Eulogy for my Aunt Barb

I missed the boat on delivering a proper eulogy for my Aunt Barb at her funeral on Sunday, so here’s what I would’ve said if I’d realized the floor was open.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Leah Jones – Larry and Linda’s daughter. Aunt Barb was my great aunt – Uncle Jimmy is my late grandma’s little brother. I didn’t realize until today that Jimmy and Barbara were the cool, young aunt and uncle to my parents, because to me they were always the grown ups.

When we got here today, we heard that Aunt Barb’s visitation yesterday is one of the biggest that Brazil has ever seen. Was it 184 cars of people that came through?

Instead of focusing on her biography – the over 50 years of membership to her church, over 50 years of service to the Reelsville Volunteer Fire Department or 62 years of marriage to Uncle Jimmy – I want to share one lesson that we can all take with us when we leave the firehouse today. Something that Aunt Barb taught me and probably all of us.

The lesson is simple.

Show up.

Just… show up.

I can’t think of a single family celebration – holiday, wedding, funeral, graduation or birthday – when Jimmy and Barb didn’t show up. If two things were scheduled on the same day and hours apart, like my sister and my high school graduations, Jimmy and Barb would split the duties and show up.

Eavesdropping today, I realize she didn’t just show up for the Proctor, Cohn and Jones families. She showed up for all of you. She went to countless football games, pancake breakfasts, bible studies, recitals, weddings, graduations and funerals.

You knew she would be there. Didn’t it feel good to know she would be there? When you saw their minivan pull into the driveway or heard Jim and Barb call hello from the door?

More than that.

We never worried about how she would show up. To my knowledge, nobody ever worried about Barb bringing an argument to the holiday table – nothing beyond whether you should put noodles on your mashed potatoes or gravy.

Obviously gravy goes on the mashed potatoes. Noodles are their own dish.

Even in a world where religion can be contentious and I converted to Judaism, she made sure I knew that I should still show up and that she would still show up for me.

So I want to thank you. Everyone in this room. You have all taken this lesson to heart without realizing it.

You showed up today.

I’ve never been to a funeral where the staff had to keep opening the walls and adding more chairs like this.

It means so much to her family that you are here and that you’ll continue to be here to support Uncle Jimmy, her mom Grace, Tracy, Connie and all the grand kids, great grands and her kids.

Thank you.

 

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In Between Lines

Today was Rabbi Herman Schaalman’s (z”l) funeral.

When he gave his last Yom Kippur sermon in 2016, he recounted that he’d been giving High Holy Day sermons for 80 of his then 98 years. It was enough.

His story is well-documented and fairly easy to find on the internet. Google has not and will not forget him. He was born in Munich during the first World War and came to the USA to attend Hebrew Union College (a Jewish seminary) just before the start of World War II. At 19 he arrived with nothing and nobody and in the 81 years that followed, he reached thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish people through teaching, preaching and camping.

I have been a member of his synagogue since I started going to services in late 2004. While he wasn’t MY rabbi, he was my rabbi’s rabbi. Every year at Yom Kippur, a portion of his sermon was dedicated to telling us to get married already. To have children, already.

There are stories that I’d heard second hand and stories I learned today. About how his first fiance died tragically, but then he met Lotte to whom he was married 75 years and 8 months. I knew that he had escaped Nazi Germany, but this week I learned that he once snuck out of a cafe when Hitler came in. He taught his regular Torah class the day after his wife died, but today we learned that in after his wife’s death (only 18 days before his own) he officiated his grandson’s wedding in his living room.

There were eight eulogies today.

A priest who recalled Rabbi Schaalman’s remarkable friendship with Cardinal Berdanin and how that friendship began to mend centuries of bad blood between Catholics and Jews. He shared a stanza from a poem by Australian writer Adam Lindsey Gordon.

Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone,
KINDNESS in another’s trouble,
COURAGE in your own.

Then there were eulogies from five rabbis, though there were probably 100 more wishing to share their memories and lessons learned. His three grand-children and his two children each took the bimah to remember the man they loved so much.

I went today hoping to be filled up with stories to power me as we build a resistance. Eulogies and officiating from ten members of the clergy who understand the separation of church and state (and tax exemption laws), meant I had to read between the lines to find the fire in the room.

Here’s what I got.

The funeral began and ended with melodies that Elie Wiesel taught Rabbi Schaalman when they were on a retreat together.

We were reminded that Rabbi Schaalman’s final torah portion was that of the burning bush. A fire that burns and does not consume.

His son told us the story of his father receiving a telegram at a wedding that said “Your father’s in Dachau. Save him. Mom” and how he was able to make arrangements for his parents to escape Nazi Germany.

We were told that Rabbi Schaalman had no time for nostalgia or the ‘good ol’ days.’ He was grounded in Torah and driven by and to change. He helped pave the way for women to become rabbis. He helped redefine “who is a Jew” in the Reform movement to include people raised Jewishly with one Jewish parent. At the end of his life, he openly questions God’s existence, but never questioned that the Torah was worth studying.

As a survivor of the Holocaust without an extended family, it wasn’t until he officiated his grandson’s marriage two weeks ago that he felt he had finally established roots.

He drove to any college that would have him teach, because he believed that interfaith dialogue and relationships is the only way to stop the next Holocaust.

When he first arrived in NYC from Germany, before the five scholarship students went to Ohio, he was taken to Coney Island. There he saw a group of teens in Nazi regalia who were being beaten by Jewish teens. It was not the salami effect he saw in Germany – go along to get along, how much worse can it get. Instead the Jews he saw in America were standing up for themselves. (In short, it’s okay to punch a Nazi).

He was a patriot, “because this country saved his life. America was a lifeboat out of Nazi Germany.”

His son talked about how serious his dad was. “He was serious, because the world deserved to be taken seriously.”

Oh, how we need to get back to taking the world seriously.

While there wasn’t an unabashed call to fight fascism, I heard it said between anecdotes and stories. The unabashed calls were to have personal relationships, to strive for a long marriage, and to break bread with people of other faith traditions.

So I’ll do that.

And in doing so, I will also fight the rise of fascism at home and abroad.

 

 

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Jewish Identity and Jewish Institutions

In my reflections after seeing President Obama’s Farewell Address, I made some commitments to our Democracy. A few things that I will do to protect our country and myself in the coming years. This included voting, canvassing, paying for journalism, taking care of my health and not retreating from Jewish Life.

I want to talk a bit about the final commitment.

I wrote:

I will not retreat from Jewish life. I have struggled since the election with silence from Jewish organizations and foundations. With the exception of the Reform Movement, Repair the World and If Not Now, very few Jewish organizations have been banging the drum for freedom. While I don’t think I’ve moved much from center, I feel like the organized Jewish world has moved further away from me. 12 years after my conversion, I’m struggling to maintain a Jewish identity and feel that I still belong in the organized Jewish world. I won’t retreat. I’ll call the foundations that are important to me and keep asking that they speak up.

As a convert to Judaism, I’m not Jewish because my parents were Jewish or my grandparents were Jewish. I decided in my late-20s that Judaism spoke to me, so I studied it a bit. A little bit made sense, so I studied it more. Then I studied with a Rabbi. About 18 months later, I went before a Beit Din (a panel of rabbis) and then to mikva (a ritual bath) and signed my contract with the Jewish people.

I made commitments to the Jewish people. I forsake all other gods. I promised that I came of my own free will. I promised that if I was blessed with children, I would raise them as Jews.

I then continued to live a Jewish life. I say “continued” because in the year prior to my formal conversion, I was already attending synagogue on a weekly basis, reading pages upon pages of Jewish text, learning and observing holidays, reading and blogging my experience and building Jewish relationships.

I did not get married. I was single then and am single still. I didn’t start taking my kids to Hebrew school. I was childless then and am childless still. I didn’t kasher (to make kosher) my kitchen. I was lazy then and am lazy still.

What I did was start to join organizations. I joined my synagogue – a Reform synagogue in Chicago. I joined the Federation’s Young Leader’s Division for a trip to Israel. After another year, I was accepted to attend the ROI Summit.

The institutions that I joined became part of my Jewish identity.

How do I know that I’m Jewish?

I am a member of a synagogue. I went to Israel with the Federation once and have made occasional donations ever since. I was accepted in the ROI Community and attended the summit five years in a row in different capacities. I was invited to The Conversation and have attended many reunions. I started a minyan with friends who have become my extended family.

I also know I’m Jewish when I consult the Torah to make some decisions. I know I’m Jewish when I debate if chicken is really a meat or if I can have a chicken enchilada with cheese. I know I’m Jewish when I make a donation of $18 or $36 or $54 dollars. I know I’m Jewish when I go to Israel every year to see friends I met online who have become my extended family.

But this year has been hard. Membership in formal organizations helps define my Jewish identity.

I’m about to age out of the ROI Community… for real this time. The rabbi who supervised my conversion to Judaism retired, which makes me feel lukewarm about my synagogue. I still believe in a two state solution and that peace is possible, but nobody seems to believe that anymore.

Then the election happened.

One of the first people the President-Elect identified to become a White House Advisor is a known anti-Semite. He made this appointment the same week at the General Assembly – a massive annual conference of Federations and Jewish professionals.

I waited for the condemnation.

I waited to hear of people wrestling with the appointment.

I waited to hear the call of social justice.

I heard silence.

With the exception of the URJ, most Jewish groups offered to politely work with the PEOTUS’s appointee. Nobody would go on record or off the record to say it was a problem. Foundations suddenly had no place in politics, because they are about Jewish identity.

Since then I’ve felt the organizations that I’ve long used as cornerstones to my Jewish identity wooosh away from me. I don’t think I’ve moved. I’m fairly center, but I feel like Jewish Organizations have moved away from me at breakneck speed. My friends on the Left are suddenly the only people ringing the alarm bells, but maybe those bells are at a frequency only I can hear?

It seems that many of my peers were raised in the 80s in a Judaism focused on Holocaust recovery and Israel building. As someone who came to Judaism in 2004, my experience is not rooted in the Holocaust, but I’ve spent time at Yad Vashem and I understand how central “never again” is to our collective Jewish identy.

Now I feel like I was punked.

Is it possible that all of these Jewish organizations who have long warned of posthumous victories to Hitler don’t see the parallel to our times. Did we spend so much time talking about liberating Aushwitz and gaining the state of Israel, that we forgot to study the decade before the first camp was opened?

Am I the one who is paranoid? Are they blind? If 85% of Jewish voters voted for Hillary Clinton, why are so many Jewish organizations offering to cooperate with the horrors that are unfolding in Washington?

Then I wonder…

If I no longer identify with major Jewish institutions, how do I maintain a Jewish identity? How do I avoid retreating from Jewish life?

My Jewish friends aren’t going anywhere. Not the ones I met in ROI Community. At Federation. At Synagogue. Not the dear group of beloved friends in my minyan.

My love for our love to debate. To turn over questions. To wrestle with Israel.

My love of Israel. Of the people, the food and lilting Hebrew on a sidewalk cafe.

Through simple mitzvot.

When I first began down this Jewish road, Rabbi Zedek told me to “do that you might learn.” Go to services, light candles, keep a level of Kosher, say some blessings.

Try it on, see if it fits.

This weekend I’ve got an organizing consultant coming over. We’re going to KonMari my wardrobe and my kitchen. Evaluate what brings me joy and toss out the rest.

Maybe it is time for me to KonMari my Jewish identity.

What organizations bring me joy?

What traditions bring me joy?

What Jewish places bring me joy?

Perhaps through a fresh evaluation, I can find the institutions that support my Jewish identity and find my balance between left, right and center. In the meantime, I’ll keep a few Jewish institutions on my speed dial to ask, “why haven’t you said anything about the Nazi in the White House?”


 

Some organizations that make sense to me right now.

The URJ and RAC have spoken out against Bannon, Sessions and other dangerous nominations. Here’s the RAC’s statement about Sessions nomination for Attorney General

The #JewishResistance of If Not Now is focused on getting the Federations to address issues at the Trump Administration.

WRJ (Women of Reform Judaism, AKA The Sisterhood) is participating in The Women’s March in Chicago and cities across the country. I love that Jewish woman are organizing to march together.

Repair the World has gotten laser focused on dismantling systemic racism in the last year or so. In addition to a day of service on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, they are working with the Schusterman Foundation and others to host shabbat experiences and political action in DC over Inauguration weekend.

(Edited for clarity on January 13, 2017)

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I am a lucky woman

I am a lucky woman.

Yesterday a colleague forwarded me an email with a PDF attached. The PDF was a ticket to attend President Obama’s Farewell address. Since I was out of town this weekend and missed the chance to line up for a ticket, I had resigned myself to watching from my couch with Twitter for company.

Instead I pared down my purse to essentials, charged my phone, ate a protein bar and went to McCormick Place to wait in the security line for over two hours.img_20170110_193643341

I ran into friends, lost them in the crowd and found them again. There were 20,000 people in the room last night, so it was amazing I saw anyone I knew once, let alone twice.

When I started going to synagogue, I found out that I liked a good sermon. I appreciate soaring words, vivid stories and hard evidence. Tell me what you know, tell me what you believe and I will be moved. We got a good sermon last night.

His speeches have always soared.

I have a clear memory of the Obama’s 2004 DNC speech. I was walking down Leland Ave in Chicago from Lincoln to my apartment on Damen. It seemed like every TV was turned to the DNC to see our candidate for Senator give a speech. I stopped outside of an open window to listen to bits and pieces, not knowing in 12 years speeches like that would be available in my pocket on a smartphone.

I admire President Obama.

I have a long list of criticisms and disappointments with his administration, but my overarching feeling is admiration.

At points last night, I felt like he was giving a eulogy for our experiment in democracy. Could his administration be the final movement in our “great unfinished symphony” or will we resist and protect our democracy.

At other points, I felt like it was a call to action.

Yes we can. Yes we did. Yes we will.

Here are my commitments to protecting our democracy.

1. I will not isolate myself from friends or strangers. There have been days since the election when it has been hard to get out of bed, hard to laugh, hard to believe there is a future. If we are going to save our country, it will be with other people.

2. I will continue to vote in every election, but I will spend more time working on expanding the voter base. I was inspired when I saw Keith Ellison speak last week about expanding the voter base. I will canvas. I will make phone calls. I will help enfranchise more people.

3. I will support the work of Being Black at School. Systemic racism in our public schools must be dismantled and I know that their team are the people to do it. I’m chairing their Chicago event on April 1st, but will do even more to continue to support their work.

4. I will support journalism through paid subscriptions, disabling my ad blocker and being kind to the journalists in my life.

5. I will not retreat from Jewish life. I have struggled since the election with silence from Jewish organizations and foundations. With the exception of the Reform Movement, Repair the World and If Not Now, very few Jewish organizations have been banging the drum for freedom. While I don’t think I’ve moved much from center, I feel like the organized Jewish world has moved further away from me. 12 years after my conversion, I’m struggling to maintain a Jewish identity and feel that I still belong in the organized Jewish world. I won’t retreat. I’ll call the foundations that are important to me and keep asking that they speak up.

6. When I find simple actions to take, I will continue to share them. Clear call to actions that I have verified as useful and deemed (this is personal) necessary.

7. I will focus on my health and our healthcare system. According to my physicians, I’m not the only person with new medical problems since the election. I will work to improve my health, but also find ways to help people understand the healthcare system.

That’s my plan.

I think each of us will have different priorities in the years ahead. I hope beyond hope that we each find ways to lift strangers up when we lift our families up. And in turn, we lift our towns, cities and country up.

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What I said and what I meant to say

I told him that I can’t stop thinking about how little this test has to do with whether or not I get my degree in 21 days.

What I meant to say….

On Monday, the last day of my trip back to Colorado, I had breakfast with one of my mentors from the college where I worked from 1999-2001. Marc started in the counseling center and had moved over to the leadership center when I was about to move on from the college.

Over the course of breakfast, we talked about the people who have died over the last 15 years, what we reevaluated after those deaths, my crushes, and his plans for retirement.

2015-08-09 10.15.15

We talked about how Sandy died when she was 42. She’d been in the best shape of her life, went to the doctor for appendicitis and they found a 21 inch tumor across her abdomen. We talked about how she really lived that last year – Egypt, Paris, eating fatty foods, seeing the world and her friends. We talked about how Cristina worked until she was 62. Worked 60-70 hour weeks until she retired. And then she died from cancer two years later. About how Lori had Crohn’s, slipped into a coma from AFIB and died in her early 50s.

Then he said, “Do you remember Dave?” I did, in part because Dave loaned me his 7-year-old daughter’s copies of Harry Potter when she was finished with them in 2000. “Well, it turns out that Dave was my best friend.”

I keep turning that sentence over in my head. I knew Marc and Dave at the beginning of their friendship. When we were all just starting to play poker together. Then I slipped on out of town and they went on to become best friends. It’s so rare to hear men use the phrase, so it seems like you’re being given something very special to hear one man call another his best friend.

Dave also died of cancer. Technically he died of a lung infection, but he wouldn’t have gotten it if he hadn’t had cancer.

In the middle of all this, Marc asked me about my love life in the way that a life long student affairs person asks, “So, tell me the real news. Men, women – do you have anyone special?”

And I blushed and told him about a man who lives across the country, but school… work… real life… there are a lot of barriers.

I got home to Chicago late that night, went to bed and woke up around 4am thinking, “I have to tell him. This crush. I have to tell him about making life count, because our friends are to keep dying and how much time do any of us have anyway.”

Anyway. I have to study for a test that I’m probably going to fail.

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Some thoughts about Israel

ben gurion

One

This morning on the train it occurred to me that I’m a convert and I remembered that I chose this. When I converted, almost 10 years ago, we were entering a decade of peace in Israel and the question of antisemitism seemed academic. “Are you ready to sign yourself up to be hated by the world? Are you ready to sign up any children you might have to be victims of antisemitism?”

Yes, I answered. Yes, because even with all the existential and academic threats, I thought my life would be better if I were Jewish.

On the train today, I was reading another long essay, thinking about my friends in Israel and I realized that my Jewish identity has shadowed over my identity as a convert. I don’t remember daily that there was a moment when I could have said, “you know what, forget it. The risk is too much, I’ll stay as I was before. No need to go to mikvah.”

Two

So many friends, acquaintances and strangers on the internet seem to be troubled that more Israelis haven’t died in this conflict. They seem upset that Iron Dome and the bomb shelters that dot every block in Israel have kept Israelis safe.

These are, in part, the same people who take off their shoes and empty their water bottles at the airport. People who abide by the security theater of the TSA because it protects us from another September 11th.

Iron Dome and bomb shelters aren’t security theater. They are security measures that actually work. Security measures that are keeping people alive and stopping rockets from landing in civilian areas.

Three

The month that I lived in Israel (November 2009), I gave a series of presentations about social media to people who worked at non-profits. One of those people was on the staff of the newly created Lone Soldier Center. Founded in 2009 in memory of Michael Levin, the Lone Soldier Center was going to try and provide a safety net for immigrants who joined the IDF but who didn’t have family in Israel.

Josh invited me to their Thanksgiving dinner in Tel Aviv, which turned out to be a house party with a few semi-thanksgiving themed dishes. It was one of the first Lone Soldier Center events, but now the organization is the real deal. Providing housing, meals and a safe space for off-duty soldiers. The safety net their families can’t provide.

Four

I love Israel. I’ve been in a mad love affair with the country from my first visit in March of 2006. I didn’t expect Israel to become so central to my life, but I’ve been 9 times since I converted and plan on making a 10th trip in December.

I’m not blindly in love with Israel. I make a point to read nuanced essays on the current conflict. I wrestle with the reality of what is happening to the citizens in Gaza and the need for Israel to survive as a state. For the most part, I don’t discuss the current conflict, because so many people are either uninformed or backed into a corner with no room to wrestle with all of the competing realities.

Five

I still believe my life is better for having converted to Judaism. For loving Israel. For loving my Israeli friends. For learning to bake challah and learning to pray in Hebrew and learning to order a beer in Hebrew. My life is better for knowing how to navigate Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. For knowing what the Old City smells like after a snowfall and for knowing what the waves of the Mediterranean sound like late at night.

Six

My first night in Tel Aviv, during Tel Aviv 1, a few of us from the Chicago delegation went on a walk along the beach. Someone in our group steered us to the Dolphinarium and told us what happened there on June 1, 2001, when a suicide bomber killed 21 Israeli teenagers waiting in line to get into a disco.

The next day, we went to Yad Vashem and in the children’s memorial I remembered that I chose this. I chose this life, this religion and this second home for myself and for any children I might be blessed with, because I thought my life would be better with Judaism in it.

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In Love Like That

This afternoon we had dessert at Le Creperie. A fabled Chicago restaurant that closed and re-opened last year, but other than that has been open since 1972.

We had the back room to ourselves until a party began to arrive. It was a couple who hosted their wedding reception in the same room in 1974. Their children were coming for lunch, along with spouses and two grandchildren for one of their daughter’s birthdays.

We made faces at the toddlers and promised the proud grandparents that when we left, it wasn’t because of the kids. We’d split three crepes and it was time to go.

But it was a window into a world that I want so much to be a part of. To fast forward 29 years and still be married, still be taking my kids and my grandkids to the restaurant where I had my wedding reception.

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