Sunday, September 27, 2015

So Many Blessings to Remember in Sadness

I am sad! It’s okay to be sad. We buried both of my parents, the people with whom God cooperated to give me life, to bring my siblings and me into this world within five weeks, between mid-August and mid- September. In their lives well lived, they birthed a tiny dynasty of grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and of course, the nieces, nephews, great-nieces and nephews; great-great-nieces and nephews and the teachings and the example of the lives they lived…. which will continue to sustain and guide us and all with whom we come into contact (with the help of Aunt Sandy, officially the only remaining matriarch of the family).

As I shared at my mom’s funeral service, she died on Parshat VaYelech, when Moshe/Moses begins by explaining to the children of Israel that he has lived his life, he is now 120 years old, not able to come and go like he did and that they will continue on without him. He will hand the reins of leadership over to Joshua and a new generation. His teachings will always be with the children of Israel and as we now know, so many generations later, the many children of children of children to come. So may it be with the memory of my parents and those of us in whom they instilled their teachings.

As I try to reconfigure my world, and think about what this means for myself and my siblings and cousins in terms of taking on those reins of leadership for our children, their children and generations to come, I realize how profoundly I am blessed. While the end of my mom’s and dad’s lives were quite difficult and challenging, I need to look past that and remember… Our son Brian and I were talking a few days ago and he asked how I think people appear in the next world after death, old or young or… My response was I think that they appear as the best that they became in their lives.

We are truly blessed indeed to have had my parents in our lives until this point, each of them dying at 91 (dad) and 92 (mom) when their bodies just had had enough. We are blessed with so many memories – funny ones, spiritual ones, family gathering stories, teachings from their own experiences, and so much more. We are blessed when we consider that these two people, with profound challenges in each of their lives, found each other and gave each other the gift of a live well lived together. I consider it a blessing that they are no longer suffering and are at peace, as Moshe must have been after his life. I know it’s a blessing that just because they are no longer physically with us, they are very much here still guiding us in so many ways. All we have to do is listen to our hearts. As the Rabbi who officiated said, they were together in life and now they have not even been separated by death. That too is a blessing.

At both funerals, all of us who spoke wove these beautiful tapestries of the meaning of their lives, the lessons of plowing through the challenges that confronted them, and the “take-away” of having been blessed to have them in our lives. I was struck at both ceremonies about what it means to truly leave a legacy and to make an impact on this world. I have already found myself thinking, “Mom you would find this funny” or “Dad, you would really enjoy this story.” Yes, they are still here within the beings they brought into this world and we will continue to be sure they are around our Shabbat table, in our Sukkah and present in each and every way possible as we continue this journey called life.

Strangely enough, in addition to these transitions in our lives, this is a very sobering time for all of us in our family as we have several friends and close people to us who are so ill. We all have these people so dear to us in our minds and are wishing them a Refuah Shelemah (full recovery). May their bodies heal, their spirits soar and the legacy they are building continue to have its impact.

As we begin the Chag/holiday of Sukkot, I constantly run the verse through my head of how God spreads the tent (the Sukkah) of peace and well-being over all of us. May it continue to be so.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Erev Rosh Hashanah and 9/11/15 (with thanks to JP)

A very dear friend (one of our dearest!) sent the following piece to me to read. I now pass it on for all of us to read.

This was taken from the following website:

…”When I proposed the theory of relativity, very few understood me, and what I will reveal now to transmit to mankind will also collide with the misunderstanding and prejudice in the world. I ask you to guard the letters as long as necessary, years, decades, until society is advanced enough to accept what I will explain below. There is an extremely powerful force that, so far, science has not found a formal explanation to. It is a force that includes and governs all others, and is even behind any phenomenon operating in the universe and has not yet been identified by us.

This universal force is LOVE. When scientists looked for a unified theory of the universe they forgot the most powerful unseen force.

Love is Light, that enlightens those who give and receive it. Love is gravity, because it makes some people feel attracted to others. Love is power, because it multiplies the best we have, and allows humanity not to be extinguished in their blind selfishness. Love unfolds and reveals.

For love we live and die. Love is God and God is Love.

This force explains everything and gives meaning to life. This is the variable that we have ignored for too long, maybe because we are afraid of love because it is the only energy in the universe that man has not learned to drive at will.

To give visibility to love, I made a simple substitution in my most famous equation. If instead of E = mc2, we accept that the energy to heal the world can be obtained through love multiplied by the speed of light squared, we arrive at the conclusion that love is the most powerful force there is, because it has no limits. After the failure of humanity in the use and control of the other forces of the universe that have turned against us, it is urgent that we nourish ourselves with another kind of energy…

If we want our species to survive, if we are to find meaning in life, if we want to save the world and every sentient being that inhabits it, love is the one and only answer. Perhaps we are not yet ready to make a bomb of love, a device powerful enough to entirely destroy the hate, selfishness and greed that devastate the planet.

However, each individual carries within them a small but powerful generator of love whose energy is waiting to be released. When we learn to give and receive this universal energy, dear Lieserl, we will have affirmed that love conquers all, is able to transcend everything and anything, because love is the quintessence of life. I deeply regret not having been able to express what is in my heart, which has quietly beaten for you all my life. Maybe it’s too late to apologize, but as time is relative, I need to tell you that I love you and thanks to you I have reached the ultimate answer! “.

Your father Albert Einstein

Of course, there is a great deal of questioning as to whether Einstein wrote these words, but in the spirit of the message, let us agree with those who say he did.

Today, on September 11, 2015, this remembrance of what is worst about mankind, and as we consider how we each strive to be the best, especially those of us in the Jewish community preparing for the aptly named Days of Awe, let us all remember that it was through LOVE that God created our universe and all in it and it is this LOVE that we are commanded to share with and show each other when we are taught, actually COMMANDED to remember that WE MUST EACH LOVE THE OTHER AS MUCH AS OUR OWN BEING. It is in fact the utilization of this quality and the initiatives and intentions it inspires that allow us to best emulate God as well as show our gratitude in cherishing all that God has created.

May the memory of those who perished in 9/11 and all victims of violence that appears all too often to be a by-product of extremist beliefs inspire all of us to tap into that energy force of LOVE that is at the very root of who we are as humans.

May the year of 5776 bring healing and comfort and lessons of love to us all.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Lessons I Learned From My Father, Kenneth Gordon Sterling z’l

On Rosh Hodesh Elul (August 16, 2015) my beloved father, Kenneth Gordon Sterling left this earth after living a full life of more than 91 years. As I said when I spoke at his funeral (it still indeed feels weird and disorienting to think or say this), this was sad and our hearts are broken, but my father was truly blessed to have lived a full and meaningful life and we were all blessed to have him as part of our own journeys on this earth. Part of what I will share here is a distillation of what I said to honor him as we tried to celebrate his life filled with so many lessons. So much of the life he lived seems remarkable and yet so much is what too many of us have experienced in our own way, as we consider lives that seem simultaneously extraordinary and normal in their own right.

I will begin with a miracle that happened on May 28, 1924. As my family is presently praying for and involved with friends who have a baby who was born three months pre-mature, I am reminded of my dad who was born two months premature at about seven months of gestation 91 years ago. Those babies simply did not survive, but my dad did! He struggled his whole life with asthma and various health challenges and subscribed to the philosophy I often state that if one does not take the air one breathes for granted, there is not a lot in this life one will take for granted. My dad was always acutely aware of his blessings, willing to quietly work through the obstacles that confronted him; and I learned how to maintain this balance in my own life from him.

My dad always stated that he was not religious; that it was my mom who was the observant Jew in our family. Nonetheless, when I was going through various challenges in my own young life and asked my dad about God, he responded as follows: Every morning when I wake up in the morning I thank God for the day to be lived and every night when I go to sleep I thank God for a day well lived. I remember thinking and still do that my dad’s spirituality and relationship to God runs so deep, it is to be admired and remembered, as too many of us tend to get lost sometimes in the too many words of our prayers and lives as scripted.

My dad fought in World War II and LIED to get IN to the army. Now, that is a shift in how things usually go! He had bad asthma his entire life, had permanent damage in his arm and as our daughter Yoella said when she spoke at the funeral, “There are reasons that people who have asthma and can’t throw grenades are not supposed to be in the army.” Yet, with all of these legitimate reasons for not being so, my dad would never accept any as excuses (in his mind) to not serve in the American army and fight what he recognized at the time (in spite of so many who minimized this) what was a world-wide threat of Nazi Germany. So, he LIED about his health and his age, and off he went to do his part for Jews, Americans and the citizens of the world.

My dad was a gentle soul who used few words but always acted quietly and behind the scenes. He stated several times to me during the last year or so that he wanted to live one minute longer than my mom so that he would always be there to take care of her. When I was young and suffered from asthma (Thanks, Dad!) it was him that I wanted to watch me at night when I was afraid that I would suffocate and die in my sleep because I figured if he could do it, so could I.

Many people thought that my dad never talked. He would not take up room in a space where there were people, but if you would sit with him and be willing to listen, there was so much to learn. He was intelligent, competent and well-informed about so many aspects of life; practicing the words of Mishlei (Proverbs) of “say little and do much” throughout his life. We learned so much from him about gratitude, a word that my children often use and when they speak of this thankfulness, I always think back to my dad, who was thankful for all that he had and that God gave him beyond words; maybe that’s why he did not need so many of them. During this month of Elul, whenever I hear the Shofar I think of my dad and his unassuming way of sending forth such an effect of healing and calling to God in his own way.

I watched him be a loving husband to my mom, always the love of his life. He was a proud father, a doting grandfather and great-grandfather and showed that same boundless love for nieces, nephews, friends and all those who were part of his life. Until the end, he always remembered and loved his own sister whom he also left here and his brother and sister-in-law who died years ago. I loved when he would tell stories of his youth and show his mischievous side a bit. I learned so much from him about American history, values, and loyalty.

I guess he would be considered just a man who lived his life the best he could. For him, this was more than enough. For me and for so many, he was so much more than that. There is a story that I often use for its educational value – that of Reb Zusya, who dies and is worried he will be asked by God if he was as good as Avraham, Moshe, King David or any of the other giants of Jewish history. In fact, God wants to know if he was the best Zusya possible.

I know that Kenneth Gordon Sterling, the miracle baby from 1924 who was the patriarch of a family of children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces, nephews, great-nephews, great-nieces and more was indeed the best he could be and I have no doubt that he is thanking God right now for his life well lived. Dad, you will always remain a constant presence in my heart.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

What does it mean to be a Rodeph Shalom in our fractured world?

Since I last wrote, we now all know that tragically Shira Banki, the 16 year old stabbed at the LGBTQ Parade, has died. Shira was a Rodeph/et Shalom, that is one who actively pursued peace and well-being for all! There has been mourning throughout the world for this young lady and the ideals she stood for. Shira was at the parade out of support for the notion that all Israelis, indeed all of humanity, should be able to live with dignity and safely. The sadness amongst my circles as families with members of the larger Jewish LGBTQ community in our lives, as a member of the larger Jewish community and as a human being is palpable and inescapable. I will defer to two others who have spoken eloquently about this horrible set of circumstances.

When Rabbi Benny Lau spoke this past week, he began with a reference to Devarim (21: 1 - 9) in which we learn that the Israelites were to perform a ritual when a dead traveler was found in a field within their region. The elders of the nearest town would proclaim: ’Our hands did not shed this blood.’ This was done specifically to take accountability for every life in every space possible; and by the power of words, to insure that in fact no one was complicit in this loss of life. No town and no individuals were exempt from concern for the other and from trying to insure the safety of the entire collective.

“It is not possible to sit and say ‘our hands did not spill this blood,'” Rabbi Lau stated. “Anyone who has ever been at a Sabbath table, or in a classroom, or in a synagogue, or at a soccer game, or in a club, or at a community center, and heard the racist jokes, the homophobic jokes, the obscene words, and didn’t stand up and stop it, he is a partner to this bloodshed.”

We know the role of those who see such dangers and do nothing. It is these bystanders throughout history who enable the deeds of evil to take their toll. Once again, here we are asking ourselves, are we teaching correctly? Are we properly using the texts and sources that provide the foundation for who and what we are as Jews to truly live in the way intended?

Tomes have been written this past week, asking these and other soul-searching questions. There are too many who want to reduce what has happened to “one crazy person” here or there; but this is not the point. In a culture and religious context in which we espouse the idea of “Kol Yisrael Eruvim Zeh LaZeh,” – All members of Israel/community are connected to and responsible for each other – we cannot abdicate our responsibility for the lessons we teach, the words we use and the ideas we convey.

Rabbi Adam Scheier of Montreal wrote as follows:

“As Jerusalem’s Rabbi Benny Lau pointed out, in what upside-down world are the Bankis considered secular and the murderer, Yishai Shlissel, considered religious? The Talmud teaches, “Always let the left hand thrust away and the right hand draw near” (Sotah 47). In other words, we should embrace with greater strength than we reject. Shira’s last moments were spent embracing others; Shlissel, tragically, chose rejection and violence….”

“Shira’s family wasn’t religious, but she lived a life of holiness; it’s a life that our religious communities should honor, remember, and aspire to emulate.”

As a local Orthodox Rabbi stated, let us pray for the souls and families that have been impacted and let the perpetrators be punished to the fullest extent of the law. As for the rest of us, let us be very careful what messages we share with each other and how we speak about those with whom we disagree. Let us do all of this within the context of the Jewish teachings that Shira Banki z”l and so many others represent. Let us be those who engage in Rodeph Shalom – the pursuing of peace! May the memory of Shira Banki be for a blessing for all!

Friday, July 31, 2015

And then there were the events of this past week in Israel… living with more Sinat Hinam on Tu B’Av

As we all decompress from the intensity of Tisha B’Av and the weeks that led up to it, here we sit Erev Shabbat on TU B’AV, the day of thinking about loving relationships and our connections to each other. Instead of finding comfort in thinking about these wonderful relationships in our lives, we are reeling from this past week in Israel – one self identified religious individual stabbed several people at the Gay Pride March in Jerusalem and other self identified religious individuals killed a Palestinian baby as a so-called “payback” action.

So in my last post I addressed that embezzling is clearly against Jewish law. SO IS MURDER AND PURPOSELY ENDANGERING THE LIFE OF ANOTHER. So much so that we are taught that protection of life and saving a person from even the potential of danger trumps so many of our ritual practices. For those who cannot fast for medical reasons, their observance of Tisha B’Av and other fast days is not in any way compromised. If a baby boy born to the most religiously observant family has health complications that preclude having a Brit Milah, you save that baby first! If you are walking on Shabbat and you see a fallen building and there might be a person caught in it to save, you go and try to save them – Jew or non-Jew, of any age!

From where do those who commit such despicable acts of violence get their sense that this action or taking or threatening life is acceptable in any way according to Halacha? Seriously, I would love to try to understand this because it makes no sense – not in terms of Halacha and Jewish observance as I know and live it. As I read the various opinion and reporting pieces about the parade in Jerusalem that was respectful, did not go to any sites that are considered controversial and so forth, I could not help but think of the writings that occurred after Yigal Amir killed Yitzchak Rabin z’l. After the act, Rabbis and leaders were talking about the harm of Sinat Hinam (causeless hatred) and how we have to be careful not to teach this in our synagogues, in our schools and other educational settings as well as homes and larger communities.

Where are the Rabbis and leaders of these communities now? Where is their outrage? What is being taught to their students and their community members? I want to be very clear that I am NOT maligning entire communities; I am respectfully asking WHO and WHERE are the teachers and leaders who are engendering this sense of self-righteous indignation in their charges? It is a fair question. It is a question that Jewish law DEMANDS that we ask as we are taught that students who carry out their teachers’ incorrect or damaging teachings bring shame not only to themselves but to those responsible for such misleading messages.

As a Jewish educator, I have heard too many times “Oh there is no bullying in our wonderful religious Jewish community or school or camp.” And, surprise, there is. I know because I am closely involved and invested in too many lives that were subjected to such bullying, including words, spitting, Lashon Hara, hitting, being thrown to the ground, beaten up and so on. This is NOT a matter of “boys will be boys” or girls will be …. I know families who have moved out of religious communities because of these problems that are not being addressed. It is just wrong and EVERY SYNAGOGUE, SCHOOL, CAMP, ETC. THAT CONSIDERS ITSELF a religious educating institution of Jews of ALL ages MUST convey this message loud and clear and take serious steps regarding corrective actions and discipline!

How many more tragedies will it take before our religious educating institutions will do a true taking of their own accountability seriously (Heshbon HaNefesh, if you will)? Once again, as we go into Shabbat we mourn the deaths and pain of those who are harmed by the hands of those who claim to do so in the name of what they believe. It is time, actually way past time, for their and our community leaders to stand up and unequivocally state that this is wrong and AGAINST Halacha on every level.

Shabbat Shalom and a reflective Tu B’Av to all!

Monday, July 20, 2015

So in case you were wondering, yes, embezzling IS against Jewish Law

This may sound like an absurd statement. So, let me share where it comes from. Many years ago, a dear friend of mine who was a Prison Chaplain at the time, told me the following story. He was tasked with insuring that the Jewish prisoners had their needs met. This friend is a Conservative ordained Rabbi and interestingly enough he was dealing with a good number of individuals who were Orthodox in his “prison congregation,” an entire problem in and of itself for too many reasons, which I hope are obvious. Some of them insisted on giving him a really hard time, because he was “only Conservative” and how could he meet the needs of these “good law-abiding” Orthodox Jews? So he asked one of these gentlemen what he was in prison for and the response was “Embezzling, but that’s not against the Torah!”

Really!!!!!! So, I have completed learning Masechet Shekalim (Talmud Yerushalmi) this past Friday and continue to be amazed at how holistic and expansive the system of Jewish law – properly followed – is! So, my first recommendation to this “congregant” of my friend from so long ago would be to learn this Tractate or any number of others. Masechet Shekalim is about the group participation of the entirety of the Jewish nation in giving shekalim for the upkeep of the Temple, the community needs and so much else.

As always, there are ongoing “side” conversations that are actually quite foundational and central to the discussion at hand. In this case, such great measures are taken to insure that all funds that are given are designated and used for the indicated purpose. There is to be NO co-mingling or misappropriation of funds and no taking from one designated fund for the use of another. One cannot designate funds for one purpose and then change his or her mind and use them for another purpose. There are many stopgaps put in place to insure that this is done properly and with no indication or even the slightest possibility of impropriety.

When the designated treasurer goes to withdraw funds, there is even a prescribed manner in which they must dress, e.g. no long hair, no flowing clothes, no shoes, etc. Why? So that they cannot hide monies from the designated funds and also so that they should not even appear to be able to do so or to have benefitted in any way personally from this task that is on behalf of the community. In short, these tasks are KADOSH, that is sanctified and when one is acting on behalf of others, this is a sanctified responsibility that is not to be misused or abused in any manner for personal gain or otherwise. There is a lovely statement on 14b of this Tractate that goes “ All is to minimize the honor of the person and to maximize the honor of G-d.” This is to say that when one acts on behalf of the community, this is a task where one is to subdue one’s ego, not inflate it. That alone would be a worthy mantra for too many of our leaders in so many ways.

When there is a question or doubt regarding the status of money found, such as when coins are found on the ground between the containers of the various funds, there is also a formula for where they are put. When people are late in giving their shekalim, or they come from far away and cannot meet the indicated deadline, there are specific instructions for that as well. In short, NOTHING is left to question or personal decision. Everything is ever so carefully dictated to insure that funds given are used for their indicated purpose, those entrusted with their distribution do not use any for personal gain, and the community trust is not compromised.

In this situation and only in this set of circumstances, does G-d bless the work of the community and its members and leaders! This is something for all of us to consider. How do we act in a KOSHER and acceptable manner in our business lives and when others trust us with their resources? Perhaps our schools and Yeshivot should focus more on this most important aspect of Jewish Law! Maybe then our population of Orthodox Jewish prisoners would not be as problematic!

Monday, July 13, 2015

More from My Grandfather’s Blessings and Secrets About Them

In my last writing, I shared some insights from Rachel Naomi Remen M.D. and her wonderful book My Grandfather’s Blessings. I have since finished reading the book and it is indeed a wonderful meditative flow of thoughts, lessons and yes, blessings, indeed. I highly recommend it.

This of course leads me to consider what are the blessings of my own grandfather? As it turns out, I carry the name of my mother’s father (ergo, my own grandfather), but as I grew up and wanted to know more about him, all I and the rest of the family was told was that he was a no-good-son-of… Rather upsetting, especially given that without being too obtuse, let’s just say that I did not have the warm fuzzy set of relationships in my nuclear family of birth one likes to think about fondly. In many ways, I had to “grow myself up,” as my mother apologetically said to me during one of our painful discussions before the lights began to flicker in her mind as Alzheimers’ and dementia began to take over.

Forgive me if some of this is a bit obtuse, but out of respect for my family and given that I have been able to effect my own healing with the help of the family I have created (thank you Ken and wonderful children of ours) and some very close friends (some of whom I actually refer to as “siblings of choice”) and amazing relatives, I will not spill all of the family secrets here. I just want to make a point. The narrative we were given about my mother’s father was, shall we say, not honorable and not positive. On the other hand, my mom could never stop talking (and still can’t) about the amazing relationship she had with her sister and her mother and she insists that there is not a better mother or sister on the earth. While mom does speak in hyperbole, and has for as long as I can remember, I feel it safe to say that this reported family dynamic is the truth for her, as she has known it. With one major exception!

Just a bit of back-story. As it turns out, my mother’s father came over by himself to the United States around 1915 to escape the Tzar’s army and then brought his daughter (my Aunt Becky z’l) and his wife, Pearl z’l over to the United States about seven or eight years later. My mother was born shortly after Shmuel (who had since became Sam – think Hester Street, for those of you who have seen the movie) was reunited with his family. Then, sadly, they did not live as a family according to census reports as of 1925 (as I found some years ago with the help of my dear Aunt Sandy (my dad’s sister); and there was a fractured relationship with him. I have since found that I did not have NO relatives, but that he had brothers and there are at least two first cousins that my mom and her sister had and so much else… This is what I have discovered during the last several months, because apparently, …

As it turns out, there is an up side to Alzheimer’s if you will! The filters are off and the secrets come spilling out. Here is the general gist of what I have learned in the past several months through talking with my mom, and by that, I mean mostly listening as she talks and shares her memories (which at times, is her present). She speaks to me as if I am Becky, z’l, her beloved older sister. She tells me that she will share some things, but I have to promise NOT to ever tell Mama because she will be angry. I promise as she asks in her frightened voice (as if I am Becky, which for the purpose of this conversation I am)!

She tells me (aka Becky) that she can’t hold in these secrets any more. It’s been too many years. She confides that she has been visiting Papa at his store every Wednesday after school and on Saturdays (the Sabbath) she would walk over to see him. He would give her ice cream and they would chat for a long time. She loved him very much and he loved her very much. She had to hide this relationship from her sister and her mother because they were not the objects of his affection and would be angry with her. But, she tells me recently, this has been too much for her to hide, and over an hour or more, she recounts her life with and love for her father. But, she ends with - this MUST be a secret from Mama!

Mom breathes, cries a bit, and then is back in the present. I am Sunnie again. So I take my own deep breath and go for it. Mom, I ask, why did you name me after your dad? I was the first child, my dad’s mom had also died, but why did you choose to do this? I needed to know, being the child who in our family’s history and narrative was named for the no-good….

She looked at me and said something to this effect. “You have to understand, I LOVED Papa so much and he was never part of my family growing up. I NEEDED to have him as part of MY family!” So there you have it, I was BLESSED with my Grandfather’s name, the one that my mom loved so much and could not let anyone know. I received two blessings in this conversation. One, I now know that I was named for someone who my mother loved deeply; and two, the secret is no longer an albatross around the old narrative.

Shmuel aka Sam Weis aka Wise, I now know some of the things you did as a human being with failings and weaknesses. We are all human beings with failings and weaknesses. But I also now know how loved you were and how much you loved, and that I will always hold in my heart, and with your permission I will keep that a secret no longer. May your soul continue to rest with Ribbonu shel Olam and may the lessons learned in your life yield positive blessings for all.