Posted tagged ‘mourners’

Why I Love Being a Reform Jew: Part 2

November 4, 2010






In part one of this article, I shared how my family came to Reform Judaism and why.  As I stated there, the Reform Jewish experiences of my childhood created strong emotional bonds to the movement, and even more importantly, to Judaism itself, for my family and for me.  My early attachment to Reform Judaism was born out of a sense of community; a sense of extended family.  Of course, there were ideological aspects which appealed greatly to my parents, but as far as I was concerned, I had yet to reach the stage of personal development in which I could appreciate ideas.  For me it was all about belonging to a caring group with which I held something very important in common – being Jewish.

That being said, still it was during those childhood years that I did begin to awaken to issues of Reform Jewish ideology.  Indeed, I can pinpoint the very beginning of my ideological odyssey.  It was when my grandmother – my mother’s mother – died.  Grandma Marie Frank was the only grandparent I knew.  She lived with us.  I was about 9 years old when she died.  My mother’s devotion for her was absolute.  So it was not surprising that my mother chose to say Kaddish for her every Shabbat for 11 months, as prescribed by Jewish custom.  In those days, Reform Judaism followed the traditional practice of having only the mourners rise and recite the Kaddish with the rabbi.  Well, my mother was no Hebrew scholar.  She struggled with the transliteration.  There were many Friday evening services when she was the only mourner present.  Yet she stood there, week in and week out, before the assembled congregation, struggling to get out the words of this prayer.  Though empathy is not a typical trait of 9 year old boys, I clearly remember feeling for my mother’s embarrassment.  It was during that 11 month period that the student rabbi who served our small congregation instituted the practice of having the entire congregation rise and recite Kaddish along with the mourners.  While our congregation most likely was not the first Reform congregation to institute this change, I strongly suspect that we were one of the earlier ones to do so.

Openness to change.  This was the first Reform Jewish idea that grabbed my mind as well as my heart.  While Jewish tradition dictates that only mourners can recite the Mourners’ Kaddish, still it was in our small Reform congregation, with our young Reform rabbi-in-training, that it was decided that tradition could be set aside for the sake of the well being of the individual Jew.  That a practice was ordained by tradition did not necessarily mean that it was set in stone for time immemorial.  Practices could change, if changing the practice served to enhance the Jewish experience of the people.  I know that my mother was not the only Reform Jew standing alone in front of a congregation on Shabbat, struggling to read the Kaddish aloud.  In fact, I am pretty certain that she was not the only Jew – Reform, Orthodox, or Conservative – faced with that embarrassing situation.  But it took Reform Judaism, with its openness to change, to take the position of knowing what tradition dictates but deciding to set aside tradition in the name of compassion.  That a Reform congregation was willing to change its practices because it was more concerned about my mother’s embarrassment than it was about the rigors of Jewish tradition touched me then and still touches me today.

As I learned more about Reform Judaism in religious school, I came to understand that the change in the reading of the Mourners’ Kaddish which accommodated my mother was not a singular event but actually a reflection of a greater Reform Jewish philosophy.  In fact it was a reflection of one of Reform Judaism’s foundational principles; that Reform Judaism is an approach to Judaism which embraces the possibility of change, if that change serves to keep Judaism vital, vibrant, meaningful, and relevant in the ever changing world in which we live.

Our movement was born at a time when our people were being liberated from the ghettos of Western Europe.  While in the ghettos, our people lived in a totally Jewish environment which was entirely structured around Jewish laws and practices.  However, outside of the ghettos, our people found themselves living in a secular society, side-by-side with non-Jewish neighbors.  The traditional Judaism of the ghettos did not mesh well with this new life style.  In fact, it hardly meshed at all.  As a result, massive numbers of Jews were leaving Judaism, converting to Christianity, so that they could better fit in with Western European society.  It was out of this crisis that Reform Judaism was born.  Our founders saw it as their mission to re-frame Judaism – to change it – in such a way that Jews would no longer feel that they needed to leave Judaism in order to live along side of their non-Jewish neighbors.  Essential to this process of re-framing was establishing the very principle of change itself; that change was not only possible within Judaism but imperative, that is if Judaism was going to be able to survive.

So it was that in religious school I learned such lessons as “In Reform Judaism, tradition has a vote but not a veto.”  In other words, when determining our personal and communal Jewish practices, while we should take a serious look at what Jewish tradition instructs, at the end of the day, we need to choose for ourselves what is most meaningful to us.

I also learned the very important lesson that “We are REFORM Jews, NOT ‘reformed’ Jews,” as many of the uninitiated, and many within our own ranks, mistakenly called and still call us.  If we were “reformed” Jews, that would mean that we once were Jews but we have since seen the error of our way and have “reformed,” and therefore are Jews no longer.  However, we are REFORM Jews, which means that as Jews we are constantly open to reforming – changing – our approaches to Judaism.  For Reform Jews, “reform” is a dynamic.  As one author put it, “Reform is a Verb.”  Nor does it mean, as some mistakenly assume, that we can only embrace change in one direction – away from tradition.  While it is true that in the early days of Reform Judaism, especially American Reform Judaism, our commitment to change was synonymous with a commitment to setting aside Jewish traditional practices in favor of ones that were more in keeping with the practices of our non-Jewish neighbors, still our movement has always viewed the possibility of change as multi-directional.  We have always been open to moving back toward tradition as well as away from it.

One of the great theologians of early 20th century Reform Judaism was the German thinker, Franz Rosenzweig.  When it came to the mitzvot, Rosenzweig taught that as Reform Jews we should never say, “I do not perform such-&-such a mitzvah,” but rather we should say that “I do not now, or yet, perform such-&-such a mitzvah.”  For in Rosenzweig’s vision of Reform Judaism, mitzvot are fluid.  They come and they go.  Since the purpose of the mitzvot are to provide us with meaningful opportunities to put our Jewish faith into action, therefore it is only the mitzvot in which we find meaning that we should perform. However, we should recognize the very real possibility that some of the mitzvot we find meaningful today, we may not find meaningful tomorrow, and that if that be the case, it is perfectly permissible for us to set them aside.  On the other hand, there also may be mitzvot which we do not find meaningful today but may possibly find meaningful tomorrow, and if that be the case, then it is perfectly permissible for us to take up those mitzvot.  Personally, ever since I first studied Rosenzweig, I have resonated with his approach to the mitzvot, adopting it as my own.   It is all about Reform Judaism giving us permission to change our practices in our search to keep our Judaism as a living influence in our lives.

In Part 3 I will continue to explore more of the various principles and practices of Reform Judaism which are particularly meaningful to me, such as our commitment to the principle of personal autonomy.

Advertisements

When Death Becomes Personal

September 19, 2010

Continuing my series of High Holy Day sermons, here is the sermon on delivered the Yizkor service.

We who have gathered here for this Yizkor – this Memorial – Service are a special community. We share a bond which those outside of our community cannot even begin to imagine. It is the bond of deep, personal loss. We share the bond of suffering the wounds inflicted upon us when those whom we held extremely dear were torn from us. Others, for whom the arrow of death has not struck nearly as close to home, may talk of sadness and loss at the passing of friends and relatives, but they cannot begin to fathom what we have experienced; what true loss means; what it feels like when the Malach HaMavet, the Angel of Death calls upon a dear one.

I have been a rabbi for a little over 35 years, and in that time, I have officiated at a large number of funerals. However, when I reflect upon the early days of my rabbinate, and I think about the funeral services I performed then, I recognize that back in those days, though I tried my best to empathize with the mourners and offer them comfort, my attempts were shallow, feeble, at best. It was not that I did not care, for I did, but rather it was that I could not even begin to comprehend their profound sense of loss. I was unable to do so because in order to fully comprehend such loss – to fully appreciated the pain of such loss – one has to personally experience such loss. Since then, I certainly have experienced it first hand. All of us in this room have experienced it first hand. We know how we felt in our time of anguish, and having felt that way, we are far more capable of fully opening up our hearts to others in their time of grief. Indeed, we are a community of people who keenly feel our own pain, and in so doing, are better able to keenly feel the pain of others.

That is what brings us into this sanctuary this afternoon. It is our pain. It is our pain which drives us to set aside this hour and dedicate it to the loving memories of those whose loss we feel so keenly. We dedicate it to our fathers, our mothers, our sisters, our brothers, our husbands, our wives, our sons, our daughters who, for whatever reasons, have fully trod the path of this life, and traveled beyond – beyond our sight, beyond our hearing, beyond our touch – to the next life; to what we as Jews firmly believe is life eternal; life in the ever present company of God.

As we may recall, the funeral services for our loved ones began with an act of tearing. We called it by its Hebrew name, K’riah. We pinned on a ribbon, we offered some words of prayer, and then that ribbon we tore. At the time we were told that the tearing of the ribbon is symbolic of the fact that due to our loss, the very fabric of our lives has been torn. We heard the words. We took them in. But it has only been with the passage of time that we have come to more fully understand the power of their truth. Yes, the fabric of our lives has been torn, and just as with torn fabric, while it can be repaired or re-woven, it can never truly be fully mended. There will always be a scar.

To those among us who recently suffered loss, I am sure that the others among us, whose loss is more distant in time, will join me is sharing with you that while the stabbing pain we feel when we are forced to say goodbye will, in time, diminish, and in many ways be transformed into warm and loving memories. Still it will never completely go away. For the rest of our lives we will continue to feel its sting; a twinge which can come upon us sometimes at the oddest of moments; moments which, for one reason or another, evoke both memory and pain.

But that should not be cause for despair. Alas, sometimes there is great beauty to be found in pain. For this particular pain, which will follow us for the rest of our lives, serves as a reminder of just how much we have lost and of how blessed we were in our having enjoyed the privilege of sharing at least some part of our lives with these very special people. For this particular pain, which will follow us for the rest of our lives, oddly enough, is yet another expression of our deep love of the ones we mourn today.

Yes, love and pain go hand-in-hand. We would not hurt if we did not love. That we hurt is a testament to our love. It is a testament to the very meaning and purpose of the lives of the ones we mourn. That we miss them, and will always miss them, means that they made a very real difference, at least to us. In life, they touched us, and in death they continue to do so. Where once there was joy, there may now be sorrow. But who would question the benefits of sorrow over forgetfulness? Who would claim that they would prefer to forget rather than to grieve? Grief is a testament to love. Forgetfulness, a disclaimer.

And so we gather on this holiest of days to remember. Yizkor means “remember.” We need to remember. We need to publicly proclaim our need to remember. It is true our tradition teaches us that those who pass out of this world continue to live eternally in the next. Theirs now is a spiritual existence, at one with God. And that is all well and good. It is good indeed that they will continue to live on with God. Yet that is in heaven. That is in the realm of the spirit while we continue to exist in the realm of the physical. They are there. We are here. While they will continue to exist there, only we can determine whether or not they continue to exist here. For it is we, through our memories, our love, and, yes, our pain, who keep them alive in this realm. As long as they continue to move us; to evoke from us feelings, whether they be of love, of joy, or of loneliness; as long as we carry within us both the pleasure of their company and the anguish of their absence, they will continue to live in the here and now, as well as in heaven.

We are a special community, a community of mourners, bound to each other by the pain of loss but also by the warmth of memory. So we come together for this service, to offer our prayers to God; prayers of thanksgiving for the gifts of traveling through life with our loved ones, and prayers of petition, seeking God’s hand in our search for a healing of our wounds. May all our prayers be answered this day.

Funeral Pre-Planning

September 19, 2010

Continuing my series of High Holy Day sermons, here is the sermon on delivered on Yom Kippur eve.

On Rosh Hashanah eve, I mentioned that there is only one rabbi buried in our cemetery, Mt. Nebo. That rabbi is Rabbi Isaac Fall, the very first rabbi of this congregation. Someday, there will be a second rabbi buried in our cemetery, and that rabbi will be me. For when the time comes, it will be in Mount Nebo that both I and the Cantor, along with our son Josh, will be laid to rest. I know that for a fact because we already have purchased the graves.

No, we are not expecting to use any of those graves in the foreseeable future. Death is not knocking at our doorstep, at least not that we know of. It is simply that we have started a process of pre-planning for that eventuality.

In fact, for quite some time, I have been an advocate of funeral pre-planning. Many have been the congregants that I have counseled to do just that, both in order to relieve their family of the burdens and the costs of making funeral arrangements at a time when the last thing they need is something more to anguish over, and in order to assure that the details of their funerals are according to their wishes and not someone else’s.

I have been doing such counseling for years but I have to admit that aside from the Cantor and I drawing up our wills, we have put off doing such planning ourselves. That is until last year, when the Board discussed raising the cost of burial plots in our cemetery. It was in the light of that discussion that the Cantor and I decided that if we are going to buy our graves, now’s the time to do so, for why wait and pay more? You see, after 25 years of serving this congregation; after 25 years of welcoming your infants into the covenant of our people, teaching your children and preparing them for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah services and their Confirmations, officiating at their weddings, and sadly, officiating at the funerals of your parents, spouses, siblings, and sometimes even your children; after 25 years of living in this community and raising our own children here, we have come to think of this as our home, and we have neither the intention nor desire to spend the rest of our lives anyplace else. So it was only logical for us to buy our graves before the price went up.

Then this summer, the Cantor’s father passed away. So there we were, in Detroit, sitting around her brother’s living room with the rest of the family, meeting with the funeral director and the rabbi, arranging for her father’s funeral, often agreeing, but sometimes disagreeing about what Seymour would have wanted. We didn’t argue. We just grappled with trying to find the right answers so that in the end we could render him the most appropriate honor. Would he like this casket or that casket? Did he want to be buried in a suit or in tachrichim, the traditional funeral garb? Questions both big and small. What would Seymour want?

It was after we returned home that the Cantor and I decided that we wanted all those questions resolved before we died, so that our children would not have to grapple them. And not only that, but we wanted it all paid for in advance so that after our loved ones laid us to rest, they would not have to confront a multi thousand dollar bill and hope that our estate would be able to cover the cost. The pain of a loss is pain enough to bear when a loved one dies. Those who will mourn for us should not have to endure the pain of funeral arrangements as well.

So we have been going about the process of pre-planning our funerals. We have met with both David Deuth of Weerts and Steve Presley of Wheelan’s, for both these funeral directors have been very caring of our Jewish community and we wanted to give both of them the opportunity to “bid the job” as it were. We discussed caskets. We discussed vaults. We discussed whether or not we want the Hevre Kadisha to ritually prepare our bodies. We discussed limousines. We even talked about having chocolate in the family room – a nice touch we experienced at Gail’s father’s funeral – and we both love chocolate, though by that time we personally wouldn’t be able to enjoy it, but others would. And then we met with Mr. Carvel, at the cemetery, and set up a program to pre-pay our grave opening fees. In our planning, we want every detail taken care of so that our heirs need not be challenged by them.

Our next step – and we have discussed this – will be to write ethical wills. Writing an ethical will is a beautiful Jewish tradition. Through it, you transmit to your heirs, not your material possessions but rather your spiritual ones; the teachings, values, and principles which you hold dearest to your heart and which you sincerely wish that your loved ones will strive to incorporate into their own lives, and by so doing, keep your spiritual legacy alive. It is also a vehicle through which you can express certain wishes when it comes to the funeral service itself. If my father-in-law had written an ethical will, it most certainly would have included the fact that he wanted a Dixieland band to accompany him to the grave. In any event, we knew that because he told us so on countless occasions. Now, I would not include a Dixieland band in my ethical will, but I very well might include the desire to have someone sing the Peter, Paul, & Mary song, “One Kind Favor.” That song has always touched me and I always have wanted it sung at my funeral.

But when all that is said and done, the hard facts on the ground are that there is far more to funeral pre-planning than all the items I have listed so far and the other countless related details which I neglected to mention, such as flowers. These other aspects of funeral pre-planning are not things that you can take care of with a funeral director, or any other functionary for the ceremony. And without question or doubt, these are the more significant elements that contribute to the beauty and meaning of your funeral service.

My father-in-law, Seymour Posner, had a beautiful funeral but the most beautiful part of it was not the result of our conversations with the funeral director or the rabbi. It had nothing to do with the casket we chose or the chocolate in the family room. And while my brother-in-law, and my niece, and a family friend, and the rabbi offered lovely eulogies, even they only contributed to the greater beauty in a limited sense. What made his funeral so strikingly beautiful was the fact that over 750 people attended. Over 750 people felt it important enough to take the time out of their busy lives to come to the mortuary in order to pay their last respects to this man, my father-in-law. That type of turn out – that type of demonstration of love – is not something that you can arrange for in advance by hammering out details with funeral directors and setting up payment schedules.

When it comes to that aspect of funeral pre-planning, that type of pre-planning takes a lifetime; a lifetime of living one’s life in such a way that one effectively touches the lives of others.

In the past, I have told you that traditionally Jews are supposed to wear their kittel on Yom Kippur. The kittel is a white linen robe which serves as a burial shroud. For on this day, more than any other, we are instructed to dress for the grave. For on this day, we need to confront our own mortality, and in so doing, commit ourselves to engage in this most important aspect of our funeral pre-planning. For it is up to each and every one of us, and no one else, who that person will be that they are burying on the day of our funeral. We can plan the details of the casket and the vault and the flowers till the cows come home, and we can pay all those bills in advance, but all those plans are meaningless unless we truly invest ourselves into planning to transform ourselves into the type of people whose very nature and character inspire others to take time out of their busy lives to attend our funerals and show us the respect we have earned.

That is what we are supposed to be doing on Yom Kippur. We are supposed to be looking at our lives – at the people we are, the people we have become – and seriously ask ourselves: “Is this the person I want to be? Is this the type of person who will inspire others to render me honor by attending my funeral?”

The name of the game here is touching the lives of others in positive and loving ways. All too often we are so wrapped up in our own personal pursuits. We spend so much of our time seeking comfort and pleasure for ourselves. We measure ourselves by material standards; how much we earn, how much we have, what we wear, where we live, what we drive, where we eat, where we go on vacation. In so doing, we miss the point entirely. It is not a matter of what we have and what we gain, but rather a matter of what we share and what we give. Our comfort, our ease, our luxury only pleases us. Others may compliment us. Others may envy us. But trust me, no one loves us because of it. People never love you for what you have. They love you for who you are, and how you share yourselves with them. It is not how easy your life is, how much pleasure you enjoy. It is how you have helped to make their life a little easier, a little more pleasurable.

I wish to share with you a true story; the story of a man whose funeral I officiated at some 13 years ago. Some of you, or maybe many of you, may have heard this story before, but it is worth retelling.

Actually it is the story of two men; the man I buried and his brother. These two were as different as night and day. The deceased lived his whole life here in the Quad Cities, while the brother went off to college, entered business, experienced growing success and ultimately wound up as a major New York corporate executive; a very wealthy and powerful man. The brother who remained in our community led a rather simple life. He never made a lot of money. He never seemed to need a lot of money. He was neither famous nor powerful, and these things did not seem to matter to him. His wealthy brother truly loved him but also didn’t really think that much of him. He felt that his brother never really made much of his life.

And it was true, materially speaking that is. He hadn’t done much. He hadn’t made much. But he did accomplish something, but it wasn’t anything you could take to the bank or buy a car with.

You see, this simple brother loved sports. Particularly high school sports. Even more particularly, Moline High School sports. Whatever the sport – whatever the team Moline High School fielded – he was their biggest fan. For years, he was their biggest fan. He was such a big fan that he actually became an unofficial part of their sports program. Whenever a Moline High School team played, his seat was not in the stands, but on the bench, along with the players. And while sitting on that bench, he constantly gave the players words of encouragement, and sticks of gum. He loved them and they loved him.

Then the man died and his wealthy brother arranged for the funeral. After all, he needed to take care of his poor brother. And financially, he did so. But when it came to the funeral itself, he was in for a great shock. For the room was packed; filled with student athletes and with graduates. A massive number of people whose lives this simple man lovingly touched. Graveside, at the conclusion of the interment service, all these young people marched by the open grave, each one dropping into it a stick of gum.

The wealthy brother was more than flabbergasted. For while he loved his sibling, in truth, he thought of him more or less as a nebish, never really amounting to much. But here, at this funeral, he came to discover that his brother who may have been lacking in material possessions was rich in friends; was beloved by many. The more he considered what he was witnessing, the more it shook him. It shook him so because he came to realize that it was not through wealth or power that his brother had amassed such a loyal and loving following. It was through the gifts of his heart. It was through all the efforts that he had expended, over so many years, in showing others how much he cared for them. And what probably shook the wealthy brother the most was the growing realization that when he died, the chances were slim that there would be anywhere near an equal demonstration of affection at his funeral. Yes, today, there were many who catered to his every whim, but he knew in his heart of hearts that they did so, not so much because they loved him, but rather because of his position and the power he wielded over their lives. But when he dies, that power will be gone, and so might they. Now he found himself questioning his long held perceptions. Who truly was the wealthiest brother? He with his possessions and his power, or his brother with his army of devoted friends?

Every person on the face of this planet wants to be loved. Even those who protest that they don’t want to be loved, deep down, they really do; perhaps more than most. It is natural for us. Being loved lifts us to the clouds. It makes us feel as though the entire world is ours. There is no greater high. How wonderful it feels when we encounter people who are truly happy to see us. The smiles that fill their faces warm our hearts as little else can. Every person on the face of this planet wants to be loved.

Yet the sad truth is that for many of us, we are not nearly as loved as we would like to be. We may know a lot of people, and many of them may actually like us, but how many of them really love us? Perhaps all too few. Whether or not we realize it – we acknowledge it – that fact is our misfortune.

But who is responsible for that? We are, and no one else. For we are the ones who are in control of whether or not we are loved by others. For if we want others to love us, then we must love them, and show them our love. Admittedly, sometimes loving others can be a challenge, for it can call upon us to put others before ourselves; to place their needs before our needs. These days, in a world which tends to focus on the pursuit of self-satisfaction, this can appear to us to be an insurmountable challenge. But it is not. For the magic of it is that the more we care for others, the more we find that we are also caring for ourselves. There is a personal healing imbedded in acts of selflessness; when we reach out to touch the lives of others in positive ways. It provides us with a pleasure more satisfying, more long lasting, than any material possession or self-indulgence will ever offer.

Each and every one of us has the power to become that person. All that is necessary is that we decide to do so. This is precisely what Yom Kippur calls upon us to do. This is precisely what God calls upon us to do. God has blessed us with the capacity to perform countless acts of loving kindness; to live a life of loving kindness, but it is purely up to us to do so. And if we do so, we will find that when we are laid to rest, our funeral pre-planning will have paid off. For those whose lives we touched will be there with us, accompanying us to the grave. They will say prayers and many may weep; they may weep real tears as they bid us farewell.

So what will it matter to us, some of you may wonder? We will be dead, beyond the touch of their tears. But it will matter. It will matter because it means that our life will have had lasting meaning. It will have been a life well spent, for in it we have sowed the seeds of love wherever we went. Those seeds have taken root, grown and flourished. And now that we are gone, those who shed tears for us, will spend at least some of the rest of their lives gathering the seeds of love we sowed within them and sharing those seeds with others. It is that river of love, flowing from us, through us, and back to us again, that has the power to transform our funeral from an exercise in ritual to a testimony to a life which has changed the world and changed it for the better.

On the Passing of My Father-in-Law

July 27, 2010






It was late on a Friday afternoon when I answered the telephone only to hear my brother-in-law’s voice both asking to speak to his sister and informing me that my father-in-law – Seymour Posner – had passed away.  For those of you who have never received such a phone call, I cannot begin to describe the experience to you.  It is unlike any other communication you will ever receive.  And it never gets easier to receive it.  Unfortunately, in my life, this was the fifth time I have been informed of such a personal loss – for the passing of my mother, my father, my sister’s husband (who was like a brother to me), my sister, and now my father-in-law – and each time, no matter  the circumstances, I have been equally taken aback by the finality of the notice.

Four months ago, my father-in-law was hit by a car and as a result had to undergo surgery to repair multiple fractures to his leg.  That was the beginning of the end, for even while the surgery repaired the leg, it was followed by one complication after another.  It was as though the fabric of Seymour’s health seemed to be unraveling before our eyes.  Someone recently told me that the breaking of a bone can release certain toxins into the system which can effect other aspects of a person’s health if not treated quickly enough.  I do not know whether this is true or an urban legend.  What I do know is that from the time of Seymour’s entrance into the hospital for the surgery on his leg to the day that he died, he was constantly under medical treatment for one ailment or another and was hospitalized on several occasions.  His was an unbroken line of illnesses from the car accident to his death.

During these months of her father’s illness, my wife, Gail, jockeyed back and forth between Iowa and Michigan to offer whatever help she could to her father, her mother, her brother, her sister, and their families.  Though I know that she wished she could do more, of course she could not begin to match the efforts of her Detroit family.  There are times when it is very hard to be living at a distance from the ones you love and this was one of them.  I believe I understand how she felt, for I know how I felt when I was at a physical distance from both my mother and my sister as they endured the cancers that eventually took their lives; wanting to be at their sides but being kept away by the obligations of long distance living.

After Gail’s brother, Ken, called with the painful news, Helene (our youngest) and I packed as quickly as possible while Gail arranged for Shira (our oldest) to fly to Detroit from her home in Alexandria, Virginia.  We decided not to bring our middle child – Josh – for he is a young man with autism who would not fully understand all that was happening and probably would not respond well to the chaos that goes hand-in-hand with a funeral.  Josh came home the next weekend and still we struggled with how to help him understand that his “Poppa” had died.  Since Josh is fixated on animated movies, we finally decided to start our conversation by asking him about “The Lion King”, directing him to tell us about the fate of Mufasa – the father of Simba, the main character, who died while Simba was yet a cub – and then we related Mufasa’s death to that of his grandfather, using family photos.

Two hours after we receive that painful news, we were on the road,  traveling late into the night, only stopping to take a hotel room when exhaustion overwhelmed us.  We arrived in Detroit the next day, driving directly to Ken’s home, where the family was gathering.

As a rabbi, there have been countless occasions when I have met with bereaved families to plan the funeral of a loved one.  I have to admit that it was indeed odd being on the “other side” of the conversation as we sat through two separate meetings, first with the funeral director and then with the rabbi.  Both were accessible, professional, and deeply compassionate.  They made me proud of my profession.  As a rabbi, I strive to be a healing presence to the bereaved during these meeting but I have to admit that I am not always sure that I have achieved that goal.  Information is passed from one to the other.  Questions are asked and answered on both sides.  But has any healing taken place?  Yet sitting in those meetings, I now have a better sense of just how much healing does occur.  Sadly, I did not have the opportunity to experience such meetings when my own parents passed away, for it was their wish have neither funerals nor burials.  They wanted to be quietly cremated and have their ashes scattered at sea.  Though it went against everything I believe, out of respect to my parents I acceded to their wishes.  But on this occasion, there I was, sitting with my wife’s family, witnessing and experiencing the healing such true professionals bring to the hearts of the bereaved.  It happens through the very questions that are asked and how they are answered.  It happens in the sharing and the caring.  It happens simply by the physical presence of a person who is there to help.

Seymour Posner was a very special and unique individual.  The word that kept cropping up in his eulogies – there were four of them – was “character.”  Indeed he was a real character, but he also was a man of great character.

Seymour savored life, always striving to enjoy it to its fullest.  Indeed, joy was so much of what he was all about.  Many were the places in which he found his joy.

There was humor.  No one loved a good joke more than Seymour, and few told them better.  Many were the jokes he shared with me, that I brought back to my home communities, effectively spreading his mirth.  At 80 years old, twice he was invited to do stand-up comedy at a popular club in Ann Arbor – the home of the University of Michigan.  That should say it all!

Then there was good food and fine red wine – always served with ice, for as he repeated pointed out to anyone who would listen, in Europe the wine cellars are so much colder than in America, so here one needs add ice to bring the wine to is proper temperature.  I told you he was a character!

Then there was travel.  Few things excited Seymour more than the opportunity to visit new places, both close and far, have new experiences, and acquire new learning.  The little tidbits which tour guides invariably share and which put many of us to sleep, his mind would voraciously consume.  Indeed one might say that the acquisition of new knowledge was almost an addiction with him.  He truly was a lifelong learner.

Then there was music, especially when it was upbeat.  How he loved to go to live concerts.  And if those concerts were conducted out of doors, and they were preceded by a picnic, so much the better!  Yes, music lifted his soul.  Indeed, many was the time when he had proclaimed that when he died, he wanted his funeral to be New Orleans style, with a dixieland band accompanying him to the grave.  And so it was!  Seymour fished his wish, for at his interment there was a six-piece dixieland band composed of three of his grandsons and three of their musical friends.  And nothing would stop them from honoring the man with multiple variations of “When the Saints Come Marching In” (a tune not often heard in Jewish cemeteries!), even in the midst of the most horrendous of thunderstorms.  For even as the heavens opened up, and their waters descended in torrents, not unlike those of the days of Noah, still the band played on!  I can only imagine that the heavens opened so fully, drenching the mourners, in order to hasten Seymour’s entry making sufficient room to better accommodate the grandeur of Seymour’s soul.

And of course Seymour loved the practice of law.  Seymour was a criminal attorney in Detroit.  Talk about location, location, location!  Every day in court was another adventure for him.  Early in our relationship, I asked him how in good conscience he could defend people whom he knew to be criminals.  His answer fascinated me.  First of all, he said, every person, no matter their character, is entitled to a decent defense.  That is his job; to provide them with the best defense he can offer.  If he wins cases that perhaps he should have lost, that is only because he was able to provide better argumentation than the prosecution.  That is not his fault but the fault of the state in not having supported a more effective prosecutor’s office.  He has done his best, and either the prosecuting attorney did not do his best, or Seymour’s best was simply that much better than the prosecutor’s best.  Besides, he told me, these people are his clients, not his personal friends.  He defends them in court.  He doesn’t invite them home for dinner.  If I had any doubts about what he was talking about, they dissipated one day when he recounted one of his stranger cases.  He found himself defending a fellow who was caught red-handed in possession of all sorts of stolen electronic equipment.  When the police apprehended the man, the trunk of his car was packed with such stolen merchandise.  Now this person was a bit of an oddball.  He was one of those folks who believe that they are under attack from alien mind controlling rays.  Therefore, he covered his head and other body parts in aluminum foil, to prevent those rays from penetrating.  Well, with absolutely no viable defense, Seymour felt that he had nothing to lose by putting his client on the stand.  So, before the court – before the jury – he questioned the man about his beliefs concerning alien attempts to invade his body.  He then asked him what he was doing with all that electronic equipment found in his car trunk.  The defendant went on to explain in detail how he planned to build a devise to fend off the aliens.  Later, in Seymour’s summation to the jury, he said to them something along the lines of  “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury.  You have heard my client testify concerning his beliefs about an alien invasion and his plans to defend against such an invasion.  It should be quite obvious to you that my client in not in possession of all his facilities.  Now I have to ask you whether or not you truly believe that a person in my client’s obviously reduced mental state would actually be capable of successfully organizing and accomplishing a crime such as the one the prosecution has accused him of having perpetrated?”  Believe it or not, even to Seymour’s surprise, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty!  Yes, Seymour loved the law and he loved to opportunities it afforded him to exercise his vast skills in debate and creative problem solving!

But of all Seymour’s sources of joy, there is no question but that he derived his greatest pleasure from people.  He loved meeting new people and making new friends because he saw in each potential new relationship a source of great delight.  Therefore he was more than willing to invest himself in the relationships he established.  He clearly understood that if one is to derive the most satisfaction from the people one knows, then one has to be willing to give to those people the most one can of oneself.  And he did.  So it should not have been surprising that when it came to Seymour’s funeral, there were over 750 people in attendance, with a cortege to the cemetery stretching some two miles in length, and with over 100 people showing up at the house of mourning each night that the family “sat shiva” (for in Judaism we receive visits of consolation and hold memorial services at our houses of mourning for anywhere up to seven days following the funeral).  So many were those who yearned to pay the final respects to this man and to offer their comforting presence to his beloved family.

Of course, of all the people who brought joy to Seymour’s life, there were none more important to him than his family.  Seymour Posner was  the most devoted of family men.

Seymour often referred to Muriel as his first wife.  She was indeed that!  For 58 years, she was his first wife and his only wife!  In this day and age, when divorce has become more the norm than the exception, a marriage of such duration is a resounding testimony to the power of love and devotion.  They first met while in college and they provided all who knew them with the ideal role model of true life mates.  They shared everything – joys and sorrows, adventures and quiet moments, and a love for each other that was truly boundless.

No father could be prouder of the accomplishments of his children than was Seymour.  That two of his three children – Ken and Sandy – followed in his footsteps,  becoming lawyers, was a source of great pride for him.  Even though his eldest, Gail, strayed from the family profession, he forgave her since, after all, she did become a cantor which combined his love of music with his strong sense of Jewish identity.  God, how Seymour loved to listen to Gail chant the service.  Several were the times that he would travel to whatever city we lived in just so that he could hear her chant “Kol Nidre” on Yom Kippur eve.  Indeed, her “Kol Nidre” was the last rendition that he ever heard, he and Muriel having spent his last Yom Kippur with our family in Iowa.  Besides, Gail did marry a rabbi, and as those who are familiar with Judaism know, while a rabbi is not a Jewish lawyer, a rabbi is a judge when it comes to matters of Jewish law.  Speaking of Seymour’s Jewish identity,  he was never above bragging to all his Jewish friends how he and Muriel had done their part to invest in the future of our faith and our people,  for in an age of increasing interfaith marriage, all three of their children married Jews and bore Jewish children!  When it came to his children, Seymour was staunch believer in creating unique relationships with each of them, based upon their personalities and their strengths.  Gail was his strong willed independent eldest child.  He granted her the space she needed so that she could carve out her own life, always feeling his love and support, but not his interference.  Ken, his son, he groomed to take his place as the head of the Posner clan.  Sandy, his youngest, he took under his wing and mentored in the art of criminal law.  In his recognition of the singularities of each of his children, he successful strove to nurture them in such ways that they could best fulfill their personal potentials.

Seymour’s children were fond of giving their father special gifts.  But none of their gifts were any more precious to Seymour than his grandchildren.  As proud as he was over the accomplishments of his children, he was positively glowing about anything that had to do with his grandchildren.  No journey was too long for Seymour if, at its end, he had the pleasure of watching his grandchildren perform, whether it be music or theater or sports.  He was a veritable groupie when it came to “Just Cuz”, the band put together by grandsons Justin and Alan.

Seymour and Muriel surely understood that the straightest path from children to grandchildren had to include expanding the family to in-laws.  I was the first of these outsiders to inject himself into the Posner household.  As is common with firsts, there was a learning curve.   Indeed, they say that when Gail called her folks to tell them that she was bringing me home over Winter Break to meet them, her mother rushed into the bedroom, woke  Seymour to tell him the news, and all Seymour could say was “Oh shit!”  Indeed, for a while that was my nickname in the Posner household.  However, with the passage of time, they got used to me and came to realize that acquiring sons-in-law and daughters-in-law were actually a testimony to successful parenting.  They learned not only to accept but to welcome us strangers into their close family circle.  By the time Ken married his wife Gail, and Sandy married her husband, Ken (notice that the family was not very open to coping with new names), Seymour and Muriel had come to view in-laws as new children.  Indeed, for the past 22 years, since the death of my parents, Seymour and Muriel were the closest thing that I have had to a father and a mother.

For Seymour, the definition of family most certainly was never restricted to the nuclear family.  He embraced his family in its broadest sense.  He was deeply devoted to all the members of his extended family, both his blood relatives and Muriel’s.  How he loved to visit with family, both near and far, whether it meant driving up to Lake Orion to spend the day at Aunt Netty’s & Uncle Manny’s lakeside cottage, or flying to Los Angeles to visit niece and nephew Susan & Dennis.  Nor was blood even a defining factor in Seymour’s sense of family.  Several years ago, he and Muriel figuratively adopted an entire family – the Sobles – and fully enfolded them into the Posner family; two more children and two more grandchildren.

I have been a rabbi for 35 years and if I have learned any life lesson during that time it is this.  The measure of a life successfully lived is not to be taken from the amount of material wealth one has amassed.  Nor is it to be taken from titles and status one has attained.  There is only one true measure of a successful life, and that measure is to be found in people; how meaningfully one has touched the lives of others.  Seymour lived a life in which he was blessed with both material comfort and prestige, but without question or doubt, his most significant achievement was in being the type of person that he was; in so positively and lovingly touching the lives of so many others.  In that way, he has left an indelible mark of goodness upon our world.

Kaddish: Friends in Need

February 17, 2010

I wish to share with you the following article which I have written for the next edition of our congregational newsletter:

There is that old adage that “a friend in need is a friend indeed!”  I must admit that when I was a child, I did not understand that statement.  In fact I thought that it meant that when one of your friends needed something from you, then they really became your friend; a rather cynical perspective if I do say so myself.  It was only when I got older, and a bit more mature, that I grasped the true meaning of the statement; that it wasn’t referring to a friend who is needy but rather to a time when you are needy; that if you really want to know who are your truest friends, then look to see who makes an effort to be there for you in YOUR time of need. Those people are truly both your “friends indeed” and your “friends in deed”!

One of the times in Jewish life when we can prove ourselves to be “friends indeed and in deed” is on Shabbat, particularly during the Kaddish prayer.  In setting up the rules of the worship service, the rabbis did something interesting, important, and all too often misunderstood.  They required that in order for the Mourner’s Kaddish to be recited during a service, a minyan (quorum of ten adults – men in Orthodox Judaism) was required.  If there are less than ten present, then the mourners are denied the opportunity to say Kaddish for their loved ones who are no longer among the live.

All too often this rule has been misunderstood to mean that the mourners are responsible for recruiting enough worshippers to enable themselves to say Kaddish for their loved ones.  But in point of fact, this burden was never meant to be placed upon the mourners, for mourners are meant to be comforted, not encumbered.  Rather, the rabbis intended that the burden for the making of the Kaddish minyan was meant to be carried by the community.  It is the responsibility of the Jewish community, and particularly of the friends of the mourners, to make sure that their friend has a minyan present when it is their time to say Kaddish.  It is the responsibility of the members of the Jewish community, and particularly of the friends of the mourner, to be for that mourner “friends indeed and in deed.”

Sadly, that is not always the case.  Truth be known, that has become rarely the case.  A few weeks ago, on Shabbat, we observed the Yahrzeit of someone who in life was a beloved member of our congregation; someone who we continue to honor beyond death.  This person’s family is also equally beloved and respected in our congregation.  Before the service began, the turn out of worshippers was extremely light.  The Board Representative for that evening was someone who was raised in a more traditional setting.  That Board Rep, with great concern, asked me “What happens if we do not get a minyan tonight for So-&-so’s Yahrzeit?  How can we say Kaddish?”  I have to admit, that the question irritated me and I snapped back an answer:  “Whether or not we have a minyan, I intend for us to say Kaddish.  I refuse to deny a person the opportunity to say Kaddish for their loved one because the rest of the congregation does not care enough about them to show up in their support.”  In the end, it was a moot point for we did have enough of an attendance to make a minyan, but it was close.

My anger was not at the person who asked the question – though that person was the one to receive the blast of my wrath.  Rather, it was at the devolution of our Jewish sensitivities to the point that too many Jews no longer give a moment’s thought about their responsibilities to be there in support of fellow Jews, who they claim are their friends, in their time of need.  My anger was at the sad state of affairs which has led me, and so many other Reform rabbis, to consciously set aside the rule of the Kaddish minyan out of our compassion for our congregant mourners; a compassion seemingly not shared by their fellow congregants.

In this Scribe – in every Scribe – there is a listing of the coming Shabbat services and also a listing of the Yahrzeits which will be observed over the next few weeks, and which congregants will be remembering them.  I implore you to take the few moments it requires to read those names.  If you see that someone you care about is going to be observing a Yahrzeit, find it in your heart to set aside that evening to share with them, in loving support.  You could even contact them and tell them that you are attending services that night, primarily to be there for them at their time of memorial.

The rabbis, in their great wisdom, intentionally set the rules surrounding Yahrzeits and Kaddish so as provide us all with a magnificent opportunity to demonstrate to those for whom we care that we all aspire to be “friends indeed and in deed.”