Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Mourning Superman Sam

Yesterday an eight-year-old boy was laid to rest in Glencoe, Illinois. A boy I never met, never spoke to, and yet ... like countless others around the world I felt connected to this boy. I read about his battle with acute myeloid leukemia through blog posts by his parents, both rabbis in the Chicago area. I followed his mother on Twitter and Facebook. I listened and read as mutual friends in the Reform community posted and shared and retweeted Sam's trials and triumphs. My heart ached and swelled with every one. And yesterday, my heart was heavy with grief knowing that over 1,000 mourners had gathered together to say a final goodbye to this beautiful child, Superman Sam.

Am I allowed to grieve, though I did not know him? Am I allowed to feel the pain of such a horrific loss, even though I was not present at that funeral? Can I mourn from afar, through a computer screen, though I never met Sam, or his parents, or his beautiful young siblings, face-to-face?

I cannot begin to fathom what his parents, his siblings, his grandparents and cousins and friends and loved ones, his doctors, his community - those who actually knew him - must be feeling. I cannot comprehend their grief, their pain, or their anguish. Nor can I try to wrap my head around what their lives will be like in the days, weeks, months, and years to come.

But I can raise my voice in support of this family, and the countless others fighting for increased funding of pediatric cancer research.

The rabbis of the Reform Movement are many, but we are all connected to one another. And among the mourners physically present at Sam's funeral were dozens of rabbis and cantors from the Movement, several of whom left Biennial early to stand in solidarity and mourn in person with Sam's family.

Many of those incredible rabbis are currently involved in this fundraising effort: 36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave. The campaign, run through the organization St. Baldricks, has grown and spread and tweeted and Facebooked and blogged and exploded around the country and the world. Rabbis are shaving their heads at the CCAR Convention in Chicago this March in memory of Sam, and I encourage you whole-heartedly to support their effort to raise awareness and funds.

One of the most moving things I read about Sam shortly before his death was that he made sure his money was going to tzedakah; that his legacy would outlast his short eight years. Now, our extended community has an obligation to support his family and his community, Am Shalom in Glencoe, Illinois. (Where my amazing classmate Andrea Rae Markowicz serves as cantor) Please visit their page here to extend your support.

And finally, Jewish tradition teaches us to remember the life and the legacy of those who physically leave us. Judaism teaches us to tell the stories of those we mourn; to remember them not in their death but in the life they led.

Read Sam's story. Be inspired by who he was and what he did in this short time on earth. Connect with and follow the words of his parents, Rabbi Phyllis and Rabbi Michael Sommer, here. Read the countless articles and obituaries written on Sammy.

Ensure that his story lives on.

Each of us is only one person; one tiny speck, one grain of sand, within something so much greater than ourselves. Yet so many of those grains of sand were brought together throughout Sam's illness - through social media, through words and stories and acts of compassion. Through a brave rabbi (my dear friend Rabbi Rebecca Schorr, who you can find here) stepping forward and offering to help organize the fundraising efforts with St. Baldrick's. Through the rabbis of the Reform Movement wearing Superman pins on their lapels throughout Biennial in honor of Sam. Through the mentioning of Sam's passing at Shabbat services on Saturday morning, before 5,000 people.

Though we may only be one, we ones must connect. We ones must multiply. We ones must tell those we know and galvanize our circles to act, to remember, and to care.

Then and only then do we keep Sam's memory alive.

Superman Sam, I did not know you. But you inspired me. Your parents inspire me. And I will share your story, and I will care, and I will mourn - even from afar - to ensure your memory lives on.

Zichrono livracha, may his memory be for blessing.


Monday, December 16, 2013

Unpacking Biennial


That's not a word I use often enough. But I will use it to describe the past four days, which I spent in San Diego along with about 5,000 others at the Union for Reform Judaism's 2013 Biennial.

Every two years the URJ gathers together thousands of Reform Jews - lay leaders, synagogue employees, clergy, entertainers, NFTY-ites, and more - to connect and reconnect, pray, learn, network, and altogether grasp the movement of the Movement.

The first Biennial I attended was in 2001, just a few months after 9/11. I was the president of my temple youth group, I was seventeen years old, and up until that summer I had no concept of NFTY or a greater Reform Movement. Then my home synagogue, Stephen S. Wise Temple, rejoined the Union and I was asked to represent them at Biennial. The experience was unforgettable.

Twelve years ago, my mind exploded with the excitement and energy - the ruach - of the Movement and especially its youth. And this weekend in San Diego, I felt that same ruach as I participated in the most exciting, stimulating, thought-provoking, and innovative programming and prayer I have witnessed in a very long time.

Biennial is a bit of a blur. There are so many people and so many things happening simultaneously. You're constantly running into people you haven't seen in years. You want to catch up, but you also want to make it to a session, maybe two! The programming is overwhelming in the best way possible; it feels a little bit like Jewish Disneyland with all the stimulation and the taglines. Some people - and I tried VERY hard not to give myself a hard time about this - get serious FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out. Because, truly, there's just so much going on. And you want to do Every. Single. Thing.

Some of the programmatic highlights for me included:
-Learning best practices for young adult engagement from synagogues and communities that are doing it right
-Observing a case study in the URJ's Campaign for Youth Engagement taking place at Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego
-Participating in a workshop for Reform California, led by many of my friends and colleagues
-Discussing the synagogue of the future with Rabbi Sharon Brous and Rabbi David Stern
-Reconnecting and connecting with HUC alumni and students from all four campuses and hearing the outgoing president - Rabbi David Ellenson - bless incoming president Rabbi Aaron Panken on his journey

Then there were the services. Friday night was a stunningly beautiful service led by the clergy team of Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts - a synagogue whose innovative educational programs were often used as case studies during my Jewish Education Master's program. Saturday morning I participated in hands-down the most creative and exceptional Torah service of all time primarily led by Cantor Andrea Buchdahl of Central Synagogue and Amichai Lau-Lavie of Storahtelling and Lab/Shul.

What made the Torah service so amazing? It was creative, it was fun, it was engaging, and it had serious depth. The best way I can describe it: thirteen platforms were set up around the giant plenary hall. Each platform served as a bimah, and those who had been asked to stand there (representatives from various URJ organizations) had a Torah with them on their bimah. The 5,000 person plenary chanted the Torah blessings together, and then each platform had a reader who read for each separate aliyah within earshot of their section. It gave me chills. It was beautiful. And it was interspersed with stellar sTorah-telling, a particular highlight being Shira Kline acting as the biblical character Dinah.

It reinforced so very much all that is possible when we think outside the box.

And then, Saturday night I had the most incredible opportunity to introduce the plenary program: an event honoring 100 years of the Women of Reform Judaism and celebrating 75 years of NFTY. The program was a celebration of amazing female musicians, role models, educators, and social activists. It honored Anat Hoffman, the fearless director of IRAC, and it blessed the generations of old and new in sweeping musical tributes. It was just so good.

If you didn't catch it live, please do yourself a favor. Watch the replay, celebrate and dance and sing with the women, and enjoy it:

Part 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VpEH9-pFUZc

Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8MIjJ03r1IE

The Biennial experience got me so energized, so pumped, about all that lies ahead for us soon-to-be rabbis. It made me see so clearly how the Movement is growing and shifting, how its leader Rabbi Rick Jacobs is a visionary who practices what he preaches, how committed and passionate so many of its constituents are, and most of all, the evolution to which the Reform Movement is committed and in which it is invested so deeply. That includes opening our arms to change, embracing that which we do not know, engaging with all those who are "othered" to us, and being exemplars of "audacious hospitality."

To the next chapter, for a new day is dawning ...

Until then, time for sleep!