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Can We Find Joy In Vulnerable Times this Sukkot?

As Yom Kippur ended last Wednesday night, I quickly had a bite of a bagel and downed some orange juice. I soon checked in on social media after taking a nice break from it over the holiday. 

I was quickly horrified to see the news of the terrorist attack on a synagogue in Halle, Germany earlier that day and the tragic death of two innocent people, 40 year-old Jana Lange and 20 year-old Kevin S. This tragic shooting came about a year after another terrorist attack on a Jewish house of worship in Pittsburg. In between were too many acts of baseless hatred directed against minorities here and around the world. 

This time I knew some of the victims who were at the synagogue in Halle and thankfully, lived to tell of their experiences. As one can imagine, they recounted how terrifying the ordeal was and to have to wait inside (and even outside) the locked synagogue for help to arrive. They also shared deep gratitude that the terrorist was not able to infiltrate the building and kill even more people. The group of Jews who started the day in a synagogue on the holiest day of the year concluded their Yom Kippur service at a local hospital instead, where they were taken to be checked for signs of shock and trauma. 

One of the people I know later posted a video of several members of the group coming home from the hospital on a bus together. One person blew the shofar as many communities do to mark the end of Yom Kippur, and then the group erupted in joyous song and dance (which is another way communities conclude Yom Kippur, but this time the gratitude was obviously connected to surviving what had transpired earlier that day).

bus video

Members of the group singing together on a bus returning from the hospital after the Yom Kippur shooting in Halle, Germany

Although I understood the vast range of emotions the folks inside the synagogue must have felt throughout the day, instinctively I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable watching this video. I had just learned about everything that happened and was in the throes of feeling the three A’s: anxious, angry, and afraid. I know I could only interpret this experience as an onlooker, but I just couldn’t imagine what it must have been like to muster up any kind of will to sing and dance after living through a nightmarish experience. I’m sure there were some who didn’t.  

Even if it didn’t feel natural to me as the one reading this news from afar, I recognize that mustering up song is a deep and important act of spiritual resilience in the midst of deep pain.

In no way will the Jews who were there in Halle forget this Yom Kippur – it will forever impact them as it will those who lost their loved ones that day. I pray that they soon find comfort in their grief. 

But I want to recognize that this attack, like many others, can and may have already seeped into our own minds every time we walk into a visible Jewish space or publically show up as a Jewish person. Truth be told, I find myself worrying more and more about physical violence in public places, Jewish and not, and I don’t know if not being afraid is an option anymore. Is it just a matter of when it happens as opposed to if it happens at this point? 

And yet, before I despair for too long, logic tells me that the world will continue to turn and we must go along with it. While we are alive and breathing, we always have the ability to shape our responses to people and events, and therefore, we can redefine these vulnerable times. 

One piece of Jewish wisdom I find myself going back to again and again when I’m disheartened comes from Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Father. It says, 

“In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person” (Pirkei Avot 5:2).

What this means is that when our humanity is deeply challenged, we must show up as the full, beautiful, and loving humans that we are. And sometimes, that has to entail creating moments for joy regardless of what’s going on around us. 

I can’t think of a better time than this week of Sukkot to lean deeply into this message. On Sukkot, we are told to dwell (eat, hang out, and if possible, sleep) in sukkot, or huts which commemorate the temporary shelters the Israelites lived in as they wandered through the desert after leaving Egypt. But the Torah also says,

“You shall rejoice in your festival … and you shall have nothing but joy.“ (Deuteronomy  16:14-15).

Joy is such a central part to Sukkot that it even goes by another name, Z’man Simchateinu, “The Season of our Rejoicing.” So, unless one is really into glamping (which I am, actually…), how is this holiday supposed to help us feel joy? And what are we celebrating exactly?

Sukkot is a holiday of rejoicing, but many may not realize that it’s about rejoicing amidst our vulnerability. More than anything, Sukkot is a festival that commemorates a period of wandering. It asks us to reenact that in-between place of knowing where we came from (or fled from) and where we’d like to be (and may soon arrive at), but not sure how long the present moment of the unknown will last or what it will consist of. 

Sukkot (the huts) are made to help us embody this message by exposing us to the outside world (a “kosher” sukkah must allow us to see the stars in the sky at night, so the “roofing” which usually consists of scattered bamboo shoots, branches or corn stalks, can’t totally protect us from the rain, sun, or even bird poop). The sides are usually made with a tarp or strung pieces of cloth. They are not meant to be comfortable fortresses, let alone a real home.  

On Sukkot we literally embody the temporary nature of things and remember that we are often susceptible to the elements, which may not seem so fun when it rains or is windy. We also observe the holiday with joyful prayers (accompanied by shaking a sweet smelling plant/fruit combo called a lulav and etrog), songs, and festive meals. Additionally, it is a custom to invite guests to our sukkot each day. On Sukkot, we practice facing the world openly, but together.

Sukkot

If Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur ask us to move inward and examine our internal lives, Sukkot asks us to shift our gaze outward.

We may not always like what we see, and we may be forced to see difficult things anew each day, but we can resolve to do so with our own humanity intact by living out our values, being in community, deepening our relationships, and finding moments to celebrate what is good in our lives. And sometimes, the outside world is breathtakingly gorgeous and we should let Mother Earth do her own healing work on us, too. 

So, should we seek joy amidst our vulnerability? Absolutely. It’s our right. Can we? It’s hard, but it’s definitely possible. How should we try? By being realistic about the world we live in and still showing up as human beings, together. 

We don’t need to eat every meal in a sukkah to be able to do this, nor do we have to celebrate this week with Jews alone, but what if we tried to spend each day this week creating a moment for joy, relief or celebration for other people? 

  • Tell people in your life that you’re grateful for them,
  • Compliment others on something they do well,
  • Ask how an old friend is doing,  
  • Bake something delicious for your officemates, 
  • Cook a meal with good friends and invite a new one to join your group,
  • Give up your seat on the metro during rush hour, 
  • Happily give someone in need the money they ask for. 

That’s my plan this week and I hope you’ll join me and tell me all about it. 

Wishing you a chag sameach – a truly joyous holiday. 

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ilanaAbout the author: Rabbi Ilana Zietman is GatherDC’s Community Rabbi. She loves meeting new people and exploring Jewish ideas that are relevant and alive for people in their 20’s and 30’s. When Rabbi Ilana isn’t officially Gathering, she can be found cooking in her kitchen, practicing yoga, going on hikes, desperately searching for good pizza in DC (seriously, help her find some!) and watching a lot of tv.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

Taking Action After Pittsburgh to Save Lives

In the aftermath of the tragedy at the Tree of Life synagogue, I’ve read many articles that offer ideas to help our communities cope with the tragedy in Pittsburgh.  Some ideas are spiritual, some offer actions. At the same time, I’ve heard personally from a number of congregations that have told me that their members are worried about attending shul or public events.

We must not let the actions of those who hate us and would seek to destroy us cause us to abandon who we are, nor our desire to join our fellow Jews to meet, and celebrate life’s events and holidays.  At the same time, many want to find something that they can do to help make a real difference in their congregations and in our community that can help improve our safety.

temple

Why This Matters

In any violent attack, whether it be with firearms, knives, or explosives, the arrival of the medical response may be delayed.  During the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue, almost 40 minutes went by beforethe first casualties were evacuated by tactical medical teams.  That delay can be a lifetime for someone seriously injured and bleeding, anddeath can occur in less than 5 minutes. In the world of tactical medicine, we often use the term “preventable casualties” in reference to people who succumb to injuries that could have been survivable if medical care had been provided faster.  Until the arrival of those first heroic tactical medics in Pittsburgh, the members of the congregation were put in the position to be the immediate responders.

Taking Action

There is something that everyone can be a part of that can and will save lives.  There is something we can do to create “immediate responders” in our own synagogues and communities.  Regular people who have the tools and training to save the life of someone who is suffering from severe bleeding.  This can be from something as serious as (G-d forbid) a terrorist attack, or something as routine as kitchen mishaps, car accidents, and why not…even shark attacks.

Bleeding Control Kits

We want to put public access bleeding control kits into our synagogues and community centers.  These kits contain items that can be used to control severe bleeding, such as tourniquets and pressure bandages.  Think of these kits just like public access Automatic External Defibrillators (AEDs), but for bleeding instead of heart problems.  Just like AEDs, they enable bystanders to intervene and save lives during the time it takes for EMS to arrive. Just as with an AED and CPR, bystander intervention with severe bleeding can literally mean the difference between life and death.

 

bleed control

Training

Having these kits is not enough.  We need to get people trained, and the more the better.  The Stop the Bleed program is a nationwide initiative that raises awareness of severe bleeding injuries and encourages people to take action to protect themselves and their communities.

Like CPR training, Stop the Bleed training only requires a few hours of time to teach the skills needed to save a life.  Imagine the feeling of being able to use these skills to save someone at a car crash, at work, or at your synagogue!

What You Can Do

We’re trying to get these kits into DC-area synagogues, and to provide training to staff and members of the congregations.

First, you can become an advocate.  Talk to your synagogue and get them on board.  That’s easy…but hopefully you want to do more.  We’ve had interest from several synagogues, but we’ll help anyone we can.

Most importantly, please contribute towards this project.  Jackie Feldman has created a GoFundMe campaign to raise funds to help make this happen.  These funds will support the purchase of kits and provision of training (I’ve already lined up several tactical medical colleagues willing to donate time) for synagogues that are interested.

If you want to do even more…participate!  If your synagogue is on board, get trained. If they’re not, go to one that is.  Maybe you’ll even decide to get your own kit to keep with you in the car just in case you come upon some kind of accident where you can now help.

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About the Authors:

steveSteve Birnbaum is an independent consultant and expert on disaster and emergency response technology and innovation, with experiences responding to domestic and international disasters. He is a volunteer firefighter/EMT and USAR tech in Montgomery County, MD, and is trained as a tactical medic. Birnbaum serves on the various DHS and Department of State advisory bodies related to public safety and disaster response. He is a former wilderness SAR tech in Israel, and previously served in the Climbing, Rappelling, and Rescuing Section of the IDF Counter-Terror School.

 

 

Jackie FeldmanJacqueline Feldman is the founder of Sephardic Jews in DC, a group that hosts events for young professionals in DC in celebration of Sephardic culture, food, and religious traditions. She is the author of the food blog, Healthy Sephardic Cooking that features a healthier spin on many traditional Jewish and Sephardic recipes and teaches classes on Sephardic cuisine and cooking in DC. When she’s not busy cooking or hosting, she enjoys painting, yoga, watching Seinfeld, and anything to do with International Affairs.

 

 

 

The views and opinions expressed in this blog and on this website are solely those of the original authors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the organization GatherDC, the GatherDC staff, the GatherDC board, and/or any/all contributors to this site.