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(You Gotta) Accentuate the Positive and Eliminate the negative...

Pay no attention to the number by the month.  Here's a good thought for the New Year.  Shannah Tovah. Ron                        ...

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Shalom Center Cast of Characters

Dear Family and Friends:

I know I’ve written a couple of times about the Shalom Center, the homeless shelter where we volunteer, but it never ceases to amaze me.  Today I worked with a very interesting cast of characters.  Where shall I begin?
I washed dishes today with Travis.  To say that Travis has OCD is like saying that Lee Freedman likes the Bears.  Lee lives and dies (mostly dies) with the Bears and Travis has OCD to the nth degree.  His motor runs on overdrive with no stops and he makes everyone just a bit nervous.  He cannot stand still for a minute.   But, on the bright side, Travis is a great person to wash with.  He is meticulous and the racks are always ready when the Hobart finishes a cycle.  At the end of the day the dish area is spotless, the dishes stacked perfectly, and the racks lined up according to size.  I was exhausted just watching and keeping up with Travis.  But he gave a hug and a smile when we left, so I guess all was cool.
Danny is about fifty years old, give or take.  He’s about the most born again Christian I’ve ever met.  He has served several years in jail on drug charges, but now preaches the Word and is clean.  Danny also writes songs about Jesus and loves to sing them to me.  His first big hit (I may be the only one who has heard it) was “Jesus is In Jail,” and today he sang me his new ditty, “I was in Jail Last Christmas…but I Ain’t in Jail Anymore.”  He loves to corral me in the kitchen and serenade; to the point where several times Ron, the boss, has told Danny, “get back to work, this isn’t choir practice.”  Danny is a nice guy and he’s really trying to live a good life.  But he does sing to me all the time and I can’t get the darned songs out of my head.  Tomorrow’s Christmas.  I’ll be humming “Jesus is in Jail” until New Years. 
I’ve saved the best to last.  I don’t know why these people latch on to me.  I’ve never told them anything about myself; they certainly do not know that I’m a rabbi.  It’s strange. 
Today I met Jeff.  The first thing I noticed about him was the swastika tattooed on his right forearm.  He completely threw me for a loop though, by beginning a conversation asking me if I’d ever heard of Rabbi Yitzhak (He didn’t say “Isaac,” he said “Yitzhak”) Luria and did I know what Kabalah was  .  I told him I did; and it was off to the races.  He knows a lot but has trouble putting his thoughts together.  Maybe a little autism there.  I finally asked him if he was Jewish whereby he pulled down his tee shirt to show me a tattoo of the Hebrew letters Yud Hay Vav Hay on his chest.  He’s a Jew with a swastika on his forearm and the ineffable name of God on his chest.  He left saying that he is happy that we enjoy freedom of religion, but thankful that he has found freedom from religion.  When I left he shook my hand and said, “happy holidays.”  Go figure.
Just another day at the Shalom Center where we worked on overdrive, were thankful not to be in jail and were free from religion but forever marked by the presence of God. 
Chag Sameach and happy New Year to all,

Friday, November 11, 2011

Ron in Moscow...Now Chase in the FSU

A few years ago Max Klaben and I ventured to Snowy Moscow in February to speak at a week-long training session of the FSU's young  Reform Movement's summer camp Directors and many of its counselors.  Below you can play the documentary max made of the trip.  

Now another G.U.C.I. alum (soon to return to be this summer's Program Director) is about to spend his Passover in the FSU  serving that Jewish community.  We wish Chase Foster all the best for a Nisiya
Tovah (safe travels) and Chag Sameach.  You can help Chase out by sending a few dollars his way to support this wonderful act of Tikkun Olam, making the world a better place.  

Here's what Chase wrote about the project:

In about a month, I will be participating in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) Pesach Project. The FSU Pesach Project is an annual program through HUC and the WUPJ. This program will send me, and almost 20 classmates to Berlin and then to various cities in the FSU. I am travelling to Gomel, Minsk and Lida, Belarus to assist small Jewish communities that do not have the resources to provide for Jewish professionals during Passover. Last year’s FSU trip allowed approximately 5,500 people to join around the seder table with community for Passover. Information can be found here: http://fsupesachproject2013.wordpress.com.

In order for me to pursue my passion, I need your help! I have committed myself to fundraising $2500 for FSU out of the total $52,000(!) my classmates and I are dedicated to raise to make this experience successful.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The 60's


Dear Family and Friends:

It’s been a while.  Hope you are all well and anticipating a wonderful Thanksgiving.  Retired life here in B-Town is good and often busier than expected.  My big payoff is getting to work with great college kids at Hillel and, in general on campus. 
A couple of weeks ago, Evie made an appointment to come over and talk one evening.  Evie is a Chicago kid (there’s a lot of them around here, thank goodness.  Most of them are Cubs fans, Jim).  Evie is an editor for the IDS, Indiana Daily Student.  She’s a junior at the Ernie Pyle School of Journalism.  She reminds me of someone who used to be my assistant director, eh Katy?  Evie told me she wanted to know about the 60’s and I said come on down…let’s talk.
We sat up in our library and Evie said she had only one question.  It was, “What was it like living in the 60’s?”  I could have talked about this for a week.  We had a couple of hours.  Well, where to begin?  I told her that I graduated from high school in 1964 and that in order to understand the 60’s one had to understand the 50’s.  I talked about Elvis Presley and how he was the first to crack the gap between the generations.  Then came Bill Hayley and the Comets; later, Ed Sullivan’s show introducing the Beatles.  And there it was, a generation of kids striving to be completely different and distinguishable from their parents.  Rock and Roll, long hair, bell bottoms, Nehru jackets, paisley, Dylan, The Weavers, Bob Gibson (the singer, not the pitcher). That was just the beginning.  All this before we even knew about the war in Vietnam, or Watergate, or realized that the “whole world was watching” the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. 
It was quite a trip for me to be talking about my college years which were none too happy, by the way, while living once again in a campus town.  Looking back, there was so much emotional depression at that time; it seemed to me that, by comparison, kids should be walking around campus these days with smiles on their faces.  Heck, they only have to worry about careers, aids, nuclear holocaust and things like that.  We had JFK, MLK, Bobby K. all assassinated, we had Nixon (“I’m no crook”) in the White House, Watergate, My Lai, Dow chemical’s Napalm, protests, civil rights, and the biggest threat of all, THE DRAFT.  What’s the matter with kids today?   Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way?
There’s a line in an old Woody Guthrie song that says, “The hobos know me up and down the line, but they don’t know the troubles on my mind…I guess they got troubles too.”  I guess these kids got troubles too.
So I painted Evie a pretty bleak picture of disillusionment, alienation, and the loss of faith in America and especially government.  Yes, we even talked about drugs, Haight-Ashbury, the summer of love, the music, the movies, and the action of the time.  Not all negative after all. 
I’ve thought a lot about the conversation since that evening in our library with Evie.  I’m glad I lived through the turbulent 60’s.  It was a time when my eyes were opened to the real world, although it certainly was surreal at the time.  I went from being an idealistic high school kid to a disillusioned college kid.  If all of the negatives weighed heavily on the left side of the balance, they were outweighed on the right side by camp.  I learned all the positives there.  My first year on staff was in 1963.  I fell in love that summer, with camp; and I stuck around for the next forty-some years.  Hard times but good memories.  Hey, I got by with a little help from my friends… even though I sang out of tune.  In 1969 I took off for Israel and that was the beginning of a whole other story.  Idealism crept back into the picture. 
Keep in touch,

PS. I wrote you a while back about a woman crying at the homeless shelter here.  She now works the shift with me on Mondays.  She takes care of the coffee and other drinks while I work the Hobart.  We joke around a bit. 

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Driving Lessons from My Dad

Dear Family and Friends: 

My dad often said, while he was in the car driving down the street, "never follow an old man wearing a hat."  He meant the old man wearing a hat, I'm sure.  See my "old man" never tired of his love affair with the automobile.  And, unlike most men when they reach their golden years, he never drove slowly.  Living in South Florida used to drive him crazy.  "How can these old men drive so poorly,” he used to say; and, "come on buddy, let's move it."  Or, when stopped behind a geezer, when the light said “Go" and the geezer didn’t, dad would give an angry, “saddle up, partner!"  My dad was a cowboy from the West side of Chicago. 

My Grandfather was a terrible driver.  I only knew this from what I heard.  Whenever we were in his car my dad drove.  I don't remember ever being in my grandfather's car with him actually driving.  I got my license when I was seventeen and from that time on, I was everyone's designated driver (and they were always sober).  My grandfather had an accident down in Miami Beach because he stepped on the gas instead of the brake.  My dad couldn't believe it. 

Well here's the thing.  Why am I thinking about this?  Perhaps it is because I have recently entered the ranks of the baby boomer army of retirees.  I’m a card carrying Medicare member, actively depleting our national social security fund.  Although that doesn't necessarily automatically place me in the geezer category, I ain't getting any younger.  Juca sometimes accuses me of driving too slowly on the highway, and she's usually right, but that's not because of geezer-hood.  That's because my mind wanders and I forget to watch the speedometer; just sometimes.  She'll just say, "Ron" and I'll say something like, "did you ever think how different life would be if we didn't have to eat?"  Or, "I wonder what Earl Beeler would say about the IPAD?"  (Earl was our long-time camp maintenance man).   Juca's response to such earth shattering questions would be, "Ron, watch your speed." 

On the other hand, I find myself driving faster in the city than I ever did in my younger days.   I can't stand red lights, so I'm always trying to make the next light.  I'm a yellow-light, intersection-crossing master (or maniac).  I hate the guy in front of me who slows down while the light is still green as if anticipating the pleasure of stopping when it turns red.  It seems that I'm in a hurry even when I'm not in a hurry.  I wonder if that will change with this retirement phase.  I've heard retired people say to cashiers in grocery checkout lines, "take your time, I'm in no hurry," or, "I've got all the time in the world."  Will I ever stop hating having to wait in line? Will I ever become that lolly-gagging, green-light slowing-down, time-to-burn person?  I sure hope not. 

But, if you ever find yourself following me down the street as I kick it up to 25 MPH, you'll probably notice that, at least, I'm not wearing a hat.
Love to all,


Monday, August 1, 2011

An Observer

Dear Family and Friends: 

I may have told you that after migrating south to Bloomington (a whole 50 miles from Indy), Juca and I began putting in some time at the Shalom homeless center.  It was organized by a local Methodist church ten years ago.  When we heard how magnificent their outlook on working with homeless was, we jumped right in.  Their founding principles include treating all with respect and dignity, providing essentials (food, washing facilities, mail boxes, social services, etc), and various educational opportunities to anyone in the community.  This respectful attitude is evident in every aspect of the center.  I see it in how they prepare food, how it is served, and in the ways the staff and volunteers speak to the “guests.”  That’s what we call those who show up for a meal or any other of the services offered.  No hidden agendas, no religion, just helping people. 

So on Mondays and Wednesdays Juca goes in from 9:00 to11:00 to help prepare lunch and I follow from noon to 2:00 cleaning up from lunch.  It’s a twenty minute walk from our house.  Juca and I pass each other on the sidewalk as we from and to, like those two sheepdogs in the cartoons, one punching out, and the other punching in.  

Even though the temperature today is in the ninety's, I had a spring in my step on the way to the center, spoke briefly to Juca as our paths crossed and went in to do my simple job, I’m the dishwasher.  The kitchen is laid out a little like our old one was at camp before the “G” snuck its way in front of the “U,” the “C” and the “I.” In the old Chadar Ochel, now the Beit Am, the dish area was behind a window through which all passed their plates and silverware.  The kitchen boys (pre Avodah and, sorry, but there never were any kitchen girls) took the plates and sprayed them off, put them in racks and fed them to the dishwasher (fondly referred to as the “Hobart”).  I now stand behind that window and spray and rack and feed the machine.  In a way I feel like Jimmy Stewart must have in “Rear Window.”  (Note:  if you are too young to know “Rear Window”, it’s a Hitchcock movie that is worth renting)  I observe the guests as they go through the cafeteria line and get their lunch, and I watch the interactions at the tables.  It is very interesting to me to see how convivial the dining room is.  The guests, some dressed nicely, some not, most clean, some not, eat and talk, read the newspaper, are polite and courteous to those serving the meal and the workers in the kitchen.  This is their community.  I observe them from my lookout spot on the kitchen side of the window.  I walk home feeling good about the experience.

Not so today.  Today I saw an older woman, one who comes in every day for lunch, with her backpack and cane.  Today I watched as she ate.  But today I also saw her cry after the meal.  She just sat there with her hand over her eyes and bawled.  A few regulars went up to her to console her but she brushed them away with a flip of her hand.  She cried as if the weight of the world was on her, like a person grieving for what had been lost in life.  She sat, face covered, in that agony for about thirty minutes.  Then she got up and got a napkin to wipe her face, picked up her back pack, put on sunglasses, took her cane and quietly (and slowly) left the center.  That is what I observed today, and like Jimmy Stewart in his wheelchair, I was unable to act upon what I saw.  The image is vivid.  

For some reason this made me think of the upcoming High Holidays.  Perhaps a plan is forming in my mind to really be thankful for all that I have in my life, especially Juca and the kids and friends and all of it.  Maybe a plan is forming in my heart to really think about inabilities and limitations and weaknesses.  I’m retired.  I have more time to think these days.

It was still ninety plus degrees on my walk home from the Shalom Center, but there wasn’t any spring in my step.  It wasn’t because of the weather.

But tomorrow I am going to do a workshop with the Indiana University Hillel board.  I’ll be working with college students again.  I believe the spring will be back.

Love to all, 


Friday, July 22, 2011

Unchartered Waters

Dear Friends and Family:

Several years ago our son Michael turned left on I-80 and headed west to San Francisco.  While waiting the few months it took the California State Bar to let him know that he passed the exam, he decided to volunteer on Kibbutz Keturah in the Negev.  When he returned he told me that to his chagrin, when he was assigned to work “Mitbach,” kitchen duty, the crew chief asked if anyone knew how to operate the dishwashing machine.  Michael observed that it was a Hobart, something close to the hearts of any who have worked in Avodah at camp, or been an Avodah Unit Head, or run camp as Resident Director on weekends in the winter; all jobs Michael and his brother Jeremy held over the years.  When Michael confessed that he could indeed operate all of the kitchen machines in the kibbutz, he became the crew chief.  The “honor” of the appointment did not please Michael at all.

Now that Juca and I have moved to Bloomington, we are confronted with all things new in our lives.  We live in a new house (new for us) in a new town, with a new lifestyle (meaning we are retired and, for the most part, unemployed).  Adjusting to these new surroundings, not working, learning streets, new cable TV service, etc. has not been easy.  So, we have been looking at ways to get involved and even use some of our newfound free time to do some good.

Yesterday we met Pat over at the Shalom Community Center.  This is not a Jewish outfit; it was established by a Methodist church to help the homeless.  The Shalom Center’s philosophy is to welcome all and comfort those who have no place to be during the daytime hours (most live in shelters open only at night), hence the name “Shalom,” for “Welcome and Peace.”  We took a two hour orientation and signed up to work a few hours each week in their kitchen.  At the end of our time with Pat yesterday, she took us down to the kitchen to show us where to report next Monday for our shifts.  I was immediately drawn to the three-compartment pot sink.  Even Juca commentated on how many hours I spent over the years bent over the pot sink at camp on days and nights when the Avodah unit was cavorting in town or traveling to King’s Island for a day off.  The sink was definitely a reminiscence of those sweaty but very happy times.

Then I turned to my right and there she was, standing proudly in all of her glory, my long lost buddy, the Hobart.  I actually had a close relationship with three Hobarts during my time at camp.  The first was in the old kitchen in the area of the Beit Am that became the dark room thanks to Rabbi Bruce Lustig’s ingenuity, after we built the new Chadar Ochel.  Later that space became storage (paper goods, I believe).  When we built the new kitchen in 1977, I installed a new Hobart.  Then, as the camp grew we replaced that Hobart with a new-fangled track-driven, larger capacity machine.  Earl, our long-time custodian took the old Hobart and made it into a BBQ, down at his farm.  He’d lower the drop-down doors to smoke meat.  Very tasty.

So here I am in unchartered waters and suddenly I run into an old friend, soon to be my partner again in transforming dirty dishes into clean ones.  I have to admit that seeing that Hobart was a comfort.  I was, like, excited to, like, see it (I use the word “like” a bit to remind me of the language patterns of my Machonikim in the past.  I once forbade anyone from using the word as it was interjected so frequently in their speech…several were not able to express themselves without, like, using it.   But I digress).

Now here is my plan.  On Monday, my first day “on the job,” I am going to play dumb (not much acting needed for that role) and let the kitchen manager teach me how to run that Hobart.  That’s the lesson I learned from Michael and his kibbutz experience.  I’m aspiring to be the dishwasher.  I’ll leave the crew chief-ing to someone who really knows the territory.

Thanks for the heads up, Michael.


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

In Europe with NFTY

Dear Friends and Family:

Last month Juca and I met seventy-three NFTYites at JFK and took off for an exciting and emotional journey to Prague and Poland. We were a bit worried at first, being responsible for all of those high school students, but they were an amazing and wonderful group of kids. We gathered at our stop-off, Frankfurt, for a two hour layover and regrouped for the Prague flight without a hitch. What followed was phenomenal. 

First of all, landing in Prague and meeting our NFTY staff was a treat. What a talented and dedicated group of young professionals. Under their gentle yet firm tutelage the group immediately began to form and bond. In all, 100 NFTYites constituted the three groups traveling together through Europe. In our first two days we visited Prague’s Jewish quarter and its ancient synagogues, the Old Town Square, the castle and cathedral. Most remarkable to me was the great forethought and planning that went into making this such a meaningful experience for the participants. Before we entered the Pinkus Synagogue, where names of Holocaust victims are written on and completely cover all the walls, the kids were given pen and paper to find one name particular to each of them (perhaps a family name, or a name of a family they recognize) and to write that name down. The reason was to carry that family name with them to Jerusalem as an honor and memorial. The impact of such a simple act was great and I listened intently as they talked about it later. 

The next day we bussed to Krakow where we walked through the old Jewish quarter and its synagogues. On the bus we watched the movie “Schindler’s List.” Then we actually walked through the Ghetto depicted in the movie, visited Schindler’s factory and lastly visited the memorial at the Ploshow Concentration Camp. Our group leader/teacher was magnificent as he took the NFTYites step by step through understanding the Nazification of Europe and the dehumanizing of our people. The group took everything seriously and appropriately. At the end of the day we all joined hands and prayed the Kaddish for those who had perished there, at that concentration camp. To say that the kids “got it,” would be an understatement. 

That evening, in preparation for the next day’s visit to Auschwitz, our group sat in a circle and discussed expectations for what we all knew would be an emotional experience. Our leader, Chanan, once again masterfully facilitated the discussion. The NFTYites’ remarks were impressive.  This was a group of sensitive, thinking, and bright teenagers. We were all impressed with the amount of respect the group had shown for where they were and what they were seeing. They were attentive and insightful. They were certainly ready for what would be a difficult day to come.  

Here’s what I wrote at the conclusion of the Auschwitz experience: 

"It was overcast this morning in Auschwitz, and windy. The wind caused a few tears in the eyes of our group of 100 high school students and twenty staff...or maybe it was stopping at the cattle car dedicated to the memory of the 400,000 Rumanian Jews murdered in this place. Maybe it was our visit to the gas chambers and crematorium, or the room filled with lost Jewish families’ shoes, or the eyeglasses, or the valises. The rain came down when we entered the unbearable barracks that housed our relatives for the short time they spent at slave labor before meeting their deaths. It certainly was a grey and cloudy day today at Auschwitz. 

I was privileged to lead a short T’fillah toward the end of our Auschwitz experience with six NFTYites.  In the large open space where we prayed there were two other visiting groups, one Israeli and one, another group of Jews.  The Israelis carried Israeli flags and the other group played recorded Hebrew music.  They were off to our right and left.  Before we said our second Kaddish of the trip, this one as a memorial, as testimony, and to honor those murdered there, I noted that we stood among our People, Israeli flags to the left of us, Hebrew music to the right. 

Afterward, we gathered at what was the synagogue in the town of Oswiecem (the Germans called it Auschwitz). We were quiet with thoughts of all that we had seen that day. But in a few minutes someone started singing “Am Yisrael Chai” the Jewish People Lives. A few joined in, then more, then all of us. More than our voices rang out with song. We sang with our hearts; and as I left the synagogue I was not surprised to see the sun peeking out from behind the clouds."

The next day we walked through the Warsaw ghetto and then boarded a plane for Israel.  Juca and I spent the day with the group in Tel Aviv and left the group after their first Israel experience, sitting in a park in Jaffa overlooking the beaches and skyline of Tel Aviv.  I told the group that we had made our own Aliyah; from the depths of the destruction to the living beauty of our JEWISH homeland.  I thanked them for allowing us to be a part of the experience, asked them to stand and bow their heads for the priestly benediction as they were about to trek off into the Negev for three days of camping. 

What an experience for those kids…what an experience for Juca and myself!  

Shabbat Shalom from Bloomington,