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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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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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!
I temporarily fell off the blogging bandwagon, but again for a good reason of chasing after the news for my paid writing jobs.
But then I saw Hamilton. And for a $10 donation to Broadway Cares/Equity fights AIDS, I got a pen.
A pen to write my story.
So, let’s get back to this story.
The story I started about a month ago which I plan to tell piece by piece until its end. Even though people are telling me to get on with it, get over it.
People, this is my getting on with it and getting over it.
If you need to binge read to be all caught up on the story so far, you can start with this post. and then continue from there.
Again, names have been changed to protect identities.
If you know who I am talking about, please kindly shut up and don’t reveal who I am talking about.
….. 3 p.m .
A sunny afternoon late March
I drove home after working out as quickly as I could at my son’s bequest. There was something important he needed to tell me. Some kind of proclamation. An announcement.
The smell of a fresh-baked chocolate something hit me as soon as I opened the door to the mudroom off the garage. A smell that would lead me to undo the benefits of my workout.
There they were, Elias and Jonah, baking up a storm, there were measuring cups, bowls and an empty box of Dunkin Hines on the counter.
“Mom, Jonah has something big to tell you.”
Now this was after a week of figuring out just how I could take in another kid, well, young adult, really, into my family’s life.
A week where my husband and Jonah and I had met, without his tag along friend Elias, my son, to discuss how his life had gone so far, and where he wanted his life to go, and how and what kind of help he needed – both from us and hopefully a good therapist – for him to get there.
We came to the agreement that in order to live with us, there would be chores.
No problem with that. He’d done most of the chores when he lived with his father.
We came to the agreement that he would need to seek out therapy to deal with the alleged trauma of why he needed a home in the first place.
And we agreed that he could not drive our car. Not because we did not trust him with our car, but that we just did not have the budget to insure another male teen driver under the age of 25 on our policy.
With that understanding, driving Mr. Jonah around would be my responsibility. No problem there, nothing Mrs. Mom the chauffeur wasn’t used to, what’s one more kid to drive around?
So, to make sure I had covered everything, I overstepped my boundaries and, in advance, called the director of the day camp where he would be working at that summer to see how he would get there if he had no car.
Was there a bus that picked up the campers and where and when did it pick up and is it okay if Jonah rode that bus to camp too, because he has no car?
Because I had to ask.
Because, ultimately, I would be playing the mom. And moms think of everything.
“You know, I don’t know who you are lady, and I know Jonah,” the camp director told me over the phone. “He is an amazing kid, but he is an adult and to my knowledge he has not yet sent back his employment contract for the summer and I shouldn’t have told you that either.”
I knew that in the off-season the camp director was an attorney. I stammered. I had nothing to say, and I guess he caught on that I was a bit stymied for my lack of saying anything over the phone.
“It’s okay, lady, I know you are just trying to help him out,”
“That’s right, I am. And I am just trying to cover every scenario in terms of what he will need over the summer.”
“I know. It’s okay. If he can make it to the bus in the morning, he can ride it to camp.”
So, legally or illegally I had settled that.
But still, on that drive home from the gym, I thought he had made his mind up to live with Sabrina’s family. And I had to be okay with that. This was not about me. I still am telling myself that. It never was about me.
Do you ever have to tell yourself that?
This was what would be best for Jonah.
But there they were, Elias and Jonah in the kitchen, with big smiles on their faces.
And they had baked me lava cakes. If my memory served me correctly, they also bought whipped cream and strawberries for a garnish. The works.
“What’s all this?” asked. A very Merry Poppins sort of question. I joined them around the granite island, an island we would have many conversations around, and laughing, and arguing, and sometimes tears, in the months to come.
And then Jonah spoke. He said he knew Sabrina’s family offered him to live with them as well. And it would probably be more practical because they would have let him drive their car.
“But, I have to say, since I have been coming around here, no one, not even my aunts or uncles or my grandpa, has treated me more like family than you or your family in a very long time. If it’s okay with you, can I live here?”
And then we hugged.
And just like that, like the inside of a lava cake, My heart melted.
Next up: A move. A complete tear.
Another school year is off to a running start. Let us make a New Years Resolution of keeping our Jewish kids connected to their Judaism beyond Hebrew School and their coming of age Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony.
For me, Hebrew school is where I learned, but Jewish Youth group is where it all came into play. And meet my partner for life, there’s that too.
So, find ways to get your kids involved – whether it be USY, NFTY, BBYO or NCSY. These are the ties that bind for life. It was a pleasure to speak to so many committed young staff committed to nurturing our Jewish youth.
Jake Provizer of Farmington Hills remembers being “anti” Hebrew school. After his bar mitzvah at Temple Israel, the incoming Michigan State University freshman begrudgingly attended Monday night school. It was not until he found himself encircled by his newest friends during Havdalah at his first NFTY convention in Chicago that he felt his Jewish identity taking hold.
“I was in the eighth grade, and it was my first youth group experience,” recalled Provizer over a phone interview from Camp George in Canada, where he is spending his second summer as a counselor. “Then and there, I realized there was no place I would rather be. I went to every NFTY event all through high school. Involvement with Jewish youth is the best way to build your Jewish identity while you pick up the skills to become an independent adult.”
There are about 4,400 Jewish teenagersin Metro Detroit, but only about 1,000 — or 25 percent — think like Provizer and are active in Jewish living. The rest of this age group, though they value things like Jewish holidays and being with Jewish friends, are pulled in different directions in a post-religious society that values secular pursuits as they look to build their college application portfolio.
As teen free time dwindles, Jewish youth programming needs to be more meaningful to fulfill the teens’ social action desires as well as their need to socialize in a realm outside of social media.
The above findings are from a 2014 study conducted by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit’s Task Force on Jewish Engagement. Recognizing that a robust Jewish community can only continue by nurturing the next generation, Detroit is leading the nation in financial commitment to Jewish teen engagement with its Teen Network Weavers (TNW) initiative. The TNW term was coined by Rabbis Jen Lader and Josh Bennett of Temple Israel.
“It is crucial that we re-invest in our teens to connect them to their rich heritage that can offer so much guidance as they navigate their way through the many modern challenges they face,” said Jeffrey Lasday of Federation’s Education Department.“Success to us at the end of this second year will look like 90 percent of Detroit’s Jewish teens participating in at least one Jewish youth program.”
The three weavers function at the highest community level instead of the individual congregation level as they are guided by a Teen Network Weaver administrator on Federation’s staff. The initiative strives to keep Jewish teens in the fold by meeting them where they are — both literally and spiritually.
Heading up the TNW team is Barrett Harr, Federation’s coordinator of Jewish teen engagement. Harr moved here from Texas after 15 years of congregational Jewish youth fieldwork and this spring completed the Executive M.A. Program in Jewish Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.The weavers’ jobs demand a much more proactive expertise than their part-time counterparts of previous generations. TNWs have backgrounds in social work and teen crisis management as well as a depth of knowledge of Judaism.
“Somewhere along the line, society has lost that village where every adult in the neighborhood looked out for one another’s children,” Harr said. “The Federation is determined to nurture more Jewish teens and we, as Jewish youth professionals, are blessed to have such a financial commitment from this community.”
Shortly after she graduated college, Jacki Honing, 26, found herself at a dinner meeting with a potential employer on a Friday night.
“As a 20-something, I realized I had some choices to make: Do I opt for the corporate life, or do I want to work in the Jewish world?” said the Las Vegas native who moved to Detroit for the weaver job in January and works with teens in the Conservative movement.
She dropped her corporate ambitions and committed her professional pursuits to the Jewish community. Honig channels her memories attending Jewish preschool, day school and socializing in United Synagogue Youth and Camp Ramah as she mentors teens making personal choices of how to live more Jewishly. Well-versed in the teen mindset, she takes a “one-size-does-not-fit-all” strategy for finding just the right opportunity to spark a teen’s interest in Judaism.
“We realize that what may work for one teen will not work for another,” Honig said. “We are not proprietary to the particular youth groups we represent. What is most important is making these teens realize they are the future of our community by nurturing and mentoring them now. Then, when they are adults, they will want to give back, not only to the Jewish community, but to Detroit as a whole.”
“Without her, who knows whereMCUSY would be, and I’m so fortunate I got to work with her this past year as MCUSY co-president,” said Bloomberg, who has held leadership roles locally and regionally. “USY has been an essential part of my high school experience. USY has taught me valuable leadership skills, and has introduced me to a plethora of friends I consider family. It has also given me the opportunity to further my Jewish education. I’ve had the opportunity to lead programs regarding lessons in the Torah as well as lead part of Shabbat services at every regional convention.”Allison Bloomberg, 17, of Farming-ton Hills, who will be a senior this year at Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield, said Honig has been “a huge help” in supporting MCUSY (Motor City USY) during a transitional phase and helped keep the Conservative-based chapter growing in the right direction.
Programs like this over the last year have attracted a core group of 10 kids, plus 35-40 others who have attended at least one program over the year. Other successful programs last year included Havdalah at the William Livingstone Memorial Lighthouse in Detroit with TBE’s Rabbi Mark Miller.Joseph Unger, the only native Detroiter of the weavers, works as the youth adviser at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township. Much of the NFTY programming at TBE focuses on social justice and volunteering, such as monthly trips to soup kitchens or other work coordinated by Repair the World Detroit.
At 25, Unger likes to be honest with the teens, telling them he wishes he had taken his own religious schooling more seriously. He did get involved with Michigan State University Hillel and traveled with the group on a life-changing Birthright Israel trip.
“That trip really made me think more about Judaism and how I wanted to give back to my community,” he said.
Building Israel Ties
If Ethan Bennett, TNW for Temple Israel, had his way, he would make sure each teen understands the connection to the Jewish homeland — not during Friday evening services, but by taking them on a hike into the Negev Desert and then studying a text that sources the very trail where they had just walked.
Bennett tries to do the next best thing by facilitating informal Thursday night programs at Temple Israel where teens can learn and discuss topics pertaining to Israel.
“Israel has shaped who I am and it is an important part of my work,” Bennett said. “Today’s Jewish teens need resources to define their own relationship with Israel. When they get to college they will be challenged, and that is OK. But they need to be prepared.”A native of St. Louis, Mo., Bennett was active in NFTY and spent a gap year in Israel, where he bolstered his skills in working with Jewish teens. He also finished his studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where he studied Hebrew and Arabic and worked on youth partnership programs between Arab and Jewish teens in Israel.
Bennett finds his job as a weaver very fulfilling and says he is very grateful for the wide support he and his cohorts are receiving.
He began his position in October 2015 after working with Jewish teens throughout the country. However, he said he has never seen the devotion and commitment of a community for teen outreach as he has witnessed in Detroit.
“It is rare a community invests so much in its youth advisers and allows us to have so much influence in the community,” he said. “We have been given license to take our ideas and passions and run with them.”
It was an honor and a pleasure to interview and feature these often unspoken heroes of our shuls for this cover story in the March 16th issue of the Detroit Jewish News. Next time you go to synagogue for services, don’t forget to thank the custodian for their service.
Longtime non-Jewish staffers help make their synagogues special.
By Stacy Gittleman
They are often the first to open up the building in the morning and the last ones to lock up at night. They work hard to make sure the furnace runs in the winter and the air conditioning is cool — but not too cold — in the summer. Because of them, the floors shine and the carpets are fresh right before the High Holidays and the start of Hebrew school.
Their years connected to a congregation often outlast many Jewish members and even the clergy, making the synagogue or temple custodian not only the caretaker of our holy Jewish spaces, but a congregation’s unofficial historian.
Many of Detroit’s synagogues and temples owe much gratitude to the dedication of their custodians, who take much joy in watching Jewish preschoolers grow into young men and women and return to synagogue with their own children. When they fall ill, they receive visits from congregation members and congregational clergy. For that, they say, working as a synagogue custodian is like being part of a big extended family.
Murphy Ealy, 67, of Oak Park, worked in a scrap metal recycling facility when, in 1999, he got a call from an employment agency about a custodial position at Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield. His work at the recycling yard was “grimy.” Ealy loves to clean, so he said he was “strongly encouraged” to take on the new opportunity.
Seventeen years later, he still loves his job of preparing the building for services, meals and other programs throughout the Jewish calendar cycle.
“The favorite part of my job is welcoming in the congregants when they come for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” Ealy said. “I watch the kids grow older every year, and a lot I’ve known since they were preschoolers are now coming back married with their own kids. I have both celebrated and at times mourned together with the families here.”
Ealy arrives at Beth Ahm most days at 5:30 a.m. to open up the building for minyan. He then spends the rest of the morning cleaning and setting up for the week’s programs or services until his shift ends at noon. Many times, he will return to the building for evening functions and is especially instrumental during special occasions such as building the sukkah and helping the congregation’s sisterhood during its annual rummage sale.
As Ealy polished the brass railings of the bimah in the sanctuary on a recent morning, he considered the holiness of his work.
“For six days, I spend most of my time in a Jewish house of worship,” he said. “There is certainly something special about doing my work inside a synagogue. When I’m in here and it is peaceful and quiet, I feel safe.”
As keeper of the synagogue’s keys, a custodian is also on call for various emergency circumstances, like responding to an emergency alarm or a power outage. But it is not often that a custodian is called upon to determine the results of a local election.
Beth Ahm serves as a polling location for Precincts 9 and 10 in Oakland County. One election night, Ealy returned home after work only to receive an urgent phone call from a local government official. The polling workers left the voting sheets in the locked synagogue, and they could not call the election until Ealy opened the building to count the votes.
“He is a one-man show who knows us all and knows the inner workings and routine of our congregation and can anticipate what needs to be done without even asking,” said Beth Ahm Executive Director David Goodman. “He is here for us all and is an integral part of our success.”
‘As Important As The Rabbi’
On the other side of town, Beth Shalom of Oak Park loves to brag about its “one-man maintenance team,” Vasile Havrisciuc.
Vasile Havrisciuc, maintenance manager, spruces up the Beth Shalom sign.
For 11 years, Romanian-born Havrisciuc has worked as the synagogue’s maintenance manager. He has a background in electrical, plumbing and HVAC skills and is “constantly finding ways to save the synagogue money,” according to building committee chair Allen Wolf of Bloomfield Township.
Non-Jewish custodians of synagogues take on unique job responsibilities such as learning about Jewish laws and observances surrounding Shabbat, kashrut and other customs.
According to Wolf, Havrisciuc is a devout Catholic who knows more about Judaism than most Jews do.
“When Pesach comes around, no one needs to tell Vasile how to kasher the kitchen,” he said. “When the High Holidays approach, he knows how to re-arrange the shul and pull out the appropriate machzorim. On Shabbat, he knows we can’t turn on ovens or lights, so he makes sure these things are handled.
“Congregation Beth Shalom is a very heimishe [down-to-earth] shul and Vasile is an important part of that. He is as important to the success of Beth Shalom as the rabbi, the cantor or the office staff.”
An ‘Honorary Jew’
Charles Criss, 57, of Detroit, has worked for Temple Emanu-El for 34 years. From those decades of experience comes the knack for anticipating the needs of the synagogue’s day-to-day operations, according to Executive Director Fredrick Frank. Criss said he has become an expert on the temple’s roof, forecasting where leaks may spring up and advising contractors during roof renovations.
He knows the congregants just about as well as he knows the building. Like his counterparts working in other synagogues, he echoes that the best part of his job is watching the kids grow up over the years and coming back to temple with their own children.
Charles Criss keeps Temple Emanu-El is in top shape.
Rabbi Emeritus Joseph Klein would play an “informal” game with Criss each week, and each week, Criss would beat him at it.
“A day before a special event or program, I would remind Criss of what I needed set up,” Klein said. “No matter what, he would be way ahead of me and with a smile he would say, ‘Already done.’”
Though he cannot attend services at church as much as he would like — as the week’s busiest day is Sunday when Hebrew school is in session — over the years he said he received much “spiritual guidance” from the clergy and others at Temple Emanu-El.
“I have had the opportunity to be spiritually uplifted when I sit back and listen to the services, and I have been honored with the duty of serving as a pallbearer at funerals of congregants. Because of this, Rabbi Klein described me as an ‘honorary Jew.’”
A Spiritual Feeling
Marvin Brown of Southfield worked in the landscaping business when he got a call from Alan Yost, executive director of Adat Shalom in Farmington Hills, about a custodial position the day before Christmas Eve in 1984.
After working for 33 years in a Jewish environment, words and phrases like shalosh seudos and mezuzah easily roll off his tongue. A cook at heart, a favorite part of Brown’s job is preparing meals, especially breakfast for morning minyan.
Over his years at Adat Shalom, Brown said he has prepared the building for “thousands” of weddings and bar mitzvahs. During one bar mitzvah party, the synagogue lost power. Brown stepped in and saved the evening by walking back and forth to get diesel fuel at the Shell gas station on Northwestern Highway every hour or so to keep the backup generator running.
Marvin Brown is a cook at heart and loves preparing minyan breakfast at Adat Shalom.
When Brown started his job, he did not know much about Judaism and the rules of keeping kosher. He didn’t realize that bringing in outside food — including ribs from his favorite barbecue place in Detroit — is completely forbidden. But now, as the primary food shopper for the synagogue, he knows how to select food with the correct kosher certifications and how to cook without mixing up the meat and dairy utensils in the synagogue’s kosher kitchen.
Brown said he gets a decent amount of vacation time, including Christmas and Easter. And when Brown needed hospitalization in 2005, the nurses on his floor asked him if he was Jewish because of all the Jewish clergy who continually paid him visits.
Brown was raised in a Baptist church. Though he says he does not get to church formally, he says the rabbis over the years like the late Rabbi Efry Spectre and the late Cantor Larry Vieder taught him that he can also “have church” right in the synagogue.
“I grew up listening to gospel choirs,” Brown said. “Though I don’t understand the Hebrew, when they really get to singing around here [during services], it sounds very nice.”
Some synagogues are bigger than others and require a crew of maintenance staff to keep the building running. With 15,000 square feet of space and the ability to host 1,500 worshipers, Congregation Shaarey Zedek is one of the largest in the Detroit Metro area. The custodial staff, headed by Keith Armbruster, facilities director, keeps busy throughout the year by not only preparing the building on Shabbat and for special occasions, but also for large community functions that can host hundreds of people at a time.
Keith Armbruster at Shaarey Zedek
Armbruster, 60, of Livonia just celebrated his 40th anniversary last October working at CSZ. He says the unique architecture of the synagogue poses certain challenges, such as using a catwalk 100 feet above the sanctuary to change the lightbulbs and carefully maintaining the one-of-a-kind lighting fixtures, woodwork and custom-made large wooden doors that adorn the building. Thankfully, he said, the soaring stained glass windows do not need cleaning.
“It is a challenge getting up to that catwalk,” Armbruster said. “It is like climbing a mountain to get up there.”
Over the years, he has most enjoyed meeting the many interesting and prominent members of the Detroit community who have been members of CSZ. A good day for him means receiving good feedback when a special occasion or function goes off without a hitch. Most of all, he has enjoyed learning about Jewish traditions and takes pride of the knowledge he has gained over the decades.
“In my social circles, I am kind of like the rabbi to all my non-Jewish friends,” Armbruster said. “When someone has a question about something Jewish, they always come to me.”
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators at U-M fail to silence Jewish student
Stacy Gittleman | Contributing Writer
Expressing relief that the University of Michigan’s Central Student Government (CSG) Ethics Committee had cleared his name on Dec. 7 of charges of hate speech because he spoke out at a pro-Palestinian demonstration, Jesse Arm, a CSG student representative, said he looks forward to “getting back to work on making campus a better place for all students.”
“Freedom of speech is of critical importance, and all students should recognize that truth,” Arm told the JN shortly after the ethics committee hearing — the first time in the CSG’s history a student serving in a student governmental position had ever been brought up on an ethics violation. “I hope that, in the future, all students will be able to engage in respectful dialogue freely without fear of repercussions for their ideas,” he said.
Under the charges brought up by the pro-Palestinian group Students Allied for Freedom and Equality (SAFE), Arm faced possible removal from his student governmental seat for emotionally, but peacefully, criticizing their Nov. 19 demonstration.
The demonstration featured SAFE members costumed to look like Israeli soldiers pretending to harass others at a mock checkpoint in front of two large, wall-like signs that included a dove targeted in a rifle’s crosshairs and the words “To Exist Is To Resist.”
Arm told the JN, “I objected to the use of that phrase in particular because I believe it to be a plainly regressive way of looking at the conflict no matter what side you are on. To exist is to coexist. To exist is to dialogue. To exist is to compromise. To exist is to strive toward peace.”
The incident occurred on the same day Jewish students on campus learned of the terrorist murder of Jewish American Ezra Schwartz in Israel, though campus media reports that the timing by SAFE was a coincidence. Arm, who passed the demonstration on his way to a class, spoke out and offered his contact information to later discuss the issue, but a SAFE representative was not interested in continuing a dialogue.
The Ethics Committee reviewed the incident, which was documented in a video presented by SAFE. SAFE’S own video, however, proved that Arm acted appropriately — and it wound up supplying the evidence that exonerated him.
The Ethics Committee concluded, “Arm should not be penalized; and members of student government have the right to speak passionately … and advocate on behalf of the causes they believe in. [Arm] remained well inside his First Amendment rights and … he never attempted to speak on behalf of Central Student Government or even mentioned the governing body.”
To justify their ruling, the CSG cited Article VIII, Section 1 of the Constitution of the Student Body of the Ann Arbor Campus of the University of Michigan, which states that “no authority, academic or civil, shall infringe on a student’s freedom of speech, freedom to peacefully assemble, or freedom to demonstrate grievances.”
The Ethics Committee also stated “SAFE has the right to continue to discuss these important issues, just as Representative Arm should have the right to continue to speak freely and participate in dialogue. … This expression cannot be censored; the emotional responses that students have are real and valuable.”
Leading up to the hearing, Hillel Executive Director Tilly Shames in a statement said that she had “faith in our Wolverines, and I believe our student government will see there is no substance behind this complaint and will not take action against Jesse.” She said that prior to the hearing, Alex Adler, the Michigan Hillel governing board chair, spoke at the CSG and several other students came out to support Arm against an “unfounded complaint made by students with a BDS agenda.”
Heidi Budaj, Michigan regional director of the AntiDefamation League, praised the efforts of organizations like Hillel and Chabad who have “boots on the ground” to support and advocate for Jewish students on campus. She also questioned SAFE’s motives as well as what standards SAFE felt Arm violated.
“The ADL by no means wishes to limit the right to free speech by any group,” Budaj said. “However, it is not clear as to which standards of behavior Arm is being held against.”
After the hearing, the Ethics Committee concluded that the operation rulings of the committee must be “reformed” as it was unclear as to what standards Arm should have been judged and whether or not Arm was allowed legal representation at the hearing.
According to Article VIII of the Conflicts of Interest Code, a member of the CSG may have an ethical conflict of interest of serving on the CSG if they receive money or payment from any student organization as a direct consequence of their membership in the Assembly. It also states, “No member of the Assembly possessing a conflict of interest with a student organization may participate in debate or vote on any matter regarding the organization with which there exists a conflict of interest.”
There is no language about CSG members participating, or speaking out, at a campus demonstration. Attempts to reach CSG and SAFE representatives before and after the hearing by the Detroit Jewish News went unanswered. *