Friday, March 24, 2017

New Year, Sweet Memories

In late summer of 2013, I noticed a familiar woman at my local market, but couldn’t remember who she was. Just then, a grocer approached her, pushing cartons on a dolly.

“Mrs. Goldstein, here’s your honey.”

Ah, yes, I had met her years ago when we first moved to town. I said hello, wished her Shanah Tovah…and then asked, “Why the honey?”

She explained that her congregation had a tradition at Rosh Hashanah of delivering honey to every member family who had suffered a death during the previous year. I love to give friends and family this gift at the holidays; I thought this effort was a very touching thing to do.

A few months into that New Year, I became a member of my synagogue’s Religious Life Committee. One of our charges was to report back those ideas and customs we might witness at other synagogues that our membership might appreciate. I remembered the “Honey Project.” The committee loved the idea and so, this past September, each family who lost a loved one in the past year (and still lives in the area) received this special gift. The attached note read, “From our Family to Yours, Shanah Tovah. May the memory of your loved one always be sweet.” Each of the 70+ packages was hand-delivered by a volunteer and, if someone was home, a visit was a dividend.

The response was powerful. We heard from numerous recipients and couriers, and it is clear that the initiative touched the hearts of both. Those whose family members died a year ago, and those whose loss was recent, were equally moved by the outreach. To be remembered in this way made a difference. I had the honor of delivering the honey to the wife of our late Rabbi Emeritus, and noted to the committee that I hoped every loved one might be remembered in the same “honey-hue” her eyes reflected when I arrived.

On the morning of Yom Kippur, my husband and I arrived at our seats in the early service to find a woman I didn’t know sitting in our seats. Hers were for the later service but she wanted to be there that morning. She began to move over but I said, no worries, we have three seats. A short conversation and I discovered she was on the “honey” list.

Paraphrasing from my favorite movie, Casablanca: “…Of all the rows, in all the services, she chose to sit in mine….” What was most moving was, for the past ten years, we had shared this side row with a dear friend and her family. This year, she had died unexpectedly, and their part of the row was empty…but I believe the guest sat there with her blessing. Some things are besheirt (meant to be)…and some are coincidence, i.e., G-d wishing to remain anonymous. My friend’s family had also received our gift.

There are many more such stories. It was my pleasure to bring the Honey Project to my community, and I feel gratified that they embraced it. One never knows how a program will be perceived or accepted, but this was truly lev-b’lev – from heart to heart.

I want to thank the Committee’s chairman and the members, for their encouragement and support. To our clergy and office staff, and lay leadership, I am grateful for their help in creating this initiative. A special thank you to our Brotherhood members who, without being asked, stepped up to make each delivery. A labor of love for all.

We all know that, each year, there will members who suffer the loss of a loved one. I am proud that this project will continue in the future to lift the spirits of our fellow congregants, and perhaps engage some of those who received the honey in 5775 in preparing the packages for next year’s recipients. It is a way to help share in the very mitzvah that moves us.

Friday, March 10, 2017

How My Mother's Illness Made Me More of a Mensch

This is my first post in almost three years. Life happens - and having a parent with Alzheimer's changes everything.

My mother, Verna Caryl Brodsky Moidel, died on December 23, 2016. It was a sad end to the saddest of all times in her life - almost two decades with Alzheimer's disease. I've written about my mother before, but this is so final.
There is a positive that came from this sadness: we created a fund in her memory at Camp Laurelwood, which she attended on a scholarship in 1940. She never forgot that magical time there, as I discuss below. We thought it would have the most meaning for her. I wish she could know that other children will be at camp this summer because someone cared for them, too.
Here's the link:
Thank you for helping us help others.

This was my eulogy:

My mother was right about everything. 

And probably so was yours. We have become our mothers, and the older I get, the more her wise words haunt me. Worse, that Verna voice emanates from my lips towards my daughter Erica, now an independent young adult. And she reacts just as I did when I was her age: OK, Ma, sure, whatever you want…said with a roll of the eyes.

How to distill a life into a few minutes? By reviewing what mattered most to mom. The thing is: she  didn’t have a mother around to tell her these things, so she learned them the hard way: she lived her life…a life bookmarked by sorrow and pain: the first two decades, by hard times and the loss of her mother to the stigma of mental illness; the last two decades, by the scourge of Alzheimer’s.

But in between, she made plans and lived her life in a meaningful way. She loved and was loved. And for that, we are grateful. I’d like gratitude to be the word of the day, because our mother was a good mother, and we are who we are because of her.

When you have a family member with a serious illness, life becomes smaller. You decline invitations, reserving energy for just the essentials. At times, our family cared for multiple parents at once so, over the years, I spent so much time managing their needs while trying to pursue my own goals, I forgot that indeed, time marches on.

I realized this when the notice of my mom’s 60th college reunion came in the spring of 2012. I was jolted by how much time had passed since I first became her advocate in 1997. I remember when she went to her 50th in 2002. She was young then; ten years later, she was old. It was painful to think that she would not be going that year. I wanted her to be represented, and so I wrote an essay that told her story:

Mom was born in New Haven in 1930, four years after her sister Norma, who she adored. Her father David owned the local hardware store. They were very poor – it was the Depression. These were difficult times, and she was deeply affected by her home life, especially when her mother, Isabel Nusbaum Brodsky, was institutionalized, as they said then, when mom was in grade school. She said it was schizophrenia, but I’ve often wondered if it was undiagnosed post-partum depression, not something known then, and a reaction to having two small children during dire financial straits. Except for occasional visits, some at home, my grandmother, who I never met, was now essentially gone forever. This affected her deeply. The loss of her mother and the lack of resources was the force that pushed her to work and make a life for herself.

Mom adored her father, who was old by the time she was born. He was born on the boat, as they said, of poor Russian immigrants, in 1888. He was self-taught, read constantly and could fix anything. He had a happy disposition – amazing considering what his life had been. She learned that from him: she was positive and determined. In the summer of 1940, she had the time of her life when the New Haven Federation sent her to Camp Laurelwood on a scholarship.

She always worked, first in the hardware store, and then in a factory sewing shower curtains. Even then she had drive, and expressed a desire to go to college. With the help of an uncle who helped her navigate the admissions process, Mom proudly joined the freshman class of the Teachers College in 1948. She lived at home and worked each afternoon. In the summers, she waited tables in the Catskill Mountains. Her annual tuition was $100, a lot of money, she would tell us, and she made it on her own. She loved college and though challenged by circumstance, she made the grades to succeed, as well as life-long friends whom she kept in touch with for years.

When she was a senior, her dream of living in Hartford came true when she was offered a job as a second grade teacher at the Mark Twain Public School. I have the kind but formal letter, dated January, 1952, which states that her annual salary would be $2495! She was so proud!

The summer after graduation she and three girlfriends piled into a car and drove to California and Mexico on an adventure. She loved it – she had freedom for the first time in her life. (1952, no air conditioning…no highway system…think about it…she never complained.)

My parents met in 1955 at what was the jDate of its time, the Hartford Emanuel synagogue dance. Dad was swept away by how pretty she was, but she wasn’t so sure. She told me she dated a bit, including a cousin of Einstein’s and one of the Lender Bagel brothers. (Oh, imagine the possibilities!) But Dad’s European yiddishkeit and intelligence won out, and they married on Washington’s Birthday (you got it – she had a day off from school). That summer, they moved to Miami – the Goldena Medina at the time – where yours truly was born. They started a clothing store, and when the first Cuban families began to arrive in 1959, they went to night school to learn Spanish so they could help these new customers. When Mom went back to teaching in 1961, the Cuban parents loved that she spoke Spanish and was a very serious and strict teacher. Her students loved her because she was fun, especially when she cooked and played games with them. Every Christmas and June, in gratitude for her kindness, the parents brought her gifts of powder, perfume, and those big boxes of little chocolates.

Mom continued to teach, on and off, in 3 states, for more than 25 years, in spite of the fact she didn’t learn to drive till 1968.  She was a most devoted, responsible teacher, and I have vivid childhood memories of her in a dress, or a blazer with a bowed blouse (skirt in the early years; slacks later on), going off to work in the early morning by bus, coming home to make dinner, and then every night sitting at the kitchen table, and mind you, this was the stone age, hand writing report cards and grading papers. On weekends, she would write next week’s teaching plans that were given to the principal on Monday mornings. She loved the kids, and had wonderful stories of the things they said and did. I calculate there are 1,000 adults today who can read because of mom.

One small coincidence: In 1985, right after we became engaged, I was perusing Steve’s Conard West Hartford High School year book when I came upon the picture of one Jan Jacobs. I asked him if he knew her, to which he replied that he had lived next door to her. Jan Jacobs had been a student in my mother’s class in Hartford, and when it came time to name me a year later (my parents had married by then and moved to Miami), she decided that Jan was the name she wanted for her “smart, sweet, Jewish girl.” Fast forward, I was able to meet my namesake at Steve’s 25th high school reunion in 1990, a few months after Erica was born. Jan had no idea of the impression she had made on my mother, her teacher Miss Brodsky…but we discovered we both had daughters named Erica. The tradition continues!

During my childhood, Mom always said her mother had died – until one day towards the end of my senior year in high school, we learned about mental illness in “health” class. For some reason, I went home with the mission to ask my mom what happened to her mother. Mom answered the door in black clothes – those were not fashionable then – and said she had to tell me something. Her mother had died the day before and the funeral was the next day. In answer to my shock, she explained her mother had been in a “home” all these years, and she had visited her. I never knew – and she wouldn’t let me go to the funeral – she said I couldn’t miss a day of school. I was young – 16 – and as with so much I don’t know, I wish I had just asked more questions.

Mom was very proper and somewhat naïve. But she had seen a lot in her life, so you couldn’t fool her much. She also was very personable. If she met you, she would ask questions, and suddenly, you were into a good conversation which she love. Dad always wondered how she could talk for so many hours with a friend. She didn’t entertain, but was always up to go out. She read constantly – books, newspapers, which I think made her a great speller. But Gd forbid she’d tell me how to spell anything! And yes, Steven, she was a goodie two shoes – and I’ve followed right in her footsteps. 

Like most girls, my mother drove me crazy. She could be rigid and relentless, and as I got older, she would constantly nag me, ask questions, and offer sure fire advice, gathered from a lifetime of hard knocks. Some of it was nuts, like when I was going to a dance, she said, “Wear something red and stand near the door. “ We had our battles, some serious and some silly: about school work, about boys, about cleaning my room…and about my clothes, which she bought at thrift stores. I was mortified. Like Second Hand Rose, I never got a single thing that’s new. Yes, she was right – there are gems in those stores. It was tough to be her child – she had very high standards, and wanted us to have what she hadn’t – but I know she was driven because she cared so much about her students, and about David and me. I know she would be proud that my daughter Erica, a Brandeis graduate, works with children.

In 1969, when we moved to Jamaica Estates, she taught on Long Island in Valley Stream, and had to learn to drive. These were some of her happiest times. My parents started to go out more - to theater and to comedy shows.

By now, you can imagine she was very brave. The bravest act of all was having a baby at age 44. It was 1973 and she was one of the first women to have an amniocentesis. My brother was a complete surprise to me. I was already at college (that’s a story for another time) and totally shocked. I’d wanted a sibling…but now? My friends all thought it was great; I wasn’t so sure. But Mom knew, and today, David (named for her beloved father) is a mensch, with two sons, a wonderful career, and my friend for life. She would be so proud of him.
My mother did a lot for me: She wanted life to be better for us than it had been for her. She taught me to sew and cook; encouraged me to try new things; She gave me my Jewish neshamah, a caring soul, and insisted I have a Jewish education even though she hadn’t had one herself (both Yiddish and Hebrew School, bat mitzvah, Hebrew High School, Israel, and as I was an only child at the time, she gave me Camp Laurelwood). She shared her love of books. She loved her summer in Boston in 54 and decided I should come for college; 4 decades later, I love it still. She was my first editor, “Read it out loud,” I heard in my head as I wrote this yesterday. And this is really special: She taught me to love Barbara Streisand.

Mom moved back to her beloved Hartford area in the late 80s, after our parents’ divorced, and began to teach again. When she retired at 67, she took cooking classes, thinking she’d open a takeout café.  Sadly, this was just the time she was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, the precursor to Alzheimer’s. We watched as the woman who could do anything began to slip away, so we quickly moved her to the Summerwood community near her home. She had five wonderful years there – going on trips, playing games, and schmoozing to her heart’s content. It was camp once more.

I never heard my mother swear until her 70th year – that was when I was convinced that Alzheimer’s had now taken hold, after a few years of weird episodes and cognitive testing. When we started this journey, I could never imagine it would be twenty years. She was so self-reliant. The thought my mom wasn’t in charge never occurred to me. It turned out, as I took over her finances, she had saved for years, thinking she would have a long retirement…yet it all went now to care for her through these many years. I don’t know how we did it all – but I knew she couldn’t be out there on her own. There were some heartbreaking moments along the way, and I came to know my mother needed us as we had needed her.

Always resourceful, she never threw anything away. You know the type – maybe you are the type! It took nine months to clean out her house. Every corner had a bag with some precious chatzkah. She was a squirrel – jewelry hiding in the sewing machine console, silver in the attic, the statue of Mozart under the sink. It wasn’t rational and it got worse over time. These things were her future. Inherent in this hording were the seeds of her illness, and indeed, in retrospect the signs were there in the volume and randomness of all she saved. I remember looking around and not knowing where to start. To make order out of chaos, but knowing she had thought she was safe.

Mom often said, she had no mazel, luck. It was terrible luck to be stricken with Alzheimer’s so early in her life. Alzheimer’s is known as the “long goodbye.” She has missed out on so much, especially getting to spend time with her grandchildren Erica, and David’s sons, Jesse and Bailey.  And indeed, it’s been almost 20 years – of managing her life in her home as long as we could; at Summerwood; and then a short time at Newbridge Memory support, which ended when she fell and broke her hip six years ago. A surgery, rehab…and a 10 week stint at McLean, trying to manage her pain and her confusion. After just two weeks, we knew she was now nursing home bound for Newton Wellesley Alzheimer’s Center. We deeply thank all of these organizations for their devoted care and kindness towards her.

One story from this time: She was a romantic and loved the old songs, which she sang in a nice voice . Eight years ago, the last time I took her out in W. Hartford before moving her to Newbridge, we went out for lunch and stopped into Barnes and Noble. I saw a book with the 100 top songs of the last 100 years. Mom, I said, you’ll love this. She found a chair to sit in, and began to belt out song after song. She knew the melodies, and sang with abandon, without regard to who was around. People stood and listened and, instead of being mortified, I smiled. Twenty minutes later, she stopped and closed the book – and was so surprised when people clapped and cheered. Some of you know I haven’t visited my mother much this past year because it was too painful to see her in the end stage of her disease. I would rather remember the smile she had on her face that day.

I have often thought that all the years I have cared for her has wiped out all the years I struggled with her. I think it’s Gd’s plan - to see in our parents what we now have become.

When my father died 10 years ago, I recognized what he had taught me as what our Rabbi Gardenswartz calls a person’s “Torah,” a legacy.  So here is my mother’s Torah:
·          Be persistent and resilient;

·         Appreciate the value of work;

·         Don’t take yourself too seriously. Have fun. Despite her difficult life, she loved to laugh and found humor and humanity everywhere. She never felt sorry for herself, or complained; she was a realist, an especially good way to live.

·         Education is the key to everything. (Yes, Ma, I should have gone to grad school.)

·         Always have a job (I’ve done that for the most part) and never leave a job until you have another one (sorry, Ma, that’s not always possible).

·         That blue was her and my best color because of our eyes (she was right about that, too)

·         Finally, save money and always have a dollar in your pocket. It’s easy to spend it, but hard to make.

·         My penance for not always listening to her on this last one? It’s being married to an accountant for 30 years! Verna’s voice has ricocheted with every sage finance word Steve has said. OK, OK, I get it!

Over these many years, it did indeed take a village. When in this situation, your best bet is to share the news. This can be a lonely journey, this taking care of parents – but it can be eased by community. We were lucky to receive good advice and support, medical care and maintenance for my mom. My family will always be grateful for the kindness of strangers, and all of you, and the many friends and family members who cared. Alzheimers is a terrible disease, and one we must find a cure for.

I want to thank my dear Steven for his constant support and wise advice, as we traveled this long road in the care of Mom. At times, we had both mothers and my dad, in different states, and in different states of wellness, and he was there for them, and for me.

Thank you, David, for your support and confidence in me as I took on this task. It wasn’t always easy for you – to be so young and in NYC, having two parents in Boston, who aged early, but you were there for me…like when we moved Mom from Hartford to Boston, you took the train to meet us, helped Steve schlepp the furniture into a truck… then got back on the train to NY. It was a stressful and sad time for you, so many yet to be, but you showed up. I am so grateful to my mother for giving me a brother.

Since second grade, Erica has been a witness to the care of our parents. She has been kind to them, independent when we needed her to be, and helpful over many years when their welfare took precedence over hers. It has not been easy, but her menschlekeit makes me proud every day that I am her mother.

Our heartfelt love and thanks to our cousins Merrie and Mark, and Nancy, who did so much for Mom – visiting her, taking her to lunch, on trips, and mostly, for never forgetting her. She loved you all, like she loved your mother, her sister Norma, and your kindnesses will never be forgotten.

Boston has been good to me these past four decades, and then it was good for mom. I was humbled to have the advice of “older” members of Temple Emanuel when I was one of the first in my generation to be dealing with aging parents. They shared their wisdom and experience, navigating elder care for their parents, a generation earlier.

I feel blessed to live in Boston with our richly woven social service fabric. I received countless hours of help and advice from professionals at these agencies, which will always be remembered.

Thanks to those in West Hartford who helped me navigate the first years of this obligation with courage and patience: dear friends and family, and Steve’s longtime friends and their children, all who gave us valuable legal, real estate and tactical advice, and sometimes, just a bed for the night. While both Steven and David grew up there, I did not, but came to feel at ease because of their kindness. And there were wise strangers, too: those in line at Starbucks and the lovely lady at the Crown kosher bakery, who always asked how Mom was doing; I ate a lot of Black and White cookies driving back to Boston.  

My deepest appreciation To the caregivers, activity directors, rabbis, social workers, doctors, nurses, and maintenance professionals, who helped us keep Mom at home as long as possible, at the four places she lived and was cared for during these almost 20 years of holding on…thank you for your compassion and capacity to see yourself in another person’s shoes. You honored my mother and I have been blessed to know you. David and I share the sadness that comes from the loss of such a vibrant life to this dreaded disease, but I believe we have no regrets – we did all we could to make her last years vibrant, comfortable and meaningful. And when you care for your parent, they are revealed and you understand. She was a good mother, the mother she never had.

In closing, I want to acknowledge all of you today, and with gratitude for Rabbi Robinson, and Cantor Sheni Dan Nesson, from Temple Emanuel,  for being here for us today, and every day.

This old song says it all:  I know that I owe what I am today / to that dear little lady so old and gray / to that wonderful Yiddishe momma of mine.

Mom, you did well. Rest in peace. Grandpa David is on the other side waiting for you.  Shalom.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Sustaining Values

I work for a Jewish communal organization. The only one of its kind in North America, the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts promotes Jewish unity. We strive to strengthen congregations and engage their members in pluralistic dialogue, learning and social action. 

 It's a mission I have come to love. Why? I've aways believed that first, we are a family. In Yiddish, Mishpocha. I describe it this way:

 You're a Jew and I'm a Jew; what's the next question?

  "Where's your family from?"

 Inevitably, we know people in common. It's reassuring to hear that in your city or in mine, in Europe, Israel or the US, we have crossed paths. Our friends, family and ancestors walked together once before, and continue to do so.  It doesn't matter what denomination we identify with, or whether we are a "Jew by Choice." It doesn't matter which temple we attend or where we or our children received their Jewish education. It matters not whether we answer no to either of these inquiries. We are all Jews. We have the same history and the same triumphs and tragedies in common. We endeavor to make the world a better place by living lives of meaning: to love life, to do acts of loving kindness, and to raise our children to be charitable and caring souls.

I am proud to help encourage and sustain the belief that we are more alike than not, to change the perception that we can't all get along to one of respect for differences. I am proud that our efforts continue to bring new perspectives to the fore where none existed before.

 I work for a Jewish communal organization. I am a Jew. So are you. We are a community.

 So tell me, where's your family from?

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


I never realized how much I love this beautiful and unique fruit until 2010 when I began to travel annually to Israel. There, in both function and form, you see pomegranates everywhere. From the stunning jewelry stores in downtown Tel Aviv and Neve Tzedek, to the shuks and Cardo of Jerusalem, poms call out to me: silver earrings, challah covers, shiny menorahs, bronze pins. My prize possession is the latter, found in a small shop in Ein Hod, an artists’ colony in the Carmel Mountains, near Haifa.

 While the fruit has only widely been in US markets for a few years, it is often small and dark. In Israel, poms are a rich part of their cuisine. Their size is triple what they are here, the gorgeous red, radiant, and the most enticing element of the orb, the crown, is open, fresh and intact. They are served in salads, made into juice, and one very special treat, pomegranate molasses, the trendiest of condiments.

 The fruit is believed to hold many secrets: romantic images in the Torah; fertility for women; the world of plenty and pleasure. References and reflections abound in literature and music. In the mid-1990s, my daughter attended Jewish day school while I set about to have an adult bat mitzvah and participate in a wider range of adult learning. Sometime during this period, I became aware of the minhag (custom/belief) that a pomegranate has 613 seeds, the number of mitzvot in the Torah. I was so charmed by this concept, my daughter and I tried once to count the seeds!

 While many of my poms are ubiquitous today in gift shops around the world, there are some unusual ones:

 A small painting was purchased in Tzafat, a small town rich with spiritual history and artist life in the high mountains of Israel’s most northern point. The Boston contingent of that year's JFNA Womens Philanthropy’s Heart2Heart trip had gone to visit our sister city, Haifa, that day, so we reached Tzafat very late in the afternoon. Down the long, narrow winding street where artists sell their wares, I saw only men, eager to sell before the day’s end of business. Suddenly, deep in a little alcove, I saw a woman, quietly painting, the only woman in a sea of male artists. And her specialty? Poms! The paintings were beautiful, and perfectly sized for traveling. I bought this one, which hangs in my kitchen, and every day I remember that year's trip to the spiritual mountain town.

 One year, I had just an hour to walk on Ben Yehuda Street, a famous and busy shopping district of Jerusalem. As always, I was on a search for poms, and drawn to one of the many chotchkeh (souvenir) shops. These small sienna-colored ceramic poms were packed, two by two. They are traveling Shabbat candle holders, or as I use them, for salt and pepper. They were wrapped in a cellophane bag with a card that indicated they were made by people with disabilities, as part of a non-profit enterprise. I bought half a dozen, and they were the gift for my friends that year.

 A wall hanging was bought at the amazing gift shop of the even more amazing Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It’s the prayer for the home, which you see all over Israel, in English and Hebrew. The words mean: Within this gate, there will be no sadness; within this home, there will be no trouble. Within this door, there will be no fear; and in this room, there will be no arguments. Within our home, there will always be blessings and peace.

 A large cookbook by Janna Gur is wonderful, and not just because of the gorgeous picture on the cover. I was honored to watch the author, a Russian Israeli who is widely known the world over, cook when she visited a few years ago. Since friends and family know how much I love poms, I’ve received three copies (so far!). It’s fun to pass them on, with my love of poms, to other friends.

 And just for a sense of whimsy, I cherish a cup from El Al. I always travel on Israel’s official airline, and last year, 2013, they had a new set of paper goods, each with a picture of one of the seven species. I couldn’t resist taking the Pom cup home!

 As I prepare for yet another visit, I imagine a special pomegranate waiting for me in the bustling corners of Jerusalem, or Tel Aviv, or perhaps, in the hotel gift shop. And, hopefully, in the many delicious meals I will have.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Mom's Memories Matter

Mom, Then and Now....
  When you have a parent with a serious illness, life becomes smaller. You begin to decline invitations, reserving your energy for just the essentials. Over the years, you spend so much time managing his or her needs, while trying to pursue your own goals , you forget that indeed, time is marching on.
Recently, I was jolted into realizing just how much time had passed since I first became the sole advocate for my parents. A notice arrived announcing my mother's 60th college reunion. I still remembered her participation in her 50th. She was young then; now she was old, with advanced Alzheimer's. It was painful to think that she would not be going this year. I wanted her to be represented in some way.
And so I wrote to her college Alumni Office:
Dear Alumnae of the Class of 1952,
My mother is a member of your distinguished group. All my life, she talked about her college years as wonderful, reminiscing about lots of good times with her girlfriends, especially the summer she and three others piled into a car and drove across the country on an adventure.
She was born in New Haven in 1930, and her father owned the hardware store in the neighborhood. They were a poor family – it was the Depression – but Mom expressed a desire to go to college, the one in her town. A kind uncle helped her navigate the admissions process and Mom very proudly joined the freshman class of 1948. She lived at home and worked every afternoon, either at her father’s store, or at a local factory sewing shower curtains.  She spent every summer at one of the hotels in the Catskill Mountains, waiting tables. She told me the tuition was $100 then, and she made it on her own. She loved college and, though challenged by circumstance, she made the grades to succeed as well as lifelong friends she never forgot.
When she was a senior, her dream of living in Hartford came true when she was offered a job for the coming fall as a second grade teacher in one of their public schools. I have the kind but formal letter, dated January, 1952, which states that her starting salary would be $3,700. She was so proud of this opportunity and continued to teach, on and off, in three states, for more than 35 years. She finally retired at the age of 67, back once again in the Hartford schools. 
I have vivid memories of Mom, always dressed in a blazer with a bowed blouse (skirt in the early years; slacks in the feminist era!), going off to work in the morning, and spending every night grading papers. On weekends, she would again be at the kitchen table, writing by hand the required week’s plans that were to be given the principal on Monday mornings. Can you imagine having to do that today? I also remember the endless work of report cards three or four times a year. But she loved the kids, and had wonderful stories of the things they said and did. It was tough to be her child – she had very high standards – but I know she was hard working and hard driving because she cared so much about her students, and about me, and later my brother. She would be proud that my daughter, a recent college graduate, is interested in working with children.
Mom moved back to her beloved Hartford later in life, and began to enjoy the fruits of her labor. Sadly, not long afterwards, she was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment and now lives in a nursing home near me with advanced Alzheimer’s disease. I know that if she were well and aware of this reunion, she would be there in a heartbeat. It is so sad she cannot join you. She would love reminiscing and looking at pictures, many of which I still have that tell her story. I hope that Mom’s friends and acquaintances are well and happy, and will feel comfortable enough to be in touch with me with stories, pictures and reminiscences of their own. I don’t remember all the names of the gals she knew, but please remember that she was always appreciative of your friendship and kindnesses.
One small coincidence: When I was engaged, I was perusing the high school year book of my fiancé (who grew up in West Hartford) when I came upon the picture of a girl whose name seemed familiar. I asked my fiancé if he knew her, to which he replied that he’d lived next door to her. She had been a student in my mother’s class in 1955, and when it came time to name me two years later (my mother had married by then and moved away), she decided that this was the name she wanted for her “smart, sweet girl.” Fast forward, I was able to meet my namesake at my husband’s 25th high school reunion, a few months after my own daughter was born. This woman had no idea of the impression she had made on my mother, her teacher …but we discovered both she and I have daughters named the same. The tradition continues!
I calculate that there are over 1000 adults today who can read because my mother taught them. Your school can be proud that they launched one of the most devoted teachers ever. She was a grateful student and alumna, and I thank you for this opportunity to share her life with all of you on her behalf.

Shortly thereafter, I received a beautiful picture postcard with a kind note from the alumna who had organized the reunion. The snowy winter scene, in sepia tones, was of the old wrought iron gate, with the initials of the college's name, which my mother would have walked through every day of her college career. Now refurbished, it stands at the entrance of the expanded university.
Seeing this evocative memory made me cry. My mother's lost memories, forever captured in a single view.
Courtesy of the SCSU website.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Trip That Made Me More Of A Mensch

The roof of Tel Aviv's
Yitzhak Rabin Center
evoke the wings of a dove;
Peace, above all.
Three years ago this month, a small post appeared on my federation's website:

Join National Women's Philanthropy of JFNA for Heart2Heart: A Women's Journey to Israel, this February 2010. Pack your bag and share your heart and Israel with women from across the US.

Something about this invitation immediately moved me, unlike other enticements I had seen before. Was it the natural lure of "just for women,” or the comprehensive five day program, manageable for both family and work? Perhaps it was a response to a recurring and gnawing feeling: I was missing out on the Israel experience.

To be sure, it had become privately embarrassing to work as a professional in the Jewish community, knowing I had not been to Israel in 37 years! Back then, I participated in the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA)’s teen tour - seven weeks in the summer of '72. I had few memories of that trip: mostly negative ones of meals of dry schnitzel, lousy bathrooms, and long bus rides to ancient ruins. What was it about today's Israel that excited my colleagues and friends? I felt the sudden urge to find out.

I had hesitations and concerns about this upcoming adventure. My husband and I had always supported our federation, but what was “Women's Philanthropy” and who was involved? No one I knew was going on the trip and I had not traveled alone for 24 years. And, the scariest reason of all? I was afraid to fly! 

At the time, a fulfilling yet exhausting year as the development manager of a Jewish non-profit was coming to an end. It seemed like a good time for a vacation. I asked my boss, a frequent traveler to Israel, who encouraged me to go, as did my husband. The cost of the trip was reasonable, including the pledge for a minimum gift to Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), so I proudly decided I would pay for it all myself. Two days later, I had the distinct honor of being the last woman to sign up, like the 10th person to join a minyan, and, as Moses at Mt. Sinai, naïve and unaware of what was to come, I said, Heneni, Here I am.

Heart2Heart changed my life.

The Shabbat morning after I returned, I felt compelled to go to synagogue. My rabbi offered an aliyah and asked me to say a few words to the congregation about my experience. As I spoke in front of the Torah, intense feelings began to well up inside of me and I began to weep, uncontrollably. The time change notwithstanding, I realized then that I was forever transformed and forever grateful.

In ways both personal and professional, I am a different person today because that initial journey challenged  my confidence and ability to “go with the flow” in whatever situation I find myself. My life is enriched by what I have learned about myself in the company of Israeli and American women. I even traveled alone one year and thoroughly enjoyed it! I have brought new and old friends who have loved H2H as much as I have and it has brought us closer together. In  2012, I nurtured a 16 member contingent from my city which visited our sister city, Haifa, a very special day of humble feelings and moving testaments to the power of caring communities.

As one of the few independent development professionals on these trips, I’ve seen firsthand what moves a donor and what she looks for in a cause, teaching me that love of purpose is the first step to supporting a project. And I have met the most extraordinary, diverse, kind and warm women, of all ages and backgrounds: professionals and mothers; the young and young-at-heart; those devoted to Israel; some who donate and volunteer every day of the year, and some who had never heard of “federation.”

Much like the youngsters called “10/2’s” who live for ten months just to go to sleep away camp for two, I am that “51/1” who waits all year for the privilege to participate in this mission. The three weeks I’ve spent in Israel these last three years are etched in my mind and inform my daily life. I willingly share my impressions of our Israeli sisters and brothers, and remember that I and my fellow travelers have made a difference in the lives of people just like us, as we visit the programs and projects our communities support.

I always cared about Israel, but now it is truly part of my soul. For instance, whenever I recount the poignant story of the young female IDF soldier, who traveled on my bus two years ago, and said as we drove her home at the end of a long day and night of magical, meaningful moments, “I always knew I had to do my service for my country; I never knew I was doing it for all of you, too,” I weep tears of true understanding of what Israel and its people mean to me. Yes, I often cry tears of joy and memory in my life…but Israel and these very special journeys have the power to overwhelm me with emotion. It’s extraordinary - and you can’t buy that anywhere.

Heart2Heart also offers a unique and rare opportunity for women. One week out of our busy year of taking care of our families, our homes, our public lives; a single week, when we, ourselves, are taken care of: where we go, what we do, when we eat, is all arranged for us. It is a gift of pure freedom and joy, to share time in Israel in an easy and rewarding way via extraordinary venues, with intelligent, imaginative and invigorating people. The Tel Aviv hotel experience is perfect. Even our tour guides, now my friends also, are remarkable women, and they have left an indelible and distinct impression on me.

And here’s the most amazing discovery of all:

Last year, I realized that trip I took in the ‘70s (and the one you may have gone on then, too) was the “Dead Tour.” What do I mean? In those days, you saw the Cave of Machpelah (the tomb of the Patriarchs), the Dead Sea, where the crucified Jesus had laid in state, Ben Gurion's Sde Boker memorial....and cemetery after cemetery of dead heroes. Perhaps this is why I never established a connection. Today you visit living, pulsating Israel, interacting with its people and feeling its energy: the skyscrapers and the sages; the industry and the incredible restaurants with delicious, perfectly flavored offerings - not a schnitzel in sight!; the politics, and the plethora of shopping, art galleries, music venues; and of course, all the wondrous beauty of the Mediterranean, the Carmel Mountains and the vegetation now watered in the Negev. You are filled, much like a vessel is with wine, with excitement, alluring sounds, and sights you could never imagine. And the food, oh, the FOOD – from Machana Yehuda (the market in Jerusalem) to the trendiest restaurants, to a Druze home, to an enormous Bedouin tent, somewhere in the South, resplendent with colorful floor pillows, kosher dinner…and belly dancing. Of course, what happens in a Bedouin tent stays in a Bedouin tent!

Remember when I said I didn’t know what Women’s Philanthropy was? Today, I give an annual gift in my own name and I am a member of my local WP board of directors.

I was one of the first to register for this year’s Heart2Heart4.  You have just a few more days to say, Heneni, Here I am. Come with me and be transformed.  I look forward to seeing you in Eretz Israel. Shalom!

Here is the Heart2Heart Link:

 For more of my impressions of Israel:
After the first trip:
After the second:

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Making The World A Better Place, One Crisis At A Time

Recently, I had the honor of hearing Dr. Ofer Merin, Deputy Director-General of Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem and the Director of surgical operations for the IDF Field Hospital, at Boston's Combined Jewish Philanthropies' (CJP) Health Professions Group Annual Breakfast. Dr. Merin spoke passionately as he shared a moving slideshow of the hospital’s time in Haiti and Japan after these countries’ devastating earthquakes. He had 400 medical personnel in the ballroom of the Park Plaza Hotel listening intently. The pride was palpable, as everyone understood the extent of Dr. Merin's efforts in the face of such calamity.

Coincidentally, while taking part in three annual winter trips to Israel, I became a friend of Dr. Merin's wife, Ora, who organizes trips from the Israel side for American Jewish federations (JFNA), of which CJP is one. At breakfast one morning, in the dining room of our hotel, here's what she told us (paraphrased) - 100 American women - about her husband's work. We were visiting at the end of the 2nd week of the Haiti recovery, February 2010:

Dr. Merin had been urging the IDF for many years to create a field hospital for humanitarian purposes. He felt that Israel knew disaster relief so well, of course, and this was an opportunity, nay, a duty, to help, which of course would also lend itself to positive feelings and PR from around the world. When he finally received the OK, it took Dr. Merin two years to assemble the appropriate staff and materials, culled from the full nation’s resources.

Not two weeks after the hospital was completed and personnel, procedures and protocols set, the earthquake in Haiti occurred. Israel was the first country, with the first hospital, within 48 hours, on the scene. During the long flight, the doctors and staff continued to prepare for what they might encounter, and included discussions of life and death decisions and self-support tactics they would all need. Many of us watched CNN during their non-stop coverage in the early days and weeks of this disaster. 

One scene Ora described I will never forget:

Dr. Merin had brought along two incubators, knowing that women may have gone into pre-mature labor because of the earthquake’s tremors. At first, many of his colleagues and superiors had questioned their need and the use of such precious resources to secure them. Then, the first baby was born, and in front of the usually skeptical Anderson Cooper and the visibly moved medical reporter Elizabeth Cohen, the Haitian mother exclaimed the baby's name would be...Israel.

That morning in Tel Aviv, as Dr. Merin’s wife, Ora, recounted these and other efforts Dr. Merin and his colleagues’ were making for the people of Haiti, Ora’s phone rang. It was her husband, having just arrived in Israel after a two week stay in Haiti. The room exploded in applause, and there wasn’t a dry eye, including those of the multi-national hotel waitstaff.

Dr. Merin is considered an Israeli national treasure…but so too his fellow citizens, who help the world in so many ways. I am constantly amazed at what I witness in Israel….

Here is another story about Dr. Merin, from the New England Journal of Medicine.