04 September 2010

How Could We Not?

25 Elul 5770

Patterns of symmetry, cycles of return.  This is what much of the High Holy Days season is about.  Year after year we circle back on our awareness of the changing season; our desire for certain foods; the ritual of being with family, friends and community in certain settings; and for hearing certain words, certain melodies sung, and the sound of sounds, the Shofar's blast, to awaken ourselves to the reality of time moving on and our own inexorable march through that particularly Jewish continuum toward a greater understanding of life.

Here's one story of things coming around.

A few years ago, we received a request at CBE to host meetings for Gilda's Club of Park Slope, which we immediately agreed to do.  Some of the participants' cancer treatments had made walking up large stairs difficult and at their other location, there were too many stairs to tackle so a request was made to use space at CBE on the first floor.  For two years of evenings, once a week, several cancer patients and cancer survivors met in my study for a group therapy session.  Each week several of the participants expressed warm gratitude and appreciation for the hospitality.  "It's a mitzvah," I'd explain.  "How could we not?"

At the time, B had just beaten back a scare with breast cancer and during that period of time, I learned alot from other survivors who I'd see on occasion about what B may be experiencing which helped my own understanding of what she was going through.  

Eventually, Gilda' Club found another location even more convenient and the brief relationship wound down.  We were proud to have helped in whatever way we could, however briefly.

About 18 months ago, with the breast cancer in remission, B received a diagnosis of lung cancer, advanced, and in the first twelve months the strategy was all about getting the right therapy while also coming to a very different existential and psychological understanding than was required for what seemed to be, in retrospect, a fairly mild form of breast cancer.  During the first twelve months, I kept nudging B to head over to Gilda's Club in her neighborhood--it was literally three blocks away--but justifiably B said, "I'm not ready for that."

Then, one day, about six months, she announced to us that she had started going to meetings.  And loved it.  She took a Tai Chi class; attended group; and taught a basket weaving class (we have two afghans here at home courtesy of B; my desk at Shul is a maple table she and her mother stripped and refinished for my journey to Madison for college thirty years ago; and a number of needlepoints celebrating Wisconsin are scattered around our home.  Her gardens were always alive with life.)

We were all tremendously relieved that the time had finally come to make new friends, comrades in battle, really, and the connections were obviously fortifying. 

Last week B explained that as a result of diminished donations in a rough economy and some flooding at the Milwaukee branch, Gilda's Club was out of business.  In a flash of fate, there would be no more.  She was really concerned.  But within twenty-four hours, the Milwaukee Jewish Community Center offered space for meeting and then this week local papers carried the story of Stan Kass, a Milwaukee area vending owner whose wife Lee had recently died of cancer, heroically stepped in make a large philanthropic gift to allow Gilda's Club to function at the JCC.  

I wrote the JCC's Executive Director Mark Shapiro to thank him for the hospitality and his response was perfect:  "It's a mitzvah."

How could it not be?

Each of us in the year ahead will face challenges large and small; some will be cataclysmic and seemingly insurmountable; others will be manageable.  But either way, we will be tested again and again.  And so looking back on the last year and looking ahead to the new year, to what degree will we able to simply answer the call to act with the notion of "mitzvah," of "commandedness," animated by the idea encoded in the words, "How could we not?"

The path to healing our world is, at times, in the words of Nachman of Breslov, a very narrow bridge.  In not fearing that walk across the bridge, we act on the reality we know to be true.  *Not* walking across the divide is simply not an option.

In awe, humility and gratitude, I thank the Kass family, Mark Shapiro and the Milwaukee JCC for their generosity of resource and spirit. 

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