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!