Thursday, February 25, 2010

Double Black Hole Found in Marin

By Susan Esther Barnes

This evening I attended an event at the San Francisco Contemporary Jewish Museum (more on that in a following post, I suspect). During that event Karen Kushner of the Jewish Welcome Network spoke about her efforts to help synagogues draw people on the periphery into their inner circle.

The imagery I created from the language she used caused me to think of Rabbi Michael Lezak as the black hole of our synagogue community. Anyone who wanders close enough to his Event Horizon is drawn inexorably in until they are so enmeshed in the community it seems they can never get out.

The accuracy of this black hole analogy is evidenced by the numerous stories I have heard, and continue to hear, from core supporters of our synagogue. They often start with something along the lines of "I wasn't that involved here, and then Rabbi Lezak..."

Meanwhile, Rabbi Noa Kushner, daughter of the above-mentioned Karen Kushner, has been spending much of her time building NITA, a community of people in Marin County who are not affiliated with a synagogue but who want to "do Jewish stuff." From all accounts, Rabbi Kushner is drawing into her own Event Horizon a number of people committed to building the NITA community.

It just so happens Rabbi Lezak is married to Rabbi Kushner, possibly making them the first double black hole discovered in this part of the universe.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

For Shabbat T'Rumah

By Susan Esther Barnes

Last weekend the Torah portion was T’Rumah. That’s the portion that starts with Exodus Chapter 25 in which God tells Moses to take from the people whatever their heart moves them to give in order to build the tabernacle so God may dwell among them as they travel in the wilderness.

Last year the staff and clergy at our synagogue decided to use Shabbat T’Rumah as an opportunity to thank the people who volunteer to help people in the larger community, outside of the synagogue. This year they decided to use it to thank the people who volunteer for the benefit of people within the synagogue community.

On Friday afternoon I received an email from the synagogue asking me to say a few words at services that night about why I volunteer and what it means to me. My first reaction was, “No way.” There wasn’t much time to think of something to say, and I couldn’t imagine I could come up with anything that wouldn’t sound lame. But I thought I’d take a stab at it, and when I got near the end of the page there were tears in my eyes, so I thought, “Well, maybe other people will think it’s lame but there must be something here.”

So I answered the email, agreeing to say a few words. Apparently it wasn’t totally lame, since after services two other women said it made them cry. Below is what I said:

I don’t think it’s possible for me to convey to you why I do what I do here or what it means to me, but I’m going to try.

Some of you have heard me talk about how, three and a half years ago at High Holy Day services, I felt lonely and invisible because after 4 years of being a member here I still didn’t know anyone. Some of you have heard me say I decided to remedy the situation by getting involved here.

I can tell you now my efforts have been successful beyond my wildest dreams.

Instead of feeling invisible, I now know if I don’t arrive at least a half an hour before services on Friday night, I’ll be greeted by a chorus of people saying, “You’re late!” Where it used to be impossible for me to find a single familiar face, it is now impossible for me to sneak by without receiving a host of smiles and hugs. While ten years ago on my birthday I sat alone on my bed watching TV while I ate cake from a to-go container, last week on my birthday, for the first time in my life, I sat among a group of friends who sang “Happy Birthday” to me in Hebrew.

So no, I don’t think I can convey to you why I do what I do here or what it means to me, but I can tell you I don’t plan to stop.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Intangible Benefits

By Susan Esther Barnes

Every year around this time I get ready to prepare my income taxes. Among the paperwork is a statement from the synagogue totaling what I gave this year in exchange for “intangible religious benefits.” Maybe, as far as the IRS is concerned, this is an accurate description of what I have received, yet it doesn’t sit right with me.

How intangible are the hugs I receive on Friday nights? How intangible was the wedding cake made sweeter by the knowledge it was made to celebrate the first two women ever married to each other in our sanctuary? How intangible were the tears running down my face on S’lichot when Dan Nichols sang, “May I suggest to you these are the best days of your life,” and I knew it was true?

Yet I know it is not the pressure of the arms, or the taste of the cake, or the touch of the warm salt water on my face that matters. It is the intangible feelings behind them: the love, the joy, the belonging, the caring. So I take my statement from the synagogue and I fill in the proper space on the tax form, and I thank the IRS for the annual reminder about the intangible benefits, both tangible and not.

Saturday, February 13, 2010


By Susan Esther Barnes

Several weeks ago I woke up with a case of tendonitis. I tried to ignore it for a couple of weeks, but when I found the pain was keeping me up at night, I finally went to see the doctor.

It’s not that I don’t like doctors or hospitals. I have no problem getting regular checkups or visiting people who’ve been hospitalized. It’s just that when you go to see a doctor about something that’s wrong, you get one of two responses. Either they tell you to wait and it will get better on its own, or they want to give you a prescription. The first response is embarrassing, and the second leads to the thing I don’t like, namely, drugs.

You see, drugs and my body generally don’t get along well. Augmentin makes my face swell up and turn pink so I look like a sunburned albino. Most antibiotics make me want to puke. Tylenol turns me into a mindless, angry zombie and Contac gives me hallucinations. So any time a doctor prescribes a drug for me, I tend to be a bit wary.

This time, the doctor prescribed a medicine that is a combination anti-inflammatory and painkiller. The pharmacist said it’s in the same class of drugs as Advil. I do occasionally take Advil, usually for headaches, without any noticeable side effects, so I accepted the new medicine without too much trepidation. At least, until I got home and read the list of possible side effects. But hey, what are the chances of my intestines suddenly starting to bleed, anyway?

I started taking the medicine, and although my arm didn’t stop hurting entirely, it certainly felt a lot better. After about a week and a half, though, I started noticing other issues. Part of me would like to describe those issues in graphic detail, however, my beloved husband has spent several years patiently attempting to teach me that most people would rather not hear the messy parts. Let’s just say, after two weeks on the medicine I had sufficient motivation to stop taking it.

On Wednesday night, the night before my birthday, I quit cold turkey. That’s when the headache kicked in. Maybe the timing was a coincidence, but when I stop taking a painkiller and end up with a big headache, the last thing I’m going to do is start with a painkiller again. That’s just not a cycle I want to get into.

So for the next day, and night, and into the next day, I lived with the throbbing and the nausea, which came in waves tricky enough so just when I thought it might be over, it started up again. Clearly, what I went through is nothing in comparison to what an alcoholic or drug addict goes through when they summon up the courage to detox. But I have to say, it wasn’t the best way I’ve ever spent my birthday, either.

Now, I’m happy to say, my arm is still sore, but the headache is mostly gone and the other effects from the medicine appear to be receding. Even better, there is still plenty of birthday cake left. But I’m not planning to return to the doctor to give her any.

It’s not that I don’t like doctors; it’s that I don’t like the drugs.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Last Night on Shabbat

By Susan Esther Barnes

Usually, as soon as Friday night services start, Jose clears away the trays, cups, and other items from the pre-oneg. But last night more people came than we expected, and with extra chairs to set up, and prayer books to find and hand out, and dinner to get ready next door, it didn’t happen.

By the time I noticed the leftovers were still out, the service was half over. I began to clear away the plates, but as I went back for a second load I realized that despite the fact it is early February, with so many people packed into the synagogue, it was too hot and stuffy inside. In ones and twos, people were getting up and helping themselves to the water that was still left out. I thought to myself, “Oh, that must be why none of us thought to clean that up earlier; people need it now.” It felt like it was no coincidence.

Then I began to wonder whether there was enough water left, so I walked over to check. Standing there was a woman who had lost her father last week. “I can’t be in there right now,” she said, motioning toward the sanctuary, “I don’t feel part of the joyous mood.” We talked a bit about how, since she had been sitting shiva, this was the first time she had been past her own driveway this week, and about how when someone close to you dies it seems that your world stops but somehow the rest of the world keeps going, and it’s hard to get back in synch with everyone else.

I asked her whether she was planning to go to the dinner after services. She said no. Instead, she planned to gather her family around her, and read aloud to them from the condolence notes and cards she had received over the past week. She explained that her family had seen who had come to pray with them as they sat shiva, and she wanted them to understand that support comes in other ways as well. It felt right.

While I was helping to clean up after dinner, I happened to stop to chat with a woman and her family. I had never met these people before. It turns out the woman was visiting from Maryland, and was going to have surgery here soon. I asked her daughter-in-law whether she had notified the synagogue about it. She said no, because “she’s just visiting.” I told her, “Perhaps, but you’re related. And you’re not just visiting.” She gave me permission to let the synagogue know, and she looked grateful that someone would think of doing that. It felt like my stopping to chat with that particular family was no coincidence.

After dinner, I went to Shabbat Unplugged, where a group of us sang with Dan Nichols. At one point, he revealed that two weeks earlier he had sung at a memorial service for a 17-year-old boy who had died. He said after the service the boy’s mother told him the service was both beautiful and horrible, and he was trying to figure out how to process that. After we sang a bit more, he told us that singing with us was helping him to heal. It felt right; it was a holy moment.

On the way home, I thought about a man I know named Angel who often says he believes the universe is unfolding the way it’s supposed to. I certainly felt that way last night. Not that it’s a surprise. It was, after all, Shabbat.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

It Was One of Those Discussions

By Susan Esther Barnes

Last night my husband and I had one of those discussions. You know, the kind that starts before ten and goes on until midnight. One of those discussions where I write something that hits one of his hot buttons, then I get defensive because I feel threatened by how much energy he has about it. Mix in a good dose of how nearly impossible it is to get me to admit it when I’m wrong, and yes, it’s definitely one of those discussions.

My husband and I have known each other for going on 29 years now. We love each other. Neither one of us wants to hurt the other. We know these things in the core of our being because it has been proven repeatedly over the course of time.

So it’s one of those discussions, but there is no name-calling. There are no accusations. There is confusion, about our own feelings, which we openly admit, and about what the other is trying to say, which leads to probing questions. It is one of those discussions, and it is not easy. For both of us, it takes patience, active listening, and a willingness to re-examine our own point of view.

Eventually, understanding develops. Apologies are made, not because either of us has hurt the other, but for the part our faults and insecurities played in making the conversation more lengthy and difficult than it might have been. Once again, we have demonstrated the strength of our bond and our ability to create a safe place in which we can speak openly about the things that matter to us.

It was one of those discussions.