Counting Our Blessings

When I was a child, and things troubled me I found great comfort in the 1954 Eddie Fisher top ten song,” Count Your Blessings.”

“When I’m worried and I can’t sleep I count my blessings instead of sheep, and I fall asleep, counting my blessings.”

How frequently that haunting refrain has played in my mind over the past seven months!  The novelty, if ever there was one, of the pandemic has worn off.  The “camping trip alone in the woods” mentality that some of us could adopt during the early weeks of lockdown has long since given way to the harsh realities of isolation, economic hardship, suffering and death which are the enduring “worries” of the time in which we are now living.

And yet … if there is a single factor that has sustained the Jewish people through the many dark nights history has forced us to live through, it is our ability to savor and count our blessings.

The response of Bat Yam Temple of the islands to the pandemic is a wonderful example of counting our blessings in the midst of “worry.”

Instead of allowing Covid-19 to sink us, our leadership team, headed by Michael Hochschild and Janice Chaddock, exhorted us to pool our individual skills and dedicate them to furthering the congregation’s sacred task of providing a warm, welcoming center of meaningful Jewish worship, study, community and social justice initiatives. Other congregations have responded similarly.

Among the blessings we have discovered is the miracle of our extended reach.  Passover was a prime example.  Our Seder included participants not only from Sanibel but also from as far away as Hawaii and Europe and many places in between.

Likewise our High Holy Day worship was a miracle.

This year many congregations spent big money on costly show business technology and professional experts to pre-record dazzling extravaganzas to enhance their Holy Day offerings. To each their own! But Bat Yam Temple of the Islands quickly and prudently decided to maintain the boundary between soulful worship and show business. Relying on the considerable knowledge and skill thankfully possessed by our wonderful Tech Team volunteers, our Holy Days were not only spiritually fulfilling, they reached far beyond the walls of our sanctuary to homes of congregants and others from around the country and other parts of the world.

Similarly our educational and social justice programs, which traditionally had been on hiatus between May and November stimulated hearts and minds not just in this country but in Germany, South Africa and Australia as well.

Personally, Vickie and I had looked forward for years to sharing the joy of our first grandchild’s Bar Mitzvah in November. The pandemic, though, forced us to forego the hugs and togetherness that would have brought our far-flung family together with great joy.  We do not minimize how much our experience was diminished.  But at the same time we savor our ability to view and share the joy of Zachary’s achievement through the miracle of modern technology.

Through many difficult periods of history our people have made do as best we could and continued to find blessings in difficult circumstances. Our celebration of Chanukah is a prime example. From slavery in Egypt to the Inquisition in Spain to the Shoah in Germany and many times in between, we have endured. And while it threatens to continue to plague us, the Covid -19 pandemic will not defeat us either.

Lam-rot ha-Kol  (in spite of everything) as we say in Hebrew, we Jews have survived and thrived because of our ability – even in the darkest of hours—to count our blessings and trust that the future will be better. 

This time of Covid-19 will be no different. Despite the difficulties of these days, our blessings are many, and our future will be bright

A Tale of Two Hernias

It was early March in 1953. My mother and I sat in the office of Dr.Roman Kawalik, a surgeon who told us I needed an operation to repair a hernia.

“Can it wait until after his birthday?” I remember my mom asking.

“When is his birthday?” the doctor asked in return.

“March 16,” my mother answered.

“Bring him to the hospital on March 17,” Dr. Kawalik responded.

And so on March 17, 1953, Stephen Fuchs returned to East Orange General Hospital where he had entered the world 7 years earlier.

It was a six-day stay.

Tomorrow, when I enter Healthpark Medical Center at 8:15 AM for my second hernia operation, the estimate is that I shall walk out six hours later.

Still, I admit that I am frightened . It might be a minor procedure for Dr. Salomon Levy Miranda, but it will feel like a major assault on my body very close to the most sensitive area of all.

I marvel at how far medical science has progressed in the 67 years between my two hernia procedures. But I won’t breathe easier until it is over, and sufficient time passes for me to resume normal activities.

I would appreciate any and all prayers.

www.rabbifuchs.com

Follow me on Twitter: @rabbifuchs6

A Harvest of Justice

Each year since 2017, Bat Yam Temple of the Islands has held a lovely service in the Sukkah outside the building we share with Sanibel Congregational UCC.

About a month ago, one of our officers asked me in a Zoom meeting. What are we doing for Sukkot? In truth I had no idea.

Then I began to think, what can we do to make Sukkot meaningful at a time when building a sukkah and huddling together under it are impossible?

After a few days an idea began to take shape. Since the death of George Floyd, Bat Yam Temple of the Islands has made a conscious effort to feel the pain of the African American community over issues of equality and racial justice. Sukkot is the festival that celebrates the harvest. Then it dawned on me what our harvest should be.

Over the summer our inspiring series of racial justice webinars featured informative and inspiring African American speakers. First was Rabbi Capers Funnye, of Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation of Chicago (who also happens to be a cousin of Michelle Obama) on the realities of Black Judaism. Gwynetta Gittens of the Fort Myers Board of Education spoke to us about racial justice and injustice in education. Our final speaker was Chantel Rhodes, a young activist, who has organized local protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

On the Eve of Sukkot, during our service at 7:00 PM this Friday evening, we will be blessed to hear an inspiring message from Rev. Dr. Alvan N. Johnson Jr., on the topic, “A Harvest of Justice.”  

Dr. Johnson and I are friends from my days in Connecticut when he headed Bethel AME Church, and we regularly exchanged pulpits and engaged in other activities. 

Back when most people were involved in agriculture, Sukkot was without question the most important festival of the Jewish year. 

But relatively few of us are farmers today, and while we understand the significance of the Harvest in an abstract way, it does not inform our very being as it once did.

Finding new themes to connect to the harvest festival is not a new idea. In his best selling 1964 novel, The Rabbi, Noah Gordon wrote of a young boy, Michael, his assimilated Jewish mother, Dorothy and his religious grandfather: 

“The bond between Michael and his zaydeh grew stronger during the early fall, when the days began to shorten and the autumn feast of Sukkos drew near.  Each autumn Zaydeh built in their postage-stamp back yard a sukkah, or ceremonial hut.  

‘Why do you bother,’ Dorothy asked him once when she brought a glass of tea to where he strained and perspired to raise the hut? 

‘To celebrate the harvest.’ “What harvest, for God’s sake?  We’re not farmers.  You sell canned goods.  Your son makes corsets for ladies with big behinds.  Who has a harvest?’

He looked pityingly at this female his son had made his daughter.  ‘For thousands of years, since the Jews emerged from the Wilderness, in ghettos and in palaces they have observed Sukkos.  You don’t have to raise cabbages to have a harvest.’  His big hand grasped Michael behind the neck and pushed him toward his mother.  ‘Here is your harvest.’  She didn’t understand, and by then Zaydeh had been living with them long enough not to expect understanding from her.”

No, Dorothy did not understand, but hopefully we do. Our children are our harvest! And I pray our actions will enable them to reap a world of equality and justice for all.

The Missing Rabbi

As Yom Kippur approaches, I want to share a story I have told many times over the years. Hopefully it reminds us of what our priorities should be.

It was the Eve of Yom Kippur.  The entire congregation packed the sanctuary.  All awaited the beginning of worship on the holiest night of the year,.  The Cantor took his place on the bimah, ready to stir the souls of the congregation with the sounds of the magnificent Kol Nidre prayer.

There was only one problem.  The Rabbi was missing.  No one had seen him arrive at the synagogue.  No one knew where he was.  The president and vice-president of the congregation went up to the women’s section of the sanctuary.  There, the rabbi’s wife sat in her accustomed seat.  “Where is your husband, our Rabbi?  They asked anxiously.

“I do not know,” she replied. “He left home at least an hour ago.  I thought he was on his way to the synagogue to prepare for the service.”

Hastily, the leaders of the congregation organized a search party.  They fanned out through the surrounding neighborhoods looking for their beloved Rabbi.  Not long thereafter, the congregation’s president came to a small house.  The door was open, so he walked in.  There he saw the rabbi holding a small child, who was sleeping peacefully in his arms.

“Sshh,” said the Rabbi when he saw his congregant.  “Don’t wake the baby!”

“But, Rabbi,” the President exclaimed.  “What are you doing here?  The whole congregation has been waiting for some time.  It is the Day of Atonement.  It is time for Kol Nidre to begin.”

“I know,” the Rabbi answered.  “I was on my way to synagogue.  I would have arrived in plenty of time, but I passed this house, and I heard the baby crying.  How could I simply leave him here?”

Quickly, the President ran to the synagogue and found the baby’s mother.  “He sleeps so soundly” she replied to his query.  “I thought I could come to the service and be home before he woke up.”  Then the mother hurried home to her child.  The Rabbi hurried to his waiting congregation to lead them in worship on the holiest day of the year.

(I first told this story when I was chosen by lottery to speak at my BHL graduation ceremony in Los Angeles in 1970.I have adapted it from Migdal David, by David Solomon ben Samuel of Lelov (1873). I found it in S.Y. Agnon, The Days of Awe, (New York, Schocken Books, 1965), p. 227.)

A Brief Explanation of Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur begins Sunday evening. It is a day of quiet contemplation, a time for us to look into our lives, acknowledge our wrongdoings, and resolve to do better in this New Year.

In contrast to the way in which the shofar’s loud blast on Rosh Ha-Shana proclaims the world’s creation, Yom Kippur bids us to look quietly and sincerely into our inner souls.  Long ago on this solemn day the high priest could enter the holy of holies  — the inner most sanctum of the ancient temple — with the entire congregation waiting outside.  The priest prepared himself for the ritual for no fewer than seven days.  The people believed that when he emerged after pleading with God for the future of our people and he was still alive and well that a new year of health, joy, meaning and prosperity was assured.  

Today, we have no more priests to make atonement for us.  

Today, each of us must look into our own holy of holies.  Each of us must look into our own arc of the Covenant to examine our deeds –to regret the things we have done wrong and to say we are sorry to God and to one another for those transgressions.  When we have done these things sincerely, we may indeed enter the New Year feeling cleansed and renewed. 

At the Surgeon

In the waiting room.

Whew! With God’s help and Vickie’s, I survived Rosh Hashanah.

Now, we are sitting in the waiting room of the surgeon to whom we were referred in the emergency room early Rosh Hashanah morning.

The diagnosis is inguinal hernia. Will it need surgery? If so, how soon?

Sitting here my mind wanders back to my first hernia surgery on March 17, 1953. I had just turned seven years old. Back then my hernia occasioned a six-day hospital stay. My lingering memory from back then is that everyone wanted to cheer me up by making me laugh. The problem was laughing hurt like hell.

Now, they say, hernias are either outpatient or one night in the hospital affairs.

Mostly I am concerned about my ability or lack thereof to exercise during these next several weeks. We shall see.

After the visit

Well … yes, I need surgery, but the good news it’s it can wait until after Yom Kippur. Vickie and I both felt very comfortable with Dr. Salomon Levy Miranda of Venezuela. He explained the robotic procedure he opts to use, and we both felt we are in very good hands. Barring complications it will be outpatient.

Unfortunately, it will be several weeks until I can play tennis again. That is a big concern because, honestly, it is tennis and the ability to play frequently and vigorously that has kept me sane and fit during these months of pandemic. But I will pray the prayer of Rabbi Nahum of Gamzu:

גם זו יעבר. And this too shall pass!

With God’s help, may I look back on this episode two months from now as just an inevitable speed bump on the unpredictable road of life!

God Carried Me

There is a well-known story about a man privileged to see the course of his life as “Footprints in the Sand.”  Most of the time there were two sets of prints but occasionally there was only one. God explained, “Where you see two sets, that is where I walked with you.”

“But why,” the man asked, “did you leave me in the places where there is only one?’

“No,” the Eternal One answered, “the places where there is only one set of footprints are the places where I carried you.”

Rosh Hashanah began auspiciously. Our evening service was our first attempt to live stream from our sanctuary, and despite a few glitches it went well thanks to our amazing Tech Team at Bat Yam Temple of the Islands as well as the prodigious efforts of Cantor Murray Simon, and our amazing first-time Shofar blower, Elissa Karasin-Samet.”

We had no professional lighting crew, no specially installed Klieg lights, no choir and no musical instruments except the awesome Abbey Allison at the piano.

As the rabbi of the congregation I felt like a bit player in an amazingly well coordinated volunteer effort. I could not be more proud of the congregation I serve.

At midnight that night I awoke with a sharp pain where my right hip meets my torso. I lay there for a while thinking and hoping it would go away. When it did not, I took some pain medication; it only got worse. So I woke Vickie.

She called our daughter-in-law physician in San Francisco who advised us to go to the ER.

The staff at Lee Memorial could not have been more helpful. Feeling a lump, the doctor diagnosed a hernia and ordered a CT scan and a very strong narcotic for the pain. Four hours later, he suggested I be admitted and further evaluated the next day.

When I explained that this was Rosh Hashanah, and I hoped to conduct services in a few hours, he agreed to release me with a strong prescription if the pain recurred.

When we got home and took showers, I fell into a deep narcotic induced sleep. When Vickie woke me, I could not believe it was already time to get up. Somehow I led the service.

Afterwards several congregants shared that it was one of the most meaningful worship services they had ever attended.

As for me, I have no doubt. That was one of the times God carried me.

Why We Celebrate Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah, as I have explained in other essays, rose from minor importance to the major status it enjoys today because our people needed  an occasion to celebrate the vital ideals inherent in Genesis’s Story of Creation (Genesis 1:1-2:4).

For me the Tee shirt pictured captures that message:

Translation:

“And God said …”

Then all the scientific stuff

“And there was light.”

In other words:

Genesis does NOT tell us HOW the world was created.

But it tells us a great deal about WHY

  • However it was done God initiated it
  • It was not an accident. The creation of the world is purposeful and meaningful.
  • Therefore our lives have (or at least they should have) purpose and meaning.
  • We are the only creatures created “in God’s image.” That does not mean we look like God. It means we have the most power to affect our environment and the quality of life in society for better or ill.
  • Once each week we need a day to step back and think: “How am I using my talents to make a better world.

Yes Genesis tells an awful lot about WHY we are here and what God wants from us! Why we are here and what God wants from us are the reasons we celebrate Rosh Hashanah!

Awe, Dread … and Hope

Ready or not Rosh Hashanah arrives tomorrow! And I do not feel ready. 

Never in my career have I prepared more for the Days of Awe, and never in my career have I felt less prepared.

Frankly, were it not for the amazing Tech Team of Bat Yam Temple of the Islands, I would feel completely lost in leading our community and those who join us from afar in virtual worship. I cannot thank them enough. 

This year is just so different from anything we have ever experienced. Of course I am not alone in that feeling.

Never in my life have I heard so many people – or any people for that matter — quote the liturgical poem for Rosh Hashanah Eve, Ahot Katanah, “Little Sister.” The prayer stems from the biblical book of Song of Songs (8:8) and references Israel as the Eternal One’s “little sister” who suffers greatly yet remains faithful to God. The prayer proclaims, “Let the old year with its curses end … May the New year with her blessings begin.”

Indeed that is the hope of all of us: a new year of blessings, a new year free of the Covid-19 curse, a year free from racial injustice, free from police brutality, free from hunger, eviction, unemployment and want.

May the New Year starting so ominously blossom into a year of peace, kindness, racial harmony and good health.

And yet so much is uncertain. My former student and now friend, Rabbi Debra Kassoff and Rabbi Annie Belford beautifully capture that uncertainty in these words:

Knowing You are God, not knowing what that means…
We proclaim the sacred power of this day,
The sacred power of the shofar’s blast,
The power of the internet connecting us 
While the power of an infinitesimally small virus reshapes the meaning of what human power can and cannot do…
It is awesome and full of dread. 

How can we not feel dread in a time like this? And yet we remember:

In encouraging the exiled children of Judah to return and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem the Babylonians destroyed in 586 BCE the prophet Zechariah (9:12) proclaimed, “Return to your strongholds, you Prisoners of Hope.” 

“Prisoners of Hope” describes the perseverance of he Jewish people through all that has befallen us over the millenniaPrisoners of hope we have been, and Prisoners of Hope we shall remain.

 Knowing what we have survived inspires me to believe that we will endure through the pandemic and all of its accompanying nightmares.  Somehow, some way – as we always have — we will endure and emerge from the coronavirus darkness.

And so with awe and dread, but bolstered by the hope that will not release us. we will step into the New Year.

L’shana Tova!  A good year!

A New Year Message Especially to Unaffiliated Jews

 

Horrible things have marked the year 5780. The Coronavirus pandemic, horrific instances of police brutality, the stark reality of racial injustice, and the sharp spike in anti-Semitic incidents all combine to make this a time for Jews to show the world we are proud of who we are and the values we espouse.

All of my life I have been grateful that our American constitution guarantees freedom of religion. But I also embraced the fact that it guarantees “freedom from religion.”

While Jewish religious thought and ritual mean everything to me, I have always understood that there are many Jews who are not religiously observant and have no desire to become so.

Many Jews purposely choose to come to southwest Florida precisely because it is easier to blend into the mainstream of life here without overtly practicing their heritage.

 I always felt their choice to be non-observant was as valid for them as my choice to be observant is for me. … until now

In these perilous times, I find myself putting the question to my non-observant acquaintances that I never felt the need to ask before.  It is the same question that Mordecai, through the courtier Hatach, put to Queen Esther:  Who knows if you have not come to be where you are for just such a time as this. (Esther 4:14)

At first Mordecai encourages Esther not to reveal her heritage when she becomes the King’s bride.  In the face of Haman’s anti-Semitic threat to destroy us, though, he tells her, now is the time to reveal yourself and stand at such a time with all of us. 

There is much about the pandemic we cannot control. We also cannot control the actions of misguided or deranged people who perpetrate anti-Jewish hate.  But we can control our response. Now is not the time for Jews to remain in the closet. It is the time to stand proudly as Jews.

Throughout history, beginning with Pharaoh in Egypt through Hitler a generation ago, many tyrants have risen to try to destroy us. Many have been the threats to our lives and comfort level in society. None of them have succeeded.

But the biggest ally of anti-Semitism is our own indifference to the precious heritage that is ours. 

The pandemic has been rough on all of us. Often, we feel isolated and alone.  The many different virtual activities Bat Yam Temple of the Islands has sponsored, have provided a valuable antidote to the loneliness of many in Sanibel, around the country and in other parts of the world as well. The Days of Awe are almost here. Now is the time to stand up and be counted with pride as a Jew. Now is the time – even though it is still virtually – to come home.