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, na├»ve 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: http://www.bethemensch.blogspot.com/2010/03/grace-in-sky.html
After the second: http://www.bethemensch.blogspot.com/2011/05/power-of-one.html

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, www.thejewishadvocate.com, June 8, 2007.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A Place At The Jewish Table

As Mary Ann Shoap prepares for Shabbat on Friday afternoons, there is much anticipation of the evening and the weekend to come. In the kitchen, she and her nine-year-old daughter Molly are enjoying their weekly routine of baking a special dessert. Watching closely is Daniel, Mary Ann’s seventeen-year-old disabled son. Having just arrived home from school, Daniel, in his wheelchair, is strategically placed near the kitchen island so the family can include him in their conversation. Daniel has spastic quadriparesis — a disability commonly known as cerebral palsy — caused by an accident at birth. While he is very alert and aware of his surroundings, he is unable to walk, speak, or eat. He cannot control his movements or his verbal outbursts, and he needs help with every aspect of daily life. His devoted and loving parents, siblings, and a daily caregiver are available to him every hour of every day. Yet, despite Daniel’s significant needs, the family never misses the opportunity to celebrate Shabbat, holidays, and family milestones.

As the sun begins to set, Mary Ann adds the finishing touches to the meal and readies Daniel’s dinner (Ensure, a nutritional supplement), which is provided through a feeding tube. Shabbat begins when the family enters the dining room and each person adds money to the tzedakah box. Mary Ann lights the candles while Molly says the prayer. Daniel’s face lights up because he knows “his” blessing is coming. After saying “gut Shabbos” to each other, the family listens as Lester and Daniel make kiddush. Lester says the prayer very slowly and Daniel mouths the words. With help from his mother, Daniel holds the silver kiddush cup in his hand, then takes a sip of wine and smiles; he knows it is Shabbat. They all say the prayer over the challah, and then Lester and Mary Ann bless their children. Jewish music, via a CD Daniel received as a bar mitzvah gift, brings a sense of calm and joy to the evening’s rituals. Mary Ann offers Daniel a taste of mashed potatoes or sauce, but mostly, he passes the time watching and smiling throughout the meal. Judaism — and especially Shabbat — are central to the family’s life.

A Jewish family in a Jewish home celebrating Shabbat. Here’s a difference: a green grated ramp and the “handicapped parking” signs outside their suburban Boston home. After dinner, Lester moves Daniel toward the elevator at the back of the kitchen. The elevator was added seven years ago when Daniel became too heavy to be carried up the stairs. They say goodnight, and begin their ascent to the second floor and the bedrooms, where Lester will put Daniel to bed.

Mary Ann and Lester maintain a “normal” life, she says, whenever possible. Except for their summer vacation, Daniel goes everywhere with the family: on college tours, to restaurants, and once, on a cruise. “Danny reminds us,” Mary Ann explains, “to celebrate life. Like other families, we’re parents and children. While we have had to work hard to reach this point, we have moved on; we’re not bitter.” The “normal” did take some time to achieve. The family has had many challenges along the way: the cost of Daniel’s medical needs and daily care; the constant worry for his wellbeing; the need to give time and care to Molly and their oldest child, Alex, who is now in college. But Mary Ann, a trained nurse, and Lester, a cardiologist, have been able to devote the lion’s share of their time, resources, and energy to creating a warm Jewish home.

Daniel’s bar mitzvah was the culmination of his participation in a program created by Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, which enables Jewish children with special needs to have a Jewish education, in both day schools and supplemental settings. Daniel’s parshah, Bamidbar, is the story of the first Jewish census, when everyone was asked to contribute to the community as a way to count each member. The psalmist wrote, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” (chap.18:22) For the Shoap family, Shabbat and their children — all of their children — have become the center and the strength of their lives.

I was humbled when asked to write this for Sh'ma when I was the communications and development coordinator for Gateways: Access to Jewish Education in Newton, MA. (www.jgateways.org) I am grateful to Mary Ann Shoap for collaborating on this article and for expressing her appreciation for the opportunity by saying, “Who knows whom it may reach and influence.”

This article was originally published in Sh'ma Magazine, June 2009. http://www.shmadigital.com/shma/200906?pg=16#pg16 To subscribe: 877-568-SHMA www.shma.com

Monday, April 9, 2012

My Favorite Things

Each year, as I begin to prepare for Passover by taking out the boxes of dishes, utensils and assorted necessities from the basement cabinets, I am reminded of seders past and relatives long gone. The joy and comfort I feel as I unwrap these plates, pots, graters and ceremonial items (many of which once belonged to family members) eases the sense of loss that accompanies them. Indeed, Passover is often a time of family challenge: ailing elders, children stressed by exams, transitions for the rest of us. Those making seders are equally burdened by the fast approaching deadline. I am both excited and nervous about making this magic happen each year.

Yet we do it, year after year. Why? Because it is part of who and what we are. A people, changing with the times, growing in new ways, creating traditions unique to each of us.

I love the community I have created by having seders every year. The core group always returns, supplemented each year by newcomers. We do old and new readings, eat the same foods brightened by new recipes, and create new memories by singing favorite songs.

At the Jewish day school where I work, we have created a vibrant school community by joining our institutional memories with the world in which we live. For instance, our students are learning via new technology their ABCs and Aleph Bet, biology and bible study, creative writing and how to make charoset. And its creation is assured by the devoted staff, faculty and parents, dedicated volunteers and generous donors who give of their time and resources to ensure that these youngsters grow into the adults they are meant to be.

Thank you for being a part of my community. May you find joy in your holiday celebrations with families and friends at this very special time of year.