Five years ago, Wendy Landes was diagnosed with liposarcoma, a rare and incurable form of cancer. Despite her poor prognosis, her hospital room at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles spoke to her indomitable spirit. She and her family decorated it with pictures of her rock climbing, parasailing, biking and skiing, as well as with posters of her favorite sayings: I am not my scan. Choose Life.
Landes, a family law attorney, passed away in March, almost three years beyond the initial prognosis. Her daughter Ali, 26, remembers her mother’s life-affirming attitude. “As soon as she got sick, she realized she wanted to live life to the fullest. She would say, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen? I’ll get a rare cancer? I’d rather do fun and risky things than wait for cancer to get me.’ ” Though her scans showed the cancer had spread throughout her body, Wendy Landes was determined not to be identified by those scans.
That courageous example inspired Ali, her twin brother Matt, sister Jackie, 21, and their family to take a proactive approach. When surgery, chemotherapy and conventional medications failed, they created the Wendy Walk, an annual event in Miami, New York City and Los Angeles that raises awareness and funds toward finding a cure for liposarcoma. In 2012 alone, in partnership with the Liddy Shriver Sarcoma Initiative, 1,600 participants supported by thousands of donors raised $1 million. Ali Landes, who is now executive director of Wendy Walk, says she has learned that “whatever I face, if I am willing to build a positive structure, the community will support me. But it starts with me.”
The theme of possibility and change that permeates the High Holiday season reaffirms the Jewish belief that all individuals have the capacity to overcome difficulty, to transform and rebuild their lives in a positive direction. Whatever the challenges—illness, dealing with the frailties of an aging parent, the end of a job or a relationship, or confronting tragedies like Newtown and the Boston Marathon bombings—sorrow, struggle and adversity are present in everyone’s life. It’s how we deal with them that counts.
Change can happen in a moment, says Captain Sarah Schechter, the first female Jewish chaplain in the Air Force. She points out that the words for “year” and “change” are the same: shanah. “What’s important is intentionality, to always seek and find a way to life regardless of the challenge.” She acknowledges that relinquishing hope is a natural human response. Choosing life, she stresses, “is a necessary act of courage and our only way to keep ‘dying moments’ at bay—those that have the potential to cause us to die emotionally.”
The High Holiday liturgy offers guidance for how to choose life: through prayer or any process of self-reflection (tefillah); repentance and return (teshuvah); righteousness and giving of ourselves, often with a sense of mission (tzedakah)—all uttered in the context of community. “Judaism teaches that we cannot undo the past, but we can transcend it,” writes Rabbi David Wolpe, spiritual leader of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles. “There is teshuvah and tikkun, repentance and repair. A mistake can be an opening instead of an epitaph. Relationships that we fractured we can seek to fix; hurts we inflicted we can try to heal. The past can be a prelude—filled with regrets but also with wisdom on which to build.”
Schechter notes that chaim, the word for life, literally means “lives.” “We are choosing to live life after life after life, taking one leap of faith after another.” She understands the notion of sudden change viscerally. She was already a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion when Sept. 11 caused her to rechart the direction of her life. “The military suddenly stopped being an undefined culture I was vaguely familiar with, and their mission became absolutely clear—protection of our country, of our loved ones and of our very lives. The next day, Sept. 12, I called the recruiter and the rest is history.” Schechter, 45, is one of 40 Jewish chaplains in the military and has been in her role for nine years. She is currently serving at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.
Schechter counsels members of the military who have faced unusual physical and emotional trauma, but most of the problems she sees are common to daily experience. Even balancing the demands of work and family can be heart-wrenching, as she knows firsthand: When she left on her first deployment, she had to part from her daughter Yael, a nursing 1-year-old who slept next to her at night. When she returned four months later, Yael was walking and had eight teeth. “At night she only wanted her daddy to help her. She took her finger and pointed to the door and said to me, ‘Get out.’ I cried. The first few weeks at home were horrible.”
The strength of her marriage and her knowledge that she was doing the right thing helped her move forward. Last year, Yael stopped her as she was rushing to get to work. “Mom, wait, wait,” she said. “I have to show you something.” “I turned around and there she was giving me a salute. What that moment communicated was that she was proud of what I am doing and our entire family’s service in the military.”
When Schechter does death notifications, she lets people express their grief first. Almost more than anything, the power of a listening community (Shema Yisrael) can serve as a source of healing, says Schechter. “The most important thing to stop someone from sinking is for them to know that they are not alone and that someone is there to hear them.”
Ali Landes agrees. The collective power of community—both her mother’s home community of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, Calif., and the wider Wendy Walk community—helped prolong her mother’s life, she says. Once, the rabbi, Amy Bernstein, took a small, smooth black stone that Wendy found on Santa Monica Beach to Kol Nidrei services. She asked for a moment of silence during which congregants offered prayers and blessings. The stone later accompanied Wendy into surgery. “It gave my mother comfort that she was not alone,” says Ali. “It was a symbol that water beats against a rock yet it still sustains its shape.”
Unlike the Landes family, people often lose faith because of tragedy, says Harriet Rossetto, founder of Beit T’Shuvah, the Los Angeles rehabilitation center she created 26 years ago, and the author of a new memoir, Sacred Housekeeping. “People will ask, ‘How can God do this?’ In my view, God doesn’t live in the sky and say, ‘I’m going to cause tragedy.’ God doesn’t give you cancer. God guides the doctor who helps you through it. People are God’s ambassadors.” The thinking can’t be ‘I got cancer for this reason,’ but ‘How can I use the fact that I got cancer to live and not give up?’ ”
Teshuvah—the idea that everyone can change—is the core of Rossetto’s beliefs. A social worker with a strong Jewish identity, she answered a classified ad in the Los Angeles Times in 1984 for “a person of a Jewish background to help incarcerated Jewish offenders.” She visited Jewish prisoners in county, state and federal institutions throughout Southern California to help them re-enter society after incarceration. Rossetto realized that most of the crimes committed by Jewish offenders were a byproduct of addiction and founded Beit T’Shuvah, which integrates Judaism and Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-step program.
At Chino State Prison, Rossetto met Mark Borovitz, a self-described mobster, gangster, con man, gambler, thief and drunk who had embarked on a process of transformation. They began a relationship when he was released and started working at Beit T’Shuvah and have been married 22 years. He was ordained in 2000 and is the center’s spiritual leader.
Rossetto herself was not addicted to drugs or alcohol but to “existential despair.” Even making her bed seemed futile since, she says, she was just going to climb back in. Then she experienced an epiphany: She realized that she mattered and what she did mattered. “Making my bed became a sacred act. Hanging up my clothes and going to the gym and monitoring my thoughts when they turn negative all require maintenance. That’s where God lives—in the details of daily life.”
Rossetto says all human beings live with duality. “One force says choose life. That’s the force that wants to live and change the world. The other force says why bother? That’s the destructive place that leads to addiction and self-doubt. Choosing life is a moment-by-moment decision.” Having faith that she had a calling and was part of a divine order impelled her forward. Today, Beit T’Shuvah treats 140 people, employs 100 (90 percent of her staff are residents) and has a budget of $8 million. Everyone is capable of redemption, says Rossetto.
Beit T’Shuvah’s motto is, in fact, “Recover your passion, discover your purpose.” “We found that people were getting sober, but if they couldn’t find a sense of purpose—in a career, a relationship or spiritual growth—they weren’t staying sober,” Rossetto explains.
Ironically, tragedy often fuels the commitment to a cause. Mindy Finkelstein, a 30-year-old gun violence survivor, volunteers her time to promote common sense gun legislation with various organizations, including the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. In August 1999, she was a carefree 16-year-old counselor at a day camp at the North Valley Jewish Community Center (in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles) when Buford Furrow, a neo-Nazi, shot over 70 rounds of ammunition, wounding her and four others and later killing a Filipino postal worker.
“People rarely understand that although someone survives gun violence, it does not mean that they return to living a normal life,” she wrote in Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility. “A part of me was robbed, not to ever, probably, be redeemed. The shooting will affect me for the rest of my life. Though time might make the memories fade, they won’t disappear. … I still remember every detail of that day.” She recalls that a Nerf gun in her freshman dorm unnerved her so much that she had to move back home.
More than anything, the fact that she was attacked specifically because she is Jewish devastated Finkelstein. But it has since strengthened her Jewish identity. Finkelstein lives by Rabbi Hillel’s saying: If I am not for myself who will be for me? If I am only for myself who am I? And if not now, when? “I speak on behalf not just of myself but others who no longer have voices,” says Finkelstein, who is director of development at San Francisco’s City of Hope, a cancer research, treatment and educational institution. “I can draw on my experiences, my face and my voice to show how gun violence destroys. Hopefully, that might create something positive from the bullets that ripped through my leg.”
In her interaction with other survivors of gun violence, including Newtown families, Finkelstein has realized just how much community matters. “The survivors come together in a way nobody else can understand. It’s a weird feeling of calmness; a private moment of rapport and community,” she says.
Adena Berkowitz, a founder and scholar-in-residence at Kol HaNeshamah, an Orthodox community in Manhattan, stresses that a person who suffers through a trauma is the best person to help others get through a similar tragedy. The fact that people can start their lives over is a statement of faith. “These people are a blessing, created in the image of God. …We have to be there to hold each other up,” she says, citing the biblical story of the Israelites’ battle with the Amalekites. When Moses realized that the Israelites would win whenever his hands were raised, his brother Aaron and Hur, another leader, held up his hands.
In a synagogue community, making a shiva call, babysitting or providing meals are ways of supporting one another. Remaining indifferent instead of responding to others is as bad as if you deeply engage in sin, Berkowitz adds. “On Yom Kippur, we apologize not just for the sins we have committed, but for sins of omission, like silence.”
Still, that type of transgression is far different from the reality that has overtaken Cambria Gordon’s life. The 50-year-old mother of three, environmental activist and author, whose television producer husband is a co-creator of Homeland, was driving with her 7-year-old two years ago to buy a keychain for his backpack. Gordon’s cellphone fell from the console to the car floor and she reached for it. As she picked it up, she saw an elderly man crossing the street. She slammed on the brakes, but it was too late. William Smerling, an 83-year-old grandfather, died from his injuries a month later; Gordon was charged with vehicular manslaughter and gross negligence.
“I felt utter shame,” she says when she talks to groups, trying to save lives by preventing distracted driving. “You could say I had a perfect life. I was cocky and cavalier. I never made mistakes. I had no compassion for others, and so it goes without saying, I was hardest on myself.” Gordon was sentenced to 360 hours of community service. (She is still facing a civil suit from the family.)
Like Rossetto’s sacred housekeeping, small victories sustained Gordon. The hard physical labor of beach cleanup served a penance, a place to put her anxiety, she says. “I felt satisfied that there was one less cigarette butt and one more toilet that was clean because of me.” Through the other people also doing penance beside her, she realized that “we are all imperfect creatures of God. Up to that point I saw myself through the eyes of William’s family—as a monster. Now I saw myself as fallible, as human.”
“I am here and it happened but hopefully it won’t happen to you,” she says in her speeches, citing studies that show just holding a phone while driving is equivalent to drunk driving. “My heart had to break to become stronger.” Jewish spirituality helped her arrive at self-acceptance. She notes: “When we miss the mark, we can get back on track.” The process was sometimes excruciating. At a women’s prayer group before the High Holidays, the conversation about sin devastated her. “I felt like God’s finger was pointing at me, saying, ‘You! You! You!” She studied the Psalms and wrote her own psalm, as well as a “tech version” of the al-het prayer, which lists different types of sins. She visited Smerling’s grave and begged for his forgiveness.
During Yom Kippur prayer, she noticed four words that she had previously overlooked: “May God bless you.” “I saw that God could bless me, the woman who had hit William. If I could be blessed, then I could be good. If I could be good, then I could accept love and support from my family. I could be loveable and love myself.”
Prayer can help clarify inner direction, says Julie Greenberg, a Philadelphia-based rabbi, family therapist and author of a forthcoming book on parenting for a better world. “Sometimes in the wilderness you don’t know which way is Egypt and which is the Promised Land,” she says, adding that prayer can take the form of journaling, meditation, heart-to-heart talks or walks in the woods.
In Greenberg’s own life, understanding the limitations of her fertility represented a gate that shut, yet her acceptance of a difficult reality opened a new door. When her fourth child miscarried, she decided to adopt. She opened her heart to new possibilities—which she interprets as part of the liberating value of tzedakah. “When you create an opening, the universe opens to you.” Greenberg now has five children ages 13–25.
The High Holidays offer a paradigm for change but every day can be an opportunity for self-renewal, says Berkowitz. The first prayer of the day, Modeh Ani, thanks God for restoring our souls. A traditional prayer recited at night calls on us to forgive anyone who did wrong to us during the course of the day and to ask for forgiveness for what we have done to others. “Every day we have the possibility of beginning with gratitude and ending with forgiveness of others and ourselves.”
For Schechter, Psalm 150 embodies the ultimate way forward. “The last psalm is all about Halleluyah. It’s about praising God with cymbals and music. We can express our grief and suffering, as some of the other psalms do, but we need to find our way back to l’chayim, to life, and to Halleluyah.”
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