Barbara Brill, January 31, 2023

When I think of Barbara Brill, these words of a famous Nat “King” Cole song play in my mind: “Unforgettable, that’s what you are.”

Life dealt Barbara Brill a difficult hand, but she never let cerebral palsy get in her way.

She moved, oh so slowly, but her mind was lightning quick. She earned a Masters in speech therapy and helped many people overcome their verbal challenges.

One of my favorite Midrashim teaches that since the time God finished the work of creation, the Eternal One has been very busy arranging marriages.  To me there is no better proof of that tradition than Mike and Barbara Brill.  They were truly meant for each other.  They met at Camp Green Tot, a camp for physically challenged kids when they were nine years old.  Barb remembers that Mike liked another girl, but he gave Barb candy just to make the other girl jealous.   “Well one thing led to another,” as Barb put it, and they became a couple.

They married on January 24, 1960 and blessed each other’s life as husband and wife for nearly 51 years

They worked as a team whose handicaps and strengths coordinated like meshing gears.  Mike moved fast but spoke with difficulty.  Barbara moved slowly but spoke perfectly.

On December 8, 1979, Barbara mounted the bima of Temple Isaiah and became an adult Bat Mitzvah.  She read the story of Jacob’s struggle with God to become Yisrael – one who struggles with God – and how he walked with a limp ever after.  She taught the congregation a great deal that day about how her life was a living embodiment of that struggle.

Barb was part of Temple Isaiah’s first ever adult Bat Mitzvah class.  For a whole year the group studied together.  Then, each chose the portion of the Torah that meant the most to her. On the Shabbat that portion was read, the other members of the class divided up the morning prayers, and the person whose portion fell on that week read from the scroll and taught the congregation the meaning of the portion. Barb identified with Jacob because she herself walked only with the aid of crutches attached to her hands. “I chose this portion,” Barb said, “ because I understand what it is like having to walk through life with a limp.”

And yet, like Jacob prevailed in his struggle, Barb met and prevailed over the many challenges she faced in her life.

Very rarely did Barbara and Mike miss services at Temple Isaiah, and then only if one of them was not well.  I remember standing outside the Meeting House in Oakland Mills one Friday night when there was a serious snowstorm, wondering if anyone else would show up. But the Brills were there. I can still see Barb gingerly and carefully placing her crutches on the ice as I held my breath with each step she took.

Barbara and Mike Brill’s fondest wish was that they could become parents.  “There is no way,” I thought, “that they could handle a child.” But they knew differently.  They tried tirelessly to adopt for ten years, but they had no success.  You would think most people would give up after that amount of time, but not Barbara and Mike Brill.

One day a miracle occurred. 

They visited the Gallagher Center where they tried to help kids.  A little girl came over and sat in Barb’s lap.  She spent time living with the Brills and eventually they adopted her.  She was wild and hard to control, but Barb and Mike gave her abundant love, structure and discipline.  In her new home Ellen thrived and made enormous progress thanks to her loving and devoted parents.

Five years later, Ellen tragically died when she was run over by a car. Barb and Mike’s sadness was impossible to describe.

But Barb and Mike did not give up.

The adopted a son, Kevin, several years later because they had so much love to give and so much to teach a young boy about life’s challenges.

When Mike died in 2010, I feared Barb might fall apart. I need not have worried. Just as she had met and overcome every other challenge life threw onto her path, Barbed limped forward with courage and determination. By living until age 86, she defied all the actuarial predictions of life spans for those afflicted with cerebral palsy.

Barb, I hope and trust you were able to hear the last phone message I left for you before Shabbat last Friday:

“You have been an enormous inspiration on my life. Whenever, I feel frustrated by the little challenges in my own life, I think of all that you have overcome.”

Had I thought of it, I would have added, “Unforgettable, that’s what you are!”

January 31, 2023

When I think of Barbara Brill, these words of a famous Nat “King” Cole song play in my mind: “Unforgettable, that’s what you are.”

Life dealt Barbara Brill a difficult hand, but she never let cerebral palsy get in her way.

She moved, oh so slowly, but her mind was lightning quick. She earned a Masters in speech therapy and helped many people overcome their verbal challenges.

One of my favorite Midrashim teaches that since the time God finished the work of creation, the Eternal One has been very busy arranging marriages.  To me there is no better proof of that tradition than Mike and Barbara Brill.  They were truly meant for each other.  They met at Camp Green Tot, a camp for physically challenged kids when they were nine years old.  Barb remembers that Mike liked another girl, but he gave Barb candy just to make the other girl jealous.   “Well one thing led to another,” as Barb put it, and they became a couple.

They married on January 24, 1960 and blessed each other’s life as husband and wife for nearly 51 years.  They worked as a team whose handicaps and strengths coordinated like meshing gears.  Mike moved fast but spoke with difficulty.  Barbara moved slowly but spoke perfectly.

On December 8, 1979, Barbara mounted the bima of Temple Isaiah and became an adult Bat Mitzvah.  She read the story of Jacob’s struggle with God to become Yisrael – one who struggles with God – and how he walked with a limp ever after.  She taught the congregation a great deal that day about how her life was a living embodiment of that struggle.

Barb was part of Temple Isaiah’s first ever adult Bat Mitzvah class.  For a whole year the group studied together.  Then, each chose the portion of the Torah that meant the most to her. On the Shabbat that portion was read, the other members of the class divided up the morning prayers, and the person whose portion fell on that week read from the scroll and taught the congregation the meaning of the portion. Barb identified with Jacob because she herself walked only with the aid of crutches attached to her hands. “I chose this portion,” Barb said, “ because I understand what it is like having to walk through life with a limp.”

And yet, like Jacob prevailed in his struggle, Barb met and prevailed over the many challenges she faced in her life.

Very rarely did Barbara and Mike miss services at Temple Isaiah, and then only if one of them was not well.  I remember standing outside the Meeting House in Oakland Mills one Friday night when there was a serious snowstorm, wondering if anyone else would show up. But the Brills were there. I can still see Barb gingerly and carefully placing her crutches on the ice as I held my breath with each step she took.

Barbara and Mike Brill’s fondest wish was that they could become parents.  “There is no way,” I thought, “that they could handle a child.” But they knew differently.  They tried tirelessly to adopt for ten years, but they had no success.  You would think most people would give up after that amount of time, but not Barbara and Mike Brill.

One day a miracle occurred.  They visited the Gallagher Center where they tried to help kids.  A little girl came over and sat in Barb’s lap.  She spent time living with the Brills and eventually they adopted her.  She was wild and hard to control, but Barb and Mike gave her abundant love, structure and discipline.  In her new home Ellen thrived and made enormous progress thanks to her loving and devoted parents.

Five years later, Ellen tragically died when she was run over by a car. Barb and Mike’s sadness was impossible to describe.

But Barb and Mike did not give up. The adopted a son, Kevin, several years later because they had so much love to give and so much to teach a young boy about life’s challenges.

When Mike died in 2010, I feared Barb might fall apart. I need not have worried. Just as she had met and overcome every other challenge life threw onto her path, Barbed limped forward with courage and determination. By living until age 86, she defied all the actuarial predictions of life spans for those afflicted with cerebral palsy.

Barb, I hope and trust you were able to hear the last phone message I left for you before Shabbat last Friday:

“You have been an enormous inspiration on my life. Whenever, I feel frustrated by the little challenges in my own life, I think of all that you have overcome.”

Had I thought of it, I would have added, “Unforgettable, that’s what you are!”

We All Have Reason to Rejoice at the Message and Meaning of Tu B’Shevat

In 1971 the United States began observing Earth Day to remind us of our responsibility to care for our environment.  More than 2000 years ago our Sages instituted Tu B’Shevat** to remind us of our responsibility to care for the environment.

Jewish tradition’s concern with how we care for this world goes back much further than that to the very beginning of the Book of Genesis. In the Story of Creation, we are created in God’s image with responsibility for the birds of the air, the creatures of the sea the fowl of the air … and over all the earth. “(Genesis 1:26)

In the next chapter God put the first humans in the Garden of Eden “to till it and to tend it.”  (Genesis 2:15)

Tu B’Shevat arrives each year with a pointed question:  How well are we “tilling and tending” this Garden of a Planet God has entrusted to our care.  The inescapable answer is, “Not very well.”

Anthony Douglas Williams, author of Inside the Divine Pattern wrote: “We destroy life, and we pollute the oceans and skies, yet we have the audacity to call ourselves superior beings.”

In Msomi and Me: Tales of the African Bush, Brian Connell, describes the bush as: “A world that … we will never fully understand. In fact, we will never understand even a small part of it as man, in his continual quest for money is already encroaching on the wilderness, world-wide, destroying everything in his path.

‘If you don’t understand it, and you think it’s in the way, destroy it.’

The creed of modern man, and it stinks.” (Brian Connell, Msomi and Me: Tales of the African Bush, p. 227 (Kindle edition).

Upon returning from his first visit to Israel and Jordan, a Christian friend shared with me an observation that I have noted myself many times: “When we drove south from Jerusalem toward the Dead Sea along the Jordanian border, it is so stark to notice the difference between the lush vegetation on the Israeli side and the barren desert on the Jordanian side.”

 It is a source of pride for me that the Land of Israel, well before its founding as a state in 1948, displayed scrupulous concern with protecting and enhancing the environment. My good friend, Rabbi Paul Citrin, writes eloquently of the work of his pet Israeli charity, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel:

During its sixty-three years of existence, SPNI has logged numerous environmental victories. Some of them are:

  • On-line programs about bird migration, species preservation, guarding against environmental damage and an ethic of caring for the land.
  • Creating and maintaining the national hiking trail system.
  • Fighting environmentally harmful plans of hotel and road building and from polluting chemicals and encroaching on animal sanctuaries.
  • Reclaiming many streams that have become polluted over the years.
  • Halting the alarming shrinkage of the Dead Sea.
  • Establishing field school for environmental protection to teach environmentalism and to increase love of the land.
  • Creating Start Up Nature, a bold venture to reclaim and rewild abandoned agricultural spaces and transform them into a network of world class wildlife sanctuaries.

As an American I applaud the Creation of Earth Day and the environmental initiatives it has spawned. But it also makes me proud to note that the ancient and modern Land of Israel is two thousand years ahead of the United States in its creation of an ”Earth Day” Holiday with untiring efforts in its wake that have made the desert bloom.

**See MIshnah Rosh Hashanah 1:1 Tu B’Shevat is celebrated this year from the evening of February 5 to the evening of February 6.

Another Look at Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart

Why does God harden Pharaoh’s heart?  Why did God not simply “soften” Pharaoh’s heart, show him the error of his ways, and bring about the emancipation of the Hebrews in a peaceful and loving way?

Without question the “arteriosclerosis of Pharaoh” is a complex subject. 

Traditional Jewish commentators point out that early in the encounters between Moses and Pharaoh, the text states that: “Pharaoh’s heart stiffened.”  (E.g. Exodus 7:22; 8:15) or “Pharaoh became stubborn” (Exodus 8:10; 8:28).  Later, (beginning with Exodus 9:12) the text begins to say: “the Eternal One stiffened Pharaoh’s heart.”

This shift, according to the commentators, reflects the view that inertia-the unchecked hardening of Pharaoh’s heart (his stubbornness)–took the matter out of his hands.  

His evil took on a life of its own.

In Studies in Shemot, Nehama Leibowitz compares the unchecked acts of evil Pharaoh committed to those of the title character in the play Macbeth.  At first, Macbeth is reluctant to do wrong.  He certainly fears to lay hands on his King, Duncan.  With each succeeding murder, though, the voice of his conscience wanes until it can exercise no control over his treacherous impulses.

When in Act III, Lady Macbeth, who first encouraged her reluctant husband to kill the King, voices her reservations about Macbeth’s reign of terror, Macbeth responds: “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.” (Act III, Scene 2, line 55).  In other words, the evil has taken on a life of its own; Macbeth can no longer control himself.  So it was with Pharaoh.

In Rabbinic literature, belief in God and the study of Torah help a person fight the inclination to do evil.  Rabbi Simeon ben Levi said:

“The evil inclination of a person waxes stronger day by day.

It seeks to kill him.   If God did not help, a person could not 

overcome it.”

(B. Kiddushin 30 b).

Implicit in this text is the notion that a person must enlist God’s help to fight the inclination to do evil.  God will not do it for us unless we consciously make the effort.

Rabbi Akiba (second century C.E.) foreshadowed Shakespeare’s insight in 

Macbeth when he described the inclination to do evil this way:

“At first it (the inclination to do evil) is like a spider’s thread and

at last it is like a rope of a ship.” 

(Genesis Rabbah 22:6).

In other words, only through diligent effort and appeal to God for help, can humans overcome the inclination to do wrong.  When we persist in evil, when we ignore God’s will, evil takes on strength greater than we can control. 

 Those uncomfortable with such direct references to the Almighty, but who still seek guidance from traditional texts, might choose to substitute, “appeals to the conscience” for “enlist God’s help.”

God, then, did not actually harden Pharaoh’s heart.  God allowed Pharaoh to continue on the course that he had chosen.  God allows all of us to do the same.  

In Pirke Avoth (III: 19) we read one of Jewish thoughts most enigmatic teachings: “All is foreseen.  Yet free will is given.”  As the rabbis understood God, the Almighty has prior knowledge of what would happen.  At the same time, the rabbis uphold the ability of human beings to make moral choices of their own volition.  So, for the Rabbis, the fact that God announces that the Almighty would harden Pharaoh’s heart (first in Exodus 4:21 and again in 7:3) does not mean that God is responsible for Pharaoh’s evil.  Pharaoh is.  


Channeling the Courage of Exodus’ Women

Long, long ago, before the internet allowed us to broadcast any idea no matter how outlandish far and wide, one used to have to demonstrate the worthiness of ideas before anyone would publish them. Back in the seventies, when we lived in Columbia, Maryland, The Washington Post was my media target.  

I wrote several letters to the Editor of the Post during those years, only a fraction of which appeared in print. I chafed when my letters did not appear, but it was not my call to make.

In March I978, I was very upset about the prospect of neo-Nazis marching through the town of Skokie, Illinois, in full unforms and with Nazi flags unfurled. Skokie had many Holocaust survivors among its population, and I felt the proposed march posed a clear and present danger to their health and well-being.

So, I wrote an essay and asked the post to consider it for their op ed page.  They responded essentially: We are considering your essay, but we need you to clarify x and y ideas and to document x and y statements. I jumped through all their hoops, and to my delight on March 9 my essay appeared in The Post alongside the esteemed op ed contributors of the day.

By contrast today I can write anything I want and send it out over social media without having to prove anything to anyone about its value or credibility.

I write quite a bit and take seriously the need to express myself responsibly and to verify my sources. But many people do not exercise these cautions.

That is one of the big reasons you can read all sorts of outlandish antisemitic tropes and holocaust denials all of which have led to markedly increased antisemitic activity in recent years.

The world wide web is just one of the many things we value and would never want to give up but that has its very dark side.

Take the automobile: In 1899, when cars were just beginning to hit the road, 26 people died in crashes. In the peak year 1972 it was 54,589, and better safety features have lowered that number to a still alarming 42,915. Each year 1.35 million people die in auto accidents around the world.

That is a very hefty price to pay for the convenience of our cars, but very few people would advocate banning motor travel as a result.

The internet and the freedom for irresponsible expression it allows is similar. Very few people suggest putting the genies that have unleashed horrific consequences back in their bottles.

A surge of antisemitism is one of those consequences, and the question is how do we cope?

This week’s Torah portion provides guidance in the examples of the women heroes of the Exodus. Like them, we each must do what we can when we can.

Pharaoh ordered Shifrah and Puah, two midwives, to kill the Hebrew baby boys they delivered. They defied the most powerful man in the world and would not do it. What courage that took!

Pharoah decreed that Hebrew boys drown in the Nile, but Yocheved, Moses’ mother, would not give up her baby.

And can you imagine the risk that Pharoah’s daughter took in saving Moses considering the evil decree of her father, her king and her god, Pharaoh? The quick thinking and courage of Miriam, Moses’ sister, and Zipporah, Moses’ wife, also made it possible for our people to survive. What do their examples teach us, whether we are Jews or not? The common denominator and the instructive word for us is COURAGE.

We must have the courage to stand up against evil.  If someone makes an antisemitic remark, don’t pretend you didn’t hear it. Have the courage to tell the person they are wrong.  Arm yourself with facts and figures about the many amazing accomplishment and societal advances attributed to Jew and Israelis.

Yes, support Israel. Israel is our homeland and our insurance against a time when the world might go mad once again. Israel has many flaws, and its present government make up is shocking shameful and scary to me. But there are times I have felt that way about the government of the United States.  That never meant I was renouncing my citizenship or my loyalty to the land of my birth.

It is vital to remember and to be willing to share that if Israel existed in 1935, one third of the world’s Jews and two thirds of the Jews of Europe would not have been dead by 1945.

If you feel moved –as I have often been moved over the years – to criticize this or that policy of the Israeli government, do so. But please, never stand by in silence while others delegitimate the country where more Jews live than any other and which remains a beacon of hope even in the face of incessant terrorist attacks and threats from its enemies to wipe it off the face of the earth.

As much as we need to defend ourselves, we also need to stand up for other minorities when people demean them either by word or deed.

This week we celebrate both the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Yahrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  Each year when we lived in Connecticut, our congregation exchanged pulpits with Bethel AME Church, headed by Dr. Alvan Johnson whom you heard on ZOOM for Sukkot three years ago when I was in the hospital with my hernia operation. Dr. Johnson spoke in our synagogue on Friday night, and I spoke in his church on Sunday morning.  Each year Dr. Johnson’s sermon contained at least one reference to the partnership and mutual respect between Heschel and King, who marched side by side both physically and spiritually.

Heschel’s activism for civil rights and King’s express support of the State of Israel strengthened their bond.

Make no mistake. Some ill winds for Jews are blowing. But if we can channel the courage of the women heroes of the Exodus and look for opportunities to respond constructively, and if we reach out for support from the larger community with eloquence and mutual support, then despite the clouds gathering on the horizon, we shall overcome.

Antisemitism Can Spread Like Wildfire … Will It?

The Book of Genesis ends very positively. Joseph forgives his brothers, and all is well. It would not surprise us after the last line of the Book if we read: “And they all lived happily ever after.”

Turning the page and beginning the Book of Exodus reveals that “happily” was not “ever after” after all. 

“A new King arose over Egypt …”  (Exodus 1:8) who did not look kindly on Josephs’ descendants.  He viewed us as a threat, so he enslaved us, embittered our lives and ordered his soldiers to throw our baby boys into the Nile.

In the transition from the tranquility of Genesis’ ending to the trauma of Exodus’ beginning, we see a pattern that has repeated itself throughout history. We Jews arrive in a country and settle there. We live comfortably until the economy dips, and then we become personae non grata.

I hate to write it, but it seems to be beginning to happen here.

Since the rise of Christianity, as the late philosopher, Emil Fackenheim, has noted, Jews felt an increasingly tightening vise of persecution. As Fackenheim put it: First authorities decreed, “You cannot live here as Jews,” and they forced us to convert. Later, countries decreed, “You cannot live here,” and they exiled us from their lands. Then Hitler came along and announced, “You cannot live.” He then orchestrated the deaths of one out of every three Jews in the world, and two out of three Jews in Europe.

The defeat and death of Hitler brought a welcome wave of shock and revulsion for what he tried to do. Germany led the way in passing legislation outlawing antisemitic activity and contributed many billions of dollars in reparations for the Holocaust to the State of Israel and to the families of the victims and the survivors of the “Final Solution.”

Now … 80 years later the shock and revulsion have worn off.

The advent of the internet has given entirely new definition to the idea of “Freedom of Speech.” Before the world wide web, if someone wanted to publish an idea widely, he or she would have to give evidence of the credibility of an idea or theory before they would print, publish and disseminate it.

Not so today

Now people can—with the push of a button – spread whatever ideas, credible or not, they wish. And so, we find once again antisemitic tropes frequently seen and heard on social media.

If I were in charge, there would be no protection under the First Amendment for “Hate Speech” because I believe such speech presents a “clear and present danger” to the health and well-being of those it targets.

It is also easy to overlook how susceptible people – even presumably intelligent people – can cotton to the ideas of a glib presenter or a charismatic personality.

I saw and heard this with my own eyes and ears.

On a cold January night in 1967, George Lincoln Rockwell, President of the American Nazi party, spoke to a packed crowd in the Hamilton College Chapel. He spewed out an antisemitic, anti-minority rant that that had no basis in logic or fact.

And yet…

It was clear to me as I looked about the chapel that some of these supposedly bright liberal arts students were resonating to Rockwell’s words. When I saw that, I picked myself up from my choice sixth row seat and walked slowly down the center aisle of the chapel and out the door into the frigid night air.

From that day to this I have known how easy it is to sway people, and with the internet bringing a huge audience within a fingertip’s reach of anyone at all, a hateful rant can appear in our inbox at any time at all. 

And given the “right” timing or approach it can spread like wildfire.  Get a couple of celebrities on board, and suddenly supposedly bright people will believe that the Holocaust never happened or that Jews have overdrawn its extent.

We Jews are at our best when we stand up to the challenge with pride and facts. We fight lies with truths and proudly proclaim the enormous positive impact Jews have had on society.

We also stand proudly by the State of Israel.  Is Israel perfect? Hardly. But as Jew I will not allow a government whose policies, I deplore prevent me from supporting, visiting and praying for our ancestral homeland.

As an American, I will never allow a governmental policy or a political leader I detest, shake my loyalty to the United States of America.  As a Jew I say the same thing about Israel.

Yes, what happened in Egypt and throughout history can happen here. But we are not powerless. If we stand proudly as Jews, and if we continually enlist people of good will in fighting hatred and bigotry, we will triumph over the hatred that is raising its ugly head … yet again.

Genesis: An Appreciation and and Opportunity

It was a very heady experience long ago.

When I was a very young rabbi in Columbia, MD, the public library invited me and other “leading citizens” to submit a short essay for display in a lobby exhibit about my favorite book.” I chose the Book of Genesis, the first Book of the Bible.

In the years since then, I have—this should be no surprise – read many, many books. Nevertheless, if now, when I am a very old rabbi, someone offered me the same opportunity, Genesis would still be my choice.

Genes is the basis of all subsequent Jewish, Christian and Islamic thought.

It begins with a story of creation fundamentally different from any of the countless creation myths the ancient world produced. It is also different than any of the scientific theories of the world’s origin scholars have conceived.

The ideas that story puts forth remain as instructive today as when it came to light thousands of years ago.

Genesis present a view of God completely different from that proposed in any other ancient literature. When I was a child in religious school, we learned that our God was different for two reasons. One, they worship many gods, we worship only One, and two our God is invisible while they bowed down to idols.

As I grew, it became clear to me that while those two distinctions are important, a third is even more significant: God’s agenda. Only the God of the Bible wants more than anything else for humans to create a just, caring compassionate society on earth.

The next ten chapters describe three attempts by God to have us humans do just that. Spoiler alert: They all fail.

In a fourth attempt, God chooses Abraham and Sarah, and makes a Covenant with them that endures to this day:

In that Covenant God promised:

  • To protect them
  • Give them children
  • Make them a permanent people
  • Give them the land of Israel

In return God charged them and their descendants (that’s us!)

  • To be a blessing (GN 12:2)
  • To study, understand and follow God’s teachings (GN 17:1)
  • To be examples and teach their descendants to be examples of “Righteousness and justice.”

God sets them forth on a Covenantal journey to teach the world God’s priorities. Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel continue the journey.  They each face and overcome difficult challenges in assuming or growing into their Covenantal destinies. The Book concludes with the magnificent Story of Joseph, a story of dreams, jealousy, deception and ultimately, reconciliation. 

The great beauty of Genesis is that all its characters – like all of us – are deeply flawed. They are capable of callous cruelty but also great moments of self-realization, forgiveness and redemption.

Beginning Saturday, January 21, from 10 to 11 AM and continuing through April, I shall Torah study sessions that will unpack in detail the ideas I present in this essay.  I invite you to join us. If you would like the zoom link for our sessions, please email me at stephenlfuchs@gmail.com

Vickie Rings the Bell

Vickie, the Bell, her Certificate of Treatment Completion and I

A lovely brass bell sits near the entrance of the Moffitt Cancer Center Infusion Unit. When patients complete their course of chemotherapy treatments, they ring the bell to celebrate their bravery and their accomplishment.

Today is the day for which we have been waiting since Vickie discovered the lump near her groin at the beginning of July.

The final diagnosis of Stage three non-Hodgkins lymphoma came through in September, and from that day to this, the doctor’s words, “Treatable and curable,” have been the lifeline to which we have clung.

But no one said the journey to today would be easy, and Hurricane Ian certainly complicated things, but here we are.

If there is a symbol for Vickie’s journey, it is the Sanibel Strong necklace I gave her for Chanukah. Our friend Scot Congress of Congress Jewelers designed. It features the Sanibel lighthouse, a beacon of hope for all of us who live on the island.

Now she has completed the last (we hope and pray) of six chemotherapy infusions. We cannot say enough good things about her doctor in Fort Myers, and the staff here at Moffit Cancer Center.

The infusion time becomes seemingly shorter because Vickie plays Mah Jong with her close friends, Caren and Elissa.

Each of our three children interrupted his and her busy life to visit with us and help,out in different ways. We are also very grateful for the love and support we have felt everyday from our Bat Yam family and the loving , supportive messages that have come through on social media.

The unsung hero is Vickie’s smartphone! How did we ever exist before those things were invented. They keep Vickie connected to friends and family around the world and to innumerable sources of knowledge and entertainment.

When the treatment ended, her nurse for today, a lovely Indian woman named Sushila, gathered as many of the infusion center staff as she could collar and announced, Vickie is going to ring the bell.

The inscription under the bell stresses the importance of savoring every victory in the fight against cancer — big or small. 

For Vickie this was a big one.

With tears in her eyes and a huge smile on her face, Vickie gave that bell several resounding clangs!

She will have PET scan a month to tell us — we pray — what the last one a month ag ago revealed: no evidence of cancer. Then, of course, she will be monitored regularly, and if all goes well, she will need no further treatments.

Gradually, then, her strength will return, her hair will return, our house will become habitable and life will,go on as it did before cancer and before Hurricane Ian.

What a wonderful possibility to contemplate!

I welcome you to follow me on Twitter: @rabbifuchs6

When All is Said and Done

eMy friend, since I entered rabbinical school in 1968, Rabbi Joseph Edelheit, has the honor to present the azkarah, the memorial tribute to colleagues who have died in the past year at the upcoming convention of the National Association of Retired Reform Rabbis (NAORRR).

Because the convention will honor Joe and his classmates on the fiftieth anniversary of their 1973 ordination, Joe also prepared a special azkarah for members in his class no longer living. His beautifully crafted, sensitive and caring remarks bring vividly to life each of the individuals he named and fill me with gratitude that I am not on the list. It also strikes me that the azkarah list is one that no rabbi escapes forever. 

And so, I found myself environing my own funeral and asking, “What will they say about me?”

They would recall, I guess, the books I have written and some of the distinctions and honors bestowed on me over the years. These milestone events crop up at various points on a clergy person’s path if he or she does not commit murder or some other egregious offense that disgraces the calling. 

As these “highlight moments” came to mind –and each had seemed so precious at the time—I found myself asking aloud, “What do they matter?” And the honest answer is, “Very little indeed.”

What I really would like my azkarah to include are some moments no one knows about, many of which I have forgotten myself or the impact of which I was not aware in the first place. As legendary UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden, once wrote: “A teacher never knows what stays with those he or she is teaching.”

At the end of the day, the only moments that really matter in my life are the moments when something I said or did made a positive difference in another person’s life.

Those are the moments that matter … the only moments that matter.

Awards and honors afford only ephemeral gratification. Often, they result from luck or circumstances that have nothing to do with objective merit. Often too, they are an excuse for an organization’s fundraising effort.

As Vickie’s childhood Rabbi, the late Alvin Fine, wrote, “Victory lies not at some high place along the way but in having made the journey … a sacred pilgrimage.”

As the famed sportswriter, Grantland Rice put it so eloquently: “When the one Great Scorer comes to score against your name, He writes – not that you won or lost – but how you played the game.”

Packing Anxiety

Packing for me is always stressful!

It does not matter whether it is a short trip or a long one, packing fills me with anxiety.  Yes, I have a carefully prepared list. Yes, I go over it several times. And still when I get where I am going, I always manage to have forgotten something.

Today our destination is Tampa where Vickie will receive what we hope will be her final chemotherapy session at the Moffitt Cancer Center. If all goes as we hope and pray it does, her protocol going forward will be to rest, regain strength and gradually return to her pre-cancer life.

The hotel where we stay is very near to the University of South Florida as is the Moffitt Center. Many of the hotel’s guests are Moffitt patients and their families.  The hallways and lobby of the hotel are full of encouraging posters made by USF students as well as elementary school children, with messages of encouragement and positivity for those undergoing treatment. The hotel staff is sensitively aware that many of their guests have not come to Tampa for vacation.

There is a gratis shuttle that takes hotel guests back and forth to the hospital. The drivers are courteous and encouragingly upbeat.  At Moffitt too, everyone we encounter from the attendants in the free valet parking lot, to the orderlies, clerks, nurses and elite cancer-specialist physicians are gracious, courteous and caring.

Even with these wonderful positives, the purpose of our trip exacerbates my packing anxiety. Worrying about how things might turn out only increases the high likelihood that I will forget to put something I need in my suitcase.

Vickie’s assurance that, “they have stores in Tampa where you can buy anything you might forget,” does not diminish the stress.

As I put the almost-forgotten pajamas into my bag, I remind myself of the vital fact that so many people traveling to Moffitt have grim prognoses, and, in the scheme of things we are very fortunate.  From the outset, Vickie’s doctors have said her condition is, “treatable and curable.”

From the beginning of Vickie’s cancer journey, I have held fast to those words. Now that we are approaching this pivotal juncture, I shall try to focus more on the hoped-for outcome of our trip and less on what might be missing from my suitcase when I get there.

A New Year Dawns

Early morning, January 1, 2023

The sun is fighting to break through the haze that delays the dawn of a brand-new year. I am betting on the sun just as I am betting that light will displace the haze that Vickie’s illness and Hurricane Ian have cast over our lives.Yes, a new year is here, and Vickie and I thank God we are alive with a comfortable roof over our heads, sufficient food to nourish our bodies, and – after 48 and a half years of marriage –a deep love for and commitment to one another.

We are also grateful for our three healthy children, their wonderful spouses and nine healthy grandchildren. When we look at the big picture, we see clearly that our cup overflows

Tomorrow, we head back to Tampa for tests, a consultation, and what we hope will be Vickie’s sixth and final chemotherapy treatment. She has fought so hard since her diagnosis in August, and we are cautiously optimistic that her body will remain free of any evidence of cancer.

We also hope and pray that the sun will break through the haze that envelops so much of our world, There is enough sadness to break the heart, but we must not let despair keep us from enjoying the blessings in our lives.  

At the same time, we must not allow the pursuit of our enjoyment to stifle our concern for the world and its woes. In our small way, may we each hope to be an agent of that sun to help dry up some of the plagues that mar our planet:

  • Hunger
  • Homelessness
  • Rampant violence
  • Racial injustice
  • Resurgent antisemitism
  • Illiteracy
  • Environmental ruin

Hillel the Elder taught 2000 years ago, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, when” (Pirke Avot 1:14)

When we contemplate the enormity of the world’s problems, the quotation attributed to the Unitarian clergyman, Edward Everett Hale (1822-1909, speaks powerfully to me:

“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something I can do.”

If we keep both Hillel and Rev. Hales wisdom in mind, I believe – though we won’t finish the job – we can make measurable progress toward healing our world in the year just begun.