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.

 

The Wisdom of Elder Dialogue

It has long been my firm belief that big problems cannot be solved without dialogue. Since my business, Systems Change Consulting, is to help solve big problems, I have spent the past two years working to expand the dialogue around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After my synagogue, Congregation Shaarei Shamayimhosted a few Jewish Dialogue sessions for our members, nearly 2 years ago, I recognized the need to expand this remarkable process, which allows for all opinions to be shared and understood by all participants, to the larger Madison Jewish community. To that end, I was able to convince the other 2 Madison synagogues, Temple Beth El and Beth Israel Center, as well as the Jewish Federation of Madison and the UW-Hillel to co-sponsor 3 dialogue sessions that were held during April-May, 2014.

Those sessions were so well received, that we submitted a Social Innovation grant to the Jewish Federation of Madison, which agreed to fund monthly dialogue sessions during 2015. These sessions have been held in a variety of locations around Madison and continue to be well received. Some of the sessions have targeted specific segments of Madison’s Jewish community, such as University of Wisconsin students and Board members of the sponsoring Jewish organizations.

But, last night’s session was truly remarkable. As many elders are unable to travel, we decided to convene a session at Capitol Lakes, an independent living retirement community. Unlike all of our other sessions, where we adhered to a fairly strict advance registration policy to ensure that the sessions did not get too large to engage in meaningful dialogue, the Capitol Lakes social worker informed us that advanced registration would not be practical there, and we could not exclude any of their residents who wanted to attend.

So, I worked closely with our Rabbi, Laurie Zimmerman, and our facilitator, Harry Webne-Behrman, to modify our typical dialogue arrangement in order to prepare for what Capitol Lakes expected would be 30-35 attendees. Rather than place everyone in a circle, as was our usual practice, we decided to set up tables for 4 participants to talk with each other.

I arrived early to make sure the room was set up appropriately, and to make final plans with Harry. As elders often do, participants started showing up 20 minutes before the scheduled starting time. I had fascinating discussions with one gentleman from Ireland, who clearly remembers the radio announcement of the Germans invading Poland, and another who shared a joke about Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

As the room filled, we quickly realized that we needed to add more tables, as over 50 residents had joined us.

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Harry did his typically wonderful job informing everyone that the purpose of the session was to learn from and understand each other. After all, this was a dialogue, not a debate. The participants revealed themselves to include many who had been to Israel, some who had lived there, and many who had never travelled there. Their views were from across the political spectrum.

Participants included both Jews and non-Jews. At one point, one non-Jew asked whether she and other non-Jews were welcome, and we informed her that everyone was welcome. To my great pleasure, one of the Jewish participants told everyone that she felt the dialogue was enriched by having both Jews and non-Jews attend. Indeed, as Harry and I wandered around the room, we witnesses everyone deeply engaged in meaningful dialogue.

No, we did not bring peace to the Middle East last night. But 50 elders engaged in meaningful dialogue and learned a lot from each other. Many thought that educating Israeli and Palestinian youth together was the long-term answer, though others expressed skepticism that the current generation, with so much history of conflict, could provide appropriate educational models for the next generation. Fortunately, there are some successful examples of such Israeli-Palestinian schools, which were shared with the group.

It is my belief that through dialogue, these elders made achieving peace one step closer to reality. We have submitted a grant application to continue these dialogue sessions next year, when we hope to deepen the sessions to explore specific hot-button topics such as settlements, water rights, the Iran nuclear deal, and boycott, divestment and sanctions. If the grant is funded, I look forward to returning to Capitol Lakes once again to learn more from these elders.

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