Michael came from a family of survivors and I used to think to myself, where does their faith come from? But still, he was brought up religiously and walked over 2 miles each way to Shul with his best friend David, now a Rabbi himself. David is also the son of the Rabbi of the Shul who happened to be married to an eminent professor at JTS, but back then he was just a boy of course. Michael also has another friend who is a Rabbi on the internet. Two men, both Rabbis, with such diﬀerent takes on that role that it can be hard to reconcile.
When we moved to the Philadelphia area, one of Michael’s top priorities was to ﬁnd a shul for our own family. At the time, both of our children were preschool age.
My own religious upbringing brought a little less enthusiasm for this endeavor. From kindergarten on, I had attended a Solomon Schecter school in a town replete with notorious rabbis. The namesake of my school was removed from his position after an illicit relationship with a parishioner, also married. His successor it turned out had an entirely secret separate family in Israel. And let me not forget the neighborhood Rabbi who is currently incarcerated for hiring a hit man to kill his wife. A hitman who incidentally completed the deed while she was on the phone with their daughter.
Let me set the stage, although I attended a Schechter, we were on ﬁnancial aid, my mother a single parent, I was by far the poorest student. We could not even aﬀord to actually belong to the synagogue that housed the school. I used to go to the teen service anyway, there were no assigned seats for the kids, and no one seemed to notice me or asked where my family was seated. On Shabbat my mom was likely working her third job. On the holidays, if not working, she would be cooking. High holidays at shul seemed to be a social scene of opulence and the newest fall fashions, I was not clear on why people paid so much for their assigned seats, chart prominently placed at the entrance, when they seemed to spend most of their time, walking the halls like they were runways, discussing the latest gossip. Even if I had been a member, I don’t think I would have ever have felt like I belonged.
Joining to a synagogue felt a bit like a farce to me, but I love Michael, so when we moved here, shul shopping we went. I think I said something like, no where that panty hose are required, dude.
And then we found Beth Am. The room was bright and airy, the Hebrew school ran on Saturdays so the children could join their parents at services, it felt diﬀerent. I did not see a snob in the house. People seemed interesting and cool. I was still skeptical, but we joined. I found the community to be great. People saw each other, and not labels on their clothes, or labels anywhere else.
And then my 43 year old ﬁt, vegan, health conscious husband was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. Now some people are religious Jews, others cultural, making their sense of religion based on chicken soup and lighting hanukah candles. I saw myself becoming ﬁrmly entrenched in that second category. Jewish holidays boiled down to one formula, some form of suﬀering followed by food. If there was a God, where was he or she when someone was handing out cancer to a man who loved life more than any other I knew? But Michael still believed. I did not understand it, but I humored him.
What followed was a 5 year battle with cancer. Some people call cancer a journey, well that’s totally erroneous, a journey is something you choose to take. No matter how much you saw us laughing, or how well Michael seemed at times…complicated, since one had the feeling he could outrun and out bike them at any point….cancer is no journey. Cancer is a thief. It stole from me, my sons, from all of us, a true light.
When Michael was able to confront his mortality, he articulated 3 things about his funeral—-he wanted a Ural motorcycle motorcade, he wanted a religious burial, and he wanted a service at Beth Am, not the funeral home. I have to be honest, I did not understand his faith. And I thought to myself, if his casket is brought here, it will erase the joy we shared on this bimah, being together for the boys’ bar mitzvahs. I will never be able to come here again, I thought. But I deferred.
And then the day came. I arrived at Beth Am, and Michael was waiting for me here, in his religious kosher all wood casket. I had thankfully upgraded from the most kosher plain pine one that is shaped like a diamond, like something a vampire would rise from frankly, and had no rails to carry it with. I hoped he would forgive me from not going that most kosher casket route. I asked to be alone with him. And I sat with him in the bright sunlight in this bright room and I felt a peace. I felt something spiritual.
And look, here I am, I have returned.
And I am not sure honestly where my faith stands now. Minimally, I would deﬁne myself as, well, confused. But I know that I believe in this community more than any other. And when I think what we are asked in return for being in the community, in this space, I think of it more in terms of what we receive.
Some say that decisions are made on a time/money continuum. As we run out of time, money seems to mean less in terms of the choices we make. I know Michael’s last year, I would have spent anything to keep him comfortable and to create memories of him for our sons.
At Beth Am, we are frequently asked to provide our energies and talents, our time. On rare occasion, like tonight, we are asked for money. In return we are provided with a religious home.
A home, like Judaism, can mean diﬀerent things to diﬀerent people at diﬀerent times. Like all homes, is not perfect, nothing is. And sometimes it needs repairs. And let’s face it, as Jews, we are not known for our lack of the ability to complain or ﬁxate on grievances at times.
But tonight, like Michael so often led us by example, lets us focus on the positive. On the possibilities …on how we can sustain this special, Jewish spiritual home for ourselves and for our families.
Tonight we are asked to give a little more. Please consider the importance of that.
As for myself. I no longer see dues or the annual appeal as what we are asked for. Because, you see, what we receive in return is without price.