Sunday, May 5, 2019

Here's What Makes an Amazing Jewish Leader

This day, as a new crop of Reform Jewish clergy was ordained as rabbis and cantors, seems a most fitting time to publish thoughts about two of my own beloved Jewish teachers and leaders. I was honored to speak about each one recently -- although these words hardly begin to scratch the surface of my admiration, respect, and esteem for them.

On Saturday, April 6, I introduced Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism, who was this year's Diana S. Herman Memorial Scholar-in-Residence at Temple Emanu-El in Edison, NJ. Here's what I said that afternoon:
Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s website describes him as “a bold, inspiring, and passionate speaker on Israel, interfaith dialogue, church-state issues, and American religious life.”
Wikipedia and the URJ’s website can fill you in on his educational background and the worship initiatives, social justice priorities, and other programs he championed during his 16-year tenure as president of the Union for Reform Judaism. 
And that is all useful and important information.  
But, I want to tell you briefly about the Eric Yoffie I know – the one who holds a special place in my heart.  
The one who quietly thinks things through, turning them over and over in his mind, carefully  examining every possible angle. 
The one who states his positions unflinchingly and with bold, concise eloquence – never backing down, no matter how fierce the opposition. 
The one who was never too busy to answer my Jewish questions, teach a bit of Torah, ask after my family, or where I would be for seder. 
The one who, running into my mom in a crowded elevator at her first URJ board meeting, didn’t miss a beat in wishing her a mazel tov on her newly minted graduate degree – and never ignored a chance to thank her and my dad for “sharing Jane with us.” 
The one who cares deeply about his own family, his friends, and, in his role as a Jewish leader, the people who worked with him and for him. 
The Eric Yoffie I know is a mensch– humble, genuine, full of integrity, with a well-calibrated moral compass that always points north. 
I’m incredibly proud and honored to have this Eric Yoffie in my world and to welcome him to Temple Emanu-El as the Diana S. Herman Memorial Scholar-in-Residence.
Earlier today, at a brunch honoring Lafayette College history professor and Hillel advisor Bob Weiner as he prepares to retire at the end of this year after 50 (yes, 50!) years  on the faculty, I had the pleasure of sharing these reminiscences:
I must have met Bob Weiner early in the fall semester in 1981. I lived in Ruef, and was just learning about pub night, “spinning disks,” and the fact that a roasted tomato sprinkled with parmesan breadcrumbs was the only vegetarian option in Marquis. 
Overwhelmed by the newness of it all, I yearned for something familiar, a pacing or rhythm I knew, something that felt a little like home. That yen landed me in Hoag Hall late on a Friday afternoon for Shabbat services. That’s where I first met Bob – 
Bob, who, over time, recognized and nurtured a spark of leadership potential that gave me enough confidence to join the Hillel board and work my way through the ranks, ultimately serving as president and organizing a Passover meal plan in the original Hillel House on McCartney Street.
Bob, who helped me design a Jewish studies minor – an offering that didn’t exist at Lafayette at the time. That cluster of courses led me to the Jewish non-profit sector, where I have spent the majority of my career. (And I’m not the only one. Following the synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh last fall, I reached out to Brian Schreiber, a fellow alum,….you know, that tall, lanky guy with the wide grin? He’s the executive director of Pittsburgh’s JCC and as he wrote to me at the time, “Bob was really the catalyst for my journey into Jewish communal life.”)
Bob, whose family has always been an integral part of his life at Lafayette. I first met Mark, his eldest son, when, as a high school senior, he and one of his classmates became my classmates when they came to campus to study in a first-year Hebrew course taught by Professor Marblestone, z’l. And, Sandy? In my mind’s eye, she’s always there – with a smile, a hug, and a kind word. And if she’s not, no doubt she’s tootling around the Lehigh Valley in her pink Mary Kay Cadillac!
Bob, who, together with Sandy, of course, (and I think I’m remembering this detail correctly) trekked to New Jersey for a sukkah party at my parents’ house, when I was living there following graduation. As Bob told me at the time, but for the fact that the Weiners lived in the Lehigh Valley and the Hermans lived in central New Jersey, he was sure the two couples would have been the best of friends.
Bob, who a few years later (and again with Sandy), attended my wedding and when the marriage dissolved,was still there with comforting words that validated the truly life-changing decision I had made.
Bob, who more recently invited me back to campus to speak at Hillel about working in the Reform Jewish world. Somewhere along the way, though, that plan got nixed in favor of a talk to a wider audience about hereditary cancer genetic mutations and my experience as a BRCA mutation carrier.
Bob, who is humble, genuine, full of integrity, caring, menschlichand what my grandmother would call a gutte neshuma.
Bob, you and Sandy hold a special place in my Lafayette memories and in my heart. As you set off down this new path, my dad, my sister, and I wish you abundant joy, laughter, love, and all good things. Godspeed, my friend.
I am blessed to have these two Jewish leaders in my orbit, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share with others the reasons each one holds a special place in my heart.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Seven Books I Read in the Last 12 Months

Last year was hardly my “readingest” year ever and I’m glad to report that I’ve done better in 2018. Having set a modest goal to read six books this year, I surpassed that mark and completed these seven books:
  1. The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish: This is the kind of book you can't stop reading, but you don't want to end. Filled with richly drawn (and flawed) characters, the novel's story lines are heavily built around characters’ encounters with their own flaws. The parallel stories – four centuries apart – were equally compelling, and the mystery of how each would end propelled me through. A fabulous read!
  2. The Marrying of Chani Kaufman, by Eve Harris: To be honest, I was somewhat surprised this book was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize because although I enjoyed it at the time, I’ve not thought about it since turning the last page. Neither the characters nor the story’s details have stayed with me, and, it seems, there was little to ponder or chew on once Chani and her groom (I can’t even remember his name…Ben? Jacob? Shmuel?) were actually married.
  3. How Doctors Think, by Jerome Groopman: I’ve eyeballed Groopman’s books many times, but only read this one after picking it up at the annual Bryn Mawr Wellesley book sale in Princeton. As someone who uses our broken medical system extensively in an attempt to remain healthy despite heavy odds, I appreciated Groopman’s perspectives and insights, culled from both his professional expertise and his own forays into the system as a patient.
  4. Mothering Sunday, by Graham Swift: “You must read this one,” my sister said emphatically, our arms already full of treasures from our afternoon of browsing with our dad at the Bryn Mawr Wellesley book sale. Heeding her advice, I found a real gem: beautifully written, poignant, thought-provoking, and sad, with more than a bit of staying power.
  5. Internal Medicine: A Doctor's Stories, by Terrence Holt: Following in the footsteps of William Carlos Williams, Michael Creighton, Robin Cook, Siddhartha Mukherjee, and other physician-writers, Holt offers a collection of short stories that bring heart and soul to the clinical side of becoming a doctor. The author is a former literature and writing professor, and more than once I had to consult the dictionary to look up words I didn’t know.
  6. Mercies in Disguise: A Story of Hope, a Family's Genetic Destiny, and the Science That Rescued Them, by Gina Kolata: Given my interest in diseases caused by inherited genetic mutations, this book, which details the Baxley family’s experience with Gerstmann–Sträussler–Scheinker syndrome (GSS), caught my eye. The non-fiction account reads like a novel and gives me renewed respect for pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) and the tremendous hope it brings to families whose mutations cause a certain and horrible death. May science continue to search for answers around GSS and other prion diseases, and may the efforts bear fruit quickly – for the Baxleys and other families affected by these genetic mutations.
  7. Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America's Most Storied Hospital, by David Oshinsky: A soup-to-nuts biography of Bellevue Hospital, this book is more accurately a sociological study of New York City, public health, and a colorful cast of characters including physicians, research scientists, and politicians. The early history of today’s behemoth medical center, in particular, is filled with fascinating stories, including the “invention” of ambulance service, which began with horses and buggies in the streets of 17th century Manhattan. A dense and wonderful read!
I’m currently about 100 pages into Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari. A heavy, slow read (like so many other of my choices) we may be well into 2019 before I finish it. Having said that, I, once again, will aim to read six books in the new year, and hope they prove to be as enjoyable and enlightening as the ones I read in the year now ending.

Friday, November 23, 2018

5 Things I’m Grateful for This Black Friday…and Always

Photo: Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center
These people, places and things (but nothing with a SKU or UPC code) are bringing me joy and gratitude this Black Friday – and all year long.

5. Living and working in New York City


Despite my love-hate relationship with the city – its noise, crowds, transit system, and other offerings, good and not so good – there’s nothing quite like helpful New Yorkers, bodega coffee, or crossing 23rd Street against the light on a holiday morning when New York shows us its quiet side.

4. William, my trainer


From crunches to rowing, lifting to running, boxing to jumping, the two hours I spend under William’s guidance each week make me a partner in caring for my body, building physical and emotional strength, and expanding my world with a small view into the life of an Ecuadorian immigrant family.

3. Health and the insurance to help guard it


A visit to the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center right before Thanksgiving each year not only reminds me not to take my health for granted, but also to remember the hundreds of people who, whether they know it or not, play a role in ensuring my inherited genetics don’t determine my destiny.

2. The minyan at Temple Shaaray Tefila


In a large congregation, it’s a blessing to slip into “my pew” on most Saturday mornings and to connect to the people around me, and the prayers, music, and rituals that will unfold in the coming hours. Torah study, too, connects me to my (ancient) people, unchanged by the millennia, but ever-changing because of my own new perspectives, knowledge, and “ah-ha” moments.

1. Family and friends


More than an individual's presence, it is the love, support, joy, laughter, humanity, honesty, attention, time, and more that we share with one another that makes my life rich and full. Thanks to the people in my village and in my world – near and far, new and not so new, known and unknown – I truly have everything I need.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Laughing Uncontrollably in the Cemetery

Dear Nathan,

We owe you an apology. We didn’t mean to laugh with such abandon at your grave yesterday, so please let me explain.

It was my mom’s birthday and we were visiting her grave, just a row over from yours, when my sister noticed the back of the tall, sawed off tree trunk that is your gravestone. (To be honest, I don’t know why we never noticed it before, since we’ve been visiting at the site since the mid-1980s, when my grandfather was buried directly opposite where my mom’s grave is now. Of course, my sister says we have better Visual Intelligence these days, and she may be right.)

In any case, when we were finished visiting my mom and her parents, we wandered over to the front of your tree trunk, which my dad told us often symbolizes a life cut off before its time. In fact, you were a mere 28 years old when you died in 1943. We studied the stone which holds a black and white image of you, wearing a large fedora-style hat. Indeed, you were a handsome guy. My father told us in his experience, it’s often Russians who place photos on gravestones such as is on yours. Perhaps you were Russian…perhaps not.

In any event, I also noticed the pitcher and bowl engraved on your tombstone, which is when I said out loud, “I wonder what the pitcher means.”

My dad, despite his new hearing aids, thought I was asking about the picture and replied, “It’s Russian.”

“No, the pitcher,” my sister said, giggling, “not the picture! Jane’s the last person who would mispronounce in that way.”

With that, we all exploded into peals of laughter. It was the kind of laughter that makes tears run down your face and the more we laughed, the less we could stop. It’s a good thing it was Shabbat and there was no one around.

We truly meant no disrespect.

Back in the car, once the giggles finally subsided, I texted this to a rabbi friend: “What does it mean when there’s a pitcher on a gravestone? Today’s my mom’s b’day, so we were at the cemetery.”

The answer came in bits and pieces: “Levite.”

“They were the carriers of water in the ancient Temple and thus were symbolized by the pitcher. It was the pitcher of water used to wash the hands of the Cohanim.”

“Thus the bowl...”

“Here's a great reference doc... https://www.jewishgen.org/InfoFiles/tombstones.html.”

So, you see, that’s how we came to laugh so uncontrollably at your grave. In addition to our apology, though, I think we owe you our thanks, too, for bringing us a bit of joy on a gray, sullen Saturday.

I suspect we’ll visit your gravestone again whenever we’re in the cemetery and that it always will bring us a sweet memory. In the meantime, rest in peace Nathan Finkelstein.

~ JanetheWriter

Sunday, October 7, 2018

5 Things I Wondered About Today

Admittedly, these are first world issues, but nonetheless, I spent time wondering about them today (perhaps to avoid wondering about weightier issues such as, oh, I don't know, maybe the future of this country??):

1. What is a Universal Life Minister and why are they so popular as wedding officiants?

2. When is my landlord going to reappear from amongst the ranks of the missing to repair or replace the window unit air conditioner in my living room, which has now been on the fritz (when it should be on "frenzy," as my mother would say!) for nearly two weeks? (Although the calendar says it's October, both the thermometer and the hygrometer say it's July.)

3. Speaking of the calendar and the weather, now that we’re praying weekly for wind and rain (mashiv haruach umorid hagashem), when will we see the first flakes of snow? And when will Jim Cantore be out there in the thundersnow ? Tomorrow?

4. Now that I’ve finished Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America's Most Storied Hospital, what should I read next?

5. Am I the only person whose Facebook account hasn’t been hacked?

Happy Sunday, folks. Have a good week!

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Letter to a Nutritionist...But Not Mine

Dear Nutritionist,

When I canceled my appointment with you for next week, the receptionist asked if I wanted to reschedule. I’d rather tell you why I canceled in the first place.

Like countless other New Yorkers, I’m a smart, busy, reasonable person, who tries to make healthy food choices, exercises regularly, and works long hours in a stressful job. I live on a tight budget and don’t particularly enjoy cooking; nonetheless, I rarely order in and eat out only about once or twice a week with friends or family.

You met me once. In the time we were together, you took my body measurements and my weight. After an hour, I left with a second appointment that was further into the future than the two weeks you recommended. The upcoming High Holidays were certainly a factor, but your availability only during business hours on Tuesdays played a role as well.

I left, too, with these takeaways that you had plunked down in what felt like an inflexible, admonishing, and scolding way:
1. Eat organic.
2. Do not microwave vegetables; steam them.
3. Eat no carbs.
4. Eat very little dairy.
5. Keep a food diary.

As I said, I’m a reasonable person and since you have no idea how much or what type of dairy I eat (there’s a big difference between a pint of Haagen Dazs ice cream and a scoop of fat free Fage Greek yogurt), it’s not really practical for you to tell me in a first meeting to eat very little dairy.

The same is true of carbs, even though I am trying to lower my blood sugar. Nonetheless, as with the dairy, you have no idea about my intake of carbs or that I’ve worked hard during the last several months to cut back drastically on them. Even so, last week I wasn’t willing to skip a small piece of homemade round challah and a drizzle of honey to mark this season of new beginnings.

Ironically (or perhaps not), my meeting with you did absolutely nothing to inspire me to be my best(-eating) self in the New Year. Instead, it left me frustrated, angry, and overwhelmed – definitely not the person I want to be – and so it is that I won’t be scheduling another appointment to see you anytime soon.

Yes, I know it’s hard to lose weight. I’m willing to give it my best shot, but on my terms: continued smart choices and an “everything in moderation” outlook that is much more suitable for a real person in the real world.

Sincerely yours,
 ~ JanetheWriter.

Friday, August 31, 2018

7 Random Reminders from a Funeral During Elul



  1. Late summer sunshine on the Hudson is spectacular. When you look, you can find the beauty in creation. It’s out there.
  2. Karma, for lack of a better word, exists. What you put out into the universe comes back to you.
  3. Get behind a cause you believe in to help repair our broken world.
  4. The people in your orbit matter. Surround yourself with an ever-widening circle of those who bring you joy and help you laugh, cope, and get the most from this life.
  5. A long, loving relationship is a holy thing. Those who have one truly are blessed.
  6. Kudos to whomever developed Jewish mourning rituals. The thud of dirt on a casket stings, but laughter, hugs, and sweet memories salve the wound a little bit each day. Don't pick at the scab.
  7. Healthy eating is a noble goal, but when grilled cheese is (the only thing) on the menu, eat up. Sometimes you have to feed your body and your soul. The hell with the carbs.