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My Grandma Harriet died a few weeks ago, at the age of 95. She was beautiful, creative and could expertly apply her lipstick without a mirror. She was my favorite hug. She cooked up the yummiest tuna noodle casseroles and the tastiest matzah ball soup. She lived a long life full of family simchas (celebrations), fancy dinners out with my grandfather and travelling around the world. When I got the call that she passed away, I was sad, but grateful that she lived a long, rich life.
A week later, I found out that my colleague’s wife was tragically killed in a car accident at the age of 37. N was vibrant, involved in the wider Jewish community and the mother of three kids. She was passionate about education and inclusivity. My heart broke when I read the news of her unexpected passing.
Death confounds me. After these losses, my theology was shaken up, once again. Why was my grandmother blessed with a sweet long life when people like N are tragically taken away from us so suddenly? How is it determined: Who shall live and who shall die?
We are moving into the High Holiday season in the Jewish calendar. The Days of Awe (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) are a time of contemplation, reflection and spiritual awakening. The Shofar is sounded to pull us out of our sleepy routines and open our hearts. It is a time to deeply connect with ourselves. And it is a time to face our own mortality. In the “U-netaneh Tokef” prayer, it is sung, “Who shall live on and who shall die.”
As a kid, I was taught that on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), we are either written in the book of Life or the Book of Death. And on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), our fates are sealed. Like many children, I pictured Gd as an old man in the sky, who looked exactly like Moses with a long white beard and a cane. My personified Gd lived above the clouds and wrote two lists each year: those who would live and those who would die. And I worked hard to be my best self so that I wouldn’t be added to that dreaded death list.
I have outgrown my childhood theology. It doesn’t serve me anymore. This simplistic theology that only the good are rewarded with long life contradicts with my understanding of the world.
I don’t know why people die when we do. I don’t understand why my grandmother got to live a long healthy life while N was taken from us too soon. I continue to grapple with death. The answers to this are bigger than me and beyond my comprehension.
What I do know is that the Gd of my understanding provides me comfort in the midst of uncertainty. I can lean on The-Abundant-One when I feel scared, lost and sad. When my grandmother passed away, I felt held by a nurturing presence. I experience Gd working through my community as they surround me and my family with love. When I learned of N’s death, I cried out to the Mystery. It felt unfair and unjust! My heart cracked open and I felt a deep pain. And yet, I experienced a sense of awe at the outpouring of support and strength from the wider community. The way in which she has been memorialized in countless stories is breathtaking. To me, that is Gd.
Today, I understand the “U-netaneh Tokef” prayer to be about surrender. We are not in control. These words are a reminder of the cycle of life and death. How can I honor the ways in which death is always present? What legacies will live on? What old habits will die? This year, as I sing the line, “Who shall live and who shall die,” I will be reminded of my own mortality and how I choose to live my life this year.
I went to a small Episcopalian school in the heart of the South. It was a very homogeneous Protestant community (but not without some Jews as well) with a distinguished Southern heritage that included some families that even had family crests. The graduating class had 65 kids. Fifteen of us were Jewish.
I recently attended my 30th reunion and connected with people whom I hadn’t spoken to (or even thought of) in years. In a school that small, we were all pretty good friends and it was a lot more fun than I anticipated. It warmed my heart to know that people who I have barely kept in touch with are doing well in their lives and it was fun to catch up. Several people asked where I worked and I mentioned that I worked for an organization that assists interfaith couples and families where one of the partners is Jewish—what a conversation starter!
My friend Robert was first. He mentioned that his wife was Jewish. He told me that when they got engaged, she asked if he was surprised that he was marrying a Jewish girl. His response was “No. I knew a lot of Jewish kids and so I am very comfortable around Jewish people. What really surprises me is that I am a Southern boy marrying a girl from New Jersey!”
My friend Jason was next. Jason and I reconnected a few years back. Our conversation was a bit different. He casually mentioned that his daughter was named Aviva (a name that is typically Jewish or Israeli), and since he is not Jewish, that was my first clue. We were chatting and he said he was a bit disappointed that he was missing the vote for his synagogue’s new rabbi. I said “Oh, are you not allowed to vote on synagogue issues?” His response: “Nope, I can’t vote because I am out of town and the vote is tomorrow morning!”
Then there was Ashley. Ashley lives in New York. We spoke for a few minutes before she mentioned that she had converted. I said “converted to what?” She laughed, “to Judaism!” It took me a few seconds to process that the Jewish population from my Southern school was increasing! Then she mentioned that most people are really nice about welcoming her into the Jewish community. But just last week, she was at a gathering and an 8-year-old relative of her husband’s asked if she was Jewish. The parents and family members were mortified but everyone quickly responded with a resounding “of course!”
It is mind-blowing to think that some of my Christian friends from my high school class are raising Jewish kids. I wonder if our group of Jewish kids were ambassadors in some way but didn’t realize it. We introduced the Christian members of our class to Judaism and fun bar mitzvah parties. Still, I would’ve never guessed how our 30th reunion would pan out.
Though I have to say, I am not so surprised that one of my Southern Christian friends from my class married someone from New Jersey!
The following is a guest blog post by Sarah & David Falk
It was a cool summer day in August down at the Jersey Shore. We were renting a beach house in Bradley Beach with some friends and family for the summer. My husband, David, and his family have been coming down to Bradley Beach for over 25 years and we thought it was the perfect place to host a Shabbat dinner. We set up chairs and tables for 15 people in our backyard and surrounded them with tiki torches. The food was served buffet-style to keep with our casual dinner atmosphere.
Who were we serving and why were we hosting 15 people for Shabbat to begin with? It all started when we got involved with InterfaithFamily through their Love and Religion workshop last fall. While searching for officiants for our May 2013 wedding, we came across the organization’s website. We have been together for nine years, and InterfaithFamily is the first organization we found that embodies both of our beliefs and is a common ground for both of us.
Over the years, we have attended many Shabbat dinners together at friends’ and family’s houses. We love participating in Shabbat dinner with family and friends—it is always a great way to start the weekend.
When we met with the staff of InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia and others who have participated in their classes and workshops earlier this year to discuss programs and events that we would be interested in seeing within the organization, the staff was extremely receptive to the idea of a Shabbat dinner sponsorship program. We experienced a similar program through another organization which our friends had used to sponsor their Shabbat dinners.
The purpose of the IFF/Philadelphia Shabbat dinner program is to create a community of peers. You are encouraged to invite other interfaith couples and/or families to celebrate Shabbat, but we found that a mix of backgrounds at our Shabbat dinner helped with the discussions. IFF/Philadelphia will reimburse alumni of its classes and workshops up to $20 per adult ($10 per child) to host a Shabbat dinner. From our experience, the program not only encourages you to host a Shabbat dinner, but it gets the conversation started about the InterfaithFamily organization with those who may not be familiar already.
The guests at our Shabbat dinner included friends that were staying at our beach house, family that lived close by and two other interfaith couples that were part of the Love and Religion workshop with us. It was great to catch up with them almost a year after our workshop ended, especially since one of the couples was getting married in a few months (congrats Sam and Anne who have now been married by IFF/Philadelphia’s Rabbi Robyn Frisch!).
Our menu included soup (which was especially refreshing since it was chilly outside), chicken, Israeli couscous with vegetables (recipe below), eggplant dip, salad and lots of our favorite kosher Bartenura Moscato Italian wine. We had a little trouble lighting the candles at first because of the wind, but eventually got them to work!
Our first Shabbat dinner was a success and we were so happy to be one of the first couples to host one through InterfaithFamily. It was a wonderful way to celebrate the week that was ending and spread the word about InterfaithFamily. We look forward to hosting another Shabbat dinner in the near future!
If you are interested in getting involved with InterfaithFamily/Philadelphia, drop a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the shallot and halve the tomatoes. Drizzle a few tablespoons of olive oil on a baking sheet and add the cut vegetables, sprinkling with salt and pepper as desired. Bring the chicken stock to a boil and add the couscous, stirring often so that the couscous does not stick to the saucepan. Remove couscous from heat once tender and chicken stock is absorbed (about 10 minutes). While the couscous is cooking, roast the vegetables until soft. Combine couscous and roasted vegetables. Mix in basil and mozzarella right before serving. Enjoy!
One of the many lovely things about being a rabbi is you tend to know many other rabbis and when you move to a new place, inevitably you’ve probably got a few colleagues already there, happy to help you create a sense of community. I moved to the Boston area about a month ago and even before I arrived, I had a Shabbat dinner invitation waiting for me. There is a whole culture around Shabbat dinner and depending on how you define yourself, where you live and how you were raised, a good Shabbat dinner can sometimes trump any other Shabbat ritual. Shabbat dinner is about delicious food and wine, good company, long meandering conversation and hopefully the start to a restful weekend after a long week.
Despite the wide variety of Shabbat dinner traditions across the world, there are two constants: One, the most obvious, is the day of the week—Friday—night and two, the most important, connecting with other people.
So I drove a bit nervously to my Shabbat dinner invitation, wondering how the evening would go. This particular Shabbat dinner was sponsored by a ‘20s and ‘30s group from Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA, and I was told that there was going to be a big turnout. While you might imagine my comfort level to perhaps be a bit higher than the average Shabbat dinner attendee because I am a rabbi, I believe it is human to be a tad anxious about any new social situation. I wasn’t concerned about knowing the prayers but I was curious about who would be there and what kind of community this would be. Amidst my nerves I was also excited to meet new people, to hear new stories and to feel a part of something bigger than me on Shabbat.
I parked my car, walked to the backyard and the fear and anxiety faded as I was warmly welcomed by some I knew, some I had never met. I met newly married couples, recent college graduates, graduate students, teachers and doctors who all came from very different backgrounds. Some grew up with weekly Shabbat meals with their families, some had never really attended one before. Some diners were synagogue members, some were newly Jewish, some were in love with Jews and some were rabbis! And we all came together on this Friday night and laughed and drank and ate and created our own little community. This Shabbat dinner was a great equalizer for all there because it was shaped by those in attendance, by all of the things that made us unique and all of the things that brought us together. What a wonderful and peaceful way to end the week!
Have you had a particular memorable Shabbat dinner? How do you come together with friends and family to find peace in your life?