Oct 05 2016

David Rubenstein and Rabbi Milton Steinberg

My beloved husband, David Rubenstein, died on May 19, 2015. This is my second High Holidays without him.  His death did not quite meet the standard we imagine when we say the words, “a ripe old age.”  He was 69 years old, not young, but too young to be gone, before the birth of his first grandchild and without walking his youngest daughter down the aisle.

This loss is a constant reminder of the fragility of life and the importance of appreciating every single day in its potential for blessing.  When we truly understand that our days are numbered, we begin to understand that each day is a treasure.  David was in and out of the hospital numerous times during his illness.  On one particular occasion, after he was released, he told me that he had seriously questioned whether he would be leaving the hospital alive and whether he would survive on one especially hard day.

As we drove on the 101 we were both in awe of the beauty of the sky and the sunlight and Camelback Mountain.  We experienced the world with a sense of wonder.  We saw everything anew, and I had a glimpse of David’s profound gratitude at being spared to appreciate the gift of that moment.  Would that we could retain that perspective and not get so caught up in our everyday lives that we forget the miraculous and holy treasure of being alive.

I really resonated with what Rabbi Milton Steinberg wrote of a parallel experience, which is recorded in Mishkan Hanefesh-

 

“After a long illness I was permitted for the first time to step out of doors. And as I crossed the threshold, sunlight greeted me. This is my experience; all there is to it. And yet, so long as I live, I shall never forget that moment…The sky overhead was very blue, very clear, and very, very high. A faint wind blew from off the western plains, cool and yet somehow tinged with warmth – like a dry, chilled wine. And everywhere in the firmament above me, in the great vault between earth and sky, on the pavements, the building- the golden glow of sunlight.  It touched me too, with friendship, with warmth, with blessing. And as I basked in its glory, there ran through my mind those wonder words of the prophet about the sun which some day shall rise with healing on its wings. In that instant I looked about me to see whether anyone else showed on his face the joy, almost the beatitude I felt. But no, there they walked – men and women and children in the glory of a golden flood, and so far as I could detect, there was none to give it heed,. And then I remembered how often I, too had been indifferent to sunlight, how often, preoccupied with petty and sometimes mean concerns, I had disregarded it, and I said to myself, how precious is the sunlight, but alas how careless of it are we. Source of blessings- may we open our eyes to the radiance around us; may we open our hearts with gratitude, and our souls with appreciation.- Rabbi Milton Steinberg, MH, RH, p. 65

 

 

 

Oct 05 2016

God as Parent

We call on God as Avinu, Malkenu- our Father, our King, or, perhaps, our Parent, our Ruler. In her book, Nurture the Wow, Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg quotes William Thackeray, “Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children.”  (p. 109)  When we reach out to God as a parent, we express our hope for unconditional love, for acceptance, for support, for patience, for nurturance.  We hope for protection and that sense of security we had cuddling in our parents’ bed and falling asleep in their arms.  We imagine a God powerful enough to control the events in our lives and keep us safe from pain, from harm.

Yet, if we become parents, we learn the hard truth that this is an impossible dream.  There is too much that is out of our control.  Rabbi Jeremy Kalmonofsky writes that, “Since my first child was born. . . the theological trope of God’s parenthood speaks to me very differently.  I hear its spiritual power- not through my experience as a powerless child- but in my experience as a powerless father. . . For God, I love these small people more than I love my own life.  God, if I could only keep them from bullies and nightmares, unreturned love, leukemia, bulimia, depression, bi-polar disorder, cocaine, car accidents, flunking math, AIDS, rapists. . . “ (ibid., pp. 119-120)

Parents can’t protect their children from the world and neither can God.  That is a hard truth.  As we approach God as a parent and express our deepest fears, we pray not for magical intervention, but for strength and wisdom and courage in the face of challenges, and for patience and forgiveness and love when we miss the mark.

 

 

Oct 05 2016

Spiritual Accounting and the Book of Life from an Accountant’s Perspective

My mom spent much of her career as a math teacher and as comptroller of a real estate company. My dad, alav hashalom, was an accountant.  I have two brothers, Michael and Philip- both accountants.  I, on the other hand?  The last math class that I completed was 10th grade geometry.  Bookkeeping is not my strength.

Yet- here we are on the verge of a new year, tasked with “cheshbon ha-nefesh- spiritual accounting.”  It’s time to review the books from 5776, close them out, and open up a new ledger.  Alan Morinis describes this process, “Like an accountant reviewing a company’s books, the ‘accounting of the soul’ practice gives you the tools you need to ‘audit’ your inner life. . . You are guided to peek into the old shoeboxes and sort out the musty files of what lives in your deep interior in order to generate an accurate and transparent balance sheet of your life.”

As we focus on the Book of Life, I asked some of the accountants in our community how they understand this concept of cheshbon ha-nefesh through the lens of their own work.  Robyn Young noted how, when the books are closed, its nice to do a quick review of each transaction.  The books should only be closed when they have been tested.  “I think,” she writes, “that is (more) what Rosh HaShanah is about.  Testing the honesty of your actions in the prior year.”  Robyn also shared a handy accounting concept- “immaterial.”  Yes, each detail is vital when you close a set of books.  And, allowance is made for details that are so small that, as she puts it, they can be “swept under the accounting rug.”  I think that is great guidance for us as we enter into these Yamim Noraim- we need honest accounting of all the details, and, we need to NOT get so bogged down in those details that they impede our ability to move forward.

Diana Feldman finds it exciting to close out a year.  It is also, she reminds us, hard work and time consuming.  We need to evaluate what we learned in the year that is ending, assess the results, and create a plan to accomplish our mission and goals.  This is indeed an accurate description of the task we face on these Yamim Noraim.  Diana offers the comforting perspective that even if our personal “expenses” exceeded our personal “revenue,” “with the proper intentions (we) can still be written in the book of life.  I think that what she is calling “intentions” is what our tradition calls teshuvah, the process of fearlessly facing where we have gone wrong, making amends to those we have hurt, and committing to return to the path of the good and the right.

I’ll conclude with Diana’s words- “I think that in our life we can be better moving forward if we take the time to reflect, organize, and plan for the next day, week, month, year.”  To which we say- yes, amen, selah!

Oct 05 2016

When the Book of Life is Closed

The new year is upon us. Our book of life lies open before us.  We like to think that we have the luxury of time and many, many blank pages to fill in with fun and exciting moments as well as moments of depth and meaning.  We pause, now, to remember those whose books are completed.  For friends and loved ones who are no longer with us, the opportunity to add pages to the book of life is no more.  The midrash notes that- When a person is born, everyone rejoices; when they die, everyone cries. But that’s not the way it should be. When a person is born, we don’t know the nature of the life they will lead.  When they die, unless it is a tragic death, the loss of a young/younger person, we have a sense of satisfaction, since we know that the individual left this world in peace after living a good and proper life. To what can this be compared? To two ships that were in the ocean laden with merchandise. One ship was coming to port, the other was leaving. People were excited about the ship coming into port. Others stood by amazed and said, “Why are you rejoicing over this ship and not the other?” In reply they said to them, “We are praising the incoming ship since we know this ship has departed in peace and arrived at its destination in peace. But what the future will bring to the ship that has just begun its journey we do not know. ” So it is with a person who is born: we do not know the nature of his future deeds. But when he leaves this world we know the nature of his deeds.” (Yalkut Shimoni Ecclesiastes 7:1.)  Their book of life is closed, ours lies before us.  May the way we fill the pages of our book of life reflect the highest values that they held dear as we honor their memory now with the words of the mourner’s kaddish.

 

 

Sep 29 2016

Selichot Reflection

So, I almost died this year. It happened in June, on vacation in Florida.  I borrowed my Aunt Faith’s bicycle, which had canvas toe cages affixed to the pedals.  Never having used these before, I came to a stop, couldn’t extricate my foot in time, and keeled over.  No big deal, as I was wearing a helmet.  Yet, I fell in such a way that a 2-inch stick lodged itself under my scalp.  A trip to the ER, one night in the hospital, and I was on the mend.  And painfully and powerfully reminded of the truth that Unetaneh Tokef wants us to absorb into our deepest souls- life is completely and totally uncertain and anything and everything can change in one minute.  In seconds.

Unetaneh tokef k’dushat ha-yom, ki hu norah v’ayom- Let us proclaim the power of this day, because it is awesome and terrible.  “We are forced to admit,” writes Rabbi David Teutsch, “how profoundly our lives can be altered by random occurrences over which we have no control.”  Or, as Rabbi Richard Marmur puts it, “Yom Kippur is meant to be a near-death experience.”

Confronted with the non-negotiable reality of our own mortality, we have 2 clear choices. We can retreat into fear and depression, afraid to live lest we risk dying.  Or, embracing the richness in every last moment and wresting the maximum life out of each and every day.  Which will it be?

Rabbi Margaret Wenig tells the story (Mishkan Hanefesh, RH, p. 172) of Olga Blum, an 80 year old violinist, founder of Barge Music in Brooklyn.  When the mayor of NY asked why she didn’t put the piano on pilings so that it wouldn’t slide during performances, she replied that, “I will never put the barge on pilings because all beauty, all art, is in some way a wrestling with impermanence and death.”  So, too, for us- as we enter our High Holiday season, Unetaneh Tokef speaks to our own wrestling with impermanence and death.   May we be blessed to enter into this wrestling in the deepest way, yet not from a place of illness or loss but rather from a place of gratitude and joy in each and every day.

Aug 29 2016

Comfort

I must admit that until the ads for “My Pillow,”  I did not know that there was such a thing as “The National Sleep Foundation.”  Did you?  When I was a kid, Serta made mattresses and I really have no clue where pillows came from, and that was pretty much it.  Now, mattresses cost more than cars did back then, and everyone has an opinion about which is the best one.  I guess we want to be comfortable and are willing to spend big bucks to achieve that level of comfort.   I’ve been traveling a bit this month, and, I must say, it is certainly comforting to come home and crawl into my own bed..

It’s made me think about comfort and what we find comforting and how much we long for comfort in our troubled world and the challenges of our lives.  In the Jewish calendar, we have transited from the 3 weeks of rebuke which precede Tisha B’Av, to the 7 weeks of comfort and consolation which follow.  I’m intrigued by the fact that there are twice as many weeks devoted to comfort as there were to rebuke, and I think that speaks profoundly of the human condition.  It is so easy to get wrapped up in judgment- judgment of ourselves, judgment of each other.  It is so hard to assert kindness and gentleness, and yet that is what we crave the most.  Where do you need comfort in your life right now?  Can we find comfort in the fact that we have food and clothing, that we can, in the words of this week’s parsha, “Eat, be satisfied, and offer blessings of thanks?”  What else do we find comforting?

Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of the first and second Temples in Jerusalem.  The Temple was destroyed, according to the rabbis, because of sinat chinam, senseless hatred.  We mourned the loss of connection to our spiritual home, the place that exemplified the comfort that comes from connection to God, to holiness, to each other.  Rabbi Brad Artson writes that, “For our ancestors the Temple was not merely a place of worship and pomp, it was a symbol of wholeness. There it was possible to fulfill the desire of our Creator completely, to become one with God. . .By its very structure the Temple stood beyond time, offering the iron-clad assurances that God dwelt there, that all was well.”

After the humbling challenge of confronting our failings, it’s no wonder that we need a number of weeks to focus on comfort, to acknowledge that, despite the reality of our imperfections, we can continue to grow and we are worthy of love. Have you heard of Amma, the Indian spiritual leader known as “the hugging saint?”  She has spent a lifetime hugging people, who will wait in line for hours to experience her embrace.  Sometimes that’s what we most want and need- a loving hug from someone who wants nothing from us but only to offer the comfort of resting in the arms of someone who offers love without expectations or judgment.

We have experienced the lowest point- destruction and loss of our hopes and dreams, our vision of perfection, as experienced in the loss of the Holy Temple. And we learn that, nevertheless, we can do teshuvah- no wonder many people consider Tisha B’Av to be the beginning of the High Holiday season.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, accompanied by R. Joshua, once passed Jerusalem [after its fall]. While looking upon the city and the ruins of the Temple, R. Joshua exclaimed, ‘Woe unto us, that the holy place is destroyed which atoned for our sins!’ R. Yochanan replied, ‘My son, do not grieve on this account, for we have another atonement for our sins; it is chesed, loving acts of kindness.”[1]  Parshat Ekev offers this guide  (Dt. 10:12)- “Be in awe, walk in God’s ways, love and serve God, do mitzvot- and love the stranger.”  The Temple was destroyed because of gratuitous hatred.  Rav Kook, the first chief rabbi of Israel, suggested that it will be rebuilt when we offer each other ahavat chinam- generous love.

Take comfort. Yes, we suffer. Yes, our bodies and minds break down now and then. Yes, we age and it gets harder to move and to remember things that once seemed so important. Yes, we don’t live up to our own highest ideals, and, yes, we are disappointed when others fail us as well.

But understanding that life itself is a great gift and that even death is simply a part of life, we can cultivate gratitude. We can recognize the Source of all Being as our God. We can find strength in our camaraderie and the sharing of our challenges and pains along the journey of our lives. We can come to understand that the very fact that we are unites us to one another and to the eternal source of all being. And all of this is, indeed, comforting.

 

 

[1] Avot d’Rabbi Natan, chapter 4

Jul 22 2016

Google, Unitasking, and Shabbat

For the last year or so, I have been working out at “Orange Theory” at Tatum and Shea, though there are Orange Theory franchises all over.  I like the 1-hour interval concept, and I love not having to think about my exercise routine.  Walk in, one hour later, walk out- done for the day.  Sometimes I run into congregants there, I’ve crossed paths with Rabbi Rony Keller, and even our own senior rabbi, Mari Chernow, is a fan.

You come in, get on a treadmill, and start walking or jogging, warming up for the cardio section. The thing I DON’T like is when the instructor says, “Turn off your machine and give me your full attention while I tell you what we are going to do today.”  What?  Like I can’t listen and walk/run at the same time?  Why don’t they understand my exceptional talent at multi-tasking?  I am SO good at multi-tasking that it is a challenge to do just one thing.

How does this translate into life outside the gym? Well, without a show of hands, how many of you have looked at your cellphones at least once during this service?  It’s okay- a 2015 Pew Research Center study showed that 80% of cell phone users had used their cell phones during the last social gathering they attended.[1]  82% of them felt that using their phones in social situations hurt the conversation.

Check out this Dilbert cartoon from today’s paper- Dilbert is walking with a young woman who says, looking at her phone, “I’d better check this.” She continues, “It’s just what I thought.”  Dilbert inquires, “What did you think?”  Her reply, “I thought I would enjoy my phone more than talking to you.”  And this alarming statistic, also from the USA Today- 81% of people would rather travel with their mobile device than a loved one!

In a NY Times article entitled, “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.,” Sherry Turkle reported on what some refer to as “the rule of three.”  If there are 5-6 people at a dinner, you have to check that at least 3 people have their heads up, that is, they are connected to the conversation, before you give yourself permission to look at your phone.  Yet, even while presumably connected to the conversation, people unconsciously keep the topics light, in order to make it easier to disconnect.

Studies show that even if you are not looking at your phone, “the mere presence of a phone on the table between them or in the periphery of their vision changes both what they talk about and the degree of connection they feel. People keep the conversation on topics where they won’t mind being interrupted.  They don’t feel as invested in each other.  Even a silent phone disconnects us.”[2]

This lack of ability to connect has led to a measureable decrease in empathy. In several instances, the Torah uses the beautiful phrase, “shma b’kol,” literally, to hear IN someone’s voice.  That is, to listen beyond the words to sense what they are feeling.  This requires a whole host of skills, including appropriate body language, that are becoming a lost art.

Things like: looking the other person in the eye, leaning forward to indicate interest, mirroring the other person’s posture and avoiding crossed arms and legs, smiling, nodding.  We are losing the art of conversation.

Turkle suggests that part of reclaiming conversation involves reclaiming solitude. She writes that, “Some of the most crucial conversations you will ever have will be with yourself.  Slow down sufficiently to make this possible. And make a practice of doing one thing at a time.  Think of unitasking as the next big thing.  In every domain of life, it will increase performance and decrease stress.”[3]

Shabbat is the perfect opportunity to put down our phones and enjoy the lost art of leisurely conversation with friends and loved ones, and with ourselves. Mahatma Gandhi was once approached by a woman who asked him to counsel her son regarding the virtues of not eating sugar.  “Come back in a week,” he responded.  A week later, the curious mother returned, and inquired why the sage had asked her to wait a week.  “First I needed to give up sugar,” Gandhi replied.  It’s always easier to ask someone else to do it.  We tend to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, yet judge others harshly.  USA Today reported that 17% of those surveyed say that they are on their smartphones too much, yet 56% state that OTHERS are on THEIR smartphones too much![4]

I can’t ask you to give up your cell phones for the entirety of Shabbat. I have not been able to do so myself.  Yet, I would encourage you to somehow make your Shabbat cell phone practice holy.  Perhaps banish the phone from your Shabbat dinner table?  Perhaps leave it in another room and check it at only predetermined intervals?  Or perhaps you will really succeed at disconnecting while you focus on the sacred aspects of living?

In any event, we can all benefit by Turkle’s advice to stop Googling and start talking. I want to challenge you tonight, over dinner or when you get home, to put away the smartphone and unitask for 1 hour.  And I WILL try not to be impatient when my Orange Theory instructor tells me to turn the treadmill completely off and focus on him or her.

[1] Turkle, Sherry, “Stop Googling.  Let’s Talk.,” NY Times, Sept. 27,  2015

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bank of America Trends in Consumer Mobility Report of 1,004 U.S. adults

Jul 10 2016

The Rabbi Has a Hole in Her Head

It is wonderful to be back after several weeks of vacation that included meeting Ron’s sister, a sunset cruise in Key West, a visit with my aunt and uncle, a big family wedding, and, a close brush with death. I didn’t realize immediately exactly how close, but in retrospect it is nothing short of miraculous that I am standing here virtually unscathed, if you don’t count the hole in my head!

It was our last day in Miami and a beautiful day for a bike ride. Wearing a helmet. I borrowed my aunt’s bicycle, and, being unfamiliar with toe cages, I practiced getting my foot in and out. However, I didn’t have the muscle memory to do so when I came to a stop. And thus fell over. So far just a routine bicycle mishap. Going zero miles per hour.

When I stood up, I felt a lump in my head, and figured that ice and Ibuprofen would resolve that issue. A few moments later, Ron had the terrible realization that, no, we were not feeling a bump, but, rather, a stick that had impaled itself through my ear and lodged under the scalp. A two+ inch stick, ¼ inch in diameter, was now in my head! In fact, this precise stick!

We quickly got to the emergency room, where, after a number of hours, the stick was surgically removed. Following an overnight stay and IV antibiotics, I was discharged, and we made our way back to Phoenix. It was only on reflection that we began to understand the enormity of what had occurred. My incredible good fortune that the stick traveled vertically rather than horizontally, sparing my life and brain function.

As a rabbi, I am hyper-aware of the fragility of life. I am moved by the words of the Psalm- teach us to number our days that we may gain wise hearts. Now, though, I think that it is not enough to number our days. We need to be aware of every moment. Aware how in one second everything that we hold precious can change. In a heartbeat. We can’t and shouldn’t live our lives in fear, but, oh, we certainly can and should live them with gratitude and appreciation. Earlier this week, I was speaking with a member of our community whose husband is very ill. Her comment was apropos this point. She said, “Forget taking it day by day, I’m taking it hour by hour.”

I re-read the moving words of Jonathan Stern, may his memory be for blessing, son of Larry and Sheri Etkin who died from a brain tumor on June 18th. He wrote in the Washington Post that, “I am a naturally optimistic person, but I constantly wonder when my death will arrive. Yet in several ways I count myself lucky because of what I like to think of as miracles, or fortuitous occurrences, that have given me the luxury- which many with brain cancer don’t get- of choosing how to spend these last months.” Imagine seeing yourself as fortunate while living with a debilitating terminal diagnosis?

None of us know when death will come. How would our lives be different if we had that consciousness to really choose how we spend our days? What pettiness would we abandon? What relationships would we treasure? How would we spend our precious time? Life is dangerous, accidents happen. Another one of our members recently fell while holding a glass which severed an artery. We imagine that we have the luxury of time, yet, it may not be so.

There is nothing new or profound about this realization. But finding yourself lying on the ground, with a stick impaled in your head, is an attention getting moment. Words cannot express my gratitude to have this potentially tragic event end on such a miraculous note.

Our tradition mandates that one who experiences something life-threatening should “bensch gomel,” that is, offer a prayer of thanksgiving. The 4 classic categories for the gomel prayer are:

  1. a) One who has crossed the ocean(an overseas flight travel, etc.)
  2. b) One who has crossed the desert
  3. c) One who recovered from a very serious illness
  4. d) One who was released from

Included in the category of desert are all other life threatening situations from which one is saved such as a wall collapsing upon him, a goring ox, robbers, car accidents, etc. As I open the ark, please rise as you are able and join me in a contemporary version of this prayer that you will find in your Shabbat bulletin. I’m sure that many of us can relate to these profound sentiments:

 

Preparing for Birkat Ha Gomeil- from Mishkan HaNefesh

 

A teaching of our Sages:

in the presence of the sacred scroll,

we give thanks for the blessings in our lives.

 

Rav Judah said in the name of Rav:

“Who should offer thanksgiving?

Those who have completed an arduous voyage,

those who have recovered from an illness or injury,

and prisoners who have been set free.”

 

In the midst of the congregation,

we honor those who have come through

times of challenge, difficulty, or danger.

 

Today we celebrate their survival.

Together we give thanks:

for the resilience of the body,

for the strength of the human spirit;

for the precious gift of life,

experienced with new intensity

when life has been at risk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apr 27 2016

Leo Saul Koppell- 3/30/33-4/24/2016

Simcha Lev ben Tzvi v’Channah

 

Leo Saul Koppell- 174. Born in Brooklyn, NY- 3/30/33, the eldest of Harold and Jessie’s two boys. When I was little, for the longest time I thought that his middle name was “Salt.” Leo survived his brother Eddie by almost 10 years, and he lived to his 2d Bar Mitzvah age of 83. Harold worked as a dentist and Jessie was a schoolteacher. They raised their family in the tight-knit Jewish community in Manhattan Beach. My dad was, quite simply, one of the nicest guys you could ever want to meet. He was just so sweet and never really wanted anything for himself. He was the quintessential mensch.

My mother, of course, was the love of his life. They grew up across the street from each other on Amherst St., he was #12 and she was #9. For Leo’s Bar Mitzvah, my grandparents, Hyman and Ruth, gave him a pair of binoculars as a gift, the better to facilitate the shidduch. It worked! Leo felt that he had to sneak out if he dated another girl, and mom felt guilty when she was caught necking another boy on the front stoop. She went off to college at Brandeis University, but returned home to finish her education at Brooklyn College in order to be closer to her beloved Leo. My dad still had to pass the steak test. Ruth and Hyman took Leo and Sandy away for the weekend to Lakewood. For the record she wants you to know that they had separate rooms. Leo legendarily consumed 5 steaks in one meal and the deal was sealed.

The couple were married in an incredibly elegant wedding ceremony at Brooklyn Jewish Center on April 2, 1955. They enjoyed an amazing 61 years as husband and wife.

Growing up with two brothers, Michael and Philip, mom and I were completely outnumbered. The hockey season followed the baseball season which followed the football season, or something like that, and the dinner conversation every night was more of a statistical exchange and less of an actual conversation. Dad was the master of every statistic, and baseball reigned supreme. I had the occasion of traveling with him in Europe and observing dad introduce himself as follows: “I’m Leo Koppell, I’m from NY, and I’m a Yankee fan.” It was such an important part of his life; I do believe that the game was on on Sunday in his hospital room and I’m told by people who know that it was probably better that he was not consciously able to absorb whatever the score was.

He was a numbers guy and being on time was critical. I remember as a child pulling up in front of someone’s home at 7:25 and waiting until 7:30 so that we could be precisely on time.

Our family grew to embrace David, Fran, and Laura; Harrison and Leanne, Daniel and Valerie; Jonathan, Steven and Stacey, Arielle and Dahlia; Jessie and Xan, Sarah and Tim, and, of course, Emily and Helena. I take great comfort in knowing that dad got to meet Ron before he died, and to know that I had love and support in my life.

When we were little, Leo used to sneak M&Ms to us in bed before we went to sleep, and he would always say hi to all of the kids in the park next to the NY apartment. When we were growing up, he would often take me and Michael and Philip to the park while mom enjoyed some R&R.

My dad loved his kids and, oh!, did he love his grandkids. Even in his recent years, when it was challenging for him to interact, he still lit up and became the most engaged in the presence of his beloved grandchildren. Casino with grandpa was always fun! I know that we will all treasure the memory of our recent cruise in honor of my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. Just 10 days ago, Leo delighted in singing, “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands,” with Emily. Leo Koppell was happy, and he knew it!

When you think about my dad, you think about family, first and foremost. He was not defined by his job. He had a Bachelor’s degree from NYU in Accounting and a law degree from Brooklyn Law School, and yet, when you think about my dad, it’s all about who he was as a person. I remember when I was in 3d grade and the teacher gave us an in-class assignment to write about what our dad did for a living. I handed in a note saying that I didn’t know and would find out and complete the assignment as homework. Ultimately he founded a dynasty of accountants!

My father was a devoted and loyal friend; it was one of his top, priority values. He and mom had many lifetime friends, and Leo would always make sure that the conclusion of any date was the setting of the next date. He would bend over backwards to maintain relationships and was completely conflict averse. This did mean, however, that on the very few occasions when my dad got angry, boy did it get your attention!

Bridge was the big focal point of their social life and dad not only accumulated many Master’s points throughout his lifetime, but he made two slams in his final week of life. He ran a bridge club and enjoyed many bridge cruises. If Leo won at bridge, it was a good day! As the child of bridge players, I had to know enough to hold the cards if they were short a 4th. When I was in rabbinical school I called my father proudly one time to tell him that I had seen a note in the mailroom advertising for a 4th in bridge. “Dad,” I told him, “I’m going to call them.” His reply- “You can’t play bridge!” I guess he was the one to know!

The Pollacks, Anita and Bernie, have been special life-long friends. They have shared every joy and sorrow and so many amazing trips; mom says they were the perfect traveling companions. The Crystal cruises were a highlight, but it was the companionship every step of the way that was most meaningful. In recent years, trips to the Norwich Spa with the Audrey and Burt Citak have also brought both mom and dad great joy.

My brothers and I recall many awesome family vacations, especially our 3-week trip out west. My parents fondly remember a vacation in Vancouver, Banff, and Lake Louise, which was beautiful and wonderful except for the time that my father abandoned them all when he could no longer endure high tea. My parents loved theatre and my dad particularly enjoyed music. A musical Shabbat would even bring him to shul.

Here’s a little known fact about my dad—- back when he used to enjoy reading, he not only enjoyed Robert Ludlum but he was a closet fan of Danielle Steele. He LOVED his TV shows and watched them like it was his job! My mom was the one who was Jewishly connected; dad was clearly along for the ride. He did serve on the synagogue board and used his accounting skills in service to the community as treasurer of the congregation. His greatest contribution to the Jewish people was running the temple bowling league, and, of course, supporting my mom in all of her endeavors.

My mom’s devotion to her husband has been nothing short of epic. We all recognize that there is no way he would have lived as long and as well without her tender loving care.  On Thursday they took a walk to the park next door and it was so beautiful that mom felt moved to take a photo and email it to me. It was that night that he choked and lost consciousness, never really recovering.

Sandy was the force behind PT and OT and keeping him moving and engaged. Even at the very end of his life, on Sunday afternoon, as he lay dying, she found a warm cloth to wipe his face and some intensive lotion to rub into his feet. When Rabbi Wernick heard of my dad’s death, his comment to my mom was, “Every man should have a wife like you.” Mom- you have set a very high standard. We know it is going to be so hard for you to be alone, and please know that we are here for you. Mom and dad would always call us and sing a full chorus of “Happy Birthday.” She said she doesn’t know if she can continue that tradition, noting that, “I only sing duets.” And when it was his birthday- oh!- you’d better call him. He had a list and he would check off the names of who called. Mom said he would have loved to have kept a list of all the people who have reached out to the family this week to remember him. It would have been quite a long list!

My dad has been ill for quite some time. Parkinson’s kind of sneaks up on you and it’s hard to know exactly when it began its ugly march- maybe 10 or 15 years. How ironic that when mom and I made our way to the mortuary on Sunday, the entrance to Central Park was closed for a Parkinson’s walk. For many years he has been saying, “I’m ready for heaven,” but we just kept him alive for one more simcha, one more simcha, one more simcha. Heaven, as Steven pointed out- 55.

Leo’s life has been more and more constrained by Parkinson’s. Though we are so sad to lose him, we all take comfort in knowing that just as he has a good life he had a relatively good death. We weren’t quite ready to lose him; his death comes as somewhat of a shock. Yet we are glad to know that he did not suffer. As he lay dying, my mom began to sing to him, in his final moments of life, these words from his beloved Frank Sinatra:

And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain
My friend, I’ll say it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain

I’ve lived a life that’s full
I’ve traveled each and every highway
But more, much more than this
I did it my way

Regrets, I’ve had a few
But then again, too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption

I’ve loved, I’ve laughed and cried
I’ve had my fill, my share of losing
And now, as tears subside
I find it all so amusing

To think I did all that
And may I say – not in a shy way
Oh no, oh no, not me
I did it my way

Leo Saul Koppell did it his way, and we are all so blessed by his memory and his legacy. We can best honor his memory by renewing our own devotion to the values that he held dear—- family, first and foremost; loyalty to friends, sincere kindness, and genuine concern for others. Zecher tzaddik livracha- may the memory of the righteous be for blessing.

 

 

Apr 08 2016

On Retiring From the Army

When I first raised my hand 37 years ago and swore to defend the Constitution of the United States I had no idea what I was doing. I grew up in Brooklyn, NY, near what was then the US Army Chaplain School at Fort Hamilton, NY. Knowing that I wanted to be a rabbi, I was always curious about what went on behind those walls. So, when I learned of the chaplain candidate program, I applied and was accepted as the first female Jewish candidate in any branch of service. No one in my family had ever served in the military and I reported to the Chaplain Officer Basic Course without a clue as to how to put on a uniform. Never in my wildest imagination could I have imagined standing here now at the end of a long and rich career.

That was 1978. When I graduated from rabbinical school in 1981, my endorsing agency was thrown into turmoil trying to figure out how to endorse a woman. It took years before I was finally endorsed as a chaplain. It has been an amazing journey ever since then, from Korea to Germany, to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait, and culminating in the most intense learning experience of my life as a student at the US Army War College. I was mobilized in support of Operation Desert Storm and spent a year as an MI BDE Chaplain following Sept. 11th for Operation Noble Eagle.

The lives of Soldiers are challenging. Too much work and too little appreciation, following orders with little explanation, sacrificing time with family. What an incredible privilege to be the one person who sees each Soldier as an individual, made in the image of God, providing comfort and support, encouragement and a listening ear. I recall flying in a C-130 into Afghanistan with a Soldier who confided that in 7 years of marriage he and his officer/wife had been together in the same household for only 2 ½ years. Strive to see the holiness in each person you meet and never lose your sense of compassion. MG Lennon shared an incredibly moving story yesterday about literally going the extra mile to reach out to a Soldier who “just didn’t seem right.” He concluded with the words, “We care 24/7.” That could and should be our motto.

CH Fisher spoke yesterday about the challenges of our hyper-connectedness, and the need to blend work and family life rather than trying to achieve a balance the two. I want to underline the importance of remembering the Sabbath day to keep it holy, however you define Sabbath and however you define holy. The more connected we become, the more vital it becomes that we take some time to disconnect. Creation was not complete until the concept of NOT creating entered creation. Ahad haAm said that, “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.” Give yourself and your family the gift of, if not an entire day, some time for spiritual reflection and restoration away from the almighty screen.

I came to the 807th from the 63D RSC, where I had the opportunity to serve as the first Command Chaplain. In that assignment I had responsibility for the regional Strong Bonds program, where I worked with couples and families to strengthen relationships through better communication and problem solving. I was able to bring those skills to bear assisting a deployed unit in Kuwait who were experiencing too much togetherness and requested assistance in overcoming an environment of “hostile mistrust, hatred, fear and discontent”. I was incredibly grateful for the Strong Bonds training in my tool box, and I truly hope, with all due respect to CH Fisher that the Army continues to fund this vital program even in the face of contemporary fiscal restraints and that UMTs continue to play a vital role.

We use the term “ministry of presence,” meaning that if we show up where Solders are- in training, putting up tents, in a foxhole, we build that trust which is the foundation of relationships, as MG Tatu noted in her comments. Irwin Federman said it so well- “Trust is a risk game. The leader must ante up first.”  Ante up, lead by example. Be ahead of the curve on your own military education, don’t be on your company commander’s hit list for deficiencies, find 99 reasons to say yes rather than 1 reason to say no. And while I have your attention, let me say this one more time- Spelling counts! Don’t sign an OER or NCOER with spelling or grammatical errors. Undoubtedly someone like me will serve on your promotion board and wonder about your attention to detail.

I am also a huge advocate of written, quarterly counseling. We give lip service to this requirement, but rarely, if ever, do we make the time to have these sometimes challenging conversations. There is a saying, “What you don’t INspect, don’t EXpect.” As UMTs, we know the fundamental importance of communication. Don’t let more than 3 months go by without thanking your subordinates for their support and acknowledging their great accomplishments, establishing goals for the coming quarter, and gently yet firmly addressing any concerns that may have emerged. CH Boggess was wont to say that quarterly counseling is a moral responsibility, to which I say, “Amen!”

Never forget your calling as a spiritual leader- always have a verse or teaching at your fingertips. Here’s one of mine-

A famous rabbi once suggested that we each need two slips of paper in our pockets. On one is written, “The whole world was made for my sake,” on the other, “I am but dust and ashes.” The secret of wisdom lies in knowing when we need to read each message. It is tempting as we rise in rank to focus only on the former- “The whole world was made for my sake.” Yes, it is important to be confident and decisive. Yet, we should never lose our sense of humility. One of the things the Army taught me was how to say the words, “I don’t know, let me find out and get back to you.” We need to forgive ourselves for our own imperfections and treat each other with kindness and understanding. Rabbi Harold Kushner teaches that the 4 holiest words in the English language are, “I may be wrong.” No matter who we are, we should never imagine that we are too important to apologize when necessary- it is vital to our own spiritual well-being.

When tragedy strikes, as it too often does, people feel helpless to respond. No one knows what to say, what to do. It is the Army chaplain who has the holy privilege of being the person who represents the command in being that first line of defense. We need to be prepared emotionally and spiritually for our core roles of nurturing the living, caring for the wounded, and honoring the dead.

Serving in CONUS has provided me with many opportunities to grow as a leader, yet it is the OCONUS deployments that are the most poignant. I recall a Passover seder at FOB Sykes, where one participant began by saying, “I’m glad that we are locked in this CONNEX behind closed doors in a relatively secure place, for our own protection.”  When the moment came to open the door and invite the presence of the prophet Elijah, there was a moment of hesitation and a collective intake of breath.  There was a real feeling of risk and some danger, but I decided that it was critical that we open the door and proudly raised our voices in song. It was a powerful, powerful moment and a huge assertion of freedom in that hostile place.  Anyone who has been present at a ramp ceremony will never forget the cost of that freedom.

Then there was one Chanukkah at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan. A SGT who attended each night told us that his Soldiers inquired, “What exactly goes on at these Chanukkah gatherings and why is it so important for you to be there?”   The Soldier replied, “We sing some songs, tell some stories, play some games, then sit around for 3 hours and talk”.  “Well,” they answered, “you do that here with us.  Why do you need to go there?”  “Because there”, he answered, “they get my jokes!” Then, he added, “I didn’t realize how much I was longing to connect with my people.” Or the seder at FOB Taji where one young woman told me, “It almost feels like home.” These moments encapsulate what it has meant to me to serve in the chaplain corps for 37 years.

To be a religious person is to be a grateful person. Rabbi Zelig Pliskin challenges us, “What could you be grateful for now if you were grateful for something?” There are always things to complain about. In April 2005 I was in Abu Ghraib visiting Jewish Soldiers. A very grim place- muddy, dangerous, and demoralized. I flew from there to the palace in the International Zone. Thirty minutes later, Soldiers were complaining about how hard it was on their feet to walk in boots on the marble floors- no traction! Focus on the positive; appreciate the many blessings in your life that allow you to experience this very moment.

I am so grateful for my physical and mental well-being, for the support of my family and friends, for the incredible and unique opportunities I have had to serve God and country as a chaplain in the United States Army Reserve. I pray God’s blessing on each of you, and God bless America.

 

Older posts «

» Newer posts