Thursday, December 19, 2013

A Lesson in Mourning

[For my HSC Family, this is also going to be my January article in The Connection as well]

All too often, we rabbis are called upon to officiate and eulogize funeral of someone we either do not know, or do not know well.  In most cases, we do a formal ‘intake’ where we actively listen to family and friends about their loved one.  It is through their eyes that we are able to create narratives to share about the deceased with the community.

And yet, there are also times where we are called upon to officiate at the funerals of those we know and of those we love.  In my own case, I was asked to officiate at the funeral of my wife’s beloved grandmother Rachel a few years ago.  As someone intricately involved in the family dynamics of the situation, it is certainly a very different place to be than as an outside observer, which is neither good nor bad, just different.

And then there are the times where we go as mourners.  Monday December 16, 2013, I attended the funeral of Samuel Asher Sommer, known on the web as Superman Sam.  Sam was the son of my dear classmates Rabbis Michael and Phyllis Sommer.  I have known Michael and Phyllis for nearly two decades, and over the past 18 months they have shared openly their journey with the world as Sam has battled against refractory acute myeloid leukemia, or what Sam referred to as the ‘Ninja’ Leukemia. 

Now I won’t say Sam lost his battle, because he didn’t.  He fought every step of the way.  And through his struggles, he taught many of us how to live better and how to love more intensely.  He simply ran out of options as he ran out of time.  Sam died peacefully surrounded by his parents loving embrace.  And as his mother Phyllis wrote, “throughout his entire life, Sam was never alone.”

I was awestruck as well by the words of Rabbi Steven Lowenstein, who not only officiated at Sam’s funeral, but also knew him deeply and intensely.  Rabbi Lowenstein is the Senior Rabbi at Am Shalom where Rabbi Phyllis Sommer is the Associate Rabbi. 
Rabbi Lowenstein has been there through every step of Sam’s journey as well.  And to be able to be present and give the family the ability to grieve without breaking down himself, is simply amazing.  I was in tears throughout the whole service.  I can’t imagine the emotions he must have been holding back to do this.  As he said, “the ninja leukemia may have ravaged his body, but it never touched his soul.”

During this time I began to think about the grieving process in general.  I weep both for the early loss of Sam, and all the things he will never get to do and experience.  I grieve for my friends and their other children David, Yael and Solly.  I am heartbroken for Sam’s grandparents and uncles. 

I want desperately to take away their pain or at least alleviate their sorrow.  But the truth is, when it comes to grieving, many of us strive to do this. We try to find just the right words or do just the right action that will make everyone just a little less sad.  But that is not our job. 

Our job is simply to be a source of comfort, to be a presence.  Whether this is a shoulder to cry upon, a warm embrace or simply an acknowledgement, we are there to be the pillar for the mourners to lean upon.

It is not about us, it is about them.  So what then can we do?  Most importantly to reach out to those mourning not just in the days leading up to the funeral nor the days immediately following, but the days, weeks, months and years later.  It does not mean we have to bring food or cheer them up, it just means we are letting them know that we love them and the memory of their departed are dear to our hearts. 

We may never be able to make sense of the loss of a loved one.  But what we can do is to work to make their lives continue to have meaning.  I, for one, am committed to keeping Sam’s story alive and vibrant.  He was an amazing kid who was wise beyond his years.  He loved turtles and googly eyes.  He loved stories and bugs, and he had a mischievous side.  His memory will be for an abiding blessing.  And for the thousands who knew him or got to know him through social media, may our Loving God provide consolation to their sorrowing hearts.  For Sam will be greatly missed.

And for those of you who would like to do something in Sam’s memory, a group of rabbis and rabbinic students will shaving their heads in March at our annual Rabbinic conference to raise money to fight childhood cancer.  Donations can made through the St. Baldrick’s Foundation (this happens to be his father’s page.  His mother and others have pages as well). 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

In Memoriam

This has been a surreal Biennial.  At its’ core, the Biennial (hashtag #Biennial13) is fundamentally all about about celebrating Reform Judaism.  In particular its’ focus in on our amazing capacity as Reform Jews to change ourselves; to change our congregations and work together to continue to transform the world. 

With this in mind, there have been wonderful, thought provoking and insightful presentations.  I am particularly intrigued by the Visual Tefillah, which I have seen used before, but I now have the knowledge as to how to go about implementing it in my own congregation.

I have also had the pleasure of catching up with colleagues and friends while garnering the opportunities to make new friends as well.  For, as we tend to discover and rediscover, we are all, in many ways, on the same journey together.

But I as I began this piece, this Biennial has been surreal.  Usually I feel thoroughly engaged in the festivities, seminars and the like.  But for me, it has been like walking through a fog.  I am here but detached.  The days and nights felt ethereal, real but not quite real.  My state of being was through no fault of the organizers, committee members, staff, and others who have pulled of such an amazing convention.  It was instead because of outside tragic events that have drawn me closer to my fellow attendees while drawing me away from the convention as well.

The first night I learned of the untimely death (though aren’t most deaths untimely?) of one of my former b’nai mitzvah and confirmation students from my previous congregation – Joshua Bynes.  Josh was a kind, intelligent, and caring young man.  He had his whole future ahead of him, which was starting to come together.  He had seen his share of challenges and adversity, but he was coming through it.  It was made all the more difficult because for his fellow confirmands, this was the first time they encountered the death and loss of someone their age. 

For me personally, I am upset and angry about the loss of Josh.  I am upset because his death was senseless.  It did not need to happen.  He should still be here today to be in the warm embrace of his loving family.  He was such a wonderful person and he will be greatly missed by his loving family and his loving friends.

This tragic news was then followed a couple days later when we learned of the death Sam Sommer, also known as Superman Sam.  We learned about losing Sam to what he called the Ninja (leukemia) late Friday night.  Sam died in peace surrounded by his loving family.  And yet, all I can think about is his list of “I won’t get to.”  Though his amazing family took him to Israel and to Disney, there are so many things that he never got to do, least of all, live a long, rich, and full life.  The sense of unfairness is overwhelming.  The sense of grief is palpable. 

The one that still breaks me up is that his youngest brother Solly will never really remember Sam.  Sure he’ll hear the stories, see the pictures, and watch the videos, but he’ll mostly know his brother through the memories of others.

I am not typically a demonstrative emotional person, and yet, I cry every time I think of Sam. I cry in front of absolute strangers.  I cry alone.  As I have been reminded, it is good to cry because crying reminds us of the love in our hearts.  Which is strange because I had only met Sam once in my life. 

Our families got together during a CCAR convention in Atlanta.  Our daughter is just a little younger than Sam and I can barely remember him as a toddler climbing up and down the stairs at my in-laws house.  Or perhaps I am confusing the time and we saw him when he was a little older.  Memory is a funny thing that way. 

So I really only know Sam through his parents and the stories they have chosen to share about their amazing son.  He was a gift to them and a gift to us all.  So even though I have been surrounded by themes of vitality and vibrancy my thoughts have been all about mortality and the greater questions of life. 

And then I remember, I have been using a lot of “I” statements.  I wonder, have I (there I go again), making these tragic stories about me instead of where the focus should be, on their grieving families?

My loss is not their loss.  I cannot fathom what they are going through, and I pray to God that I never will have to know.  What sense can I make, can we make, of their deaths? 

Perhaps only this.  Tomorrow I will be boarding a flight to go to Chicago.  It is a flight of consolation.  It is a flight to comfort the mourners.  We cannot heal their pain.  We cannot relieve their suffering or their overwhelming sense of loss.  We can only help them to know that they are loved, that they are cared for and thought of. 

To Eli, Ana and David, and to Phyllis, Michael, David, Yael, and Solly: you are loved.  Josh and Sam will live on in our hearts.  Our tears are here to join yours creating a river, a gush, a torrent.  We cannot hope to make sense of their deaths, but dammit, we will make meaning of their lives.

Rest in peace Josh and Sam.  May you be bound up in the wings of the Shechina and your memories and your lives will be for abiding blessing. 

Friday, December 6, 2013

Happy Belated Thanksgivukkah!

Below is my first video blog on the serendipity that is the combination of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving: