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.

 

Open Water Swimming Brings Life Lessons

Swimming has been a life long journey for me.  My mother insisted on swimming lessons for me and my siblings, and when I was young, my stamina was not very good, so swimming any significant distance was very challenging.  However, between my perseverance and her persistence, I eventually earned my life saving certification, and in college passed my Water Safety Instructor’s course.

A couple years after I graduated from college, I developed sufficiently severe arthritis that I could not continue in my job managing Pizza Bob’s in Ann Arbor. Leaving my first full time job and wondering where this early onset of arthritis would leave me left me depressed. However, not being one to stay mired in depression or succumb to my body’s frailties, I made a commitment to never stop moving, with the very unscientific belief that if I continued to move, my arthritis would be unable to freeze up my joints.  It was at that point that I decided that swimming on a regular basis was critical to both my physical and mental health.

My decision to commit to a regular regimen of swimming in 1980 has continued for 35 years and its benefits have been many.  I routinely count my laps and strokes and find that doing so provides a meditative benefit along with the physical exercise.

But swimming in a pool has its drawbacks.  In addition to the annoying chlorine, turning every 25 yards means that both my exercise and meditation is interrupted frequently in the pool.  Fortunately, I have been blessed to have the opportunities during some winter vacations to be in a place where I can swim in the open water in the ocean.  Salt water has its drawbacks, but it is naturally occurring and a lot better than chlorine.

Open water swimming in the ocean has its own set of challenges which have provided me with some important life lessons.  In some places, I have had to battle large waves and/or wind.  In others, coral, though beautiful, needed to be dodged in order to avoid serious injury. A few times, I have learned what it feels like to be stung by a jellyfish.

Early on in my open water swimming ventures, I simply swam as long as I felt like it.  But, after a few episodes of doing this, I eventually realized that I had no idea how far I was swimming and if I swam beyond my physical capacity, as I was on my own, I had the potential for putting myself in a dangerous situation.  That led me to buy a waterproof watch with a timer so I could check my time periodically and make sure I swam a similar distance as I usually do in a pool (1000 yards).

But swimming 1000 yards in open water is very different than turning 40 times every 25 yards in a pool. To begin with, until returning to shore, there is no opportunity to stop.  In addition, swimming a straight line is open water is very challenging.  To deal with these issues, I count my strokes and switch between front crawl, breast stroke and back crawl regularly so I can make sure I straighten out and keep aiming in my intended direction.  I also keep a target point in view, and while it is hard to judge distances in the open water, by counting strokes and keeping my eye on my target, I can be sure that I do not exceed my physical capacity.

This week, I have the luxury of renting a house boat in the Florida Keys with my dear friend, Rachel Caplan.  Each morning, after I mediate, I jump off the boat and head out for my roughly 1000 yard swim.  While doing so continues to provide me with both physical and emotional health benefits I have described above, this year, my open water swimming has helped me draw some life lessons:

  • Staying physically and emotionally healthy are both critical to maintaining my engagement in the difficult work of systems change;
  • Swimming in open water is much like navigating life which often brings uncharted obstacles; and
  • In order to mange those uncharted obstacles, it is best to have a plan, adjust your plan as necessary, and stay within the limits of your capabilities in order to stay safe to continue the hard work that each day brings.

IMG_2441 Of course, open water swimming is not for everyone, but each person can find their own way of navigating life successfully by maintaining physical and emotional health and confronting the challenges which life brings on a daily basis.

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