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.

 

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Growing Old is not for Sissies

My first job after graduating law school as a young attorney, in 1985, was doing elder advocacy. One of my colleagues bought me a great photography book of senior athletes, Growing Old is Not for Sissies, which helped confirm my understanding of aging as challenging, but for those with fortitude and perserverance, it is very possible to live a productive life into very old age.

My wife, Sheryl, and I recently arrived in Israel to visit our son, who is going to school at the Technion (Israel’s Institute of Technology). We timed our trip so we could also visit my mother, Rachel and her husband Peter, who are spending the winter in Israel, and yesterday, we arrived at their apartment in Netanya.

My mother and Peter are in their 80s, and have been spending many winters in Israel, initially doing volunteer work, and as they grew older, simply relaxing and doing some touring. Last year, they were forced to cancel their planned winter trip to Israel after my mother fell down her basement stairs and broke her femur in 5 places and 3 of her vertebrae in her neck. Thankfully, she survived and did not suffer any spinal cord damage. However, she had surgery on both her leg and her neck, which are both put together with plates and screws now. After 3 months of hospitalization and rehabilitation, she finally returned home and is now able to walk on her own, though outside of the home, she uses a walker for safety.

After we arrived at their apartment, Peter reminded me that they just are not the same as they were before my mother’s fall. In fact, he used the phrase, “growing old is not for sissies,” so I told him about the book of senior athlete photos that I received as a young elder law attorney. While aging certainly takes its toll on all of us and has taken its toll on my mother and her husband, today I marveled at my mother’s and Peter’s mobility as well as their ability to enjoy life despite its challenges.

My wife and I enjoyed lunch by the Mediterranean sea with them.

After lunch, Peter took us shopping at the outdoor shuk (market) where he readily purchased produce, eggs, some lovely prepared foods for dinner, and freshly baked onion rolls. My mother kept pace with a smile on her face.

I have written before about how I consider my mother my hero and today’s excursion reminded me of how both she and Peter truly thrive despite the roadblocks that aging places in their path. It is my intention to have the courage and fortitude to age as well as they have. I hope sharing a small slice of their aging success inspires others to age well.

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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.