mourners should be comforted. But your father and your grandfather has impacted my life and the lives of so many others because he led and lived by example.

I will never forget Rabbi Kilimnick. His memory indeed will be for such a blessing and may you be comforted by the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Every kid in quarrantine gets a puppy

I have to write this right quick before someone wakes up and starts chewing on the hem of my leggings from under the table.

I have a dog.

I never thought that would sentence would ring true in my life.

I’ve always wanted a dog from even my earliest memories.

I was about six or seven and two dogs were chasing me through an apple orchard somewhere upstate New York. I remember screaming as I ran through the grass and the smell of rotting apples as my grandfather called after me to stand still! The master, the owner of the orchard, also called his dogs to also stand still.

My grandfather caught up with me and explained the dogs, now circling around me, were only trying to play. The more I ran, the more they would chase me.

But once I stood still, they let me pet them. I remember the feel of their shaggy black and brown coats and the warmth of their wet tounges as they licked my palm. One, who must have been a mix of a lab and a German Shepard, had a black face except for its brown eyelids.

I started begging my parents for a dog. But they retorted, reminding me of the long-term, enormous responsibility. Of walks outside, no matter the weather. Or not being able to travel. Or not having enough space.

So, I got my doggie fixes through the canines of others: my friend’s dogs, dogs in the park who didn’t look mean. I’d ogle at puppies in their cages at the pet store in the Staten Island Mall, all the while my parents telling me that buying a dog from a pet store was a bad idea because they were most likely from a puppy mill. I learned that adoption and rescue of a mutt, and not a purebred dog, was always the most humane route to doggie ownership.

My love of dogs never has abated. Not through young adulthood, or motherhood, or later on, watching my brother and wife with their sons and their dogs. 

As it happens, like me, my children have also wanted a dog. Even when my youngest at 18 months was bit in the face by the spooked black lab of a friend and needed a visit to the emergency room and stitches, no, that early trauma never carried over. And the daily persistent pleas for a puppy never ceased for the next 16 years.

“Mom, can we get a dog?

Hey mom, guess what? Can we get a dog?

Mom, if I clean my room for a week, can we get a dog?

Mom, you said after we moved to Michigan, we’d get a dog. It’s been seven years.”

So, why, you may wonder, did I choose a purebred Siberian husky, the first dog I’ve ever had after a lifetime of wanting dogs?  

Turns out, it was not a deliberate choice, just circumstance and fate.

It’s funny how a global pandemic changes all that hesitancy to, yes. Yes, we will look for a dog.

As it turns out, everyone else in the age of Coronavirus is looking to adopt a dog. In fact, right up there with shortages in toilet paper and hand sanitizer, there is a shortage of adoptable dogs as Americans are emptying out shelters as they are ordered to shelter in place.

We searched on Petfinder.com. We asked all our friends and neighbors where they adopted their dog and they gave us listings of local shelters. But none of these shelters were doing in-person visits. And most of the dogs listed were pit bulls or pit bull mixes. I do not mean to offend pit bull lovers, and I have met some loving pittie pups in my day, including those of my brother’s. But living in my neighborhood with many small children, I did not want to take my chances.

A few weeks back on a Tuesday, I walked with my son and husband in the neighborhood on our daily-after dinner jaunt. But we didn’t go our normal route. And as we walked, we talked about how the shelters were not responding to our applications to the dogs we wanted, or how some dogs we wanted required extra medical care, or were not good with children, or required physical fencing.

And there, sitting in a crate in someone’s driveway decorated with sidewalk chalk, sat this guy:

Outside of labs and goldens, huskies are one of my favorite breed fantasy dogs. I’ve always admired their beauty, the way they get along with everyone, and … those eyes.

So, of course, we squealed in delight at the sight of him and asked the owner where he got him and that we were looking to adopt a dog too.

Then, the young man in his 20’s said, “Actually, I need to get rid of him because I live with my mother now and she had an allergic reaction to it.”

No way. You’ve got to be kidding.

We texted our daughter to come by. She put her XC and track skills to use and sprinted over to the driveway in five minutes flat.

So, after the family got to know him, we negotiated on a fair price. And by that Friday, we were dog owners.

So, why a husky, as so many of our friends have been asking? That’s why.

How did we find such an incredible puppy in a pandemic?

That’s how. 

Did we truly look for and want to adopt a shelter mutt? Yes, but there were none to be had that was right for us.

Is a husky the most practical and easy breed for first-time dog owners? No, not exactly. More of that in my next post. Each day, we are making it work and learning as we go along.

This little guy (getting bigger by the day), who shares a birthday with my grandma (“zl), well he just fell into our laps.

In the age of Coronavirus, school as we know it has been canceled.

Plays and performances have been cancelled. Sporting meets have been canceled. Graduations have been canceled. Summer internships and summer camp, that’s all been canceled too.

But dogs?  No. Dogs don’t get canceled.

So let it be. Let this be the summer of the dog. The summer of Simba.

And let sleeping dogs lie.

This is Where I’m at

I started today by coloring my hair.
The last time I cut and colored my hair was late October. It was the day my husband was returning from a business trip from Japan. I wanted to see if he, tired as he was returning home from the other side of the globe, would notice the greys were gone and my hair was restored to the dark brown my hair was when I was young.
He did.
That was before any of us knew or heard the word coronavirus every hour of the day. Before my husband’s business canceled travel to first China, then Japan, then Europe, then, anywhere.
I really meant to color my hair last night. Some self-care would do me good.
But I was just too tired. Now, at week number three, like right after dinner, I get real tired. I excuse myself from the table and go up to my bedroom to … I don’t know. Each night, I have every intent to read, to journal, to color. But I end up watching CNN.
But then CNN gets me upset and then I flip to some mindless TV to distract me from the fear, from the rise in cases, from the dwindling supplies of masks and ventilators. Then I feel bad because, to me, a reporter, turning away from the news is a sign of apathy, so I turned back to watch #ChrisCuomo report from his basement wearing a hoodie.
And the box of Nutrisse #40 just sat there on the vanity in my bathroom.
Today, after I found the energy to color my hair, I felt better.
I visited with my son as I folded laundry. Sterilized bath and dish towels and cleaning rags. Because of Coronavirus, I’ve discovered the “sanitize” settings of my washer and dryer.
My son sat in his Cincinnati apartment and played me a new guitar line he’d been working on while in quarantine. He played for me for about 15 or 20 minutes. He lives with his girlfriend who is a nurse. They, with two other housemates, are quarantined together, only leaving the apartment for groceries and work. We never made it to his campus for his spring performance. I don’t know when I’ll see him perform again. I’m not sure when I’ll see him again. But it was nice to hear him play while I folded laundry.
Today I find myself with less and less work because my freelance writing gigs are all drying up.
But still, I am lucky my husband still has his job, and he “goes” to work, as usual, and is at his desk by 7 a.m. But his desk is now in our son’s empty bedroom. And my daughter works at her Boston job in her bedroom. Nothing is usual.
After lunch, I went for a walk to the CVS. I needed to pick up a prescription for my son, who has asthma. I have barely let him set foot into a store since our state’s shelter in place executive order. Besides from coming down for meals and taking a zoom call for a play that most likely will not happen now that the rest of the school year has been canceled, except in the virtual sense, he does not come out of his room. He’s re-listening to all of the Harry Potter books. His Junior year is over. He never took the SAT’s.
That’s where he’s at.
Back on the trail.
Walking is one thing one can still do, something that has not yet been canceled.
Before coronavirus, I’d take an afternoon walk on the trail, or in my neighborhood, and there’d barely be another soul out and about.
In week three, I’ve never seen so many of my suburban neighbors out and about on a Thursday afternoon. We walk quickly past each other. Some say hello, others just keep their heads down or look straight ahead. Everyone is nervous.
The thing these days that makes me most nervous, aside from overdosing on the news, is going into a store. It’s there that I see people wearing gloves, and now wearing masks.
Today, as I was about to enter the CVS, another woman entered ahead of me. She wore scrubs from head to toe, had some kind of surgical cap on, and a mask. But this was not your average cotton mask, the kind like so many are wearing now, if you can find one to buy. Or have the supplies and the craftiness to construct. This was a full-on respirator mask that had dual filtration vents on either side of her face.
Clearly, this woman was a nurse or a home health aide coming to pick up a perscription. Her mask was on so tight she had to shout the patient’s name and date of birth twice before the pharmacist, standing behind plexiglass, understood her.
I was afraid. Afraid for her, for having the kind of job where she had to wear so much protective clothing. And afraid for me, not knowing from where she was coming from dressed like that.
Tape markings were going down the vitamin aisle indicating the proper social distancing. I stood not one but three tape markings away from this woman. I tried to distract myself by looking at the vitamin offerings. I do not think the one that claimed to boost immunity is going to help us this time.
She got her prescription, then I was clear to get mine. I took my homemade hand sanitizer out of my purse, and swabbed the pen and then the credit card screen with a gob of it while the pharmacist got my son’s inhaler. I could not wait to get out of there. To breathe the outside air, to take off my latex gloves and wash my hands at home.

But this afternoon, on a second walk with my husband, I noticed how the sky was crystal blue. I have not remembered the sky so blue. With so many of us not driving, flying, with all of us in a big cosmic time out, Mother Nature is getting time to breathe.
So, today, the sky was blue, my hair once again is dark brown with no grey.
And my immediate family is healthy.
That’s where I’m at today.
How about you?

The March of Silent Feet

FirstOneThrough

An estimated 25,000 people marched from Manhattan’s City Hall over the Brooklyn Bridge on January 5, 2020. The message from the group organizers – mainly Jewish alphabet groups like UJA, AJC, ADL and JCRC – was “No Hate. No Fear.” The signs were everywhere, but few of the marchers uttered the words.

Placards during march over the Brooklyn Bridge, January 5, 2020 (photo: FirstOneThrough)

Various politicians lined up to address the TV cameras but not the audience before the march took place, including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Senator Chuck Schumer. The masses then followed the politicians over the bridge to a park in Brooklyn, escorted by scores of police and members of CSS, the Jewish Community Security Service.

Senator Chuck Schumer talking to the cameras before the march.

The people came from beyond the five boroughs including Westchester, New Jersey, Connecticut, Washington D.C. and Canada. There were a…

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The Torah Scrolls on the Floor

Looking for drama on Saturday mornings?

Each Saturday morning during Shabbat services, no matter what city you live in or what flavor of observance a synagogue or temple may ascribe to, there is that moment of truth. The moment when the person given the honor of lifting the Torah, or hagbah,  lifts the open Torah scroll above their heads, turns around for the congregation to see the letters, and then sits down in a chair where he is assisted by the galilah, the Torah dresser, who wraps the Torah, fastens it with a silken belt, places the cover back over the Eytz Chayim, or wooden posts, and adorns it with a silver breastplate depicting the twelve tribes of Israel. The galilah then replaces the silver pointer hand, or yad, and then finally the beautiful Keter, or crown, is placed atop the wooden posts.

Sometimes while lifting, the Hagbah shows three columns, sometimes, if they are really strong, four or five columns.

At this crucial moment in the Torah service, there is a certain element of danger in the air. We all rise as the Torah is lifted. Out of respect, yes, but also knowing that we are all in this together if the Torah lifter does not get it just right.

The suspense is especially stronger if we are at the beginning or end of the Torah cycle; when the Torah is scrolled way to the left or the right. For if the hagbah loses their grip or if their strength gives out, to drop a Torah scroll is a grievous mistake. To see the hagbah struggle or even tip slightly under the weight of the Torah elicit responses of gasps and “oh no’s” from the congregants and quick assists from the others on the bimah to steady the scroll from falling. And a feeling of relief and handshakes of “Kol Hakavod” after the Hagbah steps down from the bimah and returns to their seat in the congregation.

So serious of an offense, that on the rare occasion when a Torah scroll does fall to the ground, the offender must fast for 40 days. To reduce the severity of this consequence, oftentimes, a congregation will divide the 40 days to 40 congregants.

This is why so many are hesitant to perform the mitzvah of Hagbah for fear they might drop Judaism’s holiest possession.

Jews take the physical aspects of our holy books very seriously.

If you had an observant Jewish education, you were taught that our prayer books: our Siddurim, our Chumashim, were NEVER to be on the ground.  If you do drop one, as kids often do, it is customary to give the book a kiss, because these books have Gd’s name in it. The same goes for our talit, or prayer shawls with the fringes that represent the Torah’s 613 commandments. None of these things should ever touch the ground out of pure respect.

When Torah scrolls and prayer books are so old and worn they can no longer be used, they, with prayer shawls, are buried in a Jewish cemetery.

In many synagogues, you may see a battered Torah scroll, or a fragment of it. Water stained. Singed. Enclosed in its own glass case or hanging in a frame.

These are known as the Holocaust Torahs, which the Nazis confiscated and kept in barns or stables, to one day be placed in a museum to show off how the Third Reich had thoroughly extermined the Jews from the face of the Earth.

So, when I woke Saturday morning to learn that some ….. thing, some thug, some subhuman walked into the Nessa Synagogue in Beverly Hills and trashed its insides.

And tore our prayer books. And threw our talit on the ground.

prayershawls

And threw and unraveled our precious Torah scrolls to the ground.

trashedtorahscroll

My heart and soul went into a state of mourning.

What the shock must have felt like to those early risers who were first to arrive for Shacharit services that morning.

Did they think they were in Beverly Hills?

Or 1930’s Berlin?

The image of a naked Torah scroll lying on the ground to a Jew is visceral.

Jarring.

What animal would do such a thing? What rhetoric or “free speech” did they hear to spurn on this act of hate?

And now…

So Jews.. what are we going to do about it?

Luckily, Chanukkah is coming.

Chanukkah. No, No, it is not the Jewish Christmas. So for Gd’s sake, stop competing with it like it is.

Just, on your debates on whether we should have a stupid Chanukkah bush or oh how cute Chanukkah Harry is and oh my kids feel so left out during Christmas…. so we make a big deal out of Chanukkah with presents and we get a bush….

For fuck’s sake. Just stop.

Chanukah means: Rededication.

rededication

It marks a time in OUR SHARED Jewish history when, in 164 BCE the greatly outnumbered Maccabees in three years defeated the Assyrian Greeks and liberated Jerusalem and when they got to the Temple on the Temple mount they found it to be completely trashed.

Pig’s blood  and idols everywhere.

The altar smashed.

And they adjusted their energies from defeating their enemy to then rededicate the Temple and thus rededicate the Hellenised Jews in ancient Judea back to a Jewish way of living.

So.

In the aftermath of the Nessah Synagogue desecration, which, even in this year where haters have defaced synagogues, beat up on Jews and most recently, even killed Jews in Jersey City, what Jews need to do now is find some strength. And Light.

Nessah, if I’m reading that correctly, in Hebrew means miracle.

During Chanukkah, we celebrate the miracle. Not about the oil lasting, but that the Jews had the strength to battle on.

We must battle on. Now is not the time to hide or shrink into the darkness.

Take action.

That can mean speaking out against Jewish or anti-Zionist hatred from wherever or whoever is spewing it.

That can mean attending services or make a minyan for someone on mourning.

Or, it can mean celebrate Chanukkah for what it is.

Not a Jewish Christmas.

But a time to rededicate ourselves as Jews to our strong, proud, Jewish path.

Smashing the Idols of Today’s Jew-Hatred: Lessons learned from Lech Lecha

I had the privilege of giving the dvar Torah at my synagogue this weekend. 

For those who need explanation – Dvar Torah, literally translated as “words of Torah” is a weekly speech or sermon delivered in synagogues about the week’s Torah reading. It can be given by the rabbi, the bar mitzvah boy or bat mitzvah girl, or synagogue members.

It allows us, through examination and introspection and study, to put our own take on the Torah reading.

Here’s mine from yesterday:

Has there ever come a time in your life where you had the rug pulled out from under you?

When suddenly there is a shift in the paradigm, and you are asked to get up and move to a distant land or situation?

This is the case with Abraham. In just the third parashah of the Torah cycle, seemingly out of nowhere, we are presented with #Abraham aveinu. Right here, in a sudden shift, the Torah moves from the universal: The Creation of the world and the beginnings of humanity, to the particular:

Abraham. And the history of the Jewish people.

And what do we read in the very first lines of our Parashah?

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃

The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְג֣וֹי גָּד֔וֹל וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃

I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing.

וַאֲבָֽרֲכָה֙ מְבָ֣רְכֶ֔יךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ֖ אָאֹ֑ר וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָֽה׃

I will bless those who bless you And curse him that curses you; And all the families of the earth Shall bless themselves by you.”

Right here, from the get-go, God establishes the connection between the Jewish people to the land of Israel. Four times in this parashah, God instructs Abraham to possess the land.

God enters a covenantal relationship with one specific people. God commands Abraham to live by that moral law for his own good and the good of all humanity. In picking himself up and moving to an unknown land for him and his progeny, Abraham demonstrates he is the first to believe in the one, living God. And by willingly picking himself up to settle in Canaan, Abraham becomes the first Zionist.

This is the first passage of hundreds woven into the Torah about the mitzvah of Haaretz, a connection to the land of Israel.  Half of the 613 mitzvot contained in the Torah are specific to Haáretz. Settling and living in the land, according to the Torah, is essential for Jews to create their own, just and righteous society.

From this point on, the Torah establishes the fact that Judaism is more than a religion.

We are Am Yisrael.

The Nation of Israel.

Bnei Yisrael.

The Children of Israel.

Geographically speaking, it is an inconvenient fact that most of the places mentioned in Bereishit, from Abraham’s stop in Shechem, building an altar to God at Beit El,  dwelling in Mamre, attempting to sacrifice Yitzchak on Mount Moriah and finally, conducting history’s first real estate transaction in Hevron are located in Judea and Samaria, territories that most of the nations say are void of any Jewish connection.

There is a theory that is being peddled around:  that being Jewish has nothing to do with Israel, or anti-Zionism, meaning the belief that Jews do not have a collective right to sovereignty in their ancestral homeland, has nothing to do with today’s global rise of hatred towards Jews.

To those who hold these beliefs, I invite them to examine and study the many references about settling in the land and then tell us that Israel has nothing to do with Judaism.

IN 2017, American Zionist groups in timing with Parsha lech lecha, and the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, proclaimed that Shabbat Lech Lecha will now be known as Zionist Shabbat, where American Jews should relearn the significance and importance of Zionism in our religion.

AZM President Richard Heideman wrote: “The first commandment given to a Jew relates to Israel and Zionism. Indeed, Zionism and Judaism are inseparable, and we need to ensure that all Jews who are celebrating Shabbat around the world incorporate our common love for Israel – the land, the people and the culture – in the spirit of the unity of the Jewish people,”

In a 2019 video essay explaining the mutations of anti-Semitism, Rabbi Johnathan Sacks explains how Jew-hatred shifts and mutates through the centuries.  That is why the current hater claims they are not a hater because their hatred differs from the Jew-hatred of the past.

For example, in the Middle Ages, Jews were hated for their religion. In the 19th century, Jews became secular and assimilated and were hated for their race, because they were capitalists, and because they were communists. Now, we are hated because we have a nation-state.

Perhaps, we are hated because we have survived as a distinct, unique people with our own traditions and customs. Perhaps, like Abraham, we are hated because it is in our DNA to go against convention.

Last week, at Detroit’s Jewish Book Fair, I had the chance to catch a panel discussion with Tablet editors last week. There, editor in chief Alana Newhouse said the reason why Jews have survived as a unique and distinct people is that we have operated not by going with the flow of general society, but perpendicularly from the rest of society.

Sometimes, as Rabbi Sacks explains, Lech lecha means “go by yourself.”

Often, it does seem like the children are of Israel are alone.

Sure, criticism of Israel’s politicians and policies are fine, just ask the Israelis who do this every day.

Yet Israel stands alone in an often-impossible situation, She faces existential challenges and must make difficult decisions that are not asked by most nations on earth.

But criticism of Israel loses all nuance when it is now more popular to call for the illegality of the existence of Israel in its entirety. That, is anti-Zionism.

Our pro-Israel students on campus must increasingly be feeling like Abraham, standing alone to the taunts and chants that Israel is a Zionist and therefore a racist state.

Little do these accusers know that they are peddling a conspiracy theory hatched in the 1970’s in the United Nations by the Soviet Union and spread through Arab countries by Yasser Arafat.

Don’t believe me? Check out Bari Weiss’s new book: How to Fight Anti-Semitism. 

It’s all in Chapter Four.

Like Abraham, 400 Jewish students this month got up and walked out of a student government meeting at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). They were protesting the body’s overwhelming support for a motion titled  “Condemning Ignorance of Racism and Equating Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism.”

uiuc1

Jewish students tabling at UIUC

This motion denied any link between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. It was written by four student government members aligned with the UIUC chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). No Jewish student organizations or Jewish individuals, including the governing body’s only Jewish member, was asked for input on what defines anti-Semitism.

Student Lauren Nesher acted like Abraham when she led the exodus of Jews from the student government meeting. Nesher is a grandchild of Holocaust survivors and Turkish and Iraqi Jews who were kicked out of those nations because they were Jewish. 

Before she and her Jewish supporters walked out, she addressed the packed room and said:  

Never again will anyone allow the Jews to feel unsafe on this campus, whether we be affected by swastika graffiti, neo-Nazi or university-sponsored presentations that uniquely seek to delegitimize the establishment of a Jewish state.

Nesher is not alone in affirming the Anti-Zionism is Anti-Semitism connection. The American Jewish Committee just this week released a study titled: American Jews on Anti Semitism in America.  In this survey, 82 percent agreed that the BDS movement and its supporters are antisemitic. 84 percent believe the statement Israel has no right to exist is anti-Semitic.

So, what do we do? How do we combat the rising wave of anti-Semitism that goes under the veil of anti-Zionism?

For one thing, know there are others around you who, like Abraham, do not go with the flow. There are those around you who will not check our pro-Israel and Zionist leanings at the door to fit in or be included or accepted into progressive or intersectional causes.

Finally, let’s take a cue from Bari Weiss who suggests, that yes, we should be like Abraham:

Among Weiss’s many suggestions at the end of the book (spoiler alert) she suggests that we be like Abraham. And I paraphrase:

Abraham’s story is deeply Jewish. He stood radically against the prevailing orthodoxy of his time…..

Today, the idols are more abstract than the ceramics Terah, Abraham’s father, prayed to. They come in the form of power and prestige. The temptation to keep your mouth shut in order to get ahead or get along or to be well liked are very seductive…

But we must face the loneliness to be like Abraham. To be brave enough to say, yes, we are different. We need to be courageous enough to stand apart, ot to bend to the crowd, not to give in to group think.

We should find strength and pride in being an idol-smashing people.

 

Shabbat Shalom.

Bittersweet Birthday

pausepittsburgh

Yesterday, as it always is when Oct. 26 rolls around, was my birthday.

Highlights of my day include getting a phone call from a field somewhere in Boston where my daughter got her entire ultimate frisbee team to shout HAPPY BIRTHDAY MOM! into the phone.

My Facebook feed was loaded with wonderful messages wishing me love and happiness. Aren’t Facebook birthdays just the best? 

I spent the afternoon on a long walk looking at the reds yellows and oranges of the trees in my neighborhood. I spent the bulk of that walk talking with old friends until my battery died. All the while thinking, why don’t I talk to old friends more often? Like, with my voice. On the phone.

In the gloomy rain, I curled up in bed with our next book club book then enjoyed a fabulous dinner with my son and husband as many of our friends soaked themselves to the bone at the Big House to watch Michigan beat Notre Dame.

Then we watched a movie at home.

Yeah. I know. It was Shabbat. And traditionally, Jews are supposed to power down and unplug on the day of rest. But my phone rang and beeped all day with messages and conversations with my family who all live out of town from me. 

I did not forget that it was Shabbat. In fact, we spent my birthday morning in synagogue.

Just like I did last year. On the day after my birthday.

Yesterday, just like last year, I was in synagogue. But now, I cannot think of saying that sentence without thinking about the searing poem written by a young Detroiter who I hope to be half the writer she already is.

Yesterday in synagogue, the accordion door that partitions the sanctuary from the social hall was opened just a crack, just as it has been for a year now.

In case we need to escape a shooter.

Outside, our faithful security guards greeted us with a cheerful good morning and held the door for us as we entered.

They’ve been doing this for a year now.

Yesterday, I chanted an extremely long Haftarah that marks the Beginning as Jews everywhere who go to synagogue begin again and read the story of Creation.

How fitting, or ironic, I thought, that here we are, the day before the day that caused our Jewish community such destruction and pain, the worst attack on Jews in our nation’s history, we read the story of Creation.

After the Torah service, we read a profound statement from a Pittsburgh rabbi who discussed the long-lasting impact the terror attack and those 11 deaths have had on the wider Jewish community in Pittsburgh.

In it, the rabbi concluded that, even as impossible as it seemed, there were still joyful moments in the days and weeks that followed the murders. Even in their mourning, Pittsburgh Jews celebrated weddings. And kids turning into Jewish adults at bnei mitzvot. Somehow, as it always has in our Jewish history, joy mixed with sorrow. And we go on.

As it did yesterday in our own little shul.

Yesterday our congregation officially welcomed our newest member of the tribe as she was called up to the Torah for the first time with an aliyah as she celebrated her conversion to Judaism.

Yesterday I learned I was not the only one celebrating a birthday. From the looks of the two cakes wheeled out on a cart for Kiddush, one blue and one pink, I learned that I now share my birthday with twins. The blue-eyed boy of the twins announced to me that he was now three and then went back to playing with his fire truck.

Last year on my birthday was the last day before.

It was the last day Jewish Americans could go under the false pretense that we were safe in our sanctuaries.

It was the last day before we all became Pittsburgh Strong, before we all scrambled, even though it was Shabbat, to call friends, family, loved ones, friends from camp, friends we knew in childhood that we had not seen in years, to check on them to see if they were okay. Because, if you are an East Coast American Jew, chances are you have a connection to the Tree of Life Synagogue, where not one but three congregations gathered there to pray. To sing Shabbat Shalom Hey! at Tot Shabbat. To welcome in a baby boy into their community. It’s a place where I’ve been. Where my kids have been. Where my cousins became a Bat Mitzvah. Or stood under a canopy for their wedding.

What was lost last year, that feeling of relative innocence and safety, those lives lost that never got to celebrate Chanukkah, or Purim or Passover again…. could the sweetness of twins celebrating their third birthday, a woman being called to the Torah, and my chanting Haftarah counter that horrific day?

Could the intimacy in our small congregation, where those reciting Kaddish for a loved one feel safe enough to share a story of their deceased loved one, sometimes not pretty ones, counter the horror?

So now, it’s Oct. 27, the day after my birthday. The day that will now always be the day before Pittsburgh.

 

 

Press Inquiry: Are you Jewish and Retired? You may be my next source for a Forward Piece!

Okay okay, so I’m riding high on my opinion piece in the Algemeiner, so, while I have your attention, here is my next assignment:

Are you Jewish and “rewired?”

Using your new free time to dedicate yourself to Jewish learning or Jewish congregational life?

Do you or anyone you know who is recently retired who is dedicating their newly found free time to synagogue life? Taking up Jewish studies? Learning to chant Torah? Even becoming a rabbi as a second (or third!) career? If so, get in touch ASAP, my deadline is August 7. Feel free to share with potential sources NATIONWIDE. And I thank you!

 

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