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.