Monday, May 29, 2023

This Memorial Day I'm Remembering Major Stuart Adam Wolfer, z"l

I first learned about JWB Jewish Chaplains Council® (JWB) early in my tenure at the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). From time to time, its then-director, Rear Admiral Rabbi Harold Robinson, would call to invite URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie to fly with him on a fighter jet that would then land on an aircraft carrier at sea—or at least that’s what I remember hearing about those calls in the executive suite at the URJ! Not surprisingly, Rabbi Yoffie always had a conflict.

More recently I learned that the Jewish Welfare Board, the forerunner of JCC Association of North America, was formed in 1917 as a coalition of organizations to support young Jewish men headed off to fight in World War I. Over more than a century, it has stayed true to its founding, and today its Jewish military chaplains and trained lay leaders bring Jewish life and opportunities to Jewish military personnel and their families wherever in the world they are working to protect Americans and our many freedoms.

Last Thursday, JWB hosted Beverly Wolfer, who spoke to the staff of JCC Association about her brother, Army Major Stuart A. Wolfer, z”l. A Jewish day school graduate, ROTC-commissioned Army officer, and a respected soldier, leader, and friend, he was active in “B’nai Baghdad,” the military’s Jewish community where he served, until he was killed in action there in April 2008. Major Wolfer was 36 years old and left behind his wife and three children, his sister and her family, and his parents.

Throughout his military service, Wolfer’s family regularly sent him care packages, and following his death, they established the Major Stuart Adam Wolfer Institute (MSAWI), a nonprofit organization that works to ensure that his legacy of leadership, commitment to his country, and community service lives on and inspires future generations of children, adults, and leaders. In addition to continuing to send care packages to troops with help from volunteers of all ages, MSAWI raises awareness about the sacrifices troops and their families make to serve our country and recycles the stars on retired American flags (those no longer fit to fly) into tokens of honor for members of the armed forces and veterans.

Just days before Memorial Day, I was honored to learn about the life and legacy of Stuart Wolfer, chat briefly with his sister, and join my colleagues in putting together care packages that will bring some small comforts of home to Jewish-American and American troops stationed on bases, ships, and elsewhere around the world.

Today—and every day—may the soul of Stuart Adam Wolfer and all those killed in service to our country find perfect rest in the shelter of God’s wings and may their memories be for a blessing, now and always.

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Eight Tidbits for National Grammar Day

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In honor of National Grammar Day, I present this year’s list of my grammar and usage pet peeves—some new ones, but a few old favorites, too. 
  1. “Thru” is not a replacement for “through.” It is an informal, non-standard word and should be avoided at all cost. 

  2. “Below” is a preposition that means “lower than:” The subway runs below the street. It may also be used as an adverb, following a noun, to describe something that will be shown later: The chart below shows the difference between adverbs and prepositions. Although the tide may be shifting, “below” should not be used as an adjective, a usage that seems to be gaining in popularity: The below email… but sounds like nails on a chalkboard to me. 

  3. Use “unique” sparingly. If something is unique it is the only one of its kind. As my friend, Peter Schaktman, wisely advises, “Something is either unique or it isn’t. [It] cannot be ‘very unique.’” 

  4. Don’t confuse “ensure,” “assure,” and “insure.” The first means to make certain: Joe must ensure he is home by 6 p.m. to relieve the babysitter. Assure means to dispel doubts: Joe assured Mrs. Seligson he would be home by 6 p.m. Insure is related to “insurance;” Sue insured her new necklace with a rider on her homeowners insurance policy. 

  5. Although “deep dive” is (over)used informally to mean an in-depth investigation of a topic or scenario, in my book, it is what happens only when you jump off a high diving board or go underwater in scuba gear to see colorful fish and coral reefs. When you study something intently, you investigate, search, inquire, or probe. 

  6. Know the difference between “diffuse” and “defuse.” The former is to spread over a wide area: By the time Sergio left the office, the scent of his cologne had diffused into every corner of the room. The latter means to remove the fuse from an explosive or reduce danger or tension. The HR manager was responsible for defusing the tension between Tess and her supervisor. 

  7. As my paternal grandmother was fond of saying, “It bears repeating,” and so it is with this tidbit from a previous post on National Grammar Day: “Use” and “utilize” are not interchangeable and using the longer word in place of the shorter one doesn’t make you sound smart. “Use” is the correct word when employing an object for its intended purpose: Sally used a hairpin to keep hair out of her eyes during the exam. When describing an object used for other than its intended purpose, “utilize” is the correct word: After the exam, when Sally found herself locked out of her car, she utilized a hairpin to jimmy the lock.

  8. Finally, keep an eye on your grammar (capitalization and punctuation, too!), even when texting. In other words, don’t send me a text like this: 

Happy National Grammar Day, friends!

Monday, January 23, 2023

Bless These Hands: Creating a Reform Chevra Kadisha in NYC

In 2010, our family spent 11 days in hospice, accompanying our mother and wife to the end of her life as the body that had held her soul for more than seven decades succumbed to disease after an excruciating seven weeks of illness. After she died, our rabbi asked if we wanted to arrange for shmirah—individuals to watch over her body until burial. Without missing a beat, my father, my sister, and I said “yes.” We knew, deep in our own souls, that our beloved “The Mums” would have appreciated the presence of shomrim during this liminal time. 

What we did not know, was how comforting it would be for us. As we completed the necessary arrangements at the funeral home, we could hear, in a nearby room, the familiar voice of a longtime family friend reading Psalms as she sat with the body of our beloved. With the details handled, we returned home to wait out the time until the funeral. Throughout those long hours of disbelief and breath-stopping grief, we were consoled, knowing that shomrim were with The Mums. 

Recently, when the rabbis of two New York City congregations—Temple Shaaray Tefila in Manhattan and Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn—joined forces with students from the Reform Movement’s seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), and Plaza Jewish Community Chapel to create a chevra kadisha to serve Reform congregations in the five boroughs, I signed on. Intrigued and open to the possibilities, I welcomed the opportunity to be in on the ground-floor formation and launch of the first sacred community that will not only prepare and guard bodies of the deceased before burial according to Jewish tradition but also will have the freedom and expertise to do this work in ways that extend beyond the customs of Orthodox chevrot kadisha (plural of chevra kadisha), which currently are the only option in New York City. 

After an introductory meeting at Plaza in late October, I thought often about what we had seen and heard that evening, finding renewed appreciation for the Jewish rituals around death and burial and the ways they so intentionally honor the deceased and offer compassion to the living. Earlier this week, our fledgling group participated in hands-on training at HUC-JIR led by staff and volunteers from Kavod v’Nichum. Hebrew for “honor and comfort,” this non-profit organization provides education, support, and training around end-of-life rituals and practices in our tradition. For more than three hours, we learned about and then practiced the rituals to prepare a body for burial. We did so without water or the necessary equipment but with help from gracious volunteers who served as—meit (masculine), meitah (feminine), and meiteh (non-binary)—the deceased. 

We began with the physical washing of the body, reciting passages from Song of Songs to remind us that we are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine image, beautiful in body and spirit. Physical washing was followed by ritual washing. Known as taharah, purification, this spiritual cleansing restores the soul of the deceased to the state of purity it was in when the person entered this world. A prayer that highlights the power of water to purify and sanctify, Amar Rabbi Akiva, is recited as part of taharah. In addition, when the purifying waters washed over the body, we repeatedly recited, depending on the gender identity of the deceased, t’hora hi (female), tahor hu (male), or t’horeh heh (non-binary) to mark the moment of transformation to a state of ritual purity. 

Finally, we dressed the body for burial in tachrichim, loose-fitting, white linen or cotton garments, including a kittel or burial shroud, a ceremonial, collared, knee-length jacket without pockets that some observant Ashkenazi Jews, mostly men, wear on Yom Kippur, when leading a Passover seder, or under the chuppah on their wedding day. The tachrichim are designed to replicate the clothing of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest during Temple times, and to show that all are equal in death. 

Although the how-tos of caring for the body and performing taharah are certainly important, the most valuable lesson in our training concerned our intention or kavanah in carrying out this holy work. Because none of the rituals performed by a chevra kadisha is rooted in halacha or Jewish law, it is not possible to do anything the “wrong way.” Twice during the process, once before the group begins its work and once after it has finished, the members recite the mechilah prayer, speaking directly to the deceased, to ask forgiveness for anything they might do or might have done that falls short of bringing honor and respect to body and soul. For these reasons, those who were present from Kavod v’Nichum assured us that we are ready to begin. (Initially, the Reform chevra kadisha will focus on preparing bodies for burial and will add shmirah later.) 

In the coming weeks, as we move toward February 15, the projected launch date, our chevra kadisha will continue to solidify itself by compiling a manual of readings and prayers to codify our own customs; organizing a notification system for members; and training individuals as leaders (rosh, rosha, rosheh) to ensure the physical and emotional safety of the entire team and that its members show honor and respect to the deceased; follow Jewish customs; and adhere to the desires and practices of the funeral home. 

Our training session closed with this blessing of the hands: “Bless these hands for the kindness they show, for the holiness they embody, for the mitzvot they enact.” I am honored to participate in this sacred undertaking but am not without trepidation. My heart is fully in, and with time, experience, and the camaraderie of others, I believe my hands, too, will faithfully enact the mitzvah of taharah.

Sunday, February 27, 2022

5 Lessons for National Grammar Day…And Every Day
In less than a week, it will be March 4th, National Grammar Day, the only day of the year that is a complete sentence. In its honor, I offer you five grammar and word usage lessons you can use every day.

  1. Don’t substitute “utilize” for “use.” It doesn’t make you sound smart.
  2. “Use” and “utilize” are not interchangeable and using the longer word in place of the shorter one doesn’t make you sound smart. “Use is the correct word when employing an object for it’s an intended purpose: Sally used a hairpin to keep hair out of her eyes during the exam. When describing an object used for other than its intended purpose, “utilize” is the correct word: After the exam, when Sally found herself locked out of her car, she utilized a hairpin to jimmy the lock.
  3. Don’t confuse “capital” and “capitol.”
  4. Trenton, Albany, Sacramento, Tallahassee, Concord, Montpelier, and Austin are state capitals. The gold-domed buildings in those cities, where the state legislatures meet to conduct business, are capitols. Got it?
  5. Which is it: it’s, its, or its’?
  6. “It’s” is a contraction of “It is.” It’s cold outside today. “ “Its” is the possessive form of an inanimate object or an animal or child of unknown gender. The Coca-Cola Company issued its annual report last week. “Its’” is not a word. Please don’t use it—especially on National Grammar Day.
  7. Is it “lesser” or “few”?
  8. I’m always annoyed by the signs for the supermarket express line that say: “10 or Less Items.” Here’s why they should say “10 or Fewer Items.” When talking or writing about discreet objects that can be counted individually, use “fewer.” When talking about nouns that cannot be counted individually, use “less.” Pamela had fewer coins than Rob, but her coins were quarters and his were pennies, so Rob had less money than Pamela. Here’s another one: Josephine had less flour than she thought, so she baked fewer cookies.
  9. Why you should not say or write “Marci left the decision to Joe and I.
  10. ”In this sentence, “Joe and I” are the objects of the sentence—the ones to whom Marci gave the decision-making power. But “I” should be used only as a sentence’s subject, not its object. The correct way to say or write this sentence is “Marci left the decision to Joe and me.” To easily decide whether to use “I” or “me,” take Joe out of the picture entirely. Would you ever say, “Marci left the decision to I”? I hope not! I also hope that it sounds so wrong that you know at once that the correct choice is “me.”

Happy National Grammar Day, my friends!

Saturday, October 2, 2021

October’s Arrived, So I’m on My Soapbox


I didn’t know how I was going to write about Breast Cancer Awareness Month this year, and then I saw this message on Facebook, posted by a guy I knew in high school:

Lost my mother, grandmother (and both her sisters) and great grandmother to breast cancer. I get checked every year by my doctor.

I immediately sent him a private message: “Have you had genetic testing for BRCA and other mutations?”

Guy: “My brother has since he had daughters. Was negative. But he and I are vastly diff makeups. He’s def from my father’s DNA. And I’m sure I’m more my mother’s. Never got tested since I only had boys.”

I couldn’t have asked for a better set-up!

Me: “You should consider consulting with a genetic counselor because men, not only women, can pass mutations on to their children. So, if you carry a hereditary cancer mutation, each of your sons has a 50% chance of carrying it—and a 50% chance of passing it on to their own kids, both sons and daughters. Happy to discuss further if that would be helpful. I’ve learned all of this the hard way, and I work hard to make sure other families don’t have the experiences that mine did. Also, some of these mutations are much more prevalent among Ashkenazi Jews than they are in the general population. I’ll also butt out if you think this is none of my business.” 

Guy: “I appreciate it! I will pursue it further.”

Me: “Excellent! Please keep me posted.”  

If, in fact, Guy or either of his sons turns out to be a BRCA mutation carrier (pfth, pfth, pfth), they’re at increased risk of male breast cancer, prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer, and melanoma. So, I hope he follows through, gets genetic counseling, and does whatever might be necessary to protect his own health and that of his sons.

To learn more about hereditary cancer, visit FORCE: Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered, a national non-profit organization solely devoted to providing resources and support to the hereditary cancer community. To find a genetic counselor in your area, visit the National Society of Genetic Counselors. Visit to learn how you can test for hereditary cancer mutations from home and consult with a genetic counselor about the results.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

King Reilly: A Treasured Gift From Our Hometown

“Teaching is a very noble profession that shapes the character, calibre, and future of an individual. If the people remember me as a good teacher, that will be the biggest honour for me.”

-- Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam, 11th president of India, 2002 to 2007

Amy and I drove around Colonial Park a few times before we found the right gazebo. When we couldn’t find it immediately, my sister wanted to head back to Del Boca Vista, but I insisted we persist. In the end, we were glad we did.

In the gazebo, we met Eileen and Kathy, Mr. Reilly’s daughters, and one of his granddaughters, Kristen, as well as Chuck McCook, a fellow Franklin High School alum from the Class of 1980. Lovingly placed on the seats around the gazebo were the King’s FHS yearbooks from the 70s, 80s, and beyond, together with snapshots of students his daughters told us they’d found on the bookshelves in his basement “man cave.”

Immediately, Amy spotted me in the array of photos—wearing the same pink velour turtleneck I’d worn at my Sweet 16. We quickly identified others, rattling off their names as though we’d walked the high school’s halls with them just yesterday—Tommy Kimball, Carolyn Holmes, Carrie Hamilton, Andrew Schofer, Julie Goldman, Jimbo Allegro, Amy McGovern, Cory Nass, and Adam Weintraub. There were others, too, familiar as the backs of our own hands, but four decades have elapsed since the photos were taken, preventing us from whipping their names from the recesses of our middle-aged minds.

To the pictures and the yearbooks, we added our own reminiscences: the antics of “Reilly’s Raiders” and the classmates who participated;” hanging with King Reilly in his classroom until the “late bus” took us home; the outline sketch of the 13 original colonies on the chalkboard that began many an early American history lesson; hosting the King himself for dinner at 12 Webster Road on back-to-school night; and knowing, without anyone saying so, that Reilly’s classroom was a safe haven, long before that even was a thing. The kids who smoked in the courtyard, the hallway cacophony between classes, and our love for a school that, at the time, had a less than stellar reputation all made cameo appearances in our conversation.

From his daughters, we got a bit of the King’s prequel and sequel to our own high school years. He began his college career as a business major. However, after he was drafted during the Vietnam War and spent time as a file clerk in Korea, he changed his major to education upon returning home. Even though the switch meant lost credits and more time in school, his wartime experience had taught him that business and office work weren’t for him—and to our benefit, he acted on that knowledge. Kathy told us how, eager to get out of school for the day, she accompanied her dad to an early iteration of “Take Our Daughters to Work Day,” only to find herself in his classroom all day, listening to him tell the story of Hugh Glass’ mauling by a bear—not once or twice, but eight times during the course of the school day. He was good at storytelling, she said, and no one was embarrassed or thought the tale was dorky or dumb.

Following his retirement in the mid-1990s, he spent precious time with his family; the Palmyra High School Band Parents, who, thanks to him, added “and Grandparents” to the organization’s name; and the people of Ireland, whom he met when he backpacked and hitchhiked across the country from Galway to Dublin. All of them, like Amy, Chuck, and I, along with countless other Franklin students, are better for having crossed paths with King Reilly—and now members of his family—and will carry his life lessons and his indomitable spirit in our hearts always. They are among a trove of treasured gifts from our hometown whose value—and our appreciation of them—only increases with time.

Rest in peace, Mr. Reilly.

P.S. One the the High Holiday sermons I read this season connected me to this NPR story from 2005. Although this wasn't a funeral, Amy and I were honored to share this special time and fond memories with King Reilly's loved ones.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

How Framily Made Our Visit to Ojai So Magical

Once upon a time, in 1968, two little girls (one still in diapers) moved with their parents from New Jersey to Wheaton, Maryland. They didn’t know anyone who lived in Maryland, but their scientist dad had a new job at NIH, and the four of them lived in a garden apartment not far from Bethesda, where his office and lab were located.

Before long, their mom started to play bridge with other moms who lived with their families in the garden apartments. She met one mom from California who had three little girls, and the youngest was just a few months older than one of her little girls. Their dad was an engineer and a college professor.

The two families and the five little girls got to be friends. They befriended another family with a little girl, but her mom didn’t play bridge. They were from Baltimore, but had recently returned from Montana, where they’d lived near a Native American reservation where the dad had been a doctor with the U.S. Public Health Service.

The families did lots of things together, often riding into “The District” in the California family’s 1960 dark blue Chevy Nova station wagon. On the Fourth of July, they went to watch the fireworks on the National Mall; in the winter, they drove to see the National Christmas Tree, and in the spring, the beautiful pink cherry blossoms. The little girls from New Jersey loved to ride in the “way back” of the station wagon, look out the back window, and wave to the drivers behind them. It was much more fun than riding in their own black Chevy sedan with the “D.C. Last Colony” bumper sticker on the back.

The girls were in Brownies and Girl Scouts together, and when they weren’t in school or extra-curricular activities, they hung out together—playing Monopoly, Yahtzee, and hopscotch, riding bikes with banana seats, and sledding down snow-covered hills. The biggest girl, who could be very bossy (and hated raisins), sometimes bossed the littlest one around. The California family had a black cat named Troubles, and the New Jersey girls were afraid of him, especially after he scratched one of them on the nose. The Baltimore family had a parakeet whose cage sat on an old TV cart, and the little girl with the scratched nose liked to push the cart around the parakeet’s living room.

The New Jersey mom was a pre-school teacher at the JCC in Rockville, where the littlest girl went to school. Since the rest of the girls’ school day ended at lunchtime on Wednesdays (for teacher in-service training and development), the Baltimore mom watched the New Jersey mom’s older girl each Wednesday afternoon. The families pitched in to help out in other ways, too, like when one little girl had eye surgery and another had her tonsils out. (The little girl with the tonsils brought them home in a jar, and they sat on her dresser for a very long time.)

When the families celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas together, there often was homemade ice cream—from a hand-crank ice cream maker—for dessert. The girls also ate a lot of Spaghetti-O’s and Butoni toaster pizzas, even though the middles were always cold. 

One year, when the Baltimore family was away—probably in Baltimore—the New Jersey mom and dad planned a Hawaiian-themed New Year’s eve party. For days beforehand, they cooked a lot of chicken and pineapple to serve over rice to their guests and decorated their front door with travel posters for Hawaii, full of people wearing leis and hula skirts. Unfortunately, it snowed so hard that night, only the California mom and dad, who could walk from their building to the next, actually made it to the party. After the New Jersey girls were fast asleep and all the leftover Hawaiian chicken and rice had been packed away, the two moms and dads smoked marijuana—probably for the first time, and maybe the only time—that the California dad had gotten from someone at the school where he taught.

In 1972, the New Jersey family moved back to New Jersey, so the dad could teach at Rutgers. Shortly afterward, the California family and the Baltimore family each moved to a townhouse in the same complex as the garden apartments. When the California family moved back to California, they visited the New Jersey family on their way to the west coast. When the young lady (she wasn’t a little girl anymore) in the Baltimore family became bat mitzvah, the New Jersey family drove to Maryland for the simcha. They returned each summer to visit the Baltimore family, who by this time had moved into a house in Silver Spring, and so the little girl who had the eye surgery could continue to see the same eye doctor in Washington, D.C. In between visits, the Baltimore and New Jersey moms talked on the phone every Monday night—beginning at 11 p.m., when the rates went down.

In the summer of 1979, the New Jersey girls flew for the first time, when the family traveled to Los Angeles to visit the California family in Manhattan Beach. Together the two families visited Disneyland and Universal Studios, before the New Jersey family took off in their rented Datsun to visit San Diego, Ojai, and the Mohave Desert for a few days. Later that same year, the Baltimore family adopted a little girl, and the older New Jersey girl got to meet the baby only a few months later when she was in Washington, D.C. to attend a model United Nations conference for high school students. When the younger New Jersey girl attended law school in Washington, D.C., she visited the Baltimore family often. Her sister visited a few times when she was in Washington, D.C. for work.

Weddings, cross-country business trips, and Ma Bell kept the families connected throughout the 1980s and 90s, but never did all three gather in the same place at the same time. In 2002, the elder New Jersey girl, who lived in Los Angeles at the time, spent a lot of time with the California family in San Luis Obispo, while she got untangled from her marriage and prepared to return to the east coast. 

In 2010, the New Jersey mom died, followed in 2013 by the Baltimore mom. We like to think that wherever they are, they’re together in a place that includes plenty of outlet malls and deep discount warehouses and that they’re riding around in a big ol’, gas-guzzling Chevy Impala with lots of room in the back seat and the trunk for whatever glassware, placemats, or other treasures they pick up.

When the pandemic hit, three generations of the California family’s girls—sometimes joined by a fourth-generation toddler—and the New Jersey and Baltimore girls began meeting weekly on Zoom for Bi-Coastal Happy Hour (BCHH). When the littlest girl, living in New York City, announced a business trip to Ojai, California, plans for an in-person reunion kicked in.

For a few days in mid-August, the California mom, the six little girls, and a daughter of one of the California girls had a magical time together in Ojai—catching up, celebrating, remembering, reminiscing, and planning for the next reunion.

The end… but not really.