We Can’t Bury Ourselves

Yesterday, I went to the funeral of a dear friend, who was one of the wisest women I have ever known. I first met Judy Zukerman Kaufman nearly 30 years ago, when she was one of a small group of people, including my wife and I, who decided to form a new inclusive Reconstructionist synagogue in Madison, which became known as Shaarei Shamayim

Judy was a strong believer in a feminist Judaism because religion without equal participation simply made no sense to her. Indeed, before Shaarei Shamayim was formed, she became the first woman President of Madison’s Conservative synagogue, Beth Israel Center. It was fitting therefore, that at yesterday’s funeral, both the current and former Rabbis from Beth Israel Center were there, as well as the Rabbi from Shaarei Shamayim.

Judy never missed an opportunity to teach. In fact, throughout her adult life she taught hundreds of children and adults, many of whom were at her funeral. When our son, Josh, was 12 years old, my wife and I had no doubt when we chose Judy to tutor him in order to prepare him for his Bar Mitzvah. Our confidence in Judy’s teaching ability was reinforced immediately when she made clear that a Bar Mitzvah is not an event. Rather, it is a process, and through that process, our son learned not only how to read Torah and lead a Shabbat service, but more importantly, he learned important lessons that Jewish sages have provided the world for thousands of years about how to engage in tikkun olam (repair of the world). In fact, Josh enjoyed studying with Judy so much that he voluntarily continued tutoring lessons with her for over a year after his Bar Mitzvah.

Although we had been friends prior to Josh’s Bar Mitzvah, the process of Judy’s tutoring Josh helped to bind our families much closer. We celebrated many holidays together and supported each other through a variety of health crises.

Judy’s last health crisis involved an infection that she was unable to fight off. After her first hospitalization to treat the infection, she was sent home with daily (though not constant) home health care, as she was still on IV antibiotics. Since she did not have round the clock assistance, and lived alone, I went to help her out one afternoon to bring her food, and keep her company. We had a lovely visit, though I recognized that she was very frail, and I worried about how long she would be able to live alone. Fortunately, my son Josh was available during my visit with Judy, and I connected them on a video phone conversation. Of course, none of us knew that this would be our last chance to talk to and see each other.

Shortly after my visit with Judy, my wife and I left for Israel to visit Josh, where he has been attending college at the Technion in Haifa. Before Josh left for college, Judy informed him that when she and her husband Jerry lived in Haifa many years ago, her favorite place was a lovely sculpture garden overlooking the city and harbor. Josh took us there during our visit with him which gave us another way to connect with Judy. This particular sculpture evokes the way Judy cared for so many children over her long, fruitful life.

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Judy’s funeral was longer than most because so many people had so much to say about her remarkable life. Rabbi Ken Katz, who presided over the funeral, made clear that these things just “take the time that they take.”

When Judy’s husband Jerry died a little over 2 years ago, they decided to opt for a natural cemetery outside of Madison, called Natural Path CemeteryJudy was buried right next to Jerry. The day before, her children and some friends dug the grave and I had the honor of being one of the pall bearers and lowering her simple unfinished pine casket into the grave.

After her casket was at the bottom of the grave, and we removed the ropes which we used to lower it, Rabbi Katz reminded us that, “we cannot bury ourselves,” and therefore it takes a community of friends and family to receive a proper burial. For what felt like a very long time, many of us took on the burden of doing what she could not do for herself, and filled her grave. We initially put flowers on her coffin and then topped off the soil with more flowers.

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As I contemplate the many lessons which Judy taught me, this last one, that we can’t bury ourselves may be the most profound. In addition to being a Jewish educator, Judy was also a civil rights advocate. Indeed, during our last conversation, she told me about her advocacy for the home health care workers who cared for her. We both shared grave concerns about the trampling of civil rights which the current President seems so eager to do. Yet, remembering that we can’t bury ourselves serves two important lessons.

  • We must support each other in community from birth until death, because as independent as many of us may hope we can be and may wish others were, we truly need each other to survive the many challenges which life presents; and
  • While many of us may wish to bury ourselves under our blankets while demagoguery oppresses others, we simply do not have that option. We can’t bury ourselves because we have a duty to help each other.

May Judy’s memory be a blessing. I know that the many lessons she has taught so many will continue to make this world a better place for many years to come.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

Diaspora Gathering

My wife and I just returned from spending over 2 weeks in Israel. This trip was not your typical tourist trip. In fact, with the exception of one night in Mitzpe Ramon, home to the gigantic and beautiful Ramon Craterwe spent every other night staying with family and friends.

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Sculpture overlooking the Ramon Crater

Our son, Josh, is in his second year of college at the TechnionIsrael’s Institute of Technology, in Haifa, and this was our first opportunity to visit him there. He plays hockey with the Haifa Hawks, and coincidentally, the first thing we did on our arrival was watch him play hockey.

Josh also led us on a walk on  the beach of the last Arabic town on the Israeli Mediterranean, Jisr al Zarkawhere beauty, history and poverty are all intertwined.

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Fisherman pulling in their net on the beach at Jisr al Zarka

In addition, my mother and her husband are spending the winter in Netanya, where they have spent every winter except last year for the past 12 years, and we spent most of our nights with them. It was a pleasure to spend quality time with them in the place that has become their home away from home.

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My mother Rachel and her husband Peter

As I reflect back on what was primarily a visiting trip, I realize that, like most Jews, while my family is spread around the world in what is known as the diaspora, as they fled oppression in Europe prior to the Holocaust, Israel is the place where some of the family with whom I am closest as well as childhood and college friends, have returned and made a life for themselves.

Part of my family fled Europe, but were not allowed into the United States to join the rest of their family in the 1930s, so they settled in Mexico. One of my Mexican cousins, Isaac (Pelon) Leventhal, immigrated to Israel when he was 18 years old in the early 1970s. After meeting him in Mexico City at his sister’s wedding just before he emigrated, I have visited him numerous times in Israel from 1976 through this most recent trip. As he and I have grown older, we have married and had children, and now he and his lovely wife Eli, have 8 grandchildren. Our son has had the opportunity to get to know these cousins better while he studies in Israel, and we were able to visit all of their homes and families during our stay. The warmth of my Israeli family will stay with me for the rest of my life even though time and distance separates us.

I even had the opportunity to visit friends on Kibbutz Ein Gev, where I volunteered during the winter of 1979-80, while my cousins Pelon & Eli lived there. Coincidentally, a friend from England, whom I volunteered with so many years ago, was visiting the kibbutz at the same time we were there and we had a small reunion with our friend and kibbutznik Uzi.

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At the end of our trip, we traveled to Mevaseret, a suburb of Jerusalem to stay with an old college friend, Richard and his lovely wife Michal. They led us on a beautiful hike on Har Eitan, after which we traveled into the city of Jerusalem to visit an old childhood friend, Galia, and her husband Roni for lunch.

It is truly an understatement to describe Israel as one of the most controversial nations in the world. Almost everyone has strong feelings about it, both positive and negative, and while I love that Israel has provided refuge for millions of Jews, including family and friends, it saddens me that Israel has been unable to resolve its generations old conflict with its Palestinian neighbors.

Due to my love of Israel and hope for its survival as a just, peaceful and democratic state, I have taken on a leadership role in advocating for a just and peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by becoming Chair of the Madison chapter of J Street, which advocates for a two state solution to resolve the conflict. My advocacy is quite public so both my family and friends in Israel are quite aware of my positions, most of whom do not agree with me.

Despite our political disagreements, our love for each other is not diminished. In fact, my choice to repeatedly visit family and friends in Israel to maintain our relationships and better understand their lives there serves to enhance our relationship. On a few occasions during our recent trip, both friends and family were clear that they disagreed with my positions, but I often successfully found small, but important points where we did have common ground. Equally important, our disagreements never interfered with our ability to have warm and loving relationships.

As I reflect back on how my friends, family and I can agree to disagree, and not let that poison our relationships, I hope that the lessons I learned in Israel can be applied to the often poisonous political conflict in the US. After all, when friends and family can love each other despite their disagreements, one realizes that one warm hug can overcome virtually any political dispute.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.