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I Just Can’t Do It Alone: My partner in Doing Good

justcantdoalone

This is the next installation in what is based on a true story.

Names have been changed.

As winter turned to spring in 2018 and I got to understand more of Jonah’s plight, I realized I might be in over my head.

In his young life:

He had watched the tearing apart of his family. :

An oldest brother who was profoundly autistic and needed round-the-clock care.

Divorced parents at nine.

At age 13, watching his second oldest brother’s leaving his father’s home, also at age 18 to never return.

Being taken away from his mother’s care because of her own substance abuse.

Her suicide.

And then, estrangement from his dad at 18.

Each night, I had a hard time sleeping thinking about all that trauma he had yet to process.  There are many I know who have taken in shelter dogs who suffered abuse. Here I was, with no education, psychology or social work background, thinking about taking in a human. A rescue human.

Now, looking back, when I feel like a failure, I have to repeat to myself:  I, and others, about six other families before me, in fact –  we did all we could.  Every time I feel that I failed him I circle back and repeat to myself: we could not undo in three or four months what had been damaged over the course of at least 10 years of abuse and neglect.

But we sure did try.

“Why should we wait until the end of the school year? If he is not happy in his current situation, let’s get him out of there now, let’s help him.”

Enter my helper. Sabrina.* My co-grizzly bear mamma. My … well, we had another nickname for each other, another term, I’m not sharing that.

We had met up at the Riverfront on a shivering cold but sunny March morning. With about 10,000 other protesters. March for Our Lives.  The shock of the Parkland shootings were so fresh in all our minds. The wanting and need to embrace all our terrified teenagers by doing something en mass.

Sabrina is tall. Tells it like it is and straight to the point. Spiky short hair and bright blue eyes that shine out behind a collection of the most colorful, cool, mod, rad spectacles you could ever hope to pull off the look yourself but you know you wouldn’t get away with it.

I only had heart and Google at my resources. She was a licensed social worker, had worked serving her community for years in the non-profit world and knew who to call and what to do. Her son was also friends with Jonah. For years, when Jonah would ask for a ride home, Sabrina always noticed, no matter the time of day or night, Jonah would always let himself into a dark, seemingly empty home.

Before the March headed out along the river and Hart Plaza, we shot ourselves in a selfie the best two middle-aged ladies knew how. We texted it to Jonah.

“Hi Jonah. We have a plan. Let’s get together soon.”

Over the next several months, she was my partner in all this. God bless my husband for none of this would have happened, but there was enough upheaval at work for him to invest his time and increase his stress load.

So, it was Sabrina and I who were on the phone on an almost daily basis for weeks at a time, arranging meetings with social workers, school principals and administrators.  Making doctors and dentist appointments. Two Jewish moms sometimes tripping over each other to help a kid who for so long had no mom at all to go to bat for him.

As it turned out, Sabrina’s family had also offered Jonah a place to live. They had a little more room, a lot more room and food wise, did not keep a kosher home like we did.

A crash course in keeping kosher. Now there are levels of keeping kosher. Though my family is not the most strict, we do have separate dishes, pots silverware for meat and dairy. We do not mix meat and dairy. No cheeseburgers or Parmesan anything here.

We do not bring non-kosher meat into the house. There is a way to prepare food, to clean up from the food, that keeps the kitchen kosher.

Now, what non-Jewish kid who up until a few years ago had no Jewish friends would want to put up with that on a daily basis?

Not to mention access to a car.

A car. An 18-year-old teen-aged boy and access to a car. So he could get to his job as a summer camp counselor, go out with friends, have that freedom that only a car can give you.

What 18-year-old boy is going to turn that down?

Forget it, kid. I’ll still be here, but you got offered a car? Good for you.

There is no way Jonah is going to live with us after an offer like that, I thought to myself, about a week after March for our Lives.

I was getting used to the idea of having him come to live with us. More than used to. I was starting to get attached.

I had just finished an afternoon workout at the JCC. In the shower, I told myself, this is not about YOU. This cannot be taken as a personal rejection. He has to do what is best for him.

This is not a competition.

Let him go. You’ve got enough going on.

Let him go where he wants to go.

After towelling off, I checked my phone to see there was a text from my son.

“Mom, when will you be home? We have something waiting for you, it’s a big surprise!”

 

What Does Neglect in Suburbia Look Like?

This is based on a true story. Names have been changed. help

 

“Mom, Jonah really likes coming over for dinner.”

Elias told me on a dark winter night early last January.

A year had passed, and so had another high school musical season. This time, my son was now in high school and Jonah, a senior, had been in another musical together and were now at the beginning of forensics season.

No, we’re not talking CSI-styled forensics. No, this was not about a bunch of high school kids investigating the scene of a crime.  Forensics, when taken from its original Latin,  forensis means ‘in open court, public’, from forum. Say forensics to any high school kid in the midwest, and they know it’s all about speaking, oratory and acting competitions that take place in the winter and spring months.

More on forensics later.

Back to the kitchen we go.

So, I was in the kitchen making dinner. Dark and cold and snowy outside.  School had been in full swing now for a few weeks after a two-week Christmas/winter break.

Jonah was now living with another family in the school district, who had traveled without him over winter break, which meant that Jonah spent a lot of time during that break alone.

Alone was a thing that Jonah had grown accustomed to, since about the age of nine.

But after having him over for several family dinners with not only my youngest but my son and daughter home on college break, including his first Shabbat dinner with homemade chicken soup and challah, and another special birthday dinner for my husband, I think he started to realize what he had been missing out on all these years.

Outside of hanging around the kitchen table, I was getting to know Jonah through various outings, like the time over MLK weekend when my son and I went out with him to see a movie and go for dinner at the nearby mega mall.

“Mom, Jonah said before he came over here for dinner, he never really had a home cooked meal.”

To this day, I cannot wrap my brain around that sentence.

To me. food, especially prepared my grandmothers and mothers and aunts (and YES I know there are men and uncles and dads who cook, but not in my family) and then eating that food as a family, is the foundation of loving family bonds and relationships.

An absence of that, that was the first real sign to me of the extent of Jonah’s neglect.

Over time, I learned that when he lived with his mother, who was a substance abuser, Jonah and his brother had mostly survived on eating cereal for dinner. Or a can of tuna.  Or PB & J sandwiches.Or hot dogs.

To this day, if offered a hot dog, he’d politely turn it down for something else.

Over time, I learned  Jonah lived with his father full time because of his mother’s substance abuse. Jonah said his father expected him to cook dinner.

Nothing wrong with that in different situations.

I started cooking in middle school for my family when my mom went back to work, but only after years of learning by mom and grandma’s side, and mom would prep meals more than halfway and leave me copious notes on the kitchen table when I got home from school. And, considering how broken Jonah’s family situation was, some home cooked meals provided by his dad could have provided that nurturing he needed.

Basic rule: If you are a parent, it’s your job to provide meals for your kid. Leaving raw meat in the fridge and expecting your kid to cook it doesn’t cut it.

Worse yet, according to the story, his dad would leave him and take off for the weekend or the week with his new girlfriend, without leaving a contact number or a family member to look after him. Was his big brother still around at this point? I cannot remember the timeline just right.

So, from the getgo, Jonah said he prided himself on being a “DIY” kind of guy. He had basically raised and cared for himself. Since around age 9 or 10.

And somewhere in this timeline, he had made calls to Child Protective Services, both at his mother’s and father’s homes. But upon inspection of his father’s home, located in a nice, upper middle class subdivision cul de sac with food in the fridge and pantry, CPS found nothing to be wrong.

 

What does neglect look like to peers in the halls of an upper middle class high school?

It might be hard to detect. Jonah was always nicely dressed with the clothes he had purchased with his own money working two jobs. He had saved every receipt in hopes of getting this money back somehow.. from someone or some lawsuit?

… Maybe his shoes were worn, because he’d been wearing them since the seventh grade. But other than that, he always was nicely dressed.

But when it comes to one’s health, friends of the neglected may start to notice, especially when these friends compete with you in forensics. Jonah may not have had family bonds, but his friends became his family.

The multiple team rehearsed after school every day. I realize it now that my son’s team practiced maybe more than most because Jonah was the director. In his chaotic teen years, perhaps he felt this was the one place he could be in complete control of every scene block, every plot twist.

Indeed, during the season, multiple team members often make each other the center of their lives, with all the teen drama, for the duration of forensics season, which runs from late December auditions until the end of April with state finals.

When multiples spend most of their free time together after school rehearsing, all day on Saturdays and sometimes, sleep overs and parties on Saturday nights and then of course, brunch on Sundays, someone is bound to get sick. And if one gets sick, the rest are bound to catch it.

A few years back, when Jonah had a hacking cough and fever and his dad had instructed to pray it away, a forensics teammate was so worried about him that she pleaded her mother to drop off some OTC cough medicine at his house.

And she did. Only to get called into the office that week by his father and counselor for a rash scolding. The father telling the mother to stay out of his business.

Flash forward to the winter of 2018. It was a particularly deadly strain of influenza was going around if you can recall.

Perfectly healthy, young people being struck horribly ill, or even dying from it.

Health care professionals urging all to get their flu shots.

Since turning 18 and living independently from his father, Jonah had figured out a lot for himself. Even FAFSA! (We’ll get to that in another post).

One thing he didn’t have access to, and didn’t have time to figure it out, was access to healthcare.

Since his estrangement from his dad, he had no health insurance. Not like his dad took him to doctors. Or believed in keeping up with immunizations.

One night last winter, Jonah came to sleep over. He was coughing pretty badly.

I felt his forehead. It was pretty hot. But he refused to take any medication, not even Advil.

“As it is,” he shrugged it off with a laugh, “My family has very strong immune systems, and we just fight it off, whatever it is, and we eventually get better.”

I expressed my concern and his need to see his pediatrician right away.

“You can’t afford to wait it out, Jonah, this could get very bad. You have to get better and see your doctor, they’ll give you a flu shot.”

Problem is, he told me, he had no doctor, and no access to healthcare.

To this I just shook my head.

It was very generous and kind of the family who took him in, considering they hardly knew him or his family situation. But, did it not trouble them that he had no access to healthcare?

How could they let him use their car, but not care if he has health insurance? Was he under their auto insurance policy?

I mean, what if he got in a car accident?

What if he needed an emergency appendectomy?

What if his cough is bronchitis or pneumonia and he just needs an anti-biotic?

What if, and who even knows if his immunizations are up to date?

What if… and what if… other horrible scenarios played out in my mind. I am a Jewish mother, after all.

So, at that point,  on a cold January Saturday night, what could I do?

The night went on and Jonah’s cough got worse. Finally, Elias came up from where they were crashing in the basement and said Jonah needed some relief.

Mr. DIY gave in to my maternal suggestion.  I think I gave him some OTC cough suppressant. Or NyQuil. Or something.

To cut the fever and the cough.  To make it better.

All this time, I just wanted to make him better. 

The next morning, I sent him back to where he was staying with two quarts of my homemade chicken soup.

Because at that point, before he lived under my roof, that really was all I could do.

So what is the difference between a kid who is cared for and not cared for in the suburbs?

The difference is, the other kids have parents or even a loving guardian to take care of them if they got sick.

The other kids had doctors.

And Jonah at 18 had no living memory of seeing a doctor. Ever.

That’s neglect.

Next up: Some statistics on LGBT youth

Eulogy for a Friend & Fellow Transplant

Amy.JPG

 

I hope you never have to write a memorial speech for a friend. I hope that by the time you lose a friend in life, you are too old to stand, your mind too weathered with old age to focus, your voice too weak to make a sound. 

But that’s not the case when you lose a friend when they are young. 

It hurts. But writing for a writer is a healing salve. Thank you, Peter, for asking. 

The first time I truly understood the courageous character of our beloved Amy was during a telephone conversation I had with her in the fall of 2011. I was a newspaper reporter writing about Rochester New York’s upcoming annual Ovarian Cancer walk. Amy, as she did many times in her short but brilliant life, offered to share her story publicly and candidly to put a face on the statistics.

Unfortunately, my call caught her driving home from a friend’s wake. Her friend had just died from ovarian cancer.

Deadline or not, I was afraid that the timing of this interview was insensitive on my part. So I gave Amy an out. I apologized for reaching her at such a sad time. But instead of not wanting to be interviewed, she did just the opposite. “No, I want to talk to you. My friend was so strong, such an inspiration to all of us. Any time a treatment was not responding, she refused to get down and would instead say to her doctors, what else can we try? What’s next?”

Does this sound like someone we all knew and loved?

Amy truly lived during the fight of her life. Just as she connected to life here in her new community in Michigan, Amy, with her feisty wit and that warm win-you-over in a heartbeat smile, was a vibrant presence back in Rochester.

She worked for over 20 years in real estate as an apartment rental specialist and served on many leadership positions in the community and at our synagogue back in Rochester, NY.

What truly drew us together was my second understanding of Amy’s courage to embrace life’s changes while she faced the realities of her cancer.  On a sunny October day in 2012, not unlike the one we had today, General Motors threw us all for a loop. It announced the closure of its Rochester-based research facility where both our husbands worked and the relocation of their jobs to Michigan.

I’ve moved around a lot. But Rochester was the only home Amy ever knew. That’s the town where her entire support network existed: family, friends, co-workers, doctors and other healthcare providers.   Moving away from everything familiar when you have cancer must have taken immense bravery.

During the moving process, we became comrades in relocation . We scoped out Detroit together on week-long house hunting trips. Back in Rochester, we met for walks and early breakfasts to discuss the move process, how we were staging our Rochester homes for buyers and how our kids were handling goodbyes with their friends.

We shared the frustration of long-distance house hunting,  in a post-foreclosure Detroit housing market and shared with each other listings we found on Zillow.

Once we found our houses, together we began to make them feel like home. Craig and I went to Amy and Peter’s house to hang up their front door mezuzah. Then, Amy and Peter came to our house before our furniture had even arrived to hang out on the rug in our family room, have a drink and play a cut-throat game of SET.

Amy, with her meticulous taste and her zest for shopping, went on to quickly decorate with a color wheel of paint samples to repaint the bedrooms upstairs, and wall hangings and picture frames with blank spots marked “reserved” for the main floor downstairs. It was as if she knew that time was not on her side, and she wanted to create the homiest home for Peter and Ben while her energies were still high.

As time went on, both of us gradually started making our individual paths. Though we joined different synagogues and our kids were in different school districts, we still found time to make new memories in our new town. I was amazed how quickly Amy plugged into life here, from her involvement and leadership in the PTO at Sheiko, her volunteer work for Blessings in a Backpack, and here at Beth Ahm, Amy quickly made an Army of friends. The next thing I knew it was Amy who was calling my kids to get them involved with planning the community-wide Purim carnivals.

Amy and I would talk on the phone. A lot. For a very long time. I cherished our lingering conversations because I knew there may be a time when I would no longer get to chat with my friend Amy.

Most of the time, we’d talk about our kids. School. The latest Groupon she scored. How we hated going food shopping here because once you shop at Wegmans, no other grocery store would do. Completely normal conversations between girlfriends.

On the occasion, and only when SHE wanted to bring it up, our chats were dotted with tumors that were either holding or shrinking. The date of an upcoming scan. When we needed to arrange to drive her to her next doctors visit or chemo treatment.

And then, we’d get on to talking about making social plans for date nights, either as couples or with the family.

You see, the Gittlemans and Harveys are forever connected by a few dates. Peter and Amy’s wedding anniversary is on my birthday. And Amy and my daughter shared a birthday on December 17. So, we celebrated on family date nights in search of a good Italian restaurant. Couple date nights where the four of us never got our meal served at the Bath City Bistro before seeing Howie Mandel. We waited two hours for their anniversary dinner that never came. Always the fighter, Amy made sure we did not pay a penny for our un-meal, not even for our drinks.

Then one winter we went to go see Amy’s boyfriend, STING, play at the Auburn Palace. The next morning, we met up to walk at the JCC and continued to swoon over her boyfriend’s performance.

But perhaps my favorite memory of our friendship was in the summer of 2014 when Amy and I took a girls’ road trip back to Rochester.

Anyone who has taken a long ride on the highway with Amy behind the wheel knows this. She had a lead foot.

We took her minivan.  She insisted – repeatedly –  on driving the whole way up and over Canada. For our listening pleasure, I brought along an audio book I thought she might like: “Confessions of a Shopoholic”  We also talked about our plans for the weekend and hoped that on the way back, a minivan loaded with grocery bags from Wegmans would not arouse suspicions from the Border Guards.

For one sweet summer road trip, we talked about anything but the Teal elephant in the car. We never talked about her cancer.

On the drive back on Monday morning, we got caught in some traffic snarls around Toronto. Amy was only worried about not getting home in time to get Ben off the bus. So her leaded foot got even heavier.

Now, I am a nervous driver. So every time Amy rode up behind a car in the left lane a wee bit out of my comfort zone, my right foot instinctively slammed down on the floor.

Coolly and calmly, Amy glanced at me and said: “I’m afraid to tell you this, Mrs. Gittleman, but you do not have a brake pedal on your side of the car,”

In an attempt to convince her to drive more slowly, I tried to come up with some solutions.

“Can’t Ben go to a neighbor?”

“No, I get him off the bus.”

“Can he even wait 5-10 minutes outside in case we are late?”

“Nope I get him off the bus.”

It was then I realized just how devoted, how strong and how fierce Amy’s love was for you, Ben.

Because, as long as she was around on this earth, as long as she had the strength, your mom was going to be sure SHE was the one to be the one to see you off that schoolbus at the end of the day.

I never knew a woman so dedicated to raising and nurturing a child as Amy. Ben, she was so involved at your school, and in this synagogue where she and your dad did and will continue to raise you to be the mensch that you are and will continue to become.

Social workers at Karmanos told me that above Amy’s being an inspirational role model to other young cancer patients, they never met a woman who spoke so lovingly about her husband and son. Always with a smile. As sick as she felt, they said, Amy made sure to always advocate for Ben: preparing him for the future, Ben made it to his art therapy classes, and right after, Amy whisked him off to Karate.

Ben and Peter, I know nothing can replace Amy’s love, the clear blue of her eyes and her sweet voice. All the arms in the world cannot replace the loving embrace of her arms, but I do hope that you can feel us embrace you, not only tonight, but in the months and years to come.

On the morning that Amy died,  the rain fell and it seemed that it would never stop. Just like that song Fragile, by Sting  “On and on the rain did fall, like tears from a star, like tears from a star.”

Though we cry now, Peter and Ben, please know your friends and family who gathered here promise to stand with you, to give you all our love and support at this difficult time.

 

 

May you be comforted by the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

 

 

The Incredible Weekend Getaway of the Six Invisibilia Women

invisibiliaBefore summer completely slips away and before I have to hop in my car again to take my kid to his second cross-country practice of the day, I must linger in the slow pace of summer and tell you about the incredible weekend getaway of the Six Invisibilia Women.

Maybe, if you also were lucky enough, you found some time to spend on friendship this summer. Not on your job or your marriage, or your kids, but pure, unadulterated time for kindling friendship.

Somewhere between your college graduation, your first job, your first marriage and your first diaper change, your identify as a girlfriend or a Best Friend Forever starts to slip away.

By the time you find yourself in mid-life, you become something of an egg white folded into a chocolate soufflé. Sure, the chocolate souffle is delicious and satisfying. You add body and texture to the family you created: your spouse, your children. You are the glue. You are the one who finally finds the watch the husband has been searching for in a pants pocket at the bottom of the laundry hamper. You are the one who is around to schedule and chauffeur the children to every last pediatrician, dentist and emergency orthodontist appointment.

But in those efforts, you sacrifice some of the stuff that made you you, and you start to become invisible.

If you are reading this and you are a man and the breadwinner of the house, I don’t know if this feeling of losing yourself applies to you. If I am wrong, please explain why in the comment box below.

Perhaps I am waxing post-feminism here, but guys, you pretty much shape the life, and where that life happens, for your family. From my experience, if a family relocates, they are relocating for the husband’s job and not for the wife’s career. You rarely look back compared to your trailing spouse.  Outside your home, you have defined yourself and your path through your work, the reputation you have built around your career and the colleagues who know you near and far.

For the trailing spouse, however, (that would be me) you have to keep reinventing yourself with each move. You must chart a new course for yourself and you are pretty much on your own in your own reincarnation.  Friendships from different chapters of your life fall away because of time, distance and family obligations. The more moves, the stronger the trailing spouse realizes their own sense of invisibility because making friends is that much harder.

Why is it that the deeper one moves into marriage and motherhood, the less time they have for friends? The long, uninterrupted conversations with college friends and the friends of the urban tribe pre-marriage get truncated into 30 minute coffee chats here and there at best. It is no secret that making friends in mid-life is tough. A 2012 New York Times piece says that, unlike when you are in your teens and 20’s, life is no longer wide open to new experiences or explorations.

Unless you move.  When you pick up and move in your mid forties or later, however, you most likely no longer have babies or preschoolers to provide that cute entry path to new friendships. With teens and tweens, you plop down into a suburban setting where the mommy playgroups have all been played out, where all the coffee dates and walking groups have already been gelled. Your kid and your kid’s friends all have cell phones, so there is no need for the kid or the parent to call you to make social arrangements.

Everyone already has more than enough friends and connections in town. You can tell by the way they barely notice you at curriculum night or at the orthodontist or at the track meets. They’ve most likely had these same B.F.F’s since high school or college, making you feel all the more invisible. Sorry, mom of the teen and tween –  all carpools and all the PTO committees have been pre-ordained since preschool. You can be sure of that.

If you are lucky enough, like me, the invisible trailing spouse, through forces of invisibilia, finds her path to friendship.

So what’s the deal with this word invisibilia? Invisibilia is a Latin word for all the invisible things, the invisible forces that control human behavior – ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions.

Invisibilia is also the name of a new N.P.R. podcast I was introduced to by a friend, a new friend who generously included me in her circle of friends – who also sometimes feel invisible amongst the ladies of the PTO – on this getaway weekend Up North. (If you are unfamiliar with the term Up North, you do not live in Michigan.)

As much as I would like to talk about the podcasts – and the books – we read and talked about – this is not a post about books and podcasts. It is about friendship.

So what happens when six women who all meet much later in life find themselves a free weekend in August with no obligations to anything else but friendship? They pack up some suitcases, lots of food and drink and share the four-hour ride Up North in a very spacious minivan.  Let’s just say that by the time we got to our destination – our host’s parent’s lake house – our voices were all sore from talking.

After all, when you meet friends in your forties and up, you have a lifetime of stories to catch up on. The conversations were endless. There were no husbands, children or wifi. Cell phone reception was spotty. Therefore, old-fashioned and unfettered conversations flowed freely from topic to topic: our hometowns, how our husbands proposed, sagas on labor and parenting, and now challenges and struggles in our careers.

While we talked, we walked, cooked and ate. Some of us spent too much time cooking and were reminded by others to sit down and read their book for God’s sake! That is a friend, I tell you!

Some of us hung out in the hot tub. Some of us tried our skills in a canoe. We called out to the loons. When did we feel it was okay to show we were loony enough to call out to a loon?  Some of us even braved the uninterrupted darkness at night to find a constellation or catch a glimpse of a shooting star. We tried to contain our shrieks of joy but it is kind of hard to do when a shooting star lasts for about five seconds leaving a trail across the dark unsuburban sky.

The only thing that interrupted our conversations was the sight of a flitting fleet of hummingbirds that visited the feeder attached to the large back window. Or the call of the loons in the lake. Or times at night when there was a seemingly silent pact that we would all sit around and read.

I have not felt as close a bond to other women since college. Even though I was surrounded by all these new friends, flickers of memories of old friendships darted in and out of my mind.

I thought of one of them  when she asked us once, walking along a beach at the New Jersey Shore:  “When did we come to  a point of trusting  one another with our secrets? How did we know we were at a point in our friendship where we could be silly with each other? At what point did we know how to make each other laugh?”

Back to the present… I realize that even though I have not seen some of my college friends in years, they have not left me. There still remains this invisible tie between us. Ties built on trust and shared confidences. They have only enriched my life by coaxing me out of invisibility to take chances on new friendships.

Channeling Anger into Healing: IsrAID is first to respond in Floods, Earthquakes, Tsunamis

I still don’t understand where all the Israel bashing comes from. Ignorance? Brainwashing? Plain old Jew hatred? 

Against all odds, Israelis, especially those living in the south just kilometers from the Gaza Strip, refuse to become vengeful or embittered by terrorism.

The evidence?

Within days of the flood that besieged many Detroit residents, Israeli NGO IsrAID came to town to help. Taking the skills in teamwork and collaboration that come with years of serving in the IDF, IsrAID volunteers have been on the ground all over the globe where there has been natural disasters: Japan. Haiti. Indonesia. And the United States. 

Here is a brief story I wrote about them in this week’s issue of the Detroit Jewish News. 

Lending a hand to the cleanup efforts of last month’s flood, eight Israeli volunteers with disaster relief agency IsrAID left their own war-ravaged country and set their eyes, hearts, and hard work on healing flooded neighborhoods in Metropolitan Detroit. Some got on a plane here just days after finishing their military service and will be cleaning out basements and restoring stability to the lives of flood victims for the next two weeks.  

Beth Shalom in Oak Park has become the temporary home for the volunteers, where over half the congregants there have had damage to their homes due to flooding, said Rabbi Robert Gamer. The volunteers sleep and eat at the synagogue on air mattresses, linens, towels and toiletries donated by community members. The synagogue men’s club, the Jewish Community Center, the Salvation Army and other charitable agencies prepare their meals.

“These floods have become big news around the world and Detroit has many connections in Israel,” said Rabbi Gamer, who hosted the volunteers for a Shabbat dinner at his home. “My congregation is thrilled that they are here to help those in need. We often think about us helping Israel but here Israel is helping us.”

Nevonel Glick, 27, of Tel Aviv, IsrAID program director and the lead volunteer coordinator in Detroit, said the volunteers, highly trained in the art of efficiency, coordination and teamwork after their service in the Israel Defense Forces, help break the downward spiral of depression and hardship commonly experienced after a natural disaster by helping flood victim. Glick has been with IsrAID for over six years guiding relief projects in Japan, Haiti, the Philippines, Kenya and several places in the United States, including New York City after super storm Sandy.

Unlike some of the poorer countries he has, Glick said IsrAID understands that relief work in the United States does not need Israel’s doctors or search and rescue teams. What victims of natural disasters here need is a path back to financial and emotional stability.

 “After a disaster hits, the victim can be stuck in this downward spiral of depression.” Glick said.  “All your possessions from many generations may have been lost. Your house is damaged and you don’t know where to start. IsrAID volunteers understand this and we are here to remove that load off your back, both physically and emotionally, moving the victim from utter chaos to a clean house, a clean slate.”

IsrAID helped Shelly Legg, 61, of Oak Park, a woman out of work on medical disability who found herself with not only a flooded basement and a loss of personal possessions, but now without a car, nor the means to purchase a new one.  Last week, the volunteer crew helped her sort her possessions between what could and could not be salvaged, tore up and disposed of the basement flooring and wood paneling and drywall which black mold had already started to grow. Next, they thoroughly disinfect and dry the basement for future renovations.

According to Glick, this work saves such a homeowner between $3 to $7K. He expects the team to be able to clean approximately 1-4 homes per day depending on the size of the home and the extent of the damage.  

Glick said that his work aligns his Jewish, Israeli and global identities because the work is something he is proud to stand behind. Speaking for some of his volunteers who live in southern Israel, which has endured the brunt of the rocket attacks, the work lets them “channel their anger and frustrations into something good and healing.”

“Disasters foster a lot of unity and resilience and coming together,” said Glick. “It puts things into perspective in my own personal life. Every place we go, we get back more than we give.”

Good-bye, blight, hello broccoli: farming in Detroit.

On a block in the Brightmoor neighborhood in Detroit, where houses once stood, a crop of fall vegetables grows, to be sold at the Eastern Market.

On a block in the Brightmoor neighborhood in Detroit, where houses once stood, a crop of fall vegetables grows, to be sold at the Eastern Market.

Almost six months into my family’s little “adventure” of living in the Detroit area, I finally brushed off my suburbia doldrums and became a tiny part of Detroit’s urban farming revolution.

Before my move, as I mourned my departure from the perennial garden I coaxed into existence for 13 years, and my rented plot in my town’s community garden, I really imagined myself venturing to help out in one of Detroit’s urban farms just as soon as I unpacked.  I’ve been reading up on Detroit’s emergence into the urban farming scene ever since we made the decision to move. In recent news, Hantz Farms got the approval from the Detroit emergency council to grow a 140 acre forest in the middle of Detroit. That is 140 acres of land that is being put back into taxable use.

Before I got on my gardening gloves, though,  I underestimated just how far my suburban home was from Detroit city lines.   And I have to admit I had a biased fear for my own safety.  I’d be a newbie with a New York State license plate and a GPS device clamped to my windshield driving into a blighted neighborhood. Can you think of a better target for a carjacking?  Besides, I hadn’t a clue as who to contact to help out.

Getting stern warnings from neighbors and friends not to go downtown wasn’t helping matters either. Since moving here, I was told that I would love living in my suburban surroundings with its great schools,  bike paths, lakes and shopping centers. I just wouldn’t go into Detroit.

Because no one goes into Detroit.

Too dangerous.

Too much crime.

So, for a while, I succumbed to these fears as an excuse for not getting my hands dirty digging in some Detroit dirt.

But wait a minute.

Didn’t I grow up in New York City? Where outsiders were afraid to ride the subway or walk in Central Park for fear of being mugged?

Haven’t I visited Israel numerous times in my life? And I made these visits during a war with Lebanon or at a time when the intifada raged in the West Bank?

From the urban energy and culture of New York City to my summer picking mangoes and tending the banana fields on a kibbutz In Israel, (a kibbutz that was on the border with Syria and Lebanon). Both these places have enriched my soul. and have made me the person I am today. Walking safely around my cul-de-sac suburban development with manicured landscaping is nice, but hardly anyone here actually has a real garden. Hey, my neighborhood association won’t even allow for the smallest of a garden shed.

Suburbia is nice but here, I don’t really feel like I’m part of the solution. Part of the farming revolution.

This weekend, I finally found the opportunity to volunteer. And who would give me that opportunity but an organization as comfortable and familiar to me as an old pair of sneakers: United Synagogue Youth.

Ahhh, my USY days. Best times of my life. It’s a good thing I now have teenagers of my own so I can relive these days again.

A big part of USY is social action, repairing the world, a Jewish value called Tikkun Olam. So when I found out that Motor City USY would be helping out downtown at Beaverland Farms in the Brightmoor neighborhood in Detroit, I jumped at the chance. Even though I’m no longer 16 but 45 and my knees don’t take too well to jumping that hard.

With my 16-year-old daughter, 10-year-old son and husband, we started off to the farm from suburbia to Detroit.  The landscape became more urban, and then gritty and then plain ol’ rundown.

Nice, big homes and posh shopping plazas in my side of town gave way to smaller homes and then dilapidated structures with boarded windows and roofs halfway covered with blue tarp that were once someone’s home or still occupied with people just hanging on.

By the time we got to Five Mile and Telegraph, there weren’t too many open stores and those that were in business had big signs like LIQUOR or CHECK CASHING. Boarded up storefronts scrawled with writing like DUGGAN FOR MAYOR or WE STILL LOVE YOU, DETROIT. It was becoming more evident of the existence of what’s called the “nutritional desert here.” For the people who lived around here, where do they go to buy food, and food that is healthful? There are very few choices.

That is where the urban farms come in.

We rounded the corner of Five Mile and Beaverland Road in the Brightmoor neighborhood of Detroit. On 11 city lots once occupied by small houses that were so prevalent in this area to house blue-collar manufacturer workers and their families there is now a fruit orchard, rows of vegetables, and tilled, cleaned out land. Scott, the owner, grows the food here and sells the produce at neighborhood farmers markets, runs a CSA , and provides community and social outreach and educational programs for his neighbors and local schoolchildren.

My family got out of the car and we quickly got to work. As I promised, I made myself scarce to my teen daughter. She and my son got busy with some other teens and helped build and paint bee hives and tend to the chickens.

My husband and I worked across the street planting rows of perennial flowers that would (hopefully) survive the winter and bloom again in the spring.

All the while, neighborhood folk walked up and down the street. Some said hello. Others didn’t. I wondered, as I cleared away composted grass to plant another flower, how is this helping them? How do they feel about us strangers coming into their ‘hood and making a farm? Do they like it? What business do we have being here, in their neighborhood?

I posed these questions to Scott. He works and lives right here. With a mezzuzah posted on his front door. He said the farm is a way for people to connect. Everyone around here respects the farm. And compared to burned out buildings that invite drug dealers and prostitution, a farm is a welcome change in Brightmoor.  I told him how much I’ve been wanting to help out at a farm like this. I told him I could grow seedlings of vegetables for the farm over the winter. I told him I had loads of tomato cages that are looking for a good home but will have no use in suburbia.

“Stop looking. You’ve come to the right place,” he said.

My husband and I worked side by side in the afternoon October sun. I can’t remember the last time we did any volunteer work together for a place that needed so much help and nurturing. I looked across at him, a man I met when we were 16, whom I met through United Synagogue Youth.

And now, we are married almost 20 years. Now, we planted flowers and are kids were across the street playing with chickens in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Detroit.

We loved every minute of it and I can’t wait to come back.

Ain’t life funny? Ain’t life grand?

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Pressing Times in Michigan

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We lived in Michigan for about two minutes (okay, I’m exaggerating…. 10 minutes) when people we met started talking about apples. And cider mills.

“What? You haven’t been to Franklin Mills? You HAVE to go for the doughnuts and CIDER.”

Like Blue vs. Green football. Like old-time souped up roadsters, come the fall, apples are a big part of the culture here in Michigan.

I thought I would be missing the sweet, hard crunch of my favorite fruit when I left New York. Not to worry. It seems Michiganders are just as boastful if not more than New Yorkers about their apples.

Though fourth in the nation in apple production, the state grows many varieties and nearly every supermarket sells the red, yellow and green globes picked from orchards less than 100 miles away.

Then there are the cider mills. It seems the granddaddy of them all around these parts is the Franklin Cider Mill. It is named for this tiny town in which it is located, a bucolic village that somehow dodged the suburban bullet in which it is surrounded. The mill is only open from Labor Day through Thanksgiving, so all it’s business is pressed (no pun intended) in these short months. But they do more than okay. Check out the line on a recent Sunday to get cider and Donuts:

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And they have a huge press:

20130915_160734For some lucky folks, like some new friends we have made, apples are no further than their own back yard,

A few Sundays ago, these friends invited us over in the early evening to press some cider. Now, they had invited us to do this twice before and we just could not fit a press into our crazy early fall schedules. But the night was crisp and cool but not too cold, so why not? We went over to hang out and learn about pressing apple cider.

Several years ago, our friends purchased a small press. After realizing how much they were into making cider, and had an ample supply from several apple trees on their property, they decided to invest in a larger press from the Happy Valley Ranch Co.

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Now, after marveling at this hand-cranked, Amish-looking contraption, I thought the evening was over. It was a school night, after all.  But oh NO. This was not a mere social call, we were about to get put to work! We happily obliged because we know we would be treated to the freshest cider one could gulp at the end.

In advance of our arrival, they had cleaned and cut away bruises from apples they were storing in their garage.

20131013_18295920131013_182855 This has been such an ample season of apples that they seriously don’t know where they are going to put their cars!

We started throwing the apples into a wood hopper that fed the apples through a mill fitted with some sharp teeth.

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That’s me cranking some apples, the pulp getting caught into a wood bucked lined with a cheesecloth like sack. Hubby also took some turns cranking the apples. (Note that from his cap and sweatshirt, he has not changed his allegiance to Michigan teams):

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Already, without even turning the crank, juice stared oozing out of the pulp to be caught below in a pitcher. Luckily, it was too cool that night for the bees:

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Then, the pulp is pressed and pressed by a hand-turned crank. A whole bucket’s worth of apple pulp is compressed to the thickness of a manhole cover. The result is homemade  freshly pressed cider, the best I’ve ever tasted.

I will work for cider any time and hope we’ll get invited back soon.

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How to go to the ER as a Transplant

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Thankfully. I seemed to be the only patient in the ER at Henry Ford that night.

If you live in the same town where you’ve lived all your life, chances are you have big pool of people to pull from when, upon filling out the many forms one fills out in life,  you have to list an emergency contact. There are parents, siblings, your best friend from the sixth grade who you still live near enough to make power walk dates every Wednesday morning after the kids get on the bus.

By the time I left Rochester, after living there for 14 years, I finally had two friends I could count on to list in the event of an emergency. Besides my husband.

The other night, I woke up from a dream screaming. I cannot recall the dream, which is unusual for me, but I do remember thinking that I hope I didn’t wake the kids because I screamed pretty loudly. Perhaps the nightmare was my body’s defense system kicking in, because upon being awake, I noticed a strange stabbing pain in my mid back.

At this point, I was on antibiotics for a bad bladder infection.  You know, the kind that makes you feel like you have to run to the bathroom every ten minutes.

(Was that TMI? If so I apologize but this detail had to be added to frame this story and my frame of mind that night.) 

I tried to relax. I tried to stretch out my back with some yoga on the floor. That did nothing. The stabbing came back and it was traveling from one side to the other.

I tried to relax some more, but the pain kept coming back. It was around 2:30 a.m. Scary thoughts kept going through my mind. Like how my grandfather, at the end of his life, needed dialysis. Was I going into kidney failure? Like how my mom has a history of kidney stones. Would kidney stones be my inheritance?

And that night, I had no one to wake and share my troubles with. Because the only person you should wake with such pains and thoughts in the middle of the night is your husband.

And my husband just left for a two-week business trip to Japan.

And I had three sleeping children who had to wake in a few hours to catch the school bus.

So, what does a transplant in an emergency situation do?

They try to diagnose themselves online. THIS is bad advice, because when you try to self diagnose online, the Internet proclaims that you may die within eight hours if you do not seek medical attention.

So, I called my new medical practice, the one that has known me all the way since … last month.

Contrast this to the OBGYN my mom went to: one doc, who delivered both my brother and I. My mom was his patient for decades until the day he retired.

A sleepy doctor called me up, listened to me list my symptoms over the phone, and told me it was not out of the realm of possibility that I might have a kidney stone, and if I did, I might soon be in excruciating pain and I needed to immediately head to the nearest Emergency Room.

“Feel better,” she said as she hung up her line and went back to sleep.

Trying to find some humor in this, I thought to the Seinfeld episode where Kramer passed a kidney stone.

Once again, my life is mirroring that of Cosmo Kramer. On a sit-com, kidney stones are hilarious. In real life, even the possibility of one is no joke.

So, at this point, I really had no choice but to drive myself, in the middle of the night, to the ER.

So here is what I did, and what I can recommend to you, if you are out there somewhere in a new city and find yourself in a similar bind:

  • Go with your gut. Don’t feel stupid or think you are a hypochondriac if you think you are really in need of medical attention. When you are a new transplant, you are  all you have for your family. Get help.
  • Use Facebook – In the months I have moved here, indeed I have met some great people. Of course, nothing substitutes the comfort level from a lifelong friendship, but I already have a feel of who would reach out to me in a crisis. I wrote a FB message to some select new and local friends telling them of my situation. I gave them my cell phone number and that of my 16-year-old daughter and asked to please keep in touch.
  • Keep using Facebook. When I was waiting for test results in the ER, I had no signal for my cell phone, but I could still use Facebook to see the flood of people who responded to my first message, who called to check in on my kids, who offered me whatever I might need. Including one of my new friends who visited me at 6:15 in the morning at the hospital. Say what you want about our addiction to social media, but in a situation like this, it gave me peace of mind.
  • Teach your kids to be independent – This is something you can start doing right now. So when the time comes and you have to kiss and wake your teens at 3:30 a.m. to say “Mommy has to check in to the emergency room now, please wake yourselves up, take care of yourselves and make the bus on time,” they will give you a half-awake hug and say “Don’t worry mom, we’ve got this.” I don’t know if it was those summers at sleep-away camp, or all my years of nagging, but something worked.
  • Pray. Seriously. The whole ride to the ER, I talked to God and asked Him to please watch over me and my kids. Please help me get through what ever I have to get through.

When I got to the ER, I felt like my prayers were somewhat answered. The ER was EMPTY. No one in the waiting room. I got triaged by a very nice nurse, was whisked into my own room,  examined by a nurse and a doctor, had a CT and the results  from my CT, all in the span of 4 hours. If you have ever been treated at an ER, you know this is neck-breaking fast.

So?

In the end, my pain was NOT a kidney stone, but just residual pain from my bladder infection. But the doctor said I did the right thing by listening to the signals my body was giving me.

In the end, my friends here asked me why. Why didn’t I call them to take me to the ER? Why didn’t I call to have someone stay with my kids? Why? Because I know you are busy with lives of your own: kids, jobs. Because, maybe I’m not yet ready to try the strength of these limbs on these sapling friendships just planted two months ago.

In the end, I got home to see my kids out the door for school. They were dressed, brushed, fed, and packed their lunches. Their world went on without me. The sky did not fall because I wasn’t there one morning of their lives.

I hope you never have to go through the same scare I did when you are the new person in town. But know you can get through it too.

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In the Circus of the Transplanted, don’t Look Down – or Back

About nine years ago, it seemed like my family and the extended family of my husband wished to run away and join the circus.

So, in honor of my mother-in-law’s 60th birthday, we booked a family getaway to Club Med Sandpiper in Florida.

Fearless flyers that they are, my WHOLE family, with the exception of my then-pregnant sister-in-law and my husband’s 80something grandmother, had no qualms of climbing a narrow, straight-up ladder nearly 50 feet to the trapeze platform.

It was a slow week there – the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas – so my flipping and catching in-laws had ample opportunities to perfect their trapeze swinging, hanging from their knees, and even getting caught by the muscular trapeze artist who effortless swung from a trapeze on the other side of the net.

Then, at last buckling to the pressure to suck it up and get over my fear of heights, it was my turn.

At 15 feet up, and unharnessed (adults didn’t get a harness until we stood above on the trapeze platform), I just lost it. And started to cry. But a Sandpiper staff member wouldn’t let me give up.

From the opposite side, she nimbly climbed the ladder until she was eye level with me.

“You’ve got this. Just hand over hand. And don’t ever look down.”

I made it to the top. I swung. It was all captured in this very unflattering picture of me.  The look on my face shows I would have been MUCH happier if I just stayed on the ground watching the rest of my circus-crazed family.

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This has been a surreal summer. Summer usually offers a welcome change of pace, even though it can be lonely at times when friends all scatter and go off on vacation.

But  when the shortening days of August arrive, they serve as a signal that it’s almost time to go back.

Back to routine.

Back to the friends, neighbors, faces and places that are so familiar.

Back to school.

Back to normal.

In the life of being a multiple-city transplant, there exists three rings.

There is the ring of your own upbringing and the family and friends you’ve left behind in your hometown.

There is the second ring of the surrogate “family” you’ve just left behind in the town you made into your new hometown but was truly your children’s hometown. The only place they’ve ever called home in their memory.

Now, I stand in the third ring of the new city. At the edge of a new school year in a school district that is completely unknown and strange,

it is easy to get sucked into all those memories and thinking about all those familiar places and people with whom you usually reconnect at summer’s end. But right now, thinking of old friends and places I’ve left behind in Rochester, thinking about how hard it will be for daughter to say those last good-byes to her friends as they board one bus and she boards another, is just too hard. It’s too sad right now to look back.

Years later, I’m taking the advice from the circus lady: don’t look down.

When my kids get off the bus from camp tomorrow and step into their new life, into their new home they have not yet seen and into three separate school buildings, this time, I will play the role of the seasoned circus pro, telling her kids from the other side of the ladder not to look back and down, but only, if only for the next few months, up and forward.

Don’t Forget to Dance

I hate ends.

I don’t like when books, or series of books, end.

Ask my kids about this.

Just last week,  after years of them prodding, teasing, begging and bribing me, and even going through lengths like borrowing books on CD from their school libraries.  I finally, finally finished the entire Harry Potter series.

I don’t even like to eat the ends of a loaf of bread.

Even when it comes to one of my favorite activities in the world – dancing – I prefer not stay for the last dance.  Call it a Cinderella syndrome, but I hate when the music ends.  I leave about 10 minutes each week before the session wraps up. As the music lingers in my head while I start up the car in the parking lot, I envision my folk dancing friends dancing on into the night, so the dance is never over.

But end it did, for me, at least in Rochester.

I have been taking Israeli Folk Dancing on Sunday nights at the Rochester Jewish Community Center for about 10 years now. When I first started I knew nothing about Israeli Folk Dancing outside of Hava Nagilah. Seriously.

But Israeli Folk Dancing is not your Bar Mitzvah Havah Nagilah. Blending music with Greek, Latin, Middle Eastern and the random Irish (yes IRISH)  influences, Israeli Folk Dancing has something for everyone. At every age.

And you don’t have to be Jewish to do it. There are Israeli Folk Dance sessions held the world over, including places like Tokyo and Beijing.

At first, Israeli Folk Dancing can be frustrating.  All these people whirling and jumping around you are having all this fun and really know what they are doing. And the beginner, well, the beginner fumbles. And watches.

Week after week I went.  I made sure I got there for the beginner hour. I watched feet. I danced on the outside of the circle not to get in the way of the experts. Then, with increased confidence that I would not crash or trip anyone (or myself) I moved in. I’m grateful for great guidance from the teacher to long timers who called out steps for me.

I have gone from stumbling through each dance, to learning the steps, to a point where I’ve actually become pretty good! Good enough to call the steps to newcomers who give it a try. Good enough to teach it to children in area Hebrew schools and camps.

Here are reasons why dance, any dance, but particularly Israeli Folk Dancing is good for you:

  • It’s a  great cardio workout. Dancing burns on an average of 375 calories per hour.
  • IFD is also great for your brain. Each dance is a sequence of choreographed steps. All this memorization improves brain function, especially for some of us who are, emmm, getting up there in age.  It takes about six lessons and going on a consistent basis to get the basic steps down. Before you know it, your feet are moving to each familiar dance without even giving it much thought, which comes to the next benefit….
  • Israeli Folk Dancing is a great social outlet. While your feet are moving, catch up in conversation with friends old and new.
  • If you are Jewish, or simply have a love for Israel, IFD connects your feet and ears to the Holy Land. During Israel’s peaceful times, dancing to the latest Israeli dance is a dance of celebration. In times of war or terror, the dance becomes one of solidarity.

And now, now that I am leaving town, the JCC of Greater Rochester offers Israeli Folk Dancing FREE to members, $6 per week for non members.

Last Sunday was my very last dance session, for now, with my dear friends from Israeli Folk Dance in Rochester.  It was a big part of my life and brought me happiness each Sunday night.

And last Sunday, I managed to make myself stay for the very last dance:

Do you dance regularly? What does it bring to your life? Leave a comment below, and don’ t ever stop dancing.

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