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  • 27 Mar 2015 10:42 AM | Anonymous

    Shabbat Shalom.  It’s an honor to be standing here at the bimah to share my journey in conversion and how my experiences at Shir Tikvah and with the global Jewish community have helped shaped and supported my journey, while supporting the pursuit of shalom.


    My name is Jon Tam and I was born and raised in New York City.  I am the son of an immigrant family that moved from China to Hong Kong and then New York City.  I moved to the “small town” of Minneapolis/St. Paul in 1988, thinking that this would be an intermediate stop. I guess I stayed a bit longer than expected.  I have been lucky to be able to explore the world and have had work experiences in Germany and Singapore.  Along the journey, I met my partner in crime, Meir.   We have been together for two years and are continuing to build a Jewish home.


    My spiritual path to Reform Judaism is rooted in the definition of Shalom; completeness, soundness, welfare and peace.  Throughout my life, the components of shalom have been front and center. These include community, gratitude, compassion for those in need of healing, remembrance, social justice, and tikkum olam.

     Cultural Judaism

    Growing up in the Lower East Side in New York City, I was immersed in Jewish culture. I was exposed to bagels, knishes, bialys, kosher butchers and delis, and the local Jewish owned businesses in the lower east side. My family lived in a tenement apartment owned by an orthodox Jewish family that ran a curtain and fabric store located downstairs. Our neighbors across the hall were another orthodox Jewish family, and I remember helping them on Shabbat by turning on lights and power.   All of these experiences were good initial exposures to Jewish cultural life and tradition.

     However, I was raised in a combination of Catholic and Buddhist traditions, where a driving principle was to strive to be the best person you can be.  Education, lifelong learning, spirituality, and respect of family, community and culture were key elements of being a good Mensch.

     Catholicism and Buddhism perfectly coexisted in my upbringing and in the Tam family household.  I was confirmed a Catholic in my teenage years and our family intertwined Catholic, Buddhist and Taoist spirituality and principles in the household.  Ceramic and wooden idols, gods, and crucifixes were ever present (and still are).  Our family burned incense and practiced ritual elements to honor our deceased family members and to continue tradition.

    Challenging Catholicism

    I started questioning my religious beliefs in college, where I took a few religious studies courses.  A course titled “Crisis in Modern Belief in Religion” challenged my spiritual beliefs and goals, and advocated that these religions must adapt to modern times. I knew and believed in G-d, but really did not know how I would incorporate religion into my adult life.  Perhaps this was my first experience of “waking up” from complacency and blind acceptance?

     Until my early 40’s, I followed the requirements and demands of Catholicism, at least ceremonially.  However, I felt a hollowness in my spirituality. I could not connect with what the Catholic Church was preaching.  I was in serious conflict with the Church’s key stances on homosexuality, the role of women in the church, celibacy for spiritual leaders, and the ability to make reproductive choices.

     Father’s illness and death

    My father, a habitual smoker for most of his life, was chronically ill with severe respiratory conditions the past 10-15 years of his life.  As my father became more ill and more philosophical, an important point became clear: his vision for his children to be the best they can be in their lives. Whatever and whomever makes you happy are good things. It was his quiet and unstated way of telling me that I had become what he had strived for me to be - a good person who valued family and tradition, and my being gay didn’t change that. My father and I had conversations about my concerns about Catholicism and how I felt the Church had not adapted to modern times. My father was supportive of my concerns and was proud that I was able to challenge key aspects of my religious upbringing.   

    I started attending services at Shir Tikvah in March 2013, two months prior to the death of my father.  As my gravely ill father was struggling to hold on, I remember two important parts of the first service I attended.  As the congregation sang “Mi Shebeirach”, I could not help but feel moved.  The pause in the between the two verses, where congregants are invited to provide names for the blessing of healing was particularly relevant to me. I wanted to state my father’s name, but did not do so.  Perhaps I was moved too much to consider stating my dad’s name, especially as I was a non-member and non-Jew? Nonetheless, I felt incredible comfort in hearing those words sung by the congregation.  I experienced the outpouring of love, compassion, respect, and support of those individuals whose names were noted in service.  

     My father passed away in May 2013. Meir gave me a copy of the Mourner’s Kaddish, which I began reading upon the death of my father.  I struggled with the transliteration of the Hebrew and Aramaic, but was comforted by the English text.  Even though I had spoken the words of the Mourner’s Kaddish at Shir Tikvah services for two months, the words, particularly the English text were ever so moving and comforting during this difficult time.   I felt comfortable enough to mention my father's name for the Kaddish list after two months of attending services at Shir Tikvah (as well as a year later for his Yahrzeit). I was welcomed and comforted by members of the congregation.   I felt part of the community.

     Experiences along the journey

    I had an opportune visit to New York City in April 2013.  I was able to visit Central Synagogue in Manhattan, as I wanted to visit an active synagogue in my hometown.  While I was on a tour of the impressive synagogue led by a docent, I had a chance encounter with Rabbi Angela Buchdahl.  While the interaction was brief, basically an exchange of looks and smiles and a “hello”, I took great joy and comfort in seeing an Asian face in a synagogue, let alone the Senior Cantor at a major synagogue in the USA. This chance encounter with Rabbi Buchdahl was timely and helped me to overcome a major concern I had as I considered the possibility being a Reform Jew: Is there a place for an Asian in the Jewish faith?  As a prominent leader in the Reform Movement, Rabbi Buchdahl showed me that there is indeed a place for me. 

     As I mentioned, I have been fortunate to be able to travel.  In my journey to Judaism, there have been a few key encounters.

     I met an Orthodox man, Moishe Avrams, at a kosher café in Antwerp, Belgium.  During the discussion, I told him that I was in the process of converting to Reform Judaism, he replied, “Why not stay Catholic”?  I was stunned.  After 5-10 minutes of good banter and discussion we agreed to disagree.  Mr. Avrams helped me understand the importance of Reform Judaism’s more progressive stances on homosexuality, role of women, inclusion of others, and outreach in the effort to improve the world and decrease the amount of anti-Semitism.

     During recent trips to Asia, I encountered 3 couples who moved to Singapore from Europe, primarily due to their unease with the rising level of anti-Semitism in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France. During a long and interesting conversation, one of my new friends said, “Deciding to be a Jew is not an easy path in these times’.  I met these couples again in Hong Kong last week and mentioned that I had my Mikvah in February.  All said, “Mazel Tov” and welcomed me to the community.  A global community indeed.

    Social justice

    The fight for marriage equality was in full stride in the Minnesota capitol as soon as I came back from my dad’s funeral. Even though I had just arrived back in MN, it was important to be present as the Minnesota Senate voted on the marriage equality bill. Shir Tikvah members were in great numbers at the capitol rotunda in St. Paul, and I was welcomed by many congregants as we expressed words of support (and song) for the passage of marriage equality in Minnesota. I was approached by many members of the congregation who provided words of comfort for the passing of my father. I felt  support and love at a most vulnerable, yet happy, time.

     Participating in Pesach and the High Holy Days have particularly been educational and enlightening as I learned more about self reflection, atonement, and forgiveness. Story telling, gratitude, compassion, social justice, remembrance, and community; these are all things that enrich my life and provide completeness, or Shalom, in my life and soul.  There is still much to learn and experience, but I see that as part of living a Jewish life.  


    I took the plunge on February 19, with Shir Tikvah clergy being members of the Beit Din, and my partner, Meir, as the sponsor/witness.  How auspicious and opportune that it was also the day of the lunar new year.  I was able to celebrate two events on the same day, with the co-mingling two key aspects of my life.  We celebrated as many Jews do, and had a feast at a Chinese restaurant.


    As I became more active in synagogue life the past two years at Shir Tikvah, as well as attending services at other synagogues, I have come to realize that this is the life that I have willingly and happily chosen.  My reasons for conversion are consistent with the basic values of my upbringing. This choice is particularly poignant as I experience Jewish life and spirituality, hand-in-hand, with my partner.

  • 13 Feb 2015 3:23 PM | Anonymous

    A small group of Shir Tikvahites got together in the sanctuary over 10 years ago  and spoke of the beginnings of Shir Tikvah when, like Cheers, “everyone knew your name”.  Even then we realized that was no longer true and were aware of the essential need to maintain that feeling of community, to be there for one another in good times and in difficult times--during a shiva and a bar or bat mitzvah, when members of the community are in need of support and to celebrate the good times.  And so, yad b’yad (hand in hand or caring committee) was born.
            Over the many years, meals have been brought to families recovering from illness and injuries, rides have been provided to appointments and to services and ST events.  We have supported shiva and welcomed loved ones home after burial services. We have sent cards and visited people in the hospital.  We have sponsored home to home shabbat dinners and brought community together for “healing” services.
    Shir Tikvah exists as a holy community (khilah k’dosha) for prayer, study, and as a means to perform acts of lovingkindness.  
             Community can be defined as a group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists.  This shared vision can be seen in all aspects of congregational life—whether in worship services, in religious school, at high holy days and within our home life.  This does not happen organically though and needs to be fostered just like any relationship.  Without the expression of caring and support from each and every one of us, the relationship becomes stagnant.  
            There is a reason that Judaism requires a minyan of 10 people for worship services to support a person in mourning.  One should not go through this process alone.  Nor should one celebrate the coming of age of our children whether a baby naming or bar or bat mitzvah in isolation, but rather in community.  This is how community is nurtured. 
            Caryl Barnett of blessed memory, and I founded this committee and worked together for many years.  I was nurtured again and again.  My working relationship and friendship with Caryl grew profound and deep and I am a changed person because of it. Helping to coordinate the generosity of our members through this important work was probably my greatest contribution to the congregation and to myself in my over 20 years here at Shir Tikvah.  I opened myself to becoming a giver and provider with whole heart. I also allowed myself to fully receive the care of this community when my dad died 8 years ago. 
            In a relationship in which one gives and one receives, it is easy to define what the receiver gets (a meal, a card, a ride).  The gift is clearly defined and limited. The giver however is changed from the inside by this giving and acquires a pure heart. “Generosity is like a flame.  When we share our flame it is not diminished, it spreads.  When we stay alone with our flame, it eventually burns out!”
            We say these words of Torah  every time we pray together, “v’shinantam l’vanecha.” “And you shall teach these words to your children”,   It is essential not only to create and maintain this congregation for ourselves but also to teach this value to our children.  L’dor vador  (from generation to generation).  How better to provide continuity than to create a community together in which to raise our children!

  • 13 Feb 2015 3:13 PM | Anonymous

    Less than a year ago my whole world,  was turned upside down.  Actually our world was turned upside down.

    I’d been dealing with a rare cancer on my lower leg since 2000.  Eight years ago the cancer stopped coming back and I thought I was out of the woods. Then last Spring we found out a different kind of cancer had invaded my leg, and at that point I decide not to take any more chances – I went for amputation.   That was last May.

    At the time I thought this would be a short-lived problem, and I’d be up walking around, without any assistance, in a few months. Little did I realize the extent of the challenges facing me. And it wasn’t just me, it was Marian, too.

    That’s the one thing I learned early on in my 15 year battle with cancer, the caregiver, if there is one, often needs as much help and support as the “patient”.

    We had always been able to take care of ourselves. We had no idea of what kind of help we’d need. When? How much?  It never even dawned on me I’d be going from the one who usually helps others, to the one who needed help. 

    Our culture seems so focused on self-reliance that it’s hard to ask for help, and even harder to receive it. It feels like a weakness, and our first impulse is to reject and say that’s OK, I can do it myself.  And it’s much harder for men. Just ask Marian.

    Marian was getting overwhelmed and practiced some “Tough Love” – she told me she needed help with taking me to the V.A. 3-4 times a week.

    It was difficult for me to ask friends for rides. Over the years I had been doing this for others, and I didn’t mind at all. But asking was difficult.  I felt embarrassed to admit I couldn’t take care of myself to my friends. Looking back it was so dumb to think that way… but I did.

    We were always up front about what was going on, medically. We never tried to hide it. How could we? It was fairly obvious. 

    We don’t recall asking for help, at first it was just there. First from the rabbis and Wendy, and then from our Chavurah and friends outside Shir Tikvah. 

    And then we began getting contacted by other Shir Tikvah members. Some brought us meals, some brought flowers, some stayed for dinner. When people stayed to share a meal with us it was so much more fun and interesting; it was a chance to have people to talk and laugh with over to our home. Especially for me, it was a chance to get together with friends.

    For others it was a phone call or quick visit. There were offers for transportation or even a break from caregiving. Marian got help in the yard and garden with weeding and planting, too.

    We were aware of the Caring Committee at Shir Tikvah. Our Chavurah had worked together to make soup to be placed in the S.T. freezer. Knowing the Caring Committee is available, and actually asking for help are two very separate issues. 

    We also learned how to ask for help. It wasn’t easy, for me, especially, but I did. I sure didn’t want Marian overwhelmed. And she was already overwhelmed with the surgery and rehab, and now I would be at home.

    Granted, we needed a lot of help, but, it’s also easy to ask for a little. The people who are part of the caring committee want to help. It’s a mitzvah.

    In its common usage, a mitzvah is a good deed. So, while it’s obvious the members of the Caring Committee do good deeds by helping… you’re also doing a mitzvah by letting someone help you, especially if it’s to take burdens away from you or your caregiver.

    It really meant a lot to both Marian and me.

    Now maybe you’re more of a private person, and don’t want everyone to know your business, or worry it will be all over Shir Tikvah?

    Talk to Jill or Wendy, and let them know that. They can take care of that part, and you’ll still get some friendly, compassionate support and love from members of the Caring Committee.

    We had so much help at times we were overwhelmed, but we’re not complaining. We were fortunate to have many communities to draw from, including my past work-mates, our circle of friends outside Shir Tikvah, and our neighbors.

    What’s important to remember…it’s not just you, the person who is sick, down, or struggling with a disability, it’s also the caregivers at home – often their struggles are hidden. They need to stay strong to help you.

    Please, do a mitzvah, let someone else feel good, too. Contact the Caring Committee.

    Happy Valentine’s Day – Shabbat Shalom

  • 04 Sep 2014 1:59 PM | Anonymous

    The Heart of the Matter

     One of the most famous sayings of Socrates is: "The unexamined life is not worth living”. For Socrates, growth and wisdom are only possible through a process of ongoing self-reflection. Real, meaningful amend-making and the process of seeking forgiveness (and granting it) are the natural by-products of examining one’s own behavior and interactions with others. However, these opportunities to repair relationships and clean the emotional underbrush we’ve accumulated are often missed when we are too focused on self to honestly consider the impact of our words and deeds on the people around us. At times, we all walk the world a little bit like Mr. Magoo, profoundly myopic and oblivious to the emotional wreckage we leave in our wake as a result. Deep resentment, dishonesty, and fear keep us, and those we have harmed, chained to the past.

     Each year in preparation for and during the High Holy Days, Judaism provides a very specific timeframe during which we are tasked with reviewing the year past: Where have we harmed others with our words and actions, or by our silence and inaction? Where have we failed to keep our word? Where have we been dishonest in our personal AND business lives? Where have we fallen short? 

     We are then required to go to those we have harmed, do our best to make amends and right our wrongs, and to sincerely seek forgiveness. And Judaism requires us to forgive any person who sincerely seeks it. This seeking of and granting forgiveness is not easy work, but I think our tradition recognizes that it is essential for our spiritual growth, the well-being of both parties and peace within the community at large. It keeps life and the world in balance.

     While Yom Kippur is the Day of Atonement, in Judaism there is no blanket atonement for wrongdoing and sin. The Mishnah teaches:  "For transgressions against God, the Day of Atonement atones; but for transgressions of one human being against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with one another.” We have to right those wrongs ourselves. There are no short cuts or easier, softer ways.

     The Hebrew month of Elul, the month preceding the High Holy Days, began this past week, calling us once again to do this hard work of repentance and forgiveness. It is customary during the month of Elul to sound the shofar every weekday following morning services. Rambam taught that the sound of the shofar was to awaken us from our spiritual slumber and complacency, and is a call to thoughtful, prayerful repentance.

     The process of amend making begins with an unflinching, unvarnished evaluation of self, setting aside what others may have done to harm us and focusing only on the wrongs we have committed. This is OUR spiritual work, undiminished and undiluted by justifications or rationalizations focused on the actions of others. Regardless of the choices others may make, we are each responsible for our own conduct. Only by having clarity of our own wrongdoing can we then effectively and honestly make amends to others. 

     The word amend means to change. Making an honest, meaningful amend to others is not a quick and thoughtless “sorry” muttered in passing. It is not the standard non-apology apology ( “If you were offended by what I said, I’m sorry” or “If I said anything to offend, I’m sorry”); or the unthinking blanket public apology often posted on social media ( “If I did anything to offend any of you this past year, I’m sorry”). All of these examples lack any sort of honest reflection, comprehension or accountability for one’s actions. Making an amend to someone means going to them in person if possible, acknowledging the specific harm done, expressing a willingness to take whatever action is necessary to repair the damage, and asking forgiveness. Saying I’m sorry is just not enough, especially if the same behavior continues. Making amends is about changing and about a commitment to do and be better.

     There is a certain amount of emotional maturity required for the kind of self-reflection and amend making that often results in the repair of damage inflicted on others. It requires both humility and a healthy sense of self and unflinching honesty. The same is required of the person whose forgiveness is sought. Perhaps even more so.

     It is not always easy to forgive, especially when the wounds are deep or where abuse has occurred. The act of forgiving, however, frees one from the pain of the past and allows wounds to heal. It is about moving out from under the sense of victimization that keeps one trapped in an unending loop of powerlessness over one’s own life and choices and future. Forgiveness is the ultimate act of self-empowerment. 

     At times, the offender may not be asking for forgiveness. They may be oblivious to or unconcerned about their wrongdoing. Forgive anyway. It’s not for them. It’s for you. Forgiveness does not excuse the actions of the other person. It is simply an act of self-love and self-preservation to let go of the bondage of resentment and fear that shut us off from our own sense of self. It means no longer being defined by wrongs done to us. It cleans out our inner world of the negative, and makes room for love, spirit and joy.

     So much of what ails us individually and communally is a deep inability to acknowledge the pain of others, rectify the harms done, and then, ultimately, to forgive. It really is the heart of the matter after all.

  • 03 Jul 2014 10:31 AM | Anonymous

    I will shake my hands in the air
    with tears besotting ancient anguish
    and the cries of parents who bury their children in graves etched into the earth by the blood of enemies we are challenged to discern but who try to take more than life and steal our hope and our faith.

    The revenge I seek
    is not of torment or rage or rocket launches but a sweet revenge of defiant compassion and determination to write a new story where children play in the parks of Jerusalem and the town squares of Ramallah and to rise up stronger than ever before with all those committed to a real, just, honorable future with all the fury that hope can muster and weave a blanket of compassion over the planet so strong so powerful so vibrant and holy and impenetrable there is no longer space left in the universe for anything not pregnant with courage or love.

  • 02 Jun 2014 5:54 PM | Anonymous

    Shavuot celebrates the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. In the hundreds of generations since, the stories of the Jewish people have been retold countless times.

    What happens when a family story doesn't get told?

    Imagine digging through the contents of your elderly relative’s apartment and discovering a long-kept secret.  The film “The Flat” explore the limits of friendship, the power of memory and the possibility of forgiveness. 

    Join the Lifelong Learning Team for Tikkun Leil Shavuot – evening of Shavuot learning, prayer, and cheesecake! Tuesday, June 3, 7pm to 9:30pm.

    The evening’s teaching will be led by Rabbi Melissa B. Simon, Shir Tikvah’s Director of Lifelong Learning. Discussion will be chevruta-style, in small groups. All are welcome to be a part of the evening.  The film viewing will begin at 7pm followed by a discussion.  The evening will conclude with a brief Shavuot service. In keeping with the holiday’s dairy tradition (the land flowing with milk and honey), we will feast on cheesecake!

    What is Shavuot? Since Passover, we have counted the omer, marking time, to arrive at this festival holiday which, historically, celebrated the planting season and evolved to commemorate Jews' receipt of Torah at Mount Sinai. Celebrate whatever moves you this season at Shavuot.

    L’shalom, friends!

    Shir Tikvah's Lifelong Learning Team

  • 23 Apr 2014 8:36 AM | Anonymous
    Spring!  Is there a blessing for spring?  How about seeing the first blooms of spring? Last week in Thursday morning minyan, Andy Elfenbein shared the following blessing, intended to be said when you see the first blooms on TWO different trees.  Blessed are you, Adonai, our God, Ruler of space and time, for God left nothing lacking in the world, and created in it good creatures and good trees, giving pleasure through them to  humans (the children of Adam).  

    BarRUCH a-TAH AdoNAI, EloHEInu MEH-lech ha-oLAM  she-LO chi-SAR ba-olaMO da-VAR, u’va-RA VO b’ri-YOT to-VOT v’i-la-NOT to-VIM, l’ha-NOT ba-HEM b’NEI a-DAM.

    בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶֹלֹא חִסַר בַּעוֹלָמוֹ דָּבָר וּבָרָא בוֹ בְּרִיוֹת טוֹבוֹת וְאִילָנוֹת טוֹבִים לְהָנּוֹת בָּהֶם בְּנֵי אָדָם.

    I hope we all see at least two blossoming trees in the coming week!  What a blessing that would be!
  • 11 Apr 2014 9:39 AM | Anonymous
    Quick!  Get your Pesach on!  Treat yourself to my favorite Passover songs.  Play them while you clean!  Play them while you don't clean!  Play them while you cook!  Play them in the car!  Play them at your seder!

    Here are my favorites, vetted for the "kitsch" factor.  If you don't have someone musical at your seder, bring the music right to the table.
    Some of these are on youtube, but extra points for supporting Jewish musicians and purchasing their music!

    Shir La La Pesach, my favorite Pesach album ever:  Shir La La Pesach Album
    If you don't get the whole album, try:
    Candle blessing
    Mah Nishtana
    Let My People Go
    Listen King Pharaoh
    Lotsa Matsa
    Building Cities
    Elijah Rock

    Paul Zim Seder Nights, my second favorite Pesach album:  Seder Nights
    Favorite tracks:
    Avadim Hayinu
    One is Hashem

    Ellen Allard--
    Ten Plagues in Egypt
    Baby Moses in a Basket
    Wall of Water
    Ballad of the Four Sons

    Another source for Passover music:  Yep.  A Jewish version of iTunes. Discounts for buying in bulk.  I haven't listened to all of these, but I love supporting small businesses, and many Jewish artists sell their music here:  Oysongs

    As always, I love knowing what you picked and what inspired you, and especially, which ones you could not stop singing for days.  I have a trick for that, by the way, that I'll share when you tell me which one stayed with you.

    Wishing you a Chag Sameach!  Happy Passover!
  • 03 Apr 2014 10:59 AM | Anonymous
    This morning I had the great opportunity to be a “civilian” in morning minyan. Not being in charge of prayer is a great gift for those of us who usually lead.  It usually means that I can go off-road from the service.  This morning I was hardly ever on the same page that Rabbi Simon announced.  Instead, I took a “choose-my-own-adventure” journey through Mishkan T’fillah.  I highly recommend doing this during prayer services or whenever you find yourself looking at a prayer book, whether you’re seeking inspiration, curious about what is in this book, or are looking for a distraction.  I’m even considering using my own prayer book at morning minyan so I can write in it when I find gems, like I did this morning.  I might put the date on the page and a note about my thoughts, so that when I encounter it again, I can remember what inspired me the last time I encountered the prayer.

    This morning’s top gem, dedicated to those who are traveling to Israel in the coming months, but also for anyone who has been to Israel.

    One does not travel to Jerusalem,
    One returns,
    One ascends
    The road taken by generation, the path of longing
    On the way to redemption.

    One brings rucksacks
    Stuffed with memories
    To each mountain
    And each hill.
    In the cobbled white alleyways
    One offers a blessing
    For the memories of the past
    Which have been renewed.

    One does not travel to Jerusalem.
    One returns.

    --Yitzchak Yasinowitz

    I’m so excited for those of you who will experience Jerusalem for the first time this summer.  And so excited for those who are returning.  As much as I wish I were going to Israel with the Shir Tikvah trip, I’m grateful to have returned to Jerusalem this morning. I could see it, smell it, and revel in Jerusalem during minyan. If you find a prayer that inspires you, will you share it with me?

  • 02 Apr 2014 3:29 PM | Anonymous
    On March 31, 2014, along with dozens of my colleagues, I shaved my head. Bald. Not just short. Bald. To paraphrase the babies from "Free to Be You and Me," "Bald as a ping-pong ball."


    The simple answer is that we joined "36 Rabbis Shave for Brave" to raise money for children's cancer research through St. Baldrick's Foundation, a fundraising effort dreamed up by Rabbis Rebecca Einstein Schorr and Elizabeth Wood. It was born in a moment of pain; our colleagues, Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer, buried their eight-year-old son, Sammy, who died from refractory acute myeloid leukemia on Dec. 14, 2013.

    In our collective grief, we rabbis came together, raised more than half a million dollars and raised the profile of paltry funding for children's cancer research. Men and women alike. All rabbis. More than 80 of us. Now bald. Symbols of hope and grief, empathy and activism.

    The deeper answer as to why we did this, though, is a bit more emotionally and spiritually complicated, and is different for each one of us who participated. Isn't that how it always is?

    Rachel Havrelock notes in The Torah: A Women's Commentary that "the human body is both an indicator of change and a vessel of memory."

    An indicator of change. A vessel of memory.

    We rabbis have a lot of power. We teach Torah, offer blessings, strive to inspire the brokenhearted to touch their souls and dream, to ameliorate suffering, to breathe Judaism to life in a new generation, to live our prophetic values in the public square and change social policy for the human good. We name babies, pronounce couples married beneath a chuppah and hold bereaved loved ones in our arms as they desperately try to croak out the haunting meter of the "Mourner's Kaddish."

    But we cannot stop our loved ones -- our family, our friends, our colleagues, our children -- from knowing agonizing pain when a child dies.

    So when the opportunity came to shave our heads, there was a deeply spiritual, Torah-based reason we did it: empathy. Phyllis, Sammy's mom, said that she was looking forward to shaving her beautiful long hair to demonstrate physically how much things have changed to reflect the profound grief inside her heart.

    But it is more than just empathy that inspired our collective action.

    Shaving my head is a ritual way to engage other people in a conversation: About Sammy, about children's cancer research, about my deep respect for Phyllis and Michael's ability to simply wake up each morning, about "tzedakah" (justice), "tikkun" (healing) and "rachamim" (compassion), about our responsibility to do something when we can.

    There are moments, sublime and acute, when memory marries the body's transformation, and empathy and activism embrace. It is the cry to respond, however and whenever we can, to the suffering in our midst.

    No, $500,000 won't bring Sammy back from the dead. We know that. But perhaps we can hold our colleagues and friends in their grief and help raise the money necessary to prevent another family from needing to bury their child. Maybe there is a future doctor or researcher in our midst will be inspired by our meshuggana shave. Or maybe there is someone, like Esther, born for this moment, to devote all her resources to eradicating pediatric cancer.

    An indicator of change, a vessel of memory.

    Empathy activism. The radical Jewish ideal that our connectedness to other people inspires us -- demands us -- to respond to their suffering with courageous action. When we can, we must.

    If you would like to support this worthy cause, please donate here.
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