Yom Kippur was approaching, and Ellen Blalock was dreading the litany of questions traditionally recited on that holiday: Who shall live and who shall die? Who will die young and who will die old?
Blalock’s 16-year-old daughter, Jennifer, had been driving home after performing a mitzvah project only four months prior, when she had a fatal car accident.
Looking back on that time, 21 years ago, Blalock recalls how “completely surreal it felt to be mourning the death of our daughter in the sacred space where we had celebrated so many wonderful Jewish life-cycle events.” Judaism, the sanctuary at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church and life itself suddenly seemed upside down, and Blalock needed help making sense of the violent changes occurring around her.
For starters, she knew that the typical eulogy – in which the deceased is glorified – would not help her come to terms with her grief. “Don’t tell me what a great person Jennifer was,” Blalock recalled thinking. “I knew that.”
After the memorial service for Jennifer, Blalock turned to her rabbi with Big Questions, needing to hear Judaism’s wisdom and guidance on dealing with a loss this profound. But she was worried that Rabbi Amy Schwartzman would merely quote Torah, lecture on theology or worse, just try to comfort her.
The rabbi’s advice surprised her. “She told me sometimes God says ‘no.’ I started thinking maybe God can’t help and about the possibility that God couldn’t step in” to bring Jennifer back.
Blalock said she felt liberated, free of the guilt she felt for not protecting her child and the need to continually question why her daughter had been taken from her. Her rabbi, she said, helped her to understand that, in times of sadness, “it isn’t that God is ignoring us. We just need to fix it ourselves.” The present, said Blalock, “is about healing, not fixing.”
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Especially during life-cycle events such as funerals and weddings, and during times of national and international crisis such as the 9-11 terrorist attacks or the current war in Israel, Jewish people turn to their rabbis for help making meaning. But are rabbis necessarily equipped, by virtue of their formal training, to do this? Are they willing to try?
Steve Rabinowitz of Washington, D.C., recalled a conversation with his beloved childhood rabbi from Arizona just before he was married. He had sought the rabbi’s advice on the wedding. The rabbi’s message? Use white wine at the ceremony. It won’t stain if somebody spills it. Today, some 15 years after his wedding, Rabinowitz still has a sense of humor about this story, but when he tells it, one can hear the tinge of disappointment in his voice. He got some practical advice, to be sure, but what he really craved, he said, was wisdom for a lifetime – a blueprint for being a good Jewish husband.
These days, seminary schools affiliated with the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform movements all teach their students how to be effective communicators. Whether they graduate from the Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Theological Seminary or the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary at Yeshiva University, future rabbis practice speaking in front of their classmates, in the community and before individual mentors. Students are not taught what to say, but rather how to convey the religious messages they intend, how to inspire their congregants and how to connect with them Jewishly, said administrators.
“Who is to say what is more important, a Rosh Hashanah sermon in front of a thousand people or the end of life conversation with one person?” said Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s rabbinical school.
A sermon in particular should “enlighten and inspire. If you don’t learn anything from a sermon, if it’s just somebody shouting, then it’s a wasted opportunity,” said Nevins. “Sometimes the goal of a sermon is to cry together, to build solidarity. They don’t all have to be intellectual.”
His students are told “not to shy away from difficult subjects, but to approach them with dignity.”
Only last week, Rabbi Aaron Miller wrestled with his decision to address Israel and evil in the world in his Shabbat sermon. “You can’t punt. This one, you’ve got to swing for the fences,” he said he told himself, adding, “It’s been such a hard week for Jews.”
After much writing and rewriting, Miller began his sermon by warning Washington Hebrew Congregation members that he was going to talk about Israel and inviting worshippers to continue a dialogue with him at a dinner immediately following the service.
Miller said his sermons are designed to tackle “the soul questions,” topics “we really should be thinking about, and the things we really are thinking about.”
That approach works for Bob Levi, who attends services at Young Israel-Shomrai Emunah in Silver Spring. “It’s not a rabbi’s job to just say what he thinks people will like, or be in the middle. The rabbi is the leader. The rabbi sometimes has to take the lead.” Levi said he looks to rabbis’ sermons for “inspiration and relevance. You have to connect with something.”
Rabbi Michael Feshback of Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase did just that back in 2012, when Maryland voters were debating a ballot initiative on gay marriage. He tackled the subject head-on in a sermon, and “a lot of people were inspired,” recalled congregant Seth Maiman of Bethesda. “He made the connection, tying it to a Jewish viewpoint.”
After hearing their rabbi speak, some 50 congregants campaigned door-to-door on the issue, while others participated in three separate phone banks.
Still, taking on current events means stepping on toes, even when a rabbi girds his or her message in the text of the Torah.
For that reason, Rabbi Barry Freundel of Kesher Israel Congregation in Georgetown said he never includes politics in his sermons. “Current events sometimes, politics never.”
Apart from giving sermons, performing a eulogy is “one of the crucial things a rabbi does,” said Rabbi Menachem Penne, dean at the rabbinical college at Yeshiva University. “So many rabbis just relate the facts. That is not right. The eulogy is for the family,” he said.
Penne advises his students that most people who have gathered for a funeral are more familiar with the deceased than the rabbi. Therefore, the challenge of the eulogy is to “add a perspective that the family didn’t even realize. You give context to a person.”
Rabbi Michael Safra of B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville did exactly that for the family of Lil Shofnos at her funeral back in May of this year. For eight wrenching years, Lil Shofnos barely clung to life, rarely opening her eyes during the last five. When she died, it was difficult for the family to remember all the happy times, daughter-in-law Lisa Shofnos said.
Safra’s eulogy, she said, restored to their minds the full picture of who Lil Shofnos was, from her illness to her love of family and simpler joys – chocolate and television game shows.
Lisa Shofnos asked the rabbi for a copy of the eulogy, so the family will always remember.
“The rabbi managed to put into words the way I remembered my mother-in-law. He helped me remember the good times. He represented her with care. It made me happy to see that the people at the funeral would have a picture of her before her illness.”
Washington Jewish Week intern Eliana Block contributed to this article.
[email protected] @SuzannePollak