Friday, April 4, 2014

Why I'm Mad at Phyllis Sommer

Phyllis Sommer is a bad friend.  There, I've said it.  Though she has, for the past ten years that I've been in the rabbinate been a loving colleague and confidant, she has simply gone too far.

I mean, would a friend make me look beyond myself to recognize that there are those in my inner circle who are facing hardship and pain?

Would a friend burden me by introducing me to seventy other like-minded people, and intertwining my life, my interests, and my passions with theirs?

Would a friend compel me to support legislation like the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act, when I'm inclined to be blasé about politics?

Would a friend want me to sit in front of my computer, heartbroken and weeping, as I read stories of kids like Zach and Rebecca and Sam and Jessie and countless others?

Would a friend involve me in a crazy endeavor to change my hairstyle, believing that in so doing we could perhaps change the world?

No way- a "true" friend would have allowed me to go on with my life, content to have us touch base once or twice a year, and never would have interfered with my social conscience.

So I'm mad at Phyllis Sommer.  She's a bad friend.  And the world needs many, many more just like her.

(P.S. I'm also mad at Michael Sommer.  Rebecca Einstein Schorr, in that vein, I'm furious with you.)

Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Time Such as This

"And who knows that you have not come...for a time such as this?" (Esther 4:14)

In December of 1983, I celebrated my Bar Mitzvah.  In the area of the Soviet Jewish refuseniks (those who were not permitted to practice their Judaism freely in the USSR, and who were not permitted exit visas to emigrate to Israel or the west), such a practice was in vogue.  As I stood on the bimah and proclaimed that I was sharing my service with Karmi Elbert of Kiev, I had my first inkling of understanding that Judaism was not about being, but about doing.  Subsequently, I participated in telephone calls for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, aimed at raising funds for Operation Moses (bringing the Jews of Ethiopia to the land of Israel).  And I vividly recall a rally for Soviet Jewry at which Mary Travers from Peter, Paul, and Mary performed and our community showed the power that can be derived from singing, praying, and working together for social change.  (I wrote a bit about this experience a few weeks ago)

So when I became a rabbi, I did so with the desire to be involved in moments such as that- to engage with fellow Jews, embrace the social justice messages of the prophets and the moral imperatives imposed by our textual traditions, and change the world for the better.

Don't get me wrong: in my [nearly eleven] years in the rabbinate, I know that I have made an impact. I have counseled individuals through difficult times, celebrated simcha'ot with families, stood with others through illness or bereavement.  But while I am fully cognizant of the significance of these moments for the individuals involved, that impact in each case was extremely localized.  I thirsted to be involved in something that would have a broader impact- something that would help to "move the needle" on a significant issue.

It turns out that I didn't have to go searching for the issue; it found me.

In June of 2012, I noticed that my friend, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, who ordinarily posted very cheerful messages on Facebook, had posted a cryptic, distressed-sounding status update.  I immediately texted her out of concern, and soon learned the news that eventually an entire network of friends worldwide would come to discover: Sam, Phyllis and Michael's then-7-year-old son, had been diagnosed with leukemia.  As my wife and I were celebrating with friends and family the kindergarten "graduation" of our son, Gabe (just a few weeks older than Sam), Phyllis and Michael and Sam and their family were enduring scans and tests and so forth.

Throughout the ups and downs of Sam's battle, my heart ached for our friends and I tried to dream of ways that I could offer meaningful support.  In October of 2013, our friend and colleague Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr posted to Facebook that she was looking for 36 brave rabbis.  Soon I had the full information about the project that she (and Phyllis) had concocted, and I was on board to raise funds and awareness for pediatric cancer.

Fast forward to Tuesday, April 1.  I stood on a stage at the annual meeting of the Central Conference of American Rabbis with about sixty of my colleagues.  Having raised well over half-a-million dollars for the St. Baldrick's organization, we prepared to have our heads shaved.  Phyllis and Michael went first, and within the hour, all of us were shorn.

Words cannot begin to describe the combination of excitement and nervousness, joy and sadness, anticipation and elation that accompanied those moments.  When the shave ended, I embraced a number of of my fellow "shavers."  My friend and colleague Rabbi Eric Siroka and I marveled at one another through our laughter and tears.  "This is some awesome [stuff] we are doing," Eric said.  "This is why I became a rabbi," I responded.

On this blog's draft page, I have about four posts that I started at different junctures, trying to explain my love for my friends the Sommers, and trying to articulate why I was participating in the shave.  All of them were abandoned at various stages because they weren't expressing the full depth of my feelings.  And now, the moment of the shave has come and gone, and I feel compelled to record once and for all why I did it...

I did it because I believe in the ability of love to assuage even the deepest, most painful wounds, and I pray that the love extended by my colleagues and our families to the Sommer family provides some comfort as they (and we) continue to mourn for Sam.

I did it because Isaiah's declaration ("Here I am, send me) and Hillel's musing ("If I am not for others, what am I?") resonate deeply with me as the inspirations for my involvement in the Jewish community as a leader and teacher.

I did it because I believe in the power of individuals to be catalysts for great change.  We do not know whether it will take one people or a million to cure cancer.  We don't know if the research will be funded by the millionth dollar raised or the ten-millionth dollar raised.  But we know we must start somewhere.

And who knows, maybe it was for a time such as this that we have come to this station.

My sincere thanks to all who have already given so generously of their time, energy, and finances to support 36rabbis Shave for the Brave.  The fundraising continues throughout 2014 here.