Friday, October 28, 2016

In Memory of Risa Joy Halpren, 8/23/1961 - 10/25/2016

Henry Emerson Fosdick, a prominent and outspoken 20th century American pastor, reminds us in what is now a well-known essay about how the Seas of Israel can serve as metaphor for living.  You see, the Sea of Galilee in the north and the Dead Sea at the far south are made of the same water. This water flows down, clean and cool, from the heights of Mount Herman and the roots of the cedars of Lebanon. The Sea of Galilee makes beauty of with these waters, while the Dead Sea makes nothing.
Why, we might wonder, is there such a dramatic difference between these two seas that are both created by the Jordan River?  The Dead Sea is so far below sea level that it has no outlet. The water flows in from the river Jordan, but cannot flow out.  The only water that leaves is through evaporation from the desert climate leaving it overly saturated with salt and minerals, so much so that it is unfit for life – no fish, vegetation, flora or fauna.   Nothing grows in the Dead Sea; nothing lives in the Dead Sea. 
            In stark contrast, the Galilee is resplendent with life.  It is lush with plant life and over 20 types of fish.  The region is rich with flora and fauna.  Same water source: the Jordan River.   So what causes such a dramatic difference?  The River Jordan flows into the Galilee, just as in the Dead Sea, but it also is allowed to flow out.  Unlike the Dead Sea, it not only receives, but it gives.
I’m not sure if Risa Joy ever had the opportunity to visit Israel and its seas, but it is clear that even if Risa never dipped her foot into the waters of the Galilee, she lived her life like them.  All of you who are here, to honor her memory, to say farewell, and to support her family as they accompany her to her final resting place are evidence of Risa’s generosity of spirit, her innate capacity for joy, and her life affirming nature. 
This is in part what makes today so difficult.  Those rules of justice that we know are overly simplistic but that we hope to be true most of the time – that good things happen to good people – have been shattered.  Risa was among the best.  This shouldn’t be happening.  Yet it is.  That we are gathered today, that I stand on this pulpit eulogizing a peer - a fellow parent, teacher, and friend - underscores a painful truth: that nature operates by its own laws and not necessarily according to our expectations and hopes for justice.   Risa was given a terrible cancer diagnosis less than a year ago.  The horror of the cancer she had – colon cancer - was that it could thrive and grow without notice.  She was asymptomatic until it had already spread through her liver.  There is no changing that horrific reality or her untimely death; and, there is no satisfactory explanation as to why this happened to such a wonderful and gracious human being.  It simply isn’t fair.  Or, if I may borrow and paraphrase Risa’s words, it sucks.
But, there are choices to be made in face of even the most tragic circumstances such as this.  We can remain bitter and unsettled, stewing in a sea of negativity that leaves us stagnant, like the Dead Sea.  Or, we can choose to remember what was good, and there was plenty of it in Risa’s life, and allow that goodness to sustain, enliven, and motivate us to model Risa’s generosity of spirit, to live like the Galilee.
Born in August of 1961, Risa was the first of three daughters born to Harriet and Dave.  Risa and her younger sisters, Karen and Bonnie had that special “three sister club” bond.  They each had their unique roles – Risa was the smart one with the infectious laugh -- and they did their fair share of fighting (they were sisters after all); but, they were always united as “the Bush girls” and they always had each other’s backs especially as they grew older and had their own families. 
 Risa was a teacher from the very start.  Harriet shared with me how as a young child Risa would play school setting up a classroom and acting out the role of teacher.  Her passion for teaching never ceased even after doing it for well over 3 decades.  Josh was able to give me a remarkably detailed review (she was his idol, as he will tell you) of all of her teaching positions from her long-term sub days at Catonsville to a brief stint at St. Elizabeths.  From a long tenure in Howard County to her settling into various specialty resource and instructional coach positions in Baltimore County. She was the expert on math and later science instruction.  She wrote curricula and lead professional development seminars.  She taught teachers how to be better teachers. She loved what she did, and she was loved by all who worked with her. I understand there is a sketch written by her colleagues that outlines in perfect Letterman style, “the 10 signs you’ve worked with Risa Helpren.”
  Due to declining enrollment in her penultimate teaching position in the County, Risa accepted a priority transfer to Carroll Manor this past spring.  It was there where she spent her last months teaching.  Principal Will was incredibly supportive, respectful, and gracious to Risa. He hired her on the spot based on her reputation and resume alone knowing that she was undergoing chemo and fighting a valiant battle against cancer. He even moved her supplies himself with his own truck rather than waiting on the county.
  Risa also taught during what many would have viewed her time off.  Virtually every Sunday, she (and her boys) could be found at Temple Emanuel. She ran the Family Education Program at there for over 16 years. What a resource we had in Risa. She was a delight to work with indeed a teacher’s teacher.  Her patience, creativity, positivity, and eagerness came through in every program.  She was always prepared for anything.  All I had to do was show up with content to teach.  She had everything else organized and in place.  And her students – both kids and parents loved her. Put simply, Risa was passionate about education wherever that education took place, in the classroom, in the sanctuary or social hall of a synagogue, or at the kitchen table with a family member. 
  Risa got involved in Temple beyond her role as a teacher. She served on the B’nai Mitzvah & Beyond Committee working to keep teens engaged; she took part in many Mitzvah Days; she helped families transition to the BEIT RJ when it opened; and perhaps my favorite of her roles: she accompanied me on flute during worship. There is only one thing a Cantor loves more than a congregant willing to accompany her on a musical instrument, someone who is also really good at it!  Risa’s musicianship – whether on Michael Isaacson’s Bayom Hahu or Bruce Benson’s Adonai Li – elevated our worship. And to watch her family beam with pride from the congregation was priceless. 
Still, arguably, the school was Risa’s first love.  When the decision was made to close Emanuel’s religious school, Risa was the voice that stood up – calmly, pointedly, but passionately, not only on behalf of the school, which was in fact the heart of the congregation, but also on behalf of her fellow teachers. She was sincerely worried about them especially those with the longest tenure.
September 13 was the last day Risa taught in a classroom.  Giving up teaching for Risa was the hardest part of her battle with cancer, perhaps harder than enduring chemo. Risa’s life was so enriched by teaching and the relationships she cultivated through her vocation. She was a mentor and coach to fellow teachers who became dear, close, and life-long friends, so many that we’d be here until the close of Shabbat if I tried to enumerate them.  During shiva, ask Josh about them.  And yet, still, her heart was open to new friends at the end of her professional tenure.  Even though she was only at Carroll Manor for a few months, Howard tells me she felt so welcomed and part of the team. That meant the world to Risa. As I listened to Josh tell me how much her teaching team there carried her through her illness, it struck me that without even knowing it, they were returning the favor that she had given to so, so many others throughout her career as a teacher.  The Rabbis of the Mishnah must somehow have had Risa in mind when they wrote the aphorism, “get yourself a teacher, make for yourself a friend.” 
There are only two roles Risa cherished more than being a teacher: being Howard’s wife and being Josh and Danny’s mom.  Howard and Risa met on a blind date. Risa’s sisters gave her number to their friend Maya Kempler.  She passed it on to Howard who reluctantly accepted.  Lucky he did.  They both knew after that first date to Chili’s that they had each found someone special.  Within the year, Howard took Risa to France to propose.  Still within the year, on March 24, 1991, they were married.  They honeymooned in Disney World where they – thanks to the generosity of Risa’s uncle – truly lived like a Disney Prince and Princess.  They didn’t waste time building a family.  On their wedding night, over cheesesteaks, they decided to buy a house.  Howard found the perfect lot.  Of course, Risa needed to pay a visit to the school, but it and the principal passed the test, so they went forward and built their house on Dow Meadow, the home where they’d raise their sons.
Risa always wanted sons, and boy did she and Howard luck out with Josh and Dan. Josh you may have idolized your mom as you followed in her footsteps into teaching, and Dan you may have thought she was “bad ass” as you put it.  Know that equally so she thought the world of both of you.  She was so, so proud of the young men you have grown into: her teacher and her musician. As she wrote in August in her journal, “My wonderful sons have shown me what extraordinary human beings they are! Howard and I are so proud of them.  They will change the world in some positive way.  That I am sure of!” 
One of the hardest things Risa had to make peace with after her cancer diagnosis was the reality that she would die before, as she put it, [she was] done mothering her beloved sons. She struggled knowing she had to leave you at this stage in your lives, but know this clearly - she knew you loved her. She felt so fortunate to have had such a “loving, caring, and attentive husband” in Howard. And as she also wrote in her journal, she was so grateful to “be loved by [her] wonderful, talented sons.” She felt blessed to have been able to see “them grow into such strong, intelligent, compassionate young men.”  No surprise given the mom that had at their back throughout their lives.  She was indeed a rock star.
And then there’s Howard.  Risa and Howard shared an enviable love affair for 25 years. There are simply no words that can qualify or quantify their partnership, or the loss that now Howard must bear.  Howard, Risa was so comforted by your strength, your love, and your touch over the last year. All the decisions she made regarding hospice care, funeral arrangements, where shiva would be, they were all done with you and your boys in mind.
Modern mystic, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner would liken Howard and Risa’s partnership to a completed puzzle.  Kushner views each person’s life as containing the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.  For some there are more pieces, others less.  Some seem to be born with a nearly completed puzzle, for others the puzzle is more difficult to assemble.  But, no one has within themselves all of the pieces to their puzzle.  Sometimes we know it.  Sometimes we don’t.  But, when we present our piece, which may be worthless to ourselves, to another for whom the piece fits, we create a tikkun, a Divine correction, thus allowing a sense of Godliness into the world.  Howard  – you and Risa completed each other’s puzzle.  From that first blind date where you showed up with a hole in your t-shirt, you shared an honest, loyal, and loving partnership that formed a solid foundation for your marriage and the growth of your family. You described Risa as someone who cared far more about substance than the any materialistic trappings.  That’s why she picked you, too. Whether running errands, doing a project at Temple, hanging out with your boys – it was indeed the simple pleasures of being together that you both loved so much. You were blessed – even if it was for far, far too short a time. What a privilege to love and be loved so fully and completely.
Risa received such good care from so many around her.  At the risk of leaving someone out, I’d like to note a few I know about.  Her dedicated caregivers at Mercy and Stella Maris provided comfort and respect allowing Risa to retain her dignity and her capacity for joy until the very end. Her many friends and extended family who visited, called, and sent notes made her feel loved until the very end and provided her company and conversation.  Her neighbors, Diane, Monique, and all those who joined her for high tea on Sundays: I hope you’ll continue to meet for tea while remembering your dear friend. And her family, her parents Harriet, Rod, Dave & Margie; her sisters Bonnie & Karen; and of course, Danny, Josh, and Howard, you held her hand at the very end and gave her permission and the sacred space to make that transition peacefully from life to death. That act in and of itself was as life-affirming as the waters that make up the Sea of Galilee.
            I know my remarks have been long, but allow me to conclude my with a story.  As an educator, Risa loved stories, and this one, at least in my mind is fitting tribute to Risa Joy:
The Rose Talked Back….

The Shamash, the synagogue attendant was sweeping up in the synagogue after a wedding.  Looking at the flowers that were left about lying in disorder, he remarked to himself (as perhaps Risa would’ve), “What a waste!”  The roses had adorned the pulpit just an hour before, and now they were all going to be discarded. As the attendant continued working, he heard a voice.  One of the roses protested, “You call this a waste? What is life anyway but a means of service.  My mission was to create some fragrance and beauty, and as I have fulfilled it, my life has not been wasted. What greater privilege is there than to adorn a bride’s way to her beloved; what greater privilege is there that to help glorify the moment when a bride and groom seal their faith in each other with the covenant of marriage?”  The little flower paused as the man composed himself, and then continued: “Roses are like people.  They live in deeds, not in time.  My glory was brief, only an hour, but you should have seen the joy I brought into the world.  So don’t grieve for me.  My life has been worthwhile.”

Monday, September 5, 2016

To our Confirmands 2016 & My Final Remarks at Temple Emanuel of Baltimore, delivered 6/11/2016

Torah and its story of the Israelite nation, a nation we define as “our people,” is a fascinating document.  As a history book, it could never withstand the rigors of serious historical inquiry.  It’s veracity is only documented by it’s own narrative.
From the very start, in the first chapters of Bereshit, of Genesis, contradictions arise that can only be explained by conjecture and imagination (or what we Jews call midrash).  Even the “Big Ten,” as I like to call them, The Ten Commandments that we read each year, as our students did tonight, to mark Shavuot and the commemoration of the giving of Torah at Sinai, has two different versions expressed in the Torah.  And, despite claims of some travel companies in the region, we don’t know where this defining event took place.  Even Mount Sinai remains firm entirely in our imagination.
So, why do we elevate this narrative as our own sacred history when the events contained therein are inexact at best?  Isn’t that exactly what you are taught not to do throughout most of your schooling?  Perhaps though, as taught by Rabbi Nina Beth Cardin, a prominent, local rabbi known for her work on environmental issues, “in codifying the imprecision, [the Torah] is striving to tell us that the pursuit of an accurate historical account is quite beside the point.” (Tapestry, 170)
Religious memory is not the same as history, and to hold it to the standards of scientific inquiry defeats the entire purpose of religious memory.  History seeks data and explanation.  Memory seeks meaning.  Memory is spun, not from factual information, but from the soul and the heart.  History is a record of events.  Memory is a recollection that forms and informs identity.
Whoever is responsible for the final redaction of the bible – whether you believe that work was done by a Divine power, or like myself believe it was done by the scholarly human hands of that generation,  the ability to provide a more factual account must have been possible if indeed providing such a history was the agenda at hand.  I believe the discrepancies and contradictions were purposely retained in the text.  Those final editors knew what they were doing.  They were not working to document history.  They were working to create memory, a narrative that could serve to define a people while at the same time demanding our involvement in it.   The lack of clarity in the text leaves the critical and necessary process of interpretation open to us.  Moreover, it allows for multiple explanations and understandings of the past and of God. 
This uncertainty can leave us unsettled.  Many find it too unsettling and either reject Torah (and religion generally) out of hand or seek comfort in a fundamentalist view that doesn’t allow for individual inquiry.  I hope that your education here at Temple Emanuel has provided you the ability to embrace this lack of certainty.  I hope we have provided you the tools to create your own midrashim, you own interpretations and stories that expand on the text and that ultimately enrich your lives. 
Judaism, even in its ancient expression, was meant to be fluid and open to human engagement.  As a Reform Jew, I believe it is my mandate to ensure that Judaism remains an open and responsive vehicle for the expression of Jewish law and custom.  My sincere hope is that as you move forward from today, that you too, shoulder that mandate.  Progressive – Reform Judaism remains so only if we as a people continue to engage with the tradition keeping it relevant for the future. 
You – the class of 5776 - are the last Confirmation class of Temple Emanuel. Imagine if you had to document the values and customs of your entire experience at Temple Emanuel, what would you write? Imagine how you would expand on your identity statements that you presented tonight.  I expect there would be contradictions and inconsistencies among your varied voices; and yet, just as your short reflections offered tonight were each as valid as they were varied, so too each and every reflection would be an accurate source of memory that would inspire those who later read it.

So, seize the uncertainty.  Don’t look for absolute truth in the text.  It isn’t there.  Recognize the history, however, that surrounds the text – that contextualizes the narrative, so that you can understand where it came from and perhaps what the authors were trying to tell us about their worldview.   And then, don’t stop there!   Add your own reflections.  Continue to connect to tradition by making it yours and adding your voice to leave as part of the legacy we call Torah.

Friday, January 8, 2016

A Brief Word for Shabbat Va'era, January 8, 2016

Many of you have expressed difficulty in finding meaning in the prayers of the prayer book.  You are not alone.  Every colleague I know who leads worship, cantors and rabbis included, has experienced the same feedback particularly from those among the baby boomer and Gen-X generations.  “How can I pray these words if I don’t believe them?” is among the most common complaints.  At the heart of this struggle is the question of God.  What is God? Do I believe in God?  And, if not, what is the purpose of prayer?  In other words, why bother?

These are all valid questions.  I imagine our biblical ancestors struggled with them equally as they wrote the stories of Exodus we read this time of year, even as they wrote the story of Moses being tasked by this God to be a leader of the Israelite nation as it journeys from Egypt to promise. 

It is far easier to avoid coming to worship services when we have doubts (especially when worship takes place on Saturday mornings, no less - believe me, I get it!); but, know that surety is not a prerequisite for prayer.  Belief in God is not a prerequisite for prayer.  I could not stand up and lead you if it were.  Valuing the support of community, the art of poetic expression, and the legacy of history is.  Shabbat shalom.