Posted on December 10th, 2012 No comments
It was Hannukah of 2005, four months after Hurricane Katrina changed everything. A group of us were in New Orleans helping to restore the homes of four Jewish families that had been flooded with nearly eight feet of water. After five days of putting up sheetrock, spackling and taping, we were standing with Anne and Stan Levy outside their home.
Anne Levy is a short woman. She is a survivor of the Holocaust, miraculously being smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto in January, 1943 and passing for Christian once on the outside. Eventually, some fifty years ago she had come to this house in New Orleans and has lived there ever since. “Now we have to start all over,” she had said with tears in her eyes.
She would never have asked for help with her home. “Others need it more.” It was her daughter who had told about their need, bringing us to their home. It wasn’t requested; it was offered.
When we first entered her once beautiful home, we saw that the damage was total. It had been gutted to the studs. There was a hole in the living room floor and a coffee table with a waterlogged copy of Anne’s biography: “Troubled Memory,” sitting on it. It told of how in 1989 she had confronted David Duke at the State Capitol Holocaust exhibition and had told him, with her finger raised high, that this was not a place for a Holocaust denier. She hounded him throughout his run for Governor until he lost.
So there we were with Anne and Stan on the fifth day of Hannukah. Each of the nineteen members of our group had written a special, personal blessing for them. We recited our words with tears in our eyes. Then we presented them with a mezuzah and a Hannukiah.
Holding up the Hannukiah, Stan said words that I will never forget: “Here you are, Jews helping Jews. You have renewed my faith in the Jewish people, in Judaism and in G-d.” Regaining his composure he added, “I can see the light shining from your faces as you work on my home. I want to have that experience myself. So I will join you on your next building project.”
The following year we returned to New Orleans. Stan and Anne hosted all of us for dinner after a day of work. We studied Torah together. This November during Hurricane Sandy, Stan set me this email: “We hope you were out of the storm damage. Please let me know.”
I found a copy of that Dedication Ceremony which began with this paragraph:
The story is told of a family that left New Orleans for a time due to the hurricane and moved to Philadelphia. One member of the family, the mother, went back weeks later to see the extent of the damage to their home. She found that everything had been ruined and removed from the house except one thing, the menorah. As she sat holding that precious object, it seemed to light up in her hands and to ease her burden.
Whenever I look at the lights of the Hanukiah, I think of Anne and Stan. I can hear Stan’s words. And I, too, feel a deeper faith in the Jewish people, in Judaism and in G-d.
Posted on November 22nd, 2010 No comments
This week the New York Times ran several articles in the Style section that were of interest to the Jewish world. Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz of Congregation B’nai Israel in Connecticut commented on one of them for her congregational blog, and she shares her thought with us as well.
This weekend, ‘Time-Shifting Holidays’, written by Bruce Feiler caught my eye. Feiler confesses that, having brought the family together for Thanksgiving, which they celebrate a day late, they then conclude ’…the following day when we celebrate all eight nights of Hanukkah in one madcap afternoon.’
Feiler acknowledges that he has heard the disapproval of a Rabbi who critiques this pragmatic decision because it makes the family dining room the hub of Jewish life instead of Jewish community in the wider sense. Toward the end of the article, the Rabbi gets to speak again, this time somewhat acknowledging the good intentions of bringing a seasonal Jewish festival into the home at a time when the extended family is present to share the celebration, but encouraging the individual elements of that family to seek out a community where they can also celebrate at the appointed time back in their various home towns. I rather like that answer (although I might not have been so begrudging in the way I would put it).
But it seems to me that there is much of importance that is left unsaid. That a Jewish family wants to take advantage of the hard-to-find opportunities to be together to acknowledge and celebrate the Jewish in their lives is important and admirable. Jewish organizations and community professionals can be thinking of resources that we might provide to help families make these festival celebrations meaningful in their home settings. For those who live far from a synagogue community, there are other models of creating Jewish community with non-family members (the chavurah – a smaller, less structured gathering of families from a geographical area – being the most obvious model), and there is value in doing so.
What struck me about Feiler’s piece, and the other piece in the New York Times that highlighted the use of technology to facilitate bar and bat mitzvah training without the need to be part of a Jewish community is how little was conveyed about the purpose of being part of a larger Jewish community.
Too often I hear critiques of the kind expressed in these articles where the argument ‘but you are separating yourself from the community’ is presented as a fait a complis – it is assumed that everyone knows what that means and that those who make an active choice not to join a community are either woefully ignorant about the centrality of community in Judaism or are intentionally choosing a scaled-down, privatized (and implied is often ‘selfish’) version of what our faith has to offer.
I assume neither of these things. I think that articles like these provide wonderful opportunities for synagogue communities and Jewish professionals to think more deeply about what makes being part of a Jewish community meaningful in the lives of Jewish families and individuals. And then to think about how to get better at conveying this meaning to those who haven’t ‘drunk the Kool-aid’ yet. That’s not just those who are not yet affiliated with our communities, but also those who are affiliated but have done so with the narrow agenda of giving their children a Jewish education through to the end of middle school and who haven’t been adequately exposed to the far greater potential that exists for their entire family in engaging with the community in a more holistic way – one that will continue to be meaningful when their children have grown up and left home.
How we do that is not something easily conveyed in a brief, sound-bite blog answer. Its something that is experienced more than described, so the first step is about getting better at sharing the experience, so that others will want to have that experience too. Congregants who have fallen in love with celebrating, doing social action, comforting, learning, and sharing life’s transitional moments (birth, weddings, bar mitzvah, funerals of loved ones etc.) in the context of community are some of the best ambassadors of meaningful Jewish community life. I love seeing members of our congregation post something on their Facebook about their anticipation of a community event, or sharing the pleasure of having just returned from one; if I’m seeing it on their wall, then so are all their other Facebook friends. When that leads to a trail of comments and ‘likes’, the feel good of Jewish community life can become infectious.
I recently heard about a wonderful email sent out by one person to a group of others about our Young Families Chavurah – a great opportunity to start experiencing meaningful Jewish community life while our children are still very young, which meets at our congregation every Shabbat morning. This young mother hadn’t had an opportunity to attend with her children since the program started, but she’d heard such great things about it that she was looking forward to her first opportunity to do so, and hoped other families would join her family in tasting this experience for themselves. There is no flyer and no email that the professional staff of our synagogue could have created to better convey the potential of participating in the chavurah than this one mother’s email to her peers.
We’ve still got plenty of work to do in our congregation, but one of the things we’ve learned is the importance of putting the structures and means of communication in place so that everyone in our community can access community living, and be a part of sharing that experience with others. This blog is just a little slice of communicating that message and, if you’re looking for your way in to the experience of being a part of a vibrant, Jewish community, I hope we can help you find the gateway that is right for you.