25 September 2012

Yom Kippur Blessing

Dear Friends:

At sundown this evening, our synagogue community at Congregation Beth Elohim will commemorate the holiest day in the Jewish year--Yom Kippur.  In our Tradition, this is the Day of Judgment, providing for us an opportunity for personal, familial and communal reflection on our deeds of the past year as well as giving us a chance to find the new light of Hope for living our lives with a renewed sense of goodness and meaning.  

Our Yom Kippur services will be in the Main Sanctuary, in the Ballroom, in the Rotunda, in the Chapel, and in the Picnic House in Prospect Park, an inspring example of the ways in which our remarkable growth has afforded our diverse community--across the generations--to reflect together on our past, present and future here in Brooklyn.  The many dimensions and expressions of our community--in its 150th year--is truly a blessing.

One of Yom Kippur's most solemn acts is the Yizkor Service.  This Memorial for departed souls reminds us that each day we have an opportunity to honor the lives of the those who came before us, to enrich us with the values of their lives, and by remembering them, to keep them close at heart in our own day.

The world remains a complex place for us--beautiful and singularly inspiring while also fraught with great challenges and trouble.  There is much to think about and much to do!

May our reflections on this holy day inspire us to live up to the best values of the Jewish Tradition and those who brought us into this world.  May our prayers and meditations on this day bring goodness, justice and peace to our world.  And may each of you be written and sealed in the Book of Life for another year of good health and well-being.

גמר חתימה טובה--Gmar Hatimah Tovah

Rabbi Andy Bachman

24 September 2012

Council Speaker Chris Quinn on Iranian President Today

I was heartened to receive this statement from NYC Council Speaker Chris Quinn.  To see what Ahmadinejad said at the UN, see it here in the NYTimes.  Of course, it is beyond ironic that no free-speaking Iranian could say such things against an ally of Iran at the most visible political pulpit in Tehran.  America and Israel, thankfully, support far more free speech than Iran could ever dare to support, even when it is morally outrageous and hateful.

It's a shame the Iranian President can't receive a real New York Welcome:  a Bronx Cheer, a beer spilled on his head at Citi Field, and a Meadowlands Concussion from the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants that would be so inspiring Tim Tebow would bow his head in prayer.


Statement by City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn
Re: Visit of the Iranian President to the UN General Assembly 

"President Ahmadinejad's brand of hate speech is most unwelcome in New York City for a host of reasons.  Mr. Ahmadinejad has called for the destruction of Israel and has expressed anti-Semitic views and doubts about the Holocaust. Domestically, Iranian women often face discrimination and women's rights groups are repressed.  Those critical of his government have been perpetually arrested and detained without trial for long periods and are reported to have been tortured or otherwise ill-treated and denied access to medical care, lawyers and their families.  Mr. Ahmadinejad's government is also a supporter of international terrorism in the world today, and for a regime like this to be on the cusp of developing a nuclear arsenal is a nightmare to terrible to contemplate.  This threat of a nuclear-armed Iran is not just an Israeli problem but a global problem which the world must address immediately.  For all these reasons, and many more not stated, Mr. Ahmadinejad is unwelcome in our city."

Good to Go

The hospital just called and apparently my body passes muster.  My blood is healthy and shortly we'll begin the process of augmenting stem cell development to prepare for the donation.

In two weeks time, the next step on this journey continues.

Here's my prayer for Yom Kippur:  May the Source of Life, Modern Medicine and Science endow Health and Strength to the 49 year old man who will receive my stem cells and may he be written in the Book of Life for another year.

The liturgical poetry is not in the words but the action.  I remain in awe of the lengths to which human beings will go in order to save another life.


20 September 2012

The Pure White Hope of No Assignation

It first hit me when I went to the fridge for some apple juice.  Having just given blood, in another battery of tests to prepare to be a "stem-cell donor" for a man who has chronic myelogenous leukemia, I was a bit thirsty and wanted a quick shot of something nutritious.  A kindly nurse directed me to an infusion room, filled with patients hooked up to various IV devices and receiving their doses of chemotherapy to fight off the various forms of cancer that were being battled in the oncology unit of the hospital where I was being tested.

Like a deep February wind off the porch on a cold, white morning, the truth hit:  Mom sat in one of those chairs, hope dripping into her veins, a crossword puzzle on her knees, and after the treatment, some crunchy graham crackers and a container of apple juice, purveyed immediately following the therapy, to facilitate "getting that shitty taste" out of her mouth.  As I reached down into the fridge to find the handy Mott's Apple Juice, I saw one patient meet my glance, and another look away while wondering myself, in the poetry of the season, "who shall live and who shall die?"

The liturgists who created the order of prayers for Rosh Hashanah awakened us, long ago, to the idea that the Jew is invited, in this season, to imagine his death: to face it, to contemplate it, and to decide, in  radical introspection, if he has it in him to plead for mercy and change his ways so that he may be rewarded another year of life.

It's a powerful, useful, but troubling metaphor.  On one hand, we can change our patterns of behavior and live, even "earn," the grace of another year of life.  On the other hand, the randomness of cancer's insidious march (or that of an earthquake, a car crash, a dropped bomb--you get the point) impresses us as an unpredictable line of attack, leaving the victim as innocent, civilian casualties, helpless and without defense.

"Who shall live and who shall die" may read as "How dare you deign to say who shall live and who shall die?  What God made you God?!"

All while bending down to get an apple juice.  Gevalt.

It's still just less than two months since Mom died.  Considerable anger and a frustrated befuddlement hover, like bad exhaust in a roundabout; and a tortuously endless abstraction of time elapses between DON'T and WALK.

At Shloshim--the end of the thirty day mourning period--I received word that based on a cheek swab from 2001 on the NYU campus, I was a clear match for a stem-cell transplant for a 49 year old male suffering from chronic myelogenous leukemia.  Tests required would be intensive blood-work, full-body work-up, chest x-rays and an EKG.  Assuming I pass that grade, its five days of neupogen to increase production of stem cells in the bone marrow; and then, for six hours in October I will centrifuge my blood, collect healthy stem cells, and give them to my anonymous recipient.

Yes, I said.

And that's when I knew that, despite being dead, Mom was still very much alive.

The apple juice was delicious.  The doctors, brilliant.  The nurses, skilled and handsome.  Even the hospital elevators seemed to run on time.  The heavens played beautiful music and all around was amity and love.

Back in April, when faced with the choice that we knew would likely shorten her life, Mom elected one more round of chemo.  There would be insurmountable bone, skin and organ pain; vomiting, diarrhea, loss of appetite and severe depression; temporary dementia, disorientation, and anger; continued paralysis, lethargy and total dependence on others.  Mom went for it.  "Beats the alternative," she deadpanned.

"Who shall live?"


She did:  from April to late July; and on that journey she took her children on a walk "through the valley of the shadow of death."  She feared no evil.  Goodness and kindness did pursue her, all the rest of the days of her life.

There were so many days, so many texts among us, so many phone calls, so many sighs and words shared over lunches and dinners and breakfasts and coffees and beers, wrestling the reasoning down to the ground about the right and the wrong of the decision to seek more treatment, to shine light one more time in the dark corners of cancer's death sentence, to accept or reject a doctor's heroic gesture or determined statistical struggle with cellular development, chemical compounds and disease.

But through four and a half hours of tests on Wednesday, as I watched my deep red blood flow into test tubes and then heard like a Philip Glass opera my EKG beep and print its map onto a page, I came to see that Mom took us through the valley of the shadow of death not only for her but for others:  for others' blood and others' lives; for others' hopes and others' tears; for herself and not herself.  For all those places, blank spaces, pure white hope of no assignation:  for the not-yet-dead and not-yet-alive.

"How awesome and full of dread."

I can't believe there's a God who has asked me to choose between the lessons of a dying mother and someone else's dying son--who is exactly my age.  I can't believe it until I hit the wall of paradox right before my eyes.  I don't have to choose.

More often than not, we're chosen.

And the question remains one that has "always been asked on these hills."

What did Amichai write?  "Have you seen my sheep?"  "Have you seen my shepherd?"  And the door of my house stands open like a tomb where someone was resurrected."

A choice we make every moment of every day.

Who is the sheep?

Who is the shepherd?

16 September 2012

Shanah Tovah 5773

At sundown this evening, Congregation Beth Elohim joins Jewish community's world-wide in celebrating the New Year 5773.   

This is a special time for our synagogue, which commemorates its 150th year since its founding in 1862.  Our Founders journeyed to Brooklyn from Central Europe and built a beacon of Learning, Prayer and Good Deeds in the midst of a nation that was at Civil War; whose African Americans were enslaved; and where women were denied the right to vote.  Whereas one founding family made buttons for Union Army jackets, future members helped integrate the U.S. Armed Forces and integrate schools, while today we remain active, as a Jewish community, fulfilling the Prophet's vision that "Mine House Shall Be An House of Prayer for All People."  And finally, to celebrate our 150 years in Brooklyn, we are commissioning the writing of a new Torah Scroll--the first of its kind in the history of New York City--to be written entirely by a female scribe.  The year of celebration begins on October 7.

It is a marvel to behold the changes that have occurred broadly in our city, our nation and the world while being reminded daily of the inspiring vision of each generation of leaders at Congregation Beth Elohim, who, like the Synagogue's first leaders, held fast to Jewish values in order to bring greater Justice, Kindness and Peace to the world.

Our community is particularly grateful to be worshipping inside our historic Main Sanctuary--undergoing an important restoration--thanks to the generosity of our current membership that is helping us renew our places of Learning and Prayer so that we may thrive for another 150 years.   And as we do each year, we will hear the Cry of the Shofar across the generations, in High Holy Days services for all ages and all levels of learning.

At this time of celebration and introspection, we are reminded of the challenges that face our generation, of those less fortunate in our community and our world, and of our obligation to reach out with generosity through the varieties of opportunities for service that our community offers.  

In that way we build a bridge back to the Founders' vision and Forward to the future, in awe and humility in this Season of Turning and Renewal, to build anew this beacon of Learning, Prayer and Good Deeds.

May you and yours be blessed with goodness and be written into the Book of Life for health and peace in the New Year.

L'Shanah Tovah Tikateivu

Rabbi Andy Bachman

15 September 2012


It goes like this:  If I write, maybe it means Mom is still alive.

My friend David, a moyel, said at Shiva, "When we lose the mother, we lose the מקור חיים, the 'source of life,' we are only left with Moshe Rabbenu!"

Among the words of comfort I can recall hearing during those days, I repeat those daily.  Torah study, the Hebrew language, and learning in general have been one of the most remarkably sustaining experiences of mourning these past two months.  The rootedness of the reality of the mind's translation of ideas onto a page is its own life source.

Billy Collins, Mark Twain and Christopher Hitchens have made me laugh from the depths; Tracy K. Smith, Natasha Trethewey, and Meghan O'Rourke have offered merciful light from a dark horizon, promises of another day.

I didn't know who I'd take with me on this journey.  The Sages in Talmud Brachot; the Biblical author of Samuel whose genius never ceases to amaze me with his knotted literary branches of Man's Folly in Faith; and my teachers' voices, carrying me when it feels I really don't have the strength or the will to carry myself.  I've told more stories about George Mosse, Irv Saposnik, Arthur Hertzberg and Stanley Dreyfus in the past two months than I have in the accumulation of years since they each died.  The more wickedly cynical teaching the better.

"If I write, maybe it means Mom is still alive."  It's odd to be a public figure, a leader, and to try to mourn privately.  In fact, it's nearly impossible.  I'd have to do that mid-life crisis thing--buy the MG with the money I don't have, drive across the country, recite Kaddish in every town, make a book of it. But there is a family to raise, a Synagogue to lead, a Community to support.  Mom is alive in this tension between Sacrifice and Individual Will.  She would take the loneliness of her own mournful soul and plow it into kindness, to volunteerism, to knitting, and books.  And distance.   Throughout much of the 80s, 90s and 00s, Mom was impossible to track down on the phone.  She might return a written letter if you were lucky.  But show up at her apartment and she'd talk to you as if you never left home at 18.  In the last year I had grown to appreciate it.

Maybe it was like an extended training camp for loss.

Anyway, I don't have that luxury of distance; and in the last two months, I've begun to train myself to pack my loneliness into a small bundle, to carry it with me wherever I go.  It's the size of a book.  "But you've always never been without a book!" I say to myself.

But these days the book has two covers--one of which only I can see.

Writing to his students in the midst of the Second World War, Kalonymus Kalman Shapira describes a paradox:  To relieve ourselves from being distraught and confused we seek wisdom and comfort in community; and yet "there are aspects of spiritual development that are private work, and they need to remain private.  When a person stands revealed in order to cleanse his soul, it is simply appropriate that his privacy be preserved.  This is a very important idea."

Meghan O'Rourke, writing of her mother's death, puts it like this:
And into my doubt
the bells rang--
mourning doves and,
later, voices in song.
The dim breath
that left my body, the sliding
away of love,
scattered hairs
on the white sheets--
bodies are used
like weapons
it is what
they are meant for.
But the door, the door
is in the mind....
You can step out of
violence and into