Wednesday, June 19, 2013

May His Memory Be For a Blessing

Gregory Tyrone Walton 

His funeral was held today.

Gregory grew up in the District, attended DC Public Schools and studied Business Management at Federal City College.  As many of our generation did, he joined the Peace Corps, where he learned masonry.

I met him three years ago, when we opened Gan Shalom, the Jewish Cooperative Preschool, supported by the Hill Havurah, on Capitol Hill in the District.  We rent space in a rowhouse (aka "town house") owned by the Capitol Hill Seventh Day Adventist Church.  Gregory was a member of the Church, took care of their grounds and did custodial work for them.  He became our custodian, too... and in the three years we worked together, my respect for him increased on a regular basis. 

Gregory was unique. 

To quote a friend of his: 
  • Gregory was humble, thoughtful and kind.
  • Gregory had a beautiful singing voice.
  • Gregory could speak French with an awesome French accent.
  • Gregory asked questions when he didn't know something,  and introduced himself if he didn't know someone (or their dog).
  • He never had a bad word to say about anyone and had a smile for EVERYONE.

When I first met him, I didn't quite know what to make of Gregory - this incredible bundle of energy, who smiled non-stop, greeted people by name, asked about each of my family members by name, and ended his conversations with a "God bless you, Mary."  I learned to ask about his family in return, and he always responded, "They're doing well, Praise the Lord.  And thank you for asking."  

This last year was more difficult for him.  He was having some health problems, which he chose not to discuss.  A number of us were worried, but we respected his right to privacy. This spring, he unexpectedly went into the hospital.  Upon discharge, he called me to let me know that he wouldn't be able to work for us any longer because of his health problems.  He apologized for inconveniencing us. 

Gregory died last Wednesday. 

I've been thinking a lot about the impact he had on my life, on our students' lives, on their families' lives, on the neighborhoods and the communities he interacted with.  In the shadow of the Capitol, where power and influence often make themselves known, Gregory was truly unique. Today, I stopped my busy-ness to reflect on that uniqueness.  

Here's what I realized: 

Gregory was one of the few truly happy people I've known.  His "Praise the Lord"s echoed the joy he found in every-day life: in cleaning, and mowing, and walking his dogs, riding his bike, and greeting the people who passed by. 

Many of us hold a bit of ourselves in reserve. We learn to hide behind the mask we wear in public.  Gregory wore no mask.  He was genuine - the same person no matter what the setting was. 

He taught me to slow down - his sincere questions about how my family members were doing, which needed to be addressed before we could "talk business" made me realize that, yes, it really is all about relationships.  And so I learned to listen when he talked, so that I could reciprocate the lovingkindness he demonstrated. 

His attention to detail was shown in the way he salted and sanded the icy metal steps of the rowhouse - without ever being asked - so we all could climb the steps safely in our erratic Washington winters.  He noticed when the entry-way throw rug was dirty and - without being asked - saw that it was washed and returned. 

In this day of politically-correct language, Gregory was an unabashed, absolutely joy-filled Christian, who proclaimed his faith on a regular basis.  And yet, his acceptance of our Jewish beliefs and practices was unequivocal.  

I learned a lot about Gregory today from a number of people in the filled-Church service - but we all seemed to agree on how our lives had been changed dramatically - for the good - by this humble man who encountered everyone as if he could see the spark of the Divine in them.  

And I was reminded by something a friend wrote in my yearbook from Edgewood High School in Madison, Wisconsin, when I was a sophomore: 
Our lives are shaped by those who love us... by those who refuse to love us.
May his memory be for a blessing.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

And so a Journey Ends

Today I retired from my job as the founding Director/Teacher at Gan Shalom Cooperative Preschool in Washington, DC – the latest in my career as a Jewish educator and/or administrator at several Jewish institutions in the greater Washington DC area.

I fell into Jewish education almost as an accident. 

Over twenty years ago, after thoughtful consideration and a great deal of angst, we made the decision to remove our children from the religious school they were enrolled in.  I would homeschool them in Judaism while we searched for a school that would be a better fit for all of us.  It was springtime, right after Purim, and I scrambled to pull materials together for the rest of the academic year. I discovered the Teacher Resource Center at what was then called the Board of Jewish Education and began my week each Monday morning by looking through their files and planning my lessons. 

We discovered, my children and I, that some kids learn best by doing, some by seeing, and some by hearing.  But the most important thing we learned is that learning has to be relevant.

The Director of the Library/Resource Center was helpful and encouraging and I was grateful for both.  As a convert to Judaism, I was all too aware of my limitations. 

A couple of months after our homeschool venture began, she offered me a job as a teacher in the religious school she was directing.  Ultimately I decided to accept the challenge.

Thus, my journey as a formal Jewish educator began.

Many of the published materials then available were extremely dated in focus and content.  I began to generate my own materials for my classes – keeping in mind always those critical lessons my children  taught me:  not all kids learn the same and learning has to be relevant.

Fast-forward twenty-three years:  I've taught all ages from preschoolers to adults, directed two religious schools, founded a preschool, written curriculum, and presented staff development workshops locally, regionally, and nationally.  I established my own Jewish educational consulting business. I've planned, coordinated, and facilitated several regional programs for students and for teachers.

My journey as a Jewish educator may have been an accident – or it may have been b’shert (meant to be).  I still haven’t decided!

As I turned sixty in January, I began to take stock.  My commute had become more onerous in the last couple of years.  I could get down on the floor to play with my students, but found it increasingly difficult to get back up again! The prospect of expanding the school filled me with fatigue instead of excitement and creativity.  I began wonder if “it was time:” time to step aside; to focus on personal goals instead of professional ones.

When I thought about it, I realized I've been working since I was sixteen:  fast food, food service, clerical worker, administrative assistant, social worker, preschool teacher, religious school teacher, administrator, and consultant.  As many of us do, I've juggled those responsibilities along with my roles as full-time mom, and community volunteer. 

I began to wonder what it would be like to slow down.  It was frightening:  so much of who we are is often defined by what we do.

I talked with people whose opinions I value; I read books on transitions and self-definition; and I began to look at alternative ways of self-definition. 

And so, today I retired.  I will no longer have the day-in, day-out responsibility for running a Jewish educational institution, with all that is entailed.

Monday, a new journey begins. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Passages in the Wilderness

This week's Torah portion is Parashat Chukkat  Numbers  19:1-22.1

Passages in the Wilderness

This week’s parashah – Chukkat -  includes a wealth of materials.  We read of the story of the red heifer; the disappearance of the well which accompanied the Israelites on their journey; Moses’ striking the rock for water to pour forth; and the story of successful military battles.  There is also an introduction to the transition of leadership from the generations of Israelites who left Egypt to those who arrived in the Promised Land.

In Chapter 20:1 we read, “The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh.  Miriam died there and was buried there.”

Shortly thereafter (Chapter 20:22-29), Aaron dies.  We read that the Eternal tells Moses and Aaron that Aaron will be “gathered to his kin” for disobeying His command by striking the rock for water.  The sequence is described:  Moses and Aaron will ascend Mount Hor; Aaron will be stripped of his vestments which will then be worn by Aaron’s son Eleazar; Aaron will die.  When Moses and Eleazar descended from Mount Hor, “the whole community knew that Aaron had breathed his last.  All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron thirty days.”

And so the transition to a new generation of leadership begins.

When we study Torah, we are encouraged to notice what is NOT said, as well as what IS said.  In this single chapter, there appears to me to be a significant silence.  

Miriam died. There is no explanation of why she died or under what circumstances her death occurred, contrary to the later explanation given for Aaron's death.  There is no mention of mourning her, unlike the grief expressed upon Aaron’s death.   When Miriam dies, Miriam's Well disappears and the Israelites complain that they are dying of thirst.

And so I wonder:  were there no tears recorded for Miriam because her death was the first of the leaders' deaths? Or was it because it was easier to focus on the loss of that which she brought (Miriam's Well) than it was to focus on the loss of Miriam herself? Much of our own grief focuses on loss as it impacts on us -- "who will listen to me?", "who will rejoice in my good news?", "how will I keep on going?"

The Women's Torah Commentary suggests the following:  Perhaps they were so stunned by the loss of Miriam that they [the Israelites] were unable to express their grief directly.  Instead, they cried out against Moses and Aaron, projecting and transferring their grief onto Miriam's brothers.  Or perhaps they did not react to Miriam's death in such a way that would give comfort to her brothers.  They seem to care only that there was no water, and acted as if Miriam's death were unimportant.  We can imagine that Moses and Aaron were deeply shaken by the loss of their sister, and this may have been the reason that Moses reacted with such anger toward the people when he struck the rock, instead of speaking to it, as God has commanded.  In grief mixed with rage -- such a normal reaction -- Moses lashed out at the rock to produce what Miriam could have produced with only her presence.  (p 300)

As Moses' big sister, Miriam helped raise him: she protected him and watched over him.  Moses may have felt that he lost not "just" a sister, but a surrogate mother.  Did the Israelites (as a community) also see her as a surrogate mother?

For Moses and Aaron, Miriam's death makes all too real their own mortality -- in a way that the death of a parent or friend can't.  Someone who grew up in their home, someone of their generation, someone who shares their collective memories and growing-up experiences in a way that even a "best friend" can't -- if she has died, so too will they. For all that they have managed to accomplish, they are vulnerable.

And ultimately, after the mourning period, what do we have left?  We have our memories and the legacy that gets transmitted from generation to generation.  That legacy sometimes comes from the generation that knew the loved one… and sometimes from generations which follow. 

When I think of Miriam, I think of courage and joy.  That’s due in large measure to the song “Miriam’s Well” by songwriter and singer, Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory.  Debbie took a few lines from Exodus, heard what wasn’t said, and provided many of us with a new vision of the character of one of the pivotal women in our history. Without Miriam, Moses would probably not have survived. Or, if he had survived, would not have been linked to his heritage.

And that’s Miriam’s legacy:  nurturer, supporter, and joyfilled celebrator.  

Questions to consider:1.  What legacies have been transmitted to you by your family? How are they transmitted?2.  What is the legacy of various communities to which you belong?3.  What would you like your legacy to be?  What actions are you taking to ensure that legacy will be transmitted?

Mary F. Meyerson is the founder of Morah Mary Consulting, LLC.