Thoughts on synagogue life and leadership from USCJ's Bob Leventhal

Friday, September 18, 2015

“We didn’t know him well, but he knew all about us”

When my wife Carolyn’s mother, Sylvia Spellun, died on June 14th, we sat shiva for a week in our Upper East Side apartment and were visited by some of our close friends and business associates. We were also visited by some new acquaintances from our West Side synagogue, Ansche Chesed.

One afternoon during shiva, an older member of the congregation walked in. We had seen him, on occasion, reading from the Torah and leading services, but had never really had the opportunity to speak with him. He is a modest man, so I will not mention his name. He said, modestly, “I was on this side of town so I just thought I would stop by.” He sat with our group for a while and listened attentively. When he left, Carolyn and I talked about the effort he had made to join us. It occurred to us that we often hear Rabbi Kalmanofsky speak to the congregation about moments where we are truly Ansche Chesed, “The People of Kindness,” and indeed, this was one of those moments.

I have written about a congregation’s capacity for ”convenantal kindness”. More than being polite, welcoming, or nice, covenantal kindness reflects a profound understanding of the impact of sickness and loss, and a fundamental commitment to stand with others, both when we want to and when it is more difficult, or not convenient. When a congregation has this type of commitment, they organize themselves to identify those in need, to communicate those needs to the caring community, and to follow through to deliver whatever is needed, for example, shiva books and shiva meals. At USCJ we have developed an assessment called The Attributes of a Thriving Congregation. The assessments asks about this quality of a congregations’ level of covenantal caring, of chesed.

In Thriving Congregations, we have seen that the responsibility of caring for the sick and bereaved does not just fall on the clergy; the responsibility is shared with an ever expanding community, or chavurah, of care. This is what helps develop a culture of caring.

We did not know this man well, but he knew all about us. We were among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem; we were connected to all of the mourners around the world; we were connected to our ancestors who struggled with loss over the ages, and with the generations of comforters who had shared these words of consolation:

המקום ינחם אתכם בתוך שאר אבלי ציון וירשלים

Hamakom y'nahem etchem b'tokh sh'ar avelei Tziyon v'Yerushalayim

May God comfort you together with all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

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