What follows can be viewed as a love letter to the community. I am truly grateful to everyone that participated in enriching my life and that of my daughter. I’ve tried to remember her some of the highlights of the nine years to help give an appreciation of what it feels like when things are good in a community you get to be a part of. This is incomplete but a sampling of my time there.
As some of you know, I first came to Etz at the worst time of my life. It was unclear if and when I would get to see Fiona (the claim was that I had no interest in being her father or keeping her safe.) Fiona was one year old at that time. During those long weeks my mantra was make it until Friday night because on Friday night I would come to the synagogue for Kabbalat Shabbat. Rabbi Bass would lead us in these sweet melodies in a methodical and consistent way that suggested she believed they had magical healing powers. Ridiculous except that they worked! It’s also very helpful to sing when sad. You just feel better. At synagogue I would see familiar warm faces that would let me talk as little or as much as I wanted with sympathetic ears. It was also therapeutic to hear what was happening in other people’s lives. It was a lot to make any plan with anyone at that time, and it was amazing to just be able to show up at 615 on Friday night and start a 24-hour respite from the horrendous pressures I was under at the time. During the worst week, I dragged myself to shul, thinking I’d permanently lost my ability to smile. I was a bit early but the Rabbi and the band were rehearsing a new melody for mizmor lidavid. Lo and behold, I smiled inside and out, a miracle!
Then I got to bring Fiona into the building for the first time. Jeanne Howard, the first person that saw Fiona, started to cry. The empathy at Etz is amazing! In Fiona’s early years, she referred to Etz as the shul with the shakers referencing the ones we passed out for each musical shabbat. She was fascinated by the instruments and a real highlight for her was when Rick Okin z’l let her play the drums. A highlight for me is when the rabbi held the mic to her mouth so we could hear Fiona’s sweet voice lead is in alenu with the band. She is too shy to let her voice be heard very often Before she got too self-conscious, she would do interpretive dances during the singing. A trend that has continued among the little kids.
One time, we went to another synagogue. Fiona whispered stealthily to me that the rabbi there was of all things, a man.
One of the men that was so kind during my early days was Josh Edelman, a former punk rocker and a guitarist in the band . Sadly for us, he moved to Hawaii. Upon returning, he came to a Friday night service. He sat next to me. I remarked to the congregation how wonderful it was to see him again and mentioned it made me think of one of my favorite songs growing up – heenay matov, a song about brothers sitting together after an absence. Rabbi Bass led us in singing it at the conclusion of the service. It felt great and I felt so validated.
The night after Thanksgving, 2012. Traditionally, that is not a night that draws a big crowd. It was now about 6:25 and the only people there were the Rabbi, her son Benjamin, my daughter Fiona and myself. I expected the rabbi to remind me that services would be at ten am the next morning and adjourn for the evening. Instead, she opened the siddur and began singing the usual melodies with a special one mixed in here or there, As I remember it, eventually, a few more people showed up. I knew I had found my life long spiritual leader that night.
At some point, I started to go to services on Saturday as well. It is a different vibe but one I enjoy. I remember for one of my first alliyot, as I walked up to the torah, it occurred to me that the torah reader was an openly gay male and the person called up previous to me was a disabled female Rabbi who made it up to the bimah in a scooter. . Sometimes, at the beginning of the nine years, when the rabbi was on vacation, services were led by a an African-American woman. One day, Fiona got her picture in the local paper because she was helping to carry a banner as the synagogue marched in favor of Syrian refugees. So much that happens at Etz would be scoffed at by many in the Orthodox community I had grown up in.
One family after another adopts or fosters kids that need homes. They’re all not only welcomed but embraced by the community as is everyone that walks in the door. This was indeed a special community.
Intellectually, I felt I was following the path that God and our faith intended. Emotionally though, I was suffering from the pain that some people inflict when your path isn’t exactly as theirs. Being a part of this community and listening to the way the Rabbi presents the version of the faith as we practice it, gave me the strength and affirmation I needed to heal from the pain.
I once thought my immediate family was pretty functional as I was young once too. When it really fell apart one September, and I was wondering what kind of Rosh Hashana I could give to my daughter as a single dad. Laura Jacobs invited us for a big R’H luncheon at their house. Problem solved. She has continued to extend the invitation every year and can’t imagine what that day means to me.
Every simchat torah is an incredible event at the synagogue. Fiona loves the Klezmer band that comes and they remember her from year to year. We get to dance in the Israeli style dancing and the songs make me think about my youth. I never could dance that way until I came to this community , Now I dance enthusiastically and when we dance as part of musical shabbats, I make sure as many people as possible dance around the shul. The crowds for these events are not as big as they deserve to be but they are really joyous nonetheless.
Fiona has had a couple of bad years including a time when there was a thought she may be on the spectrum. She hadn’t made any friends at school and her playmates dated back to before her first really bad year. I felt like she would always have a place at Etz with a group of kids she’d been playing with her whole life regardless and filled with people that would love her unconditionally. You people know who you are and I can’t tell you how grateful I am for you. Turns out she’s got a lot of anxiety and is quirky. Imagine that from a child of mine!
The years go by. This is the corner of the earth and the people we share our life cycle events with. We share the ups and the downs The ups are the obvious ones like the bar and bat mitzvahs of one kid after another getting up to the bimah well prepared and showing us what they can do. Then the receptions afterwards are simple but dignified, mostly the handwork of volunteers and other parents in the bnai mitzvah class. The bnai mitzvah then often become the teachers’ assistants in the religious school and are in the classroom that have looked up to and admired for years. Currently, Fiona is lucky enough to have CJ as a teacher and youth group leader.
Then there are the deaths. We’ve lost some people way too soon! I remember when Alan Youkeles z’l passed, the rabbi just couldn’t have the professional distance about it. She was so broken up like the rest of us. It was obvious she felt as we did as a huge part of us had been ripped away. The community cried without limits and then we started to heal along with the Rabbi. We all needed that cry first.
I lost my dad. We buried him on a Friday afternoon and after a short gathering with a few friends I headed to services. When we came to vishomru, which has a very rousing melody, the rabbi asked if anyone wanted to help her lead. I quickly volunteered and offered to the congregation that I thought that putting a lot of energy into that song would be a very fitting tribute to my dad. The people there responded in incredible fashion. They have been my rock.
When something good happens in my life, I can’t wait to get to shul to tell the people that have supported me so much like Nate Ainspan, Marc Halpern and Sonya Akin.
After a gunman went into Etz Hayim in Pittsburgh and other synagogues were threatened and attacked, it stopped feeling safe to go to synagogue. Perhaps illogically, this did not dampen my enthusiasm for going to services or make me hesitate to go. I did feel an obligation to try to help keep people as safe as possible in the face of the violence and developed strategies should an attacker approach.
There are too many memories to list. There are so many people to thank. I hope you will share some of your thoughts to help us get through the dark times we’re enduring now.