Monday, November 24, 2014

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.

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 - when I was 16. 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.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Caring Of A Caregiver

I have been someone's daughter, wife and mother, with all the attendant roles and obligations. Yet I never felt these more than when I became the caregiver for my parents.

During a Shabbat morning a few years ago, my synagogue had a special service as part of "Hillel's Call to Action," a response to issues important to its membership. This service provided an opportunity to acknowledge those who are caring for others. Caregivers' Shabbat highlighted this issue by having temple members recount poignant stories of evening calls, crisis intervention, long-distance guilt and local role reversal.

Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz described caregivers within the framework of Jewish tradition. Upholding the commandment "Honor thy mother and father," to care for your parents is love through loss. And to care for one's spouse, says the Talmud, is to move from the love of Passion to the love of the Ages. Add caring for children, siblings or special friends, and most of us will be caregivers.

The definition of a caregiver is one who takes on total responsibility for another person's wellbeing. The term is new, but not the enormous task. Coined in recent years by my generation's penchant for infusing the mundane with nuance and necessity, caregiving is now a calling with its own language, service providers, support networks and books.

There are three things that make the current caregivers different from those of past generations:

First, caregivers are older than before, but have younger families. I married at 29; my husband, 38. Our daughter was a young teen when our parents began to falter.

Second, times have changed. In 1971, when my husband's bubie (grandmother) needed something, his mother walked the four blocks to her house. We don't live that close anymore; having an elder living in our homes is an exception, not the rule.

Finally, our parents are living longer. But older age can sometimes lead to disease and distress not dealt with when people died earlier.

When I moved my 68-year-old father to Boston in the late 1990s, I became his sole advocate. It was a role I never thought would be mine, and one for which I was not prepared. Yet when he died eight years later, I knew I had done the job well, and the exhaustion yet relief I felt were the rewards of doing the right thing. Dad had the best housing, medical care and a good quality of life, even during his final days.

Often, I felt alone in my struggle to care for him. His complicated medical and emotional situations were unique, and not everyone could relate. Learning the ways of caregiving, I discovered there were people who had walked this road. Professionals helped me and there were empathetic friends with stories--the war stories that can be sad yet uplifting to another person in the same boat.

I used to work for an organization that supported children with special needs in Jewish educational settings. I saw parents struggling to care and advocate for their children, some with severe impairments. The love and devotion of these families to find the right school and services were inspiring. And an example of my last point.

Caregiving takes enormous energy, both emotional and physical. You need your full resources to accomplish your goal: your mind, to seek answers and make decisions; your body, to get the physical work done; and your heart, to love, honor and cherish those you hold dear.

A version of this article first appeared in The Jewish Advocate,, June 8, 2007.