This is the day that the Eternal One has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it! ZEH HAYOM ASAH ADONAI - NAGILAH V’NIS’M’CHAH VO.
Every day should be such a day as declared in Psalm 118, but we fall into our routines. We may see some of our activities, our time spent with family, and our presence in the community, as special. Still, days that “God has made” may be, for most people, few and far between,
14 years ago today was my mother’s funeral. A few weeks later, that verse from Psalm 118 became the basis for a song that I created to remember my mother at the urging of Debbie Friedman herself. I applied that phrase to my mom’s life because I felt that she treated every day just that way.
In our family, and in the world of Reform Judaism, this past Sunday promised to be a day that God had made, as Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City was holding its ordination ceremony for rabbis and cantors at Temple Emanuel on Fifth Avenue. I was all set to march with the students and alumni in the processional, to sit with Rhonda, Adam, and Juli’s parents, Steve and Nancie Schnur, and to ascend the bimah with Juli to give her a blessing after she was formally ordained by HUC-JIR President, Rabbi Aaron Panken.
It should have gone just that way, but...it didn’t.
We had been with Adam, Juli and Josh on Saturday afternoon and evening. Earlier that day, I had attended the chapel service at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, where Juli will be an assistant rabbi come July 1. I went to the service so I could recite Kaddish for my mother on the day before the 14th anniversary of her death.
After we returned to our hotel room Saturday evening, I called Juli’s parents, and Nancie Schnur asked me if I had heard what happened. She told me that Rabbi Panken, an experienced airplane pilot, had been flying that morning with an instructor in a single engine plane. The plane had crashed, and while the instructor survived, the EMTs were not able to save Rabbi Panken. At that point, we were able to find a few reports online about the tragic accident.
One post on my rabbis’ conference Facebook members group on Saturday evening, wondering if we had heard about a terrible turn of events, became an online ongoing communal expression of shock, sadness and poignant remembrance. This was the day before ordination, some said. What will the service be like?, they wondered.
Rhonda and I wondered that, too. Adam spoke with Rhonda and I called Juli a bit later. A rabbinic student at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles texted me to tell me to give Juli a hug for her.
We arrived at Temple Emanuel on Sunday, not knowing what to expect. The staff was there, and some of my rabbinic colleagues were arriving. The HUC-JIR faculty had taken the students into a private room to speak with them, to comfort them, and to enable them to express their grief, as it was the first time they had all come together after hearing the sad news. The rabbi who was supposed to ordain them would not be able to finish the task he had begun as their leader and mentor. Rabbi Norman Cohen, a scholar, author, former provost of HUC-JIR, and one-time acting president of the college, was chosen to ordain the students as they came up before the ark, one-by-one, during the service. Alumni who had come to march in the processional were comforting students, staff, and faculty, as well as each other. Students gathered for pre-service photographs and still smiled, knowing that special moments and the culmination of their studies awaited them, as well as the beginning of their journey as rabbis and cantors. The sadness in the air in the downstairs social hall accompanied us to some extent as we moved upstairs and processed into the sanctuary. Faculty and others who spoke at the service made sure that the students knew that while it was appropriate for them to feel grief for the death of their teacher and leader, and gratitude for what he gave them in his service to the college, it was also fitting for them to experience joy on this milestone day. Once the ordination part of the service began, there was a gradual change in mood in the Temple Emanuel sanctuary. The students went before the ark to receive their individual blessings from Rabbi Cohen. When it was Juli’s turn, she and I ascended the bimah together. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, gave Juli a hug, having known Juli and her family for many years as his congregants at Westchester Reform Temple. Rabbi Cohen ordained Juli, and then invited me to come up before the ark to offer my private words of blessing and encouragement to Juli. After that special moment, we descended the bimah, where Adam and Josh were waiting for us in the aisle towards the front of the Sanctuary.
The service continued with a sense of accomplishment and simchah not only for the students, but also for all of the family members and friends present to celebrate the moment. The assembled congregation had come together in the spirit of Mazal tov, and, on that day, there was an added touch of ZECHER TZADIK LIVRACHAH, may the memory of a righteous teacher who had died the day before be for blessing, and may his legacy continue.
Juli wrote on her facebook page on Sunday: “Today I experienced how strong community can be. Today I was ordained a rabbi.”
14 years ago, after my mother had died, I witnessed her community in Kansas City and my community in my own congregation offer comfort, support and solace in great measure, to the point where I was able to celebrate my mother’s life on the day of her funeral and afterwards.
This past Sunday, family members, rabbis, cantors, friends, HUC-JIR staff and faculty, and rabbinic and cantorial students about to be ordained lifted each other up more than enough to be able to feel joy even while harboring grief at the loss of a teacher, rabbi, colleague and friend.
And isn’t that what community is about? Aren’t we supposed to be present for each other at times of joy and achievement, as well as at moments of sadness and challenge?
If a sudden and unexpected death does anything, it makes us realize what is important in life and in the relationships we create as part of a congregational community. It’s about the creative ideas that we fashion together and then bring to fruition. What is important is not that we always agree, but that our disagreements find a pathway to resolution and to making us and our congregation better than we were before. What is important is that we stand by each other, realizing that we are part of the same team, where any divisions we may perceive melt away when we consider how well we come together at times of triumph and accomplishment, and how we are sincerely present for one another at times of sorrow. What is important is that we successfully commit to standing by and with each other during a four-hour period each year at the Jewish Food and Folk Festival, fulfilling the Jewish value of welcoming guests, being as hospitable as Abraham and Sarah, and feeding them as well! What is important is that members of all ages at Temple Beth-El can find ways to practice the seven habits of happy people cited on the website www.pursuitofhappiness.org: express your heart by cultivating relationships; perform acts of kindness for other people; keep moving; find your flow, an activity in your skill set that gives you enjoyment; discover meaning and your purpose and place in life; discover and use your strengths; and treasure gratitude, mindfulness and hope.
Most of you gathered here tonight know that we try to provide opportunities to practice these habits of happy people. Those avenues of pursuit and experience materialize when we join together to make them happen. That means that we need to frequently be HERE, as one congregation, as one community.
As your rabbi, that’s all I ask. Rhonda and I were with a community of people on Sunday who had never been together before, and will never be together again in the same place for the same purpose. Somehow, we were all able to forge our way onto the same page, in a spirit of holy presence, cooperation, and, for many, love.
I know we can do that, too.
Through the leadership of our board, led by Ellen Torres as Temple president; through committees that have been active and contributed quality to our Temple life reflected in learning, camaraderie, and giving; through the sparkle in the eyes of our children in Religious School and in BETY/BEMY; through Sisterhood and Mensch Club programs; and through your presence here for worship and other events and programs, most any day at Temple Beth-El can be a day that God has made, a day on which we can rejoice and be glad.
At this point in the continuing history of Temple Beth-El, I hope that we will continue to be partners in fellowship, in creativity, in friendship, and in engendering wisdom, joy and hope among us now and in the months and years to come. May our efforts make that vision come to fruition on every single day of our time on this earth that God has made just for us.