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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Inclusion in the Family

We all have telephone calls we receive that we never forget. Two calls which I will never forget came from my brother-in-law and sister-in-law, Jeff and Miriam. The first call informed us that their 4th child, Arielle, was born, which was wonderful. However, they reported that Arielle had a stroke in utero which resulted in cerebral palsy.

Much to the credit of Jeff and Miriam, they were determined that Arielle would get the medical and therapeutic care that she needed, as well as a high quality education. Her 3 older siblings, were very supportive, and the family included Arielle in all their travels and adventures. Although the cerebral palsy weakened Arielle’s right side, she persevered and participated in all the physical activities at school and in the neighborhood park, as well as the many hikes her family enjoyed.

Her mother, Miriam, is a Rabbi, and her father, Jeff, is a Jewish educator. They made sure that she got a high quality Jewish education, including learning the Hebrew language and prayers, and most important of all, Jewish values.

When Arielle was growing, she often needed to use a brace to support her left lower leg. This made her disability visible to others, including some neighbors, who created the reason for the second call that I remember so clearly. Apparently, a neighbor did not think it was appropriate for Arielle to ride a bicycle like all the other children her age, so she called the police. The police, in turn, contacted child protective services (CPS), who contacted Jeff and Miriam, to investigate. Jeff and Miriam called me for legal advice and I supported them in being completely honest with the county social worker to inform them that they wanted Arielle to have all the joys of childhood and that she was perfectly capable of riding her bicycle regardless of the misperceptions of their neighbor. Fortunately, CPS closed the case without further action.

Two years ago, Arielle and her parents moved from Massachusetts, where she had lived her entire life, to Greensboro, North Carolina, which was a challenging change for Arielle. In addition to a significant cultural change, it required her to make new friends and navigate around a brand new school. A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were pleased to travel to Greensboro to watch Arielle receive her diploma with a variety of academic honors, from Grimsley High School.

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Arielle in cap & gown with her parents Jeff & Miriam, and sister Leora, who recently graduated from Washington University.

The graduation took place in the evening. After the graduation, the school held an overnight alcohol-free party for the graduates. Arielle does not drive yet, so her mother took her to the party which started at 11 PM. Her parents assured her that they would keep their cell phones on overnight by their pillows in case she wanted to come home early.

My wife and I were staying in a guest house across the street from Jeff, Miriam and Arielle’s home. I am an early riser and shortly after I wake up, I meditate. While meditating, I relax my eyes and while they are often closed, occasionally they open. The morning after Arielle’s graduation, while meditating, I opened my eyes to see Arielle walking up to her house at around 6:15 AM, after being dropped off by a friend. That is a beautiful inclusive vision that I will never forget.

Arielle has been admitted to the University of Hartford, but she is contemplating taking a gap year before starting college. I am confident that whatever she decides, she will continue as she has done thought her life, to move through life with joy and confidence that she can and will be included in whatever she chooses to do.

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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.

Building Cultural Bonds through Continuing Education

For the vast majority of American Jews, the culminating event of their Jewish education comes at the young age of 13 at their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Most of these young teens simply choose not to continue their Jewish studies. This creates 2 dilemmas for the preservation of Jewish culture:

  1. The ever fading loss of cultural identity through lack of knowledge of Jewish history, culture and religion; and
  2. The increasing assimilation of American Jewish youth who do not remain involved in organized Jewish educational programming.

Fortunately, in Madison, the Jewish community has come together with 2 solutions to this problem. First, since 1975, the Jewish Federation of Madison has sponsored a Midrashawhich is a community wide after school Jewish education program for 8th-12th grade students. Students may take Hebrew language classes and earn credit for those studies from their high schools. They also take Jewish religion, culture and history classes. For many students, the opportunity to spend an hour on Sunday afternoon, and a few hours on Wednesday evening with other Jewish students serves to strengthen their cultural bonds with their people.

The second solution is that through a generous donation, qualified Midrasha graduates can receive a $2,000 incentive award to continue their Jewish studies after they graduate. These funds can be used in a flexible manner to go to a Jewish conference, study Hebrew, or attend school in Israel.

Earlier this week, my wife and I joined many other parents and attended this year’s Midrasha graduation ceremony, as our son was in the graduating class of 17 students. Fourteen of these graduates qualified for incentive awards to continue their Jewish education.

IMG_2575The smiles on these young adults’ faces demonstrate the bonds which they successfully achieved by spending years of study together. In fact, a few of these graduates gave talks elaborating on how beneficial Midrasha has been for them, helping them understand their own religion and culture, and therefore their place in our community and the larger world. Hopefully, some of these students will remain friends long into the future. But even if they do not, the value they received by learning from their teachers and from each other will remain with them for the rest of their lives.

Mazel Tov! 

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