Wednesday, November 7, 2012
It felt like something out of a movie. We went into the doctor's office first thing Monday morning of last week to get the devastating news - this is how long you have to live....maybe more, maybe less. We should assess quality of life, not just quantity. How can we make you more comfortable in this whole process?
And before we knew it, my mother had to be admitted to the hospital because her blood numbers were so dangerously low. Her cough was too suspect. She couldn't eat, she couldn't breathe. It was not good.
My father and I have been alternating days and nights staying at the hospital to help care for my mother. Shes been in for 10 days now. My grandmother, aunt, uncle, brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew all came into town this last weekend. We're all hugging each other extra tightly, saying things we've never said to one another before (and we're not a shy bunch), shedding tears together, and working as hard as we can to support her and support each other. We were never the kind of family to take much for granted, but right now, the gift of time is in our faces and we aren't going to lose a minute of it.
I've been thinking a lot about the Mi Sheberach prayer this last week. As a rabbi, I often remind my congregants that we are not only praying for those who are ill and in need of recovery, but we are also praying for the doctors and nurses that help to make our loved ones healthy, and the caregivers that support the sick day in and day out. As I was thinking of this, suddenly it hit me. That's me. I'm in need of a little strength, comfort, and prayer too - suddenly I have become a caregiver, helping my very sick mother to be more comfortable and help her be as healthy as possible, while trying to keep her spirits high and the hope of miracles alive. Of course my mother needs to be at the forefront of prayers - praying for comfort and strength for her. But my family and I could use a little prayer too - we too are in need of comfort, strength, support, and love.
This is not easy for me to say. Part of the reason I became a rabbi is because I enjoy caring for others and find it hard to often accept it, myself. It's more comfortable for me to focus on you than for you to focus on me. Plus, I'm pretty independent, pretty self-sufficient, and pretty accustomed to being strong - both for myself and others.
But, right now, I'm a mess. My mother is laying in the hospital bed next to me on oxygen, dialysis, and light chemo (in order to alleviate some of the difficult symptoms she is experiencing right now - not to try and cure it) and we don't know what each day will bring. There are good days and there are bad days. But the constants in our life haven't wavered. Those of you who have texted, called, emailed, sent notes/cards and brought us food - we are so grateful to you and feel so supported by your love and friendship. Truthfully, that has really helped sustain us.
And our faith has helped sustain us as well: a visit from our Rabbi here in Indiana who offered words of prayer and comfort. The Jewish songs my mother asked me to sing in her room as she received her first chemo treatment. And the prayer for healing. Mi Sheberach - may the one who blessed our ancestors, bless us and heal us now.
When everything changes in a moment, we must cling to one another, to our Judaism and be strong enough to say , "I need a little extra strength and support right now." No matter what the future brings, we can always count on these things to sustain us.
If you are the praying type, my mother's name is Sharon Wood. She could certainly use your thoughts and prayers. Come to think of it, so could I.
Thursday, October 4, 2012
I've been thinking a lot lately about community. And I've been thinking even more about significant friendships and relationships in life. Over Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) I gave a sermon about love. One of the things I spoke about was the importance of building and acknowledging love that exists between friends. How often do we say how much we love and care for the people who support us, day in and day out? It's easy to tell a spouse or partner that we love them, but what about our friends who provide so much for us, as well? I also stressed the importance of love when building community. You cannot create trust and togetherness without a little love - either for one another or for a common cause/purpose.
Community and friendship can happen in the most unexpected places and at the most unexpected times. In fact, it can even happen online. Social media, by its very nature, is intended to make our relationships with others more accessible, more ubiquitous, and more frequent. And these relationships can be just as significant, if not more so, than our relationships that we build in person. After all, you get to know your online friend's thoughts, feelings, habits, musical choices, food preferences, favorite quotes and updates on a daily basis. And, oftentimes, when you see these people "in real life", you feel more connected to them because of what you know about them. Personally, I find it very hard when people blame technology and social media for our lack of being able to relate to one another, these days. I think that when we use it properly, the possibilities for building friendships, community, and even sacred spaces are endless. We just have to get outside of our comfort zone and recognize that there is validity in creating relationships in non-traditional ways, like through our virtual experiences.
Let me be clear - I am not a wallflower. I am bubbly and friendly and I like interacting with people. But I also love making connections and creating community and friendships online. It's just another way to get to know someone and to get to know what matters most to them - which is at the heart of creating community (both personally and with others). And it helps strengthen/maintain/reinforce relationships that you have with people once they are taken offline. And there are several people in my life that I never, ever, would have gotten to know if I hadn't met them through social media (and then eventually in real life). I might have seen @knitgrlnyc around the neighborhood, but I might not have ever met her and I would have lost out on all the blessings and love of this beautiful friend. Many weddings that I officiate include couples that meet online. After getting to know each other through emails or chat, they move their relationships offline and their love blossoms and grows. You never know who might be just a click away....
I'm sad that @knitgrlnyc will be moving out of the neighborhood this next month. But I'll be okay. Because I know that I will still talk to her, see her updates, chat with her through facebook and twitter. And I know that our real friendship, in person, will endure because when I don't get to see her, I'll still have a way to connect with her. That's the beauty of social media - to me. Even when our community and the people who create community in our lives are not sitting right next to us, we can still always be close to them.
And to me, there is nothing more special and nothing more sacred than the love and relationships and community that we create for ourselves and others through our connections - no matter what the source.
Thursday, June 14, 2012
These friends taught me that family is more than just the people who brought you into this world. Family can be the most special people that you chose to surround yourself with, that are more dear to you than almost anyone else. These families will stick by you through thick and thin (in moments of great joy and moments of utter devastation and loss), make you laugh and cry and add dimension to your life in ways you never thought possible. There is unconditional love and trust and respect. It has been one of the most sacred and enduring lessons I've learned, as an adult, and I have Michael and Phyllis to thank for that.
Right now, my family is devastated. I can feel their anger, shock, fear, and sadness. I feel it too. I can sense their tears. I am shedding them too. Sammy, who is only six, was diagnosed with Leukemia this week. And there is no way of understanding it. None.
My friend Rebecca wrote a beautiful blog about it here. She and I went together, less than two years ago, to surprise Michael and Phyllis at the Bris of their newest child. I know she hurts too. Though she aches for our dear friends, I know her kids are of great comfort to her right now. And for that, I am incredibly jealous. I don't have kids of my own. Michael and Phyllis's kids are as close to my own as any.
It's hard to feel so helpless from afar. And while it's okay to feel sad for a while, I can also do something about it, and so can you. Michael and Phyllis (in particular) are really into Social Media. Send them a note on Facebook or Twitter (@imabima) (@Abba_Sababa) and follow their blog about Sam's journey once it goes live (soon). They are overwhelmed by your love and support these last few days.
If you're the praying type, you can add Sam Sommer's name to your healing list and keep all of them in your thoughts and prayers.
Or you can click here and donate to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. These are just a few ways to be proactive in a time that feels so unraveled.
Sam would ask to play angry birds on your iPad, iPhone, or computer. He would crack a joke and then laugh like crazy. This is what we can do for him. And we can do so much more.
R'fuah Shleimah - A complete healing of body and mind to my little one and to my friends who are truly my family.
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
When I was applying to Rabbinical school, right out of college, I remember having the following fears: maybe I'm too young, maybe I don't have enough experience, maybe I'm not what they're looking for. But never once did I say to myself: Maybe I won't get in because I am a female.
As a young female rabbi, I am fortunate. I never grew up in a time or place where the option of being a female rabbi felt like it might present significant challenges for me. Those who came before me fought those battles and have been successful. Today, there are 611 ordained female rabbis who have benefited from this - who work, contribute, and thrive in the Jewish professional world.
Sometimes, when people say to me, "I didn't know women could be rabbis" I remind them that not only have women been rabbis for quite a while, but that it's been so long that female rabbis have already begun to retire. It has been 40 years since Sally Priesand was ordained. As a friend, and a mentor to me, I am honored to know Sally and to get to hear her story so that I never forget what moments were paved before my path began.
At last week's CCAR (Central Conference of American Rabbis) convention in Boston, I was invited to write a reflection on being a younger female Rabbinic colleague and my thoughts on 40 years of women in the rabbinate.
Here is what I wrote:
History is such an important foundation when looking to the future. It's roots anchor our current sensibilities, help mold and shape our identity and gives us direction and guidance for the future.
But we never know what the future will truly ever hold for us -- will I be successful, brave and sure-footed like those strong women who came before me? Will I doubt, question, or waiver? What challenges will my generation be faced with and will I rise to the occassion in a worthwhile and meaningful way?
I am young. I am newly ordained. I am a rabbi. I am a woman. I am the future but the past is my responsibility, as well. So I make this promise to the pioneers who came before me: I promise to be confident, to persevere, to lead on into the future with strength and integrity. This is your legacy....and mine.
Thursday, February 16, 2012
In order to tell you about the last week of my life, I have to begin at the end.
I want to tell you about Ahmed. Ahmed is a retired school teacher from Pakistan. For twenty years he served in the Pakistani Army, where he continues to receive his monthly pension from them. He is married and has one son, who is currently in his residency at Columbia University Medcial center after just having finished medical school there last year. Ahmed owns a few properties in Yonkers, where he lives, and has renters and tenants that help meet his income needs. When he was in Pakistan, he obtained a Masters in Political Science and his wife obtained her PhD in Philosophy and they both taught for a while, until they decided to leave Pakistan in 1985 in order to seek out a better future for their child, in America. Ahmed worked with the Board of Education for a while, but ultimately found that it wasn't the right fit for him (his accent often got in the way, rigorous demands, etc). So he worked as a paramedic for a number of years, driving around the city and rescuing those who needed help most. But, as he realized that this kind of work was for the young and he was getting older in years, he decided that in his retirement, he would continue to make ends meet by driving a cab in New York City.
Tonight, Ahmed was my cab driver. After coming home from a week long conference with 30 other rabbis, intensely studying texts on social justice and the value of human relationships, here was my gift. I was tired after the journey home, I was stressed out about thinking of all my missed emails, and I was cranky because of the rush hour traffic. But Ahmed engaged me. He asked me a few questions and I answered. Normally, I'm not one to make a lot of small talk with others or to share my "story" with people who I meet randomly. It's not my style - I'm busy, I have other things on my mind. But after just coming off of the week I did, I put my phone down, and I started to listen and engage. We started off with small talk, but we both found one another so easy to talk to, that we continued on.
Ahmed told me pieces of his story, as I've mentioned above, and I told him parts of mine. He told me that he was about to reject my ride from Penn Station all the way to Queens, but he felt bad for me standing there in the rain with my luggage. I told him I was sorry to make him have to drive all the way out to Queens in the traffic. But we both agreed that the conversation was worth it all.
I explained where I had been for the last week, at the Brickner Rabbinic Fellowship Retreat and what I had been doing there. I shared a story with Ahmed that I had learned from the weekend, a text that I had felt compelling, and the general gratitude I had for the time I spent immersed in text and study with colleagues and friends. He told me of similar ways in which he used to study, as a student and even as a teacher in Pakistan. But then he said to me, "Now, I study people, Elizabeth. My time with each of them is different, but I still get to learn." As he pulled up to my apartment, Ahmed got out of the car, came around, hugged me and kissed me on the cheek. "Thank you Ahmed," I said. "You been the perfect end to an incredible week."
This week, at Brickner, I learned so MANY things. I learned that text study is not just about the words on a page - it's about the stories behind them and the value hidden beneath them. Ahmed is not just a cab driver in New York City to ignore on my way home - he's a person with a family and a history and a story and a life.
I learned that life is about helping others, working with others, seeking out the needs of others - which you can never really know until you understand their perspective. Who knew that Ahmed had given up his career in Pakistan in order to give his son, the doctor, the kind of life he dreamed for him?
I learned about the value of relationships and the way in which time that is given to others and stories shared are gifts about these perspectives and relationships. Ahmed and I didn't have to talk the entire way home. He could have kept his eyes focused on the road and I could have kept mine buried in my smartphone. But we didn't. We shared our stories, our goals, our perspective on a number of ideas and thoughts and values.
I learned that as Rabbi, I still have so much to learn. It's about the journey and the ability to gather information on our journey and use it for good in the world. Ahmed taught me that too. He never stops learning. "Now, I study people."
I am so thankful to the Religious Action Center, my brilliant colleagues whom I had the privilege to study with and learn from this week, our wonderful guest speakers and teachers for an outstanding week together. It taught me that there are a million people like Ahmed around me all the time - some I interact with and others I do not. But more so, it reminded me of the sacred nature of relationships with our fellow human beings. Ahmed and I had a holy encounter, sealed with a hug and a kiss and well wishes for the future.
We are obligated to help one another, our Jewish wisdom tradition teaches us that. And the paths that lead to righteousness and justice are varied and different. But in that obligation there is reward - connection, fulfillment, and kedusha. When we seek out the other, we seek out something greater than ourselves that helps us become infused with God's spirit and the spirit of humanity.
Saturday, January 21, 2012
I felt a lot of pressure preparing for tonight’s remarks. Silly, right? I mean, I’ve given sermons hundreds of times before. I’m not usually shy in front of a big crowd. I’m a decent writer and speaker. So what’s the big deal? It’s not like anyone’s life depends on this one particular message. Or does it?
The truth is, our Torah, our tradition, teaches us that sometimes lives are really dependent on words and messages. Take the Akedah – the binding of Isaac, for example. We read of God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his only son. And at the moment that he lifts up the knife, an angel of God calls out and Abraham replies with his words “Hineini – Here I am.” These simple words stopped the action and ultimately save Isaac’s life. In the Joseph story, we know that Joseph was also saved by his words. He had been imprisoned for years in Egypt after being accused of touching Potiphar’s wife during his servitude in their household. But Joseph had a gift. He could interpret dreams. And instead of hiding this gift, he shared it with the world, first with his cellmates and then eventually with Pharaoh. He even got into Pharaoh’s good graces by advising him to be prudent during times of plenty so that times of famine would be easier to bear. Yes, Joseph’s words served him well and ultimately saved him, both from bondage and perhaps from death. In this week’s Torah portion, we learn of Moses’s most important words to a new Pharaoh in Egypt. Moses and Aaron repeatedly come before Pharaoh and say, “Let my people go!” These words aren’t just about freedom, they are about survival. The Jews were enslaved and were being killed, systematically. Their only chance for survival was to be freed, to be saved. And God had promised to protect them on their journey. All they needed to do was to use their words – to speak up for what they believed in, for what they could do to save their own lives and the Israelite existence.
So tonight, I’d like to take the opportunity, the chance, to help save a life. This weekend I join other clergy, both Jewish and non-Jewish alike, in spreading the message about teens who are in trouble. I don’t mean teens who have gotten themselves into trouble with the law, but teens who have nowhere to go, teens who have been kicked out of their homes and their lives, who have been cut off from their families. The homeless teens in our midst and on our streets this very night, who are in trouble and who desperately need our help.
This weekend, the Shelter of Peace, a faith based community initiative to end youth homelessness is engaging in a weekend of prayer and study all around the city to raise awareness on this issue. Shelter of Peace is a new organization that is a branch of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (CBST), a gay and lesbian congregation based in Manhattan. Shelter of Peace was designed to create awareness and stimulate advocacy among people of faith, regarding the high numbers of homeless youth in NYC without adequate shelter. From recent surveys we know that over 3,800 youngster on the streets every single night. And of those 3,800 – 40% - almost 2300 teens identify as being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender – the greatest single unifying factor of those out on the streets. Because of the dis-proportionate numbers of LGBT homeless combined with the fact that CBST is the largest synagogue in NYC for the LGBT community they do emphasize the specific problems faced by homeless LGBT youth.
Now I know that not all of us may feel similarly towards the LGBT community. I know that we may not all agree on issues of civil marriage, domestic partnership, or politics. I know that we all have differing views on the LGBT community and their agenda, and civil rights. But one thing I do know is that there are thousands of kids living on the street each night. And, ultimately, what unites us is our desire to create warm and safe spaces for these teens to continue to live, to grow and to thrive. And we cannot ignore one of the greatest unifying factors amongst these teens – that many of them are on the streets tonight because they were thrown out or ran away from home because of their sexual orientation.
This is not a sermon about gay rights. This is not a sermon about politics or civil rights. This is a sermon about helping our fellow humans who are in need. This is about speaking up and speaking out so that others might have a chance of survival.
Let’s go over a few facts: As I said, there are some 3,800 teens on the streets of New York every single night. This doesn’t count youth who are couch surfing, bouncing around from apartment to apartment, or staying in other unstable situations to avoid physically being on the street. I’d like to contrast that figure with the 250 beds that are available for homeless youth in New York each night. That means that even if a teenager gets themselves to a shelter for the night, they have a 5% chance of getting a bed to sleep in. Moreover, those teens who are LGBT might not even get to a shelter for fear of harassment, violence, or rejection based on their sexual orientation or identity. It’s estimated that 25% of those LGBT teens living on the street tonight are doing so because they were rejected by their family, treated violently, and harassed, by their own families when they revealed their true identity. They are scared, alone, and in danger of being hurt, either by themselves or by others. This is their reality.
I want to give you one other statistic: Right now, it is 30 degrees outside with a prediction of 1-3 inches of snow tonight. Living on the streets means more than being cold, hungry, and in danger of violence. It means not knowing if you’re going to live to see the next day. How many teens will we let die tonight, in this bitter cold, because they didn’t have a place to stay, warm clothes to wear, or a bed to sleep in?
We Jews have a moral obligation to help out those who are in need. We learn this week of God revealing God’s self to Moses. Employing the “four expressions of redemption,” God promises to take out the Children of Israel from Egypt, deliver them from enslavement, redeem them, and acquire them as the chosen people at Mount Sinai; God will eventually then bring them to the land promised to the Patriarchs as their eternal heritage. We have known enslavement and bondage and we have come through to the other side redeemed, chosen, and free. Now, it is our turn to help. Our turn to take out these children from the streets, to deliver them to adulthood safely, to redeem them from the horrors of being homeless and to acquire them as human beings capable of growth and great contributions to our city, our country, and our world.
So what can we do? We can speak out. We can remind others not to be complacent about these issues just because they are not at the forefront of our personal lives or minds. Every Friday night, for the last month or so, I have been welcoming you to our synagogue and commenting briefly on the weather outside. Well now, up until Pesach, the time of ultimate freedom and deliverance, we will be concluding each service with the temperature outside and the number of homeless youth on the street that night. That way none of us will forget about those who are in need. None of us will leave here taking our warmth, shelter, or safety for granted. And hopefully we will feel moved and called to action.
What else can we do? We can join the Shelter of Peace’s faith network and learn more about their action, their needs, and the ways in which we as people who believe in God and the good of helping our fellow in need can work together to mend the world. We are all children of God and our mission to protect these children is one and the same. By getting on their mailing list, finding out about them online, or donating to the cause, we can help those who are actively working to reach out to communities of faith and to help find homes and beds for all those teens out on the streets, each and every night.
Finally, we can take our own action. Shelter beds are provided by a combination of city and state funding. Over the last few years, this funding has been reduced significantly while the government tries to balance the budget. Shelter of Peace suggests that you call Gov. Cuomo and say, “"I support the Campaign for Youth Shelter. I am calling as a member of my faith
congregation and a New Yorker to let you know how important it is to us that you add to the Homeless Youth Services budget, every year, until all our kids have a safe place to
sleep every night." If you would like to take this action, feel free to pick up fliers that I have for you in the upper lobby with information and statistics, numbers to call, and ways to get involved. No matter what you do, do something, do anything. Because if it were you, if it were your kids, your friends, your relatives out on the street, wouldn’t you want others to help fight for their survival?
We learn from Pirke Avot, the “Sayings of our Fathers,” in Chapter 2, verse 22: Lo alecha ham'lacha ligmor v'lo atah ben horin l'hibatil mimena. It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to ignore it. There is so much in this world that needs our attention and it can feel overwhelming at times. But it is our job, our obligation, as Jews and as human beings, not to ignore these problems. Abraham did not ignore it. He responded with his words and so can you. Joseph did not ignore it, and he fought for a better life for himself and his family and his community. Moses did not ignore it, and he used his words, his message from God, and his actions. We cannot ignore those teens, those children of God, living in our midst, freezing and hungry and in danger on the streets each and every night. Use your words, use your faith, use your time and energy. After all, you might just be able to save another human being’s life. And that is the greatest mitzvah that any of us can ever hope to do.
May this be God’s Will. Amen.
Thursday, January 12, 2012
In the beginning of this week's parasha, Shemot, we learn about the enslavement of the Israelites under Egyptian rule, because Pharaoh was afraid of them. Terrible atrocities are to befall the Israelites as Pharaoh attempts to control and/or systematically annihilate them. But we learn of another person in this parasha - Moses. We know that with this man's help, resistance to Pharaoh will begin and change will occur. His leadership will be both thoughtful, comforting and (mostly) inspiring. Just like Martin Luther King, Jr., one voice is all that is needed to take a stand, to see the possibilities, and to take action towards liberation and redemption.
This Shabbat at The Reform Temple of Forest Hills, we are using our bimah Friday night to encourage our teens to speak their minds and engage their voices and calls for social action and social justice. In December, ten of our teens went on the Religious Action Center's L'takein program in Washington, D.C. During the four days they spent there, they learned, prayed, and actively lobbied to our congresspeople about issues ranging from global climate change, stem cell research, and civil rights. This Friday night, our teens will be reenacting that experience by presenting a "mock-lobby" to the congregation. Not only will the work they did be showcased, but they will have the opportunity to engage with our community as to WHY these issues are important to them, WHAT can be done about it, and the significance of raising one's voice and championing causes that are near and dear to them. Our teens, and all teens who engage in this sacred work, are a shining example of leadership, courage, inspiration and hope in our world. I am so proud of these teens, so grateful for the opportunity the RAC provides to our congregation, and looking forward to hearing our community engage with these issues on social action and justice.