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.