Hanukkah Kavannot 5777
That winter, the dark seemed darker than usual. In mid-October, I went to Pennsylvania to celebrate our fortieth high school reunion. And did we celebrate! We boogied the old-time rock ‘n roll, black Philly doo-wop, and did the twist just the way we always had. Caro, my childhood best friend/next-door neighbor, planned a sleepover for four close friends—but we never made it. There was a terrible car crash. In minutes, Caro was dead and I lay trapped in the mutilated car for hours. It took weeks and several surgeries before I could come home. This was harder on my family than on me. Alex went sadly back to college; Anna visited daily after high school—creeping into my hospital bed to cuddle, then falling asleep. Jim came in after work, hauling his briefcase, gray with fatigue. They were always hungry.
I felt under a dark veil, mourning Caro but unable to cry. Not only had I lost her; I’d lost my childhood. Where was the light in this dark picture? BJ organized daily dinner deliveries: every night, for weeks, a hot dinner appeared outside our door, sometimes with a signed note, often anonymous. Nobody rang the bell to say hello; we were too tired even to say thanks, though we were deeply grateful. Later, I found friends in these generous souls who took the time and effort to reach out to us in those dark, dark days. The warmth and fragrance of their good food brought us light.
Ellen Schecter has been a BJ member since 1993 and her children had their B’nai Mitzvah here. She is a widely published writer and her memoir, Fierce Joy, was published in 2012 by Greenpoint Press. She has been co-coordinator of BJ Reads for 18 years. In 2014, she received an honorary Doctorate from Arcadia University.
With just one candle, the joy and anticipation emerge. Each night the flame blossoms, shedding light and hope upon us and reminding us to light up the darkness for others. Our job as human beings is to constantly affirm and fight for kindness, respect, and understanding, and the bravery to do so comes in times of adversity. Just as the light draws us out of the darkness, so at times does our community when we are dealing with personal challenges. When people interact, a mystery is born. We can take that mystery and respect it, nurture it, and invest it with more meaning, or we can overlook such opportunities. Community support is like an instrument: whether that instrument is used constructively or not depends upon the user. When community and a compassionate heart are merged, our being is enhanced. This partnership can provide an inner compass in a world undergoing ceaseless and kaleidoscopic change.
As one who was visited by Hevra Kadisha twice within an 11-month period, the community provided support to me and my family during our times of darkness. Perhaps Hevra Kadisha is one small act of kindness which facilitates the healing. Although we humans know how to transplant hearts, fly spaceships, and squeeze a library’s worth of data into a tiny chip, we are far from mastering the art of human relations. We have invented no technology that will guide us to the humanity and compassion that matter most. This is where hesed fills that void. With the glowing lights of the Hanukkah candles, let us be guided to a more just and tolerant world. At this time of miracles, may we be grateful for all that is going right and may we honor the light. Hag Sameah.
Bonnie Harwayne has been a BJ member since 2000. In her own words, “the core of my life is my family of three children and two grandchildren with whom I love spending time sharing, experiencing, and teaching. My professional world is steeped in education as a teacher who has taught every level of education from pre-school through graduate school and as a counselor who has dedicated a life to effect positive change and growth in the lives of my students. My personal world entails the love of learning and reaching for a spiritual soul of purity and passion.”
A little over a year ago, I stepped off the curb in front of my building and ended up on the ground with a very severely shattered leg. After six days in the hospital, I ended up at a rehab facility downtown in a wheelchair. The life I had been leading took a sharp turn. Everything I was currently doing was either put on hold or cancelled. Among other things, I had been an active member of the Aging Hevra and the Economic Justice Hevra. Helping people was very gratifying. Now I felt helpless.
As soon as word of my accident got out, I got calls and/or visits from all three of the BJ rabbis over the next few months in rehab. I was very touched by their concern; I felt acknowledged as being an important part of a community. I got a call from someone on the BJ Hesed/Bikkur Holim committee, asking what they could do to help once I got home from rehab—I didn’t know. It would be months before I got home. Although my husband did not cook at all and would be out of the country for a little while after I was home, and although I wouldn’t even be able to walk, I felt uncomfortable asking for meals. I wasn’t sick. I was just somewhat disabled.
Then I thought of something that I was not uncomfortable asking for. Once I was finished with in-home rehab, I would be in outpatient physical therapy. However, I would be using a walker and still not able to put complete weight on my right foot, so I needed someone to come and get me and walk with me to the physical therapy center. By the time I got home from rehab, there was a spreadsheet and a list of people from Bikkur Holim and the Aging Hevra who wanted to volunteer to walk with me and to provide me with meals according to my Kashrut requirements. Although I hadn’t been comfortable asking for meals, I’m not sure what I would have done without them. I was very grateful to everyone. I got to know so many wonderful people at BJ, and realized that helping me also made them feel good. After I was able to get around on my own, I received an email from the Hesed Committee about someone who was coming out of the hospital after surgery and would need some help with food. I couldn’t wait to be able to pay it forward and help someone else.
Sandy Soffin has been a BJ member for almost 10 years. In addition to participating in the New Member’s Committee, Sandy is active in the Aging Hevra, The Economic Justice Hevra, the Bikkur Cholim/Hesed Committee, and the Refugee Committee. She lives with her husband, Rabbi Joel Soffin, and has two sons and three very young grandchildren.
Over the past year, I’ve received a number of visits from members of Bikkur Holim, and I am always touched by how lovely it is when strangers become instant friends. In honor of that, here is one of my poems on the subject:
I sometimes think of friendship
As a precious cashmere shawl
So soft, so warm and comforting,
So pliant to the touch
And yet so strong.
A sturdy buffer, a shield
Against the wind,
Against what storms may come.
In gratitude for friendship.
Faye Hamel Levey has been a BJ member since 1998. A longtime travel writer and journalist, she now dabbles in poetry, meditation, and offering unsolicited advice to her children, grandchildren, and anyone who will listen.
Our daily prayers allow us to constantly express our thanks and gratitude for what we realize to be some of most the important and precious gifts from the All Mighty. The concept of hesed confirms this for me. Hesed for me is a reliable and tangible community value; it is a value that allows the continuity of life and for me to grow and become the type of Jew I aspire to be. Hesed has become a part of my life because I know that I am counted on by my community.
For many years, my partner and I have volunteered at the BJ homeless shelter. It is humbling to assist the individuals seeking help to recognize that homelessness can be a temporary condition. My time spent at the shelter has been as much of a growth journey for me as it has hopefully been for the shelter’s guests. I am truly inspired when a shelter guest is ultimately able to leave the NYC homeless shelter system, recognizes the joy associated with personal triumph and independence, and can begin to navigate the outside world on their own. To be able to witness each one of them seek and find their identity is a very powerful human testimony. We are a part of their process; they are counted on by our community, and it is gratifying to think that I had some small hand in helping them get back on their feet, through the simple actions of one person helping another.
I have found that a large part of my own personal Jewish identity is rooted in sharing light, in helping others. Regardless of someone’s stage in life, to be able to help someone stretch, grow, and achieve their potential has become a very important concept to me. Just as our daily prayers remind us to be thankful and grateful, helping others has made me aware of how fortunate, thankful and grateful I am to be part of a community like BJ. BJ has helped me find and cultivate my voice of hesed.
Ted Fisher grew up in Philadelphia and has been a BJ member for twenty years. He has an extensive background in retailing, merchandising and apparel product development. He and his partner Edward Kane are both BJ members. Ted can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hevra Kadisha has always been an impulsion for me. Though I have slept in the shelter, visited the sick through Bikkur Holim and engaged in many other volunteer opportunities, it is this privilege I value more than any other—to be with someone when they are raw, that first Shabbat when they come to the Synagogue after losing someone they love. They may even be angry sometimes, but it’s not personal. I can be there or I can stand outside until they are ready, but I always stay close because I know they do not want to be alone.
This is when volunteering becomes service and I become aware that this is what I was called to do. This is the Light that lives and grows inside me, through which I always receive far more than I can ever give. It’s all seemingly intangible, like death itself. There’s more that we don’t know about death than what we do know, but we honor it and respect it and in the final hours before burial we receive an older body, or a younger injured body, and we bandage the places that are bleeding and we care for the unseen bleeding places as we would a newborn baby. We gently wash the met, we dry her and we dress her in new linen garments – all white – and whoever you were in your lifetime we send you off with honor for the life you lived, the struggles you overcame on the outside and within, leaving you ready to meet the Creator who awaits you with open arms. I will always have gratitude and love for BJ for giving me the privilege of this holy work, and, in doing so, allowing me to taste the Light.
Bernice Todres, MA LFABI has been a BJ member for 18 years. She is a Mind-Body consultant and teacher of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and is mother/grandmother to six special people.
I had originally joined the Hevra Kadisha committee after my mother, Mildred Geller z”l, died 21 years ago. My childhood shul was so supportive during that time of darkness that I decided I wanted to be a part of the BJ Hevra Kadisha (HK) Committee despite the sadness of its work. In those days, there was no email and you had to make many phone calls to gather a shiva minyan. One night I sat at my desk and made what seemed like 100 phone calls to find just 10 people, after which my membership on the HK Committee began to lapse.
It was only at the request of my dear friend Sharon Anstey, who is a co-chair of the Hevra Kadisha, did I return. Her encouragement renewed my energies in some capacity. She convinced me that I could make phone calls to mourners and/or escort them to Kabbalat Shabbat. I began to make the calls but didn’t volunteer to escort the mourners. After being escorted during the week of shiva for my father, Joshua Geller z”l, I could finally attempt to do this mitzvah. The support of the community was simply overwhelming during that first Shabbat without my father, and so I’ve continued to do these mitzvot, after which I always feel that I have received so much more than I have given. From this darkness, new friendships unexpectedly develop. During morning minyan, I see the faces of some of the people I have escorted. Many tell me they feel supported and grateful for the personal invitation to attend services. My father was forever gabbai of the shiva minyanim at my childhood shul, so in reflecting on the concept of hesed, I realize it was he who taught me what the Talmud says in Massechet Shabbat: “One person’s candle is light for many.” Hag Urim Sameah
Judy Geller-Marlowe has been a BJ member since 1995. She is a language lover, student of Jewish texts, and a retired ESL teacher. She is an adjunct professor at NYU and currently mentors aspiring language instructors.
My brother-in-law Zach died on Yom HaShoah almost two years ago, after a hard-fought battle with lymphoma. I remember learning that he was in an ICU in Florida on the first night of Passover. We flew down to be with him on the morning after the second seder, an occasion we celebrate with our BJ family of friends, usually with tremendous joy. But not that year. From the morning we landed until the night we returned, the outpouring of love and support from our hevra never ceased. Calls, texts, thoughts, prayers, and words of inspiration nourished us each day. “What can we do? What do you need? We’re here for you.” And they were. When we returned to New York after the funeral, our BJ hevra didn’t miss a beat. One brought dinner. Others organized shiva meals. Eli baked banana bread. The Hevra Kadisha sent books and bagels. Over 100 people showed up at our shiva. Roly, Marcelo, Felicia, and Ari came by to lead services and offer words of consolation.
We were enveloped in the warm embrace of our community in a way that’s hard to describe, but impossible to forget. This was a demonstration of Hesed to the Nth degree and we couldn’t be more grateful. My firsthand experience of being embraced by the BJ community inspired me to help share this experience with others, so when Toby Baldinger invited me last January to join her in her four-year effort to re-imagine Hesed, I said, “Sign me up.” It was beshert that our relaunch coincided with Hanukkah: “Post tenebras lux,” light after darkness.
Fern Flamberg has been a BJ member since 1995 and is a co-chair of Hesed.