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Friday, April 19, 2013

That Was the Week That Was

                                                                                                            April, 2013

Dear Family and Friends:

It’s been quite a couple of weeks here at Indiana University Hillel.  The weekend before last we really rocked the house with Danny Nichols in residence.  The highlights included a Shabbat Rocks Friday Evening service, a Dan Nichols late night unplugged concert, Saturday evening musical Havdalah, and finally a great hootenanny with guitars, fiddles, drums, a banjo (of course) and a lot of great folk singing.  Along with this, it’s been wonderful having our brother-in-law Gilson here visiting from Brazil (and, I might add that the cherry on the top was that our son, Jeremy, daughter-in-law, Melissa, and grand-kids Zoe and Maya were here for the weekend as well). 

That was the beginning of a wonderful ten days.  Last week we commemorated Yom Ha Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.  I was asked to lead the Mourners' Kaddish at the end of the day’s worship service.  As an introduction to the prayer, I told the IU students my story of leading Kaddish for 100 high school students at the death camp, Birkenau, in Poland last summer.  As we stood in the plaza at the center of that tragic place, having conducted a Yizkor (memorial) service of sorts, I stood in front of the students and saw two groups approaching from behind them.  One group moved over to our left and sat down a ways away from us.  They had a boom box and played Hebrew songs loud enough for us to hear.  The other was obviously a group of Israelis.  They stood to our right and each of them carried an Israeli flag.  I asked our students to notice both groups.  Then I commented that here we sat in the center of what was the greatest horror our families ever encountered.  From where we were, we could see the railroad tracks, the barracks, the gas chambers, the crematorium, and the pools of water wherein our ancestor’s ashes lie.  And yet, to our left we heard Jewish music.  And to our right we saw Israelis and Israeli flags.  How could we not think the words, “Am Yisrael Chai…The Jewish People Lives,” and be proud that our People endures and survives?  

That day I suggested that we say our Mourners' Kaddish not just as a memorial to those who died there, those who had no one to say Kaddish for them, but also as a testimony of our dedication to living on as Jews for them, and for ourselves.  And lastly, that we say Kaddish as a declaration that in the face of all the evil we have witnessed, we are still people of faith; people that believe that there is good in this world; people who know that we can make a positive difference. 

And so we rose at our service here at Hillel and prayed the Mourners' Kaddish with those thoughts in mind; as our memorial to those who lost their lives in the Holocaust, and our dedication to the Jewish future, and our declaration of faith. 

The rest of the week underlined those very thoughts.  On both Thursday and Friday I trekked up to Indianapolis to join two other rabbis in a Beit Din, a rabbinic court, as two people who had studied here at Hillel completed their conversions to Judaism.  I had the honor of teaching both of them Hebrew.  The other two rabbis lead the conversion class here in Bloomington and so had taught them the fundamentals of Judaism.  It is quite an honor to witness a person’s actual moment of becoming Jewish.  By Friday afternoon there were at least two more Jews in the world than there were on Wednesday.
Talk about trekking.  Saturday I really trekked, all the way past Dayton Ohio to officiate at the wedding for one of our former campers.  The groom’s family has been involved with our Goldman Union Camp for about thirty years.   What a great feeling to watch those parents at their son’s wedding.  When I first met the parents this, their third son, was just an infant.  Last weekend he stood under the Chupah.  Priceless.

So, sighs of the Shoah (Holocaust) one day, followed by two adults joyously becoming Jewish the next, and a wedding to top it all off.  Man, if that wasn't the week that was.  Well, the Jewish week that was.  It most certainly was. 


Monday, April 1, 2013

Strange Conversations

                                                                                                April, 2013

Dear Family and Friends:

Passover winds down here in Bloomington, and around the world.  Spring is finally springing and winter, like my hairline, is receding.  Thank goodness.  Working at a homeless shelter is a constant reminder of those Passover words, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”  As I've told you in the past, volunteering at the shelter, working in their kitchen, has opened up a whole world for me.  It’s not that I didn't know that there were homeless people.  But now there are faces, personalities, conversations, and more to make it all so very real.

Certainly several of the people I encounter every week have mental issues.  I’m no psychologist, but I do have eyes and ears.  I meet two very interesting people every Monday at the Shalom Center (not a Jewish organization at all.  It was founded by the Methodist church here in Bloomington.  They just liked the meanings of the word “Shalom,” so they used it), and I have the same weekly conversation with each of them. 

The first man meets me as I am about to enter the kitchen door at 11:55 every Monday.  He looks very serious and always asks me if he can ask me a question.  I say, “Sure.”  Then he thinks for a moment as if he is going to ask about Einstein’s theory of relativity or something, looks into my eyes and asks, “What time is it?”  I always tell him that it is just about noon and time for me to go to work.  Later, while I’m having lunch on my break in the dining room with all of the others who come to eat, he appears and looks for me.  When he spots me he approaches and always asks, “Do you own a blue Cadillac?”  Sometimes it’s a Mercedes, sometimes an Oldsmobile.  But I think it’s always blue.  I always smile and tell him “No, I walk to the shelter.”  That’s it.  I can’t see any harm in these oft repeated conversations.  I even think this fellow looks forward to them.  I asked some of the other workers about him.  No one knows him and no one else seems to have such conversations with him.  Funny, I look forward to seeing and talking to him.  

The other fellow’s name is Daniel.  He’s an intelligent person who I hear speaking several languages in the dining room.  Like Johnny Two-times in the movie "Goodfellas," who always says things twice ("I think I'll go for the papers, for the papers.")  Daniel has the unusual habit of chuckling between sentences.  He’ll say, “I went to the store today, he, he.  And bought potatoes, he, he.  I served in the military, he, he.  Did you, he, he?  He and I also have very similar conversations each week.  When he brings his plate up to the window I’ll say “Howdy, Daniel;” after which he will give me his evaluation of the day’s menu. 

It’s like:  “Hi Daniel.”

“Great mac and cheese today, Ron, he, he”   Or, “Loved the rice and beans with those little sausages, he, he.”
Now, I don’t make the food or determine the menu.  I just wash dishes.  Never mind.  Daniel reports to me, every time.  Then he will smile and be on his way. 

I know that I would be disappointed if I showed up at the Shalom Center and was not asked for the time, and if I drove a blue Caddy, or heard the daily menu report.
Ain’t life interesting.